If the Republican National Convention was a football game, you could look at it like this:
Monday night was like the first quarter and the GOP got off to a slow start, playing it safe, sticking with the same old game plan and, frankly, digging itself a hole.
But on Tuesday — or, the second quarter — the Republicans woke up and got back into the game with a much more energetic and lively performance.
Forget about the politics and the messages. That’s for you to decide. I’m talking about the evening’s “show.” How did the night look?
Yes, Tuesday’s convention still had plenty of speeches and much of the night looked like a conventional convention. Yes, there was plenty of controversy, which I will get into later in the newsletter. And, yes, fact-checkers are working overtime calling out many of the lies, misleading statements and out-of-context claims made by all of Tuesday night’s speakers.
But if the plan was to excite the base and make an attempt to reach out to anyone who is still left undecided, the Republicans performed well Tuesday night.
The main event of the night was the keynote speech given by first lady Melania Trump. It was, at times, a rambling speech that hit on a variety of topics, but it was mostly upbeat and forward-thinking and purposefully, she said, non-divisive.
CNN’s Dana Bash reminded viewers that Melania Trump did not run her speech past President Trump or the West Wing and that you could understand why.
“Because she did touch on and did speak to the reality that is going on in a way that we haven’t heard many other, if any other, speakers really do,” Bash said. “She acknowledged what people are feeling, whether it is from the COVID virus or from the racial unrest.”
However, there was a cringeworthy moment during her speech, as Bash (and many others) noted, when the first lady spoke out against the vitriol often seen on social media.
Bash said, “I think she probably lost a lot of people by talking even further about it without acknowledging — or maybe the irony is just too rich — that a lot of the intense and vicious attacks that come on social media come from her husband.”
There also was another line that certainly rolled some eyes.
“Total honesty is what we, as citizens, deserve from our president,” she said.
That, too, was laughable.
But, other than that, the speech earned good marks, most particularly because she acknowledged and showed empathy for the struggles we are having as a nation.
Speaking on Fox News, former Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile said, “I liked the speech. Yes, it was long, but the fact that she acknowledged some of the wrongs, some of the pain and some of the concerns of everyday, ordinary people. … So I’m going to give her good marks for her remarks.”
The most controversial moment of the night was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s taped appearance from Jerusalem. What made it controversial was the unheard-of appearance of a secretary of state at a political convention. CBS News’ Margaret Brennan said, “It is, as best we can tell, unprecedented.”
Pompeo claims he appeared as a private citizen.
“Let’s be honest, that’s a joke,” CNN’s Jake Tapper said. “He absolutely was not there as a private citizen. … He’s the secretary of state.”
ABC News chief political news anchor Martha Raddatz pointed out that Pompeo violated his own policy, having told all political appointees in December that they were prohibited from engaging in political activities in concert with a partisan candidate — even in their personal time. And she wasn’t buying Pompeo’s assertion that he was acting as a private citizen anyway.
“You really can’t separate yourself from being secretary of state and give a personal speech in a political situation like this,” Raddatz said. “But all these rules seem to be out the window.”
Raddatz noted that there were Marines in uniform during a naturalization ceremony that aired during Tuesday night’s convention. In fact, maybe even the naturalization ceremony shouldn’t have happened during a convention.
And then there was the speech by first lady Melania Trump. She stood on the grounds of the White House at a podium with an official White House seal. Again, those are generally accepted as being taboo at a convention.
“These symbols are supposed to be that they are for everyone in the United States,” Tapper said.
If the Democrats could take any solace, it’s that Pompeo’s speech wasn’t very dynamic. As far as the other things? Appearing on CBS, Democratic strategist Joel Payne said, “This stuff is all noise. … One of the things the president’s opponents have done wrong is focus on the wrong things. I’d focus on the legislation, shortcomings in government, shortcomings in managing the coronavirus virus as opposed to this.”
In other words, instead of caring about who was saying what from where, maybe the focus should be on what was being said.
Still, Fox News’ Chris Wallace said, “People can think it’s a big deal, they can think it is a little deal, but all of this has never happened before and it is worth noting.”
And this, too …
One of the more emotional and impactful moments of Tuesday night’s convention was President Trump pardoning Jon Ponder, a bank robber who turned his life around after finding God in prison. After his release from prison, Ponder became an activist, founding Hope For Prisoners, a nonprofit reentry program for prisoners.
It was a special moment. But, again, is a political convention the right place and time for such a moment?
CNN’s Van Jones has worked with the Trump administration on criminal justice, and said, “I love that he did it. I don’t like where he did it and the way he did it. So I feel torn.”
Jones said he wished there were more pardons. “But,” Jones said, “I think it cheapens it when you do it at a political convention in a political way because then it looks like you’re doing it for a stunt.”
Other things that popped into my head while watching Tuesday night’s Republican National Convention
- The Republicans hit on many of their go-to talking points on Tuesday night, including the economy, religious freedom, abortion and, in a speech delivered by former Covington Catholic High School student Nicholas Sandmann, “cancel culture” and the media. On the economy, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow bragged about how well the country is doing, but his speech was immediately fact-checked on PBS by Yamiche Alcindor and by MSNBC, which spent much of the night fact-checking speeches. NBC News senior business correspondent Stephanie Ruhle also called out Kudlow, saying, “We know that before COVID hit, the economy was strong. It was growing. And then corona happened, and it put us in a health and an economic crisis. And the thing is, neither are over. And while we’re living in corona, nothing is booming.”
