I expected the conservative channels Newsmax and One America News Network to cover former President Donald Trump’s speech to Republicans last Saturday night in North Carolina. But seeing C-SPAN, the public affairs channel of cable television, offering live, unfiltered coverage of Trump’s lies and inflammatory speech about the 2020 presidential election, that was a surprise. As someone who has regularly praised C-SPAN for the way it serves democracy, the coverage was a major disappointment from a media institution I trust.
We in the media cannot ignore Trump. He has proven over and over that he is too dangerous for that. We need to cover him. But we also must not allow him unfiltered access to our platforms and audiences, because that is even more dangerous given his unrelenting lies about the election and admonitions to his followers to fight against the duly elected government in recent months.
He preached sedition to his followers at a Washington rally on Jan. 6, and they marched to the Capitol and stormed it in his name trying to block an Electoral College certification of Joe Biden as the democratically elected president of the United States. The insurrection he instigated left five people dead and dozens of Capitol Police officers physically and mentally wounded as a result of the vicious hand-to-hand combat in which they were forced to engage with the mob.
C-SPAN defended its decision to show the speech in an email statement to The Sun Monday saying that covering the speeches of past presidents is one of its duties as the political network of record.
“C-SPAN has a long history of covering speeches by former presidents in their entirety and without commentary. Coverage of public events by former President Donald Trump fall within C-SPAN’s mission of being the political network of record, both contemporaneously and for political history as found in the archival C-SPAN Video Library,” Terry Murphy, C-SPAN vice president of programming at C-SPAN, said in the statement.
In his speech, Trump called the 2020 presidential election the “crime of the century” and a “third-world election, like we’ve never seen before.” He said Democrats “used COVID and mail-in ballots to steal an election.”
Those are lies and slander, two of Trump’s specialties. There has been absolutely no evidence to support any of those claims, despite investigations and audits of the elections in several states and by multiple courts. Even Trump’s own attorney general, William Barr, said there was no evidence of the kind of fraud that could have influenced the outcome of the election.
The former president also praised laws passed in several states to make it harder to vote. He lauded the audit of the presidential vote in Arizona where one official said workers are searching ballots for traces of bamboo. That action is based on the conspiracy theory that illegal votes from Vietnam, or, perhaps, China were used to boost Biden’s total.
Crazy as that kind of thinking sounds, it all flows out of Trump’s Big Lie that he won but the election was stolen from him. The effects of the Big Lie can be seen not just in the audits and crush of voter restriction laws, but in polls like the one last month from Reuters/Ipsos that showed 53% of Republicans believe Trump won the election and consider him their “true president.” We have not yet found a way to measure the total erosion of confidence and faith in our elections caused by his lies.
I get what C-SPAN is saying about its traditional role as political network of record. But we in the media have all had to rethink our traditional roles in the face of Trump’s transgressive behavior in and out of office. The New York Times is considered the newspaper of record and it reviewed and changed some of its policies and has called Trump the liar he is.
Even Facebook and Twitter have been constantly rethinking and evaluating how they handle Trump’s lies and slanders. Twitter has since banned him, while Facebook extended its ban to 2023, not long enough but better than nothing. For a time, both used various kinds of warnings with his tweets and posts. Why can’t C-SPAN put a clear warning on the screen about Trump’s proven lies? The political network of record should at least accurately label what it is airing live and archiving for history.
David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic.