The Trump administration debuted a new video product from Trump Tower this week. Starring Lara Trump, Eric Trump’s wife, and former CNN Commentator Kayleigh McEnany, “Trump TV” touted good economic indicators and threw shade at mainstream media against a red-white-and-blue backdrop marked “Trump.” Two videos, posted to Trump’s personal Facebook page, have garnered millions of views in days.
The object is clear—to use social media, as Trump himself uses Twitter, to talk past a media filter and deliver the Trump line straight to Americans, emphasizing story lines, promises, and accomplishments the Trump administration believes media is missing.
In a twenty-first-century White House, this kind of operation is an expected part of a communications effort—the packaged press releases (and, yes, propaganda) that comes out of a political operation trying to win news cycles and push its point of view.
It has a precedent in the Obama administration’s “West Wing Week,” which was a White House-produced weekly YouTube show about the goings-on and priorities of the Obama administration. This week, there has been much concern about the advent of “Trump TV.” Its arrival was treated as far more insidious, even panic-inducing, than Obama’s similar efforts.
Keith Olbermann called the Facebook show a “prototype for state TV,” meant to “REPLACE” regular news. A journalism professor called it “vile.” There was many a cable news segment built around refuting the Trumpian tagline for “Trump TV,” which calls itself “real news.”
But it’s not much different from “West Wing Week,” except in style. The Obama White House fancied its official videographer more of an auteur, and sure, his work was a slicker version of “Trump TV.” But pretty propaganda is not morally better than the more obvious version. I suppose there’s the possibility of this product someday becoming the “Trump TV” the Trump family was reportedly pondering before the election, which would be very different, but we’re far from that prospect at the moment.
The biggest difference between the two is how media received these video press releases. Imagine McEnany or her producer at “Trump News” getting this treatment from the New York Times:
WASHINGTON — Arun Chaudhary is the White House’s ultimate fly on the wall.
Perpetually clad in New Balance sneakers and suits that are just slightly askew, he dashes in and out of meetings, from East Room news conferences to the Oval Office and back again, out through the South Portico and into the White House vegetable garden — all while scrambling to blend into the background and record nearly every moment with his video camera…
He pulls his video together into ‘West Wing Week,’ a signature production that comes out on the White House Web site every Friday and offers a pithy look at the president’s past week. Mr. Chaudhary, 35, serves as reporter and promoter, and last week, when Democrats suffered crushing defeats in the midterms, was especially tough. Mr. Chaudhary stuck to fairly innocuous clips — talk of ‘bipartisan solutions’ and how to ‘move the country forward’ — and never overtly mentioned the president’s self-described electoral ‘shellacking.’
The videos, which stick to “innocuous clips” are “signature,” “pithy,” “varied,” and inspired by old newsreels and “Arrested Development.” Chaudhary is “part documentarian, part White House-message-machine,” with an “artsy bent.” He’s even referred to as a “reporter.” I suspect we won’t get a Times feature on McEnany’s “job that [s]he is creating and redefining anew daily.”
Like “Trump TV,” Chaudhary’s clips were made to look like real news, but unlike Trump’s version, national newscasts and packages actually used Chaudhary’s work as real news. For some moments, his camera was the only one around, while national press was shut out, literally replacing the news as Olbermann fears McEnany will.
As usual, tactics that were covered under Obama as a story of evolving technology used cleverly by an innovative press shop are covered as terribly threatening under Trump. And as usual, the answer is somewhere in the middle, not wholly dependent on which president is doing it. “Trump TV” isn’t more threatening than “West Wing Week;” it’s just more obvious about what it’s doing, and doesn’t have the admiration of much of the press abetting it. Let’s stop pretending we’ve never seen anything like it.