- One topic pretty much ignored, except for Melania Trump’s speech, was the coronavirus. NBC News’ Chuck Todd said, “I think it’s a really big risk to ignore the virus the way they have ignored it tonight.”
- Speaking of Todd, he talked about two other topics that the Trump campaign has really hammered home over the first two days: criminal justice reform and Trump’s assertion that he is the president for people of color. Todd said, “Both campaigns tell me that there is a chance that Donald Trump could overperform with African American men. It’s a concern of the Biden campaign and it’s a focus of the Trump campaign.”
- Clever point of the night: Univision New York’s Jose Pagliery tweeted that while former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi was, during her speech, accusing Joe Biden of nepotism, the chyron on CNN showed the upcoming speakers: Tiffany Trump, Eric Trump, Melania Trump.
- As far as those speeches from family members, they were … odd. They weren’t personal at all. No anecdotes from the kitchen table, no stories about growing up, no memories of camping trips or Christmas mornings. As ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos said, “Of course, family members are always used at conventions, there’s no question about that. Usually, though, they’re used to soften up the candidate, humanize the candidate in some way. What we’re seeing here are real political speeches.”
First night TV ratings
Now, for the somewhat complicated look at TV ratings for Monday’s first night of the Republican National Convention. Hang in here with me for a moment.
First, the actual numbers on the ratings for the traditional outlets — ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. Monday’s opening night of the Republican National Convention averaged around 17 million viewers — a significant 26% drop from the opening night of 2016. It’s also below what the Democrats drew last week for their opening night. The DNC drew 19.7 million viewers, which also was about a 24% drop from 2016.
So what does it all mean? Well, interest was down. Maybe. These numbers show who was actually watching the TV broadcasts. But that doesn’t take into account all those who watched on streaming services and who will watch portions of the first night (notable speeches, for instance) later on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
The point: TV numbers are revealing, but not that revealing. A lot of factors are in play this election cycle that haven’t been in play before, particularly the viewing habits of people who are just as likely to watch something on YouTube or Twitter as they are television. While watching something on the internet is not new, it is more prevalent than ever.
Back to Monday night’s viewership. No surprise, Fox News was the night’s big winner, averaging 7.1 million viewers between 10 and 11 p.m. Eastern. As far as the cable networks, CNN drew 2 million viewers and MSNBC drew 1.6 million.
Among the major networks, ABC drew 1.9 million viewers, followed by NBC (1.7 million) and CBS (1.5 million). Pretty small numbers if you think about it.
What should they cover?
Networks are going to have some tough choices to make tonight. While the Republicans are holding their national convention, a Category 3 hurricane is expected to be bearing down somewhere on the Gulf Coast. While the major networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — will likely go with the original plan of convention coverage from 10 to 11 p.m. Eastern, what will the cable networks do? Specifically, CNN and Fox News?
A Cat 3 hurricane is a huge life-and-death story that normally would dominate any cable news outlet. Should that change just because there is a political convention going on? A convention that can be seen in other places?
CNN is expected to have reporters on the scene wherever the storm makes landfall, and, surely, will have coverage throughout the day. They likely will split coverage between the convention and the storm.
Fox News correspondent Leland Vittert will be reporting live from somewhere near the storm, as will Charles Watson and Caroline Shively. Look for Fox News to mostly stick with convention coverage — well, in between Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson — and then concentrate on hurricane coverage in the overnight hours.
In addition, wildfires continue to burn up large chunks of California, while Wisconsin and other parts of the country are seeing protests following a police officer shooting a Black man in the back seven times in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Hey, no fair!
The New York Times’ Michael M. Grynbaum reported Tuesday that the major TV networks lodged a protest during a heated call with Republican officials because Fox News was given additional access to major convention speeches. The complaints came after Fox News host Sean Hannity said he would be broadcasting from the site of several upcoming speeches.
On his show, Hannity said, “We’ll be broadcasting live from the Rose Garden in the lead-up for Melania Trump’s speech (Tuesday) night. Wednesday, we’ll be at Fort McHenry where Vice President Pence will be, and on Thursday, we will be live on the South Lawn where President Trump will give his speech.”
Naturally, other networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN) were furious over Fox News’ special access, especially this year when the coronavirus is turning the conventions upside down with little in-person access like past years. The networks are pretty much reliant on the feeds provided by the political parties.
Grynbaum reported that Hannity’s show would get its own special press riser for his broadcasts. After the other networks complained, the Trump campaign began considering another riser for other networks.
Speaking of Hannity, check out this story from Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple, who writes, “… the more peeks we get into his text-messaging habits, the clearer it becomes that the roles Hannity has relished most in recent years are being a political caretaker for President Trump, and a sounding board and advice dispenser for close associates of the president.
How about the shocking tweet of the day? President Trump actually thanked CNN — a network he often calls fake news. Trump tweeted, “Very appreciative that @CNN covered the vast majority of the Republican Convention last night. That was really good for CNN, while at the same time being good for our Country. Thank you!
The Power of August
CBS News will present an hourlong special looking back at what it calls the transformational moments in American civil rights history that happened in the month of August. “The Power of August” will stream live on CBSN, CBS News’ 24/7 digital streaming news service, on Friday at 8 p.m. Eastern. Maurice DuBois will anchor with reports from Vladimir