ABC's "30 Hours" Donald Trump special was a ratings bust — but in history's long view, it will count

People may be tired of watching and hearing about Trump. But what journalists do now still matters

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published June 18, 2019 4:11PM (EDT)

 (ABC News)
(ABC News)

“In the greater scheme, in the big picture, nothing we do matters,” the hero says. “. . . If there's no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. Because that's all there is. What we do. Now. Today."

Every so often a circumstance leads me to recall this quote from one of the finest epiphany speeches written for television. It’s such a clean articulation of pragmatic humanism and a strong case for taking a stand against nihilism with no concern for outcome.  (And a tip of the hat to Tim Minear, who crafted that dialogue for an episode of “Angel.”)

Let’s forget for a moment that it comes from the mouth of a vampire. These are crazy times,  and besides, the gist of that statement easily applies to the situation journalists face as they stare down the barrel of another abnormal presidential election season led by a petulant incumbent bent on reshaping fact to suit his desires. We witnessed that in the lead-up to George Stephanopoulos’ interview with Donald Trump that aired in its entirety on Sunday as a “20/20” special titled “President Trump: 30 Hours.”

Stephanopoulos’ conversations with the president traversed an emotional spectrum ranging from cordial to contentious, as one would expect. The full special followed a week of ABC releasing teaser excerpts to promote it. In the spirit of summer blockbuster season, this tactic emulates the methods of expertly edited movie trailers, in which the studio — here, ABC News — drops lures featuring what one presumes is the full-length feature’s best scenes.

To a certain extent, this was effective. Preview footage of Trump unabashedly telling Stephanopoulos that if a foreign government offered him intel on an opponent he would take it without necessarily alerting the FBI spurred scores of headlines and gobsmacked media takes.

Other clips show Trump accusing White House counsel Don McGahn of lying to Robert Mueller while under oath and Stephanopoulos coaxing Trump into admitting that he didn’t testify to Mueller because “they were looking to get us for lies or slight misstatements.”

And each of these excerpts elicited choruses of gasps as analysts pointed out how damning these casual admissions are, how they alone should be suitable grounds to kick off the impeachment process.

Traditional thinking would dictate that if ABC News had enough confidence to circulate these nuggets in the days leading up to the interview, surely the real steak would be served at Sunday come dinnertime.

It did, but the audience didn’t bite. According to Monday’s ratings, around 3.94 million viewers tuned in to watch Stephanopoulos’ full interview, adding only a few hundred thousand onto ABC’s repeat of “America's Funniest Home Videos.” To place this in some admittedly imperfect context, ABC News anchor David Muir’s first post-inauguration prime time interview with Trump attracted 7.5 million viewers.

But that was eons ago, wasn’t it? Today America, America, this is you: more people — around 6.1 million — tuned in to the season premiere of “Celebrity Family Feud” when it aired in the same timeslot on ABC the previous Sunday. That hour featured Chrissy Teigen, John Legend and their family members squaring off against “Vanderpump Rules” star Lisa Vanderpump and her pals. (One can’t overlook the pleasantly ironic detail that Stephanopoulos and ABC News thoroughly trounced the CW’s airing of “Burden of Truth.")

There are a number of ways to interpret the lack of audience turnout for an interview that featured a rare level of access to a president who purposefully makes himself inaccessible to any journalism organization that isn’t affiliated with Fox News.

For one thing, it’s summertime. While longer, warmer days no longer preclude a series from attracting a healthy viewership in the way they once did, lighter brain candy tends to rule this time of year for a good reason.

There are too many alternative viewing options to make watching a network interview with Trump a necessity, regardless of how theoretically consequential what he says may or may not be.

I say theoretically because, well, he’s still in the White House.

Besides, one can’t be blamed for desiring a break from all things Trump, including the first interview with a major network news outlet in a very long time.

