Donald Trump’s first week in office saw his press secretary engage in viewership measurement.
The president tweet congratulations Fox News for beating rival CNN in Nielsen ratings.
The White House issue a press release that presented a laudatory quotes attesting to the new administration’s superior quality.
Trump is adept at driving the conversation back to himself. Saturday, as millions of demonstrators marched around the country to protest, Trump dispatched press secretary Sean Spicer to the White House to falsely dispute accurate reports that Friday’s inauguration had drawn a smaller crowd than Barack Obama’s in 2009.
The move drew press attention away from the march, as some networks cut live to Spicer and his comments dominated discussion on the Sunday-morning public-affairs shows.
After Spicer addressed reporters, Ari Fleischer, CNN commentator and former White House press secretary tweeted, “This is called a statement you’re told to make by the President. And you know the President is watching.”
On Monday, when confronted about his false crowd-size claims, Spicer pivoted to viewership, asserting incorrectly that Trump’s inauguration was watched more than Obama’s or Ronald Reagan’s. “I’m pretty sure that Reagan didn’t have YouTube, Facebook, or the internet,” Spicer said, arguing that a combination of the 30.7 million total television viewers of inauguration coverage reported by Nielsen and the 16.9 million digital views reported by CNN eclipsed all previous presidents’ inaugurals.
In reality, the Nielsen number is an average of total viewers per minute and the CNN number is a tally of video starts — two distinct measurements that count two very different things.
Trump is a connoisseur of TV ratings, and a master at spinning them. Speaking at the Television Critics Association press tour in 2015, Trump claimed — incorrectly — that when “The Apprentice” aired back-to-back episodes, the second hour was “the number-one show on television,” and was only denied that crown because Nielsen categorized the two hours as one episode.
Trump’s fixation on ratings asserted itself as he spoke about his role as a draw for CNN and bragged about viewership for debates. It hasn’t abated since he was sworn in as president.
On Tuesday, Trump tweeted, “Congratulations to @FoxNews for being number one in inauguration ratings. They were many times higher than FAKE NEWS @CNN – public is smart!” In doing so, he used ratings to undermine the credibility of CNN, a network he loathes, and boost Fox News, whose coverage he has endorsed.
Ratings spin is not the only TV tactic in the White House. A release issued Friday featured 16 positive quotes about Trump from media outlets such as the Atlantic, the Chicago Tribune, and Politico — presenting them much in the same way that Hollywood awards-season campaigns feature critics’ blurbs.