With cameras absent, US public tunes out of Trump trial coverage

Live images and audio are banned, meaning Storym Daniel's vivid account Tuesday of the encounter was only heard by those in the courthouse

09 May 2024 11:13am
Former US President Donald Trump (L) departs the courtroom for a lunch break during his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs, at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City, on May 6, 2024. - Photo by AFP
Former US President Donald Trump (L) departs the courtroom for a lunch break during his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs, at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City, on May 6, 2024. - Photo by AFP
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WASHINGTON - It ought to have been appointment TV as Stormy Daniels served up salacious details of her alleged tryst with Donald Trump in the sensational first-ever prosecution of a former president.

Yet with New York state rules walling off the Republican billionaire's hush money trial from the world's television cameras, what should have been the trial of the century has turned into something of a ratings flop.

"The trial is not receiving the attention it should -- given its historic nature and importance -- because there are no cameras in the courtroom, plain and simple," said Karen Conti, a Chicago-based legal analyst and trial lawyer who handled the final death row appeals of serial killer John Wayne Gacy.

Trump, who denies wrongdoing, is accused of falsifying accounts to cover up the reimbursement of a hush money payment by his lawyer to Daniels in order to limit potential damage to his 2016 election campaign.

Live images and audio are banned, meaning the adult film actress's vivid account Tuesday of the encounter was only heard by those in the courthouse, forcing television networks to figure out creative approaches to keep viewers interested.

One tactic favored by CNN and liberal-leaning cable network MSNBC has been on-screen scrolls of text updates from the dozens of journalists watching from a spillover room, setting the scene and remarking on Trump's demeanor and jurors' reactions.

Meeting the moment

Networks -- particularly the conservative-leaning Fox News -- have also relied on Trump making some of his own drama as he turns up each day, turning to cameras outside the room to excoriate the judge and cast the case as politically motivated.

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Meanwhile a panel of cable news anchors and experts has typically been on hand to litigate every aspect of the case, contextualizing the evidence they are receiving second-hand and offering analysis of the tactics of both sides.

But the stark truth, according to analysts, is that anchors reading aloud from text scrolls and studio debates simply cannot compete with live images of Trump himself and have not met the moment.

"People are far more willing to be drawn into a court case when they have visuals," said David Triana, a public relations consultant in Orlando, Florida.

"I think not being able to see reactions, in real time, from Donald Trump and other witnesses... has negatively affected the impact that this case should have on the public."

Chip Stewart, a media professor at Texas Christian University, says reports of Trump falling asleep in court provide an illuminating example of how the lack of cameras has deprived the public of the full story.

"Without photo or video evidence, he was able to turn to his usual claim that reporters were lying about it," he told AFP.

"Imagine a front page or websites or the nightly news leading with a photo of Trump sleeping during his own criminal trial."

Trump soap opera

With the absence of real-time theatrics, the American public has largely checked out.

Same-day data for the week of April 15, when jury selection began, saw conservative-leaning Fox News average 1.98 million primetime viewers -- down by five percent from the previous week.

CNN averaged 596,000, a six percent weekly drop, according to the figures from viewer ratings agency Nielsen, reported by US media.

Of the big three cable networks, only liberal MSNBC notched an increase, up 17 percent with 1.35 million primetime viewers.

CNN was slightly up on-year across primetime April as a whole but in the all-important 25-54 demographic, all three networks saw a primetime drop versus 2023. CNN averaged 113,000 primetime viewers in this category.

For context, US football star O.J. Simpson's double-murder acquittal was watched live by more than 150 million Americans, while 123.7 million watched this year's Super Bowl.

Katherine Cartwright, principal at international media buying agency Criterion Global, argues that, cameras or no cameras, America has grown weary of the never-ending Trump soap opera.

Burnt out by years of breathless coverage, the public has become desensitized to the scandal that envelopes the former president and has saturated the public conversation for years, she says.

"The lack of audio and video, coupled with the lack of newness of the material, is further muting the story in the current US news cycle which is at a fever pitch over the war in the Middle East and its spillover into college campuses," Cartwright told AFP. - AFP

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