The president’s tweets drive headlines, but they also show up in late night monologues and in social media feedback loops. Trump announced to ABC News that he was open to accepting assistance from a foreign power to help him win reelection, an illegal act. To an audience accustomed to his bluster and lies, what could he possibly say to George Stephanopoulos that might change the game?

On the Friday after ABC released excerpts from Stephanopoulos’ conversation with Trump, the president appeared to understand how badly those snippets made him look. So he phoned in to “Fox & Friends” to do damage control.

Brian Kilmeade, Ainsley Earhardt and Steve Doocy allowed a softly guided rant that was supposed to last for about 10 minutes to roll for 50 minutes and 20 seconds.

“Early this week you granted ABC and George Stephanopoulos great access,” Doocy asks. "... And one of the sound bites that they ran over the last 48 hours is essentially you'd say there is nothing wrong, in your estimation, with accepting dirt from Russia or any foreign country.”

Trump answers by saying his response to ABC was incorrectly characterized. He tells Doocy and Kilmeade that he doesn’t think any foreign power would present him with anything bad, “because they know how much I love this country.”

Secondly, he says, of course he has to look at the information, because if he doesn’t, “How are you going to know if it's bad? But, of course, you give it to the FBI or report it to the attorney general or somebody like that. But, of course, you do that. You wouldn't — you couldn't have that happen with our country. And everybody understands that. And I thought it was made clear. In fact, I actually said at the beginning, I think I said I'd do both.”

What he said, according to ABC’s full transcript of the interview, is this:

TRUMP: Okay, let’s put yourself in a position: you’re a congressman, somebody comes up and says, “Hey I have information on your opponent.” Do you call the FBI?

STEPHANOPOULOS: (inaudible) If it’s coming from Russia you do.

TRUMP:  I’ll tell you what: I’ve seen a lot of things over my life. I don’t think in my whole life I’ve ever called the FBI. In my whole life. You don’t call the FBI. You throw somebody out of your office, you do whatever you —

STEPHANOPOULOS: Al Gore got a stolen briefing book. He called the FBI.

TRUMP: Well, that’s different. A stolen briefing book ... This is somebody who said “We have information on your opponent.” Oh, let me call the FBI. Give me a break, life doesn’t work that way.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The FBI Director says that’s what should happen.

TRUMP: The FBI Director is wrong. Because, frankly, it doesn’t happen like that in life. Now, maybe it will start happening. Maybe today you think differently, but two or three years ago, if somebody comes into your office with oppo research — they call it oppo research — with information that might be good or bad or something, but good for you, bad for your opponent, you don’t call the FBI. I would guarantee you that 90 percent, could be 100 percent of the congressmen or the senators over there, have had meetings, if they didn’t they probably wouldn’t be elected, on negative information about their opponent —

STEPHANOPOULOS: From foreign countries?

TRUMP: ...Possibly. Possibly. But they don’t call the FBI. You don’t call the FBI every time some — you hear something that maybe — Now, you see the people. The meeting, it also sounds to me, I don’t know anything about that meeting, but it sounds to me like it was a big nothing.

Anyway, Earhardt was much more understanding of Trump’s point of view than, say, the FBI director might be. “How do you know it's bad if you don't listen to it?” she chirps.

No wonder that, according to Media Matters, more than 92 percent of his nationally televised interviews have been conducted on a Fox News channel. That calculation doesn’t include his recent Normandy interview with Laura Ingraham or his words with “Fox & Friends.”

Taking all of that into account, one can’t be blamed for wondering if whether anything Trump says to any journalist or host matters to anyone but Trump. The answer, in history’s long view, is yes.

In the short term? Probably not.

Look at Trump’s May, 11, 2017 interview with NBC’s Lester Holt as a standard setter.

As newsworthy interviews go, Holt’s is a watermark in this administration’s historic record while proving an example of the media’s limited power to impact any political will. At the time of Holt’s interview, media analysts and various interpreters of constitutional law mulled over whether statements Trump made to Holt about his desire to fire former FBI director James Comey constituted evidence of obstruction of justice in the Mueller probe.

Headlines asked whether Holt's interview marked the beginning of the Trump presidency’s end. Of course, again, that interview aired many moons ago, long before the Senate revealed its unshakable loyalty to Trump even as he muscles us toward a Constitutional crisis.

Trump has already accused NBC of editing his interview with Holt to make him look bad, so why should Trump’s base believe anything on ABC News, anyway? Even that which they see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears?  Stephanopoulos was Bill Clinton’s White House communications director, after all.

Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity have each voiced their displeasure at Trump stepping out on them with another channel. Hannity has even come up with a diminishing nickname for Stephanopoulos — “Little Georgie, we call him” — and we should not be surprised if Trump mentions it on the campaign trail.

Surely Stephanopoulos and ABC News expected the president would not be elated over the interview’s final cut, just as they certainly knew that Trump wouldn’t accept Stephanopoulos correcting his falsehoods the moment he said them any more than viewers intent on voting for him would accept the truth.

In 2016, Trump played the media to the tune of millions in free campaign promotion, and only recently did news channels pull back from broadcasting his TV stunts and rallies after numerous critics pointed out that doing so gives his lies a broader platform.  So surely ABC knows that by gaining access to Trump for 30 hours, it was also giving him exposure to a mainstream audience that doesn’t watch cable news. Turns out a substantial portion of that viewership didn’t want to watch him on ABC, either.

Knowing all of this, what Stephanopoulos did with that 30 hours matters because it reminds all the journalists, actual journalists, who are going to follow in his path that how they handle this man is more important than weighing the feelings of who is watching them do it.

The ABC News anchor also shows how clumsy Trump’s sparring form is, which is what happens when a politician trades questions and answers with personalities who don’t reveal his weaknesses.

Trump can dial in to Fox News and Fox Business and ramble on endlessly as their hosts hang on his every word, taking everything he says as unvarnished truth. In agreeing to appear on ABC, he probably overestimated his ability to parry with the likes of Stephanopoulos, given that aside from his numerous interviews with friendly, uncritical Fox News hosts he’s only given limited interviews to outlets like mostly friendly, barely critical Axios. He’s like a guy who lands some of the punches he aims on his local gym’s heavy bag and decides that’s all he needs to step into the ring with Manny Pacquiao.

Stephanopoulos holds his calm as he fact checks Trump the moment he lies and continues to do so even as Trump attempts to bully him. The ABC anchor is very much aware of Trump’s vanity, stroking his ego just enough to keep him playing along and secure his attention. He rolls with the hits, refusing to be flustered when an annoyed Trump responds to Stephanopoulos’ pointing out Trump’s refusal to submit to an interview with Mueller says, “Look, George, you're being a little wise guy, OK — which is, you know, typical for you.”

Facing all of this, as one can read in the transcripts, Stephanopoulos managed to keep his grip on the conversation without getting lost in Trump’s tremendous word salad.  Even so, as often as he pushed back on Trump’s falsehoods, he couldn’t catch and kill every single one of his lies, which has always been the problem and will continue to be one.

Nevertheless, ABC’s interview is one future moderators, TV journalists and news organizations can watch, learn from and build upon. The summer time audience might not have watched in droves, and those in Congress who have the power to put Trump in check may continue to hem and haw and delay.

What Stephanopoulos got Trump to say this week will likely pale compared to the statements he’ll make in the future and, possibly, the actions he might take. What valiant efforts ABC made are still incomplete, but that’s something future interviewers can improve upon.

Let reporters who are due to face off Trump take heart, for the sake of journalism and how history will evaluate the actions of the Fourth Estate in 2019. People may be tired of watching and hearing about the reality show host in the Oval Office, and may be accustomed to expecting that he’ll lie brazenly and with little challenge. It may very well be the public’s opinion that nothing we do matters. In that case, regardless of outcome, slander and the consistent attacks of an autocrat seeking to delegitimize the work of fact-finders, all that matters is what we do.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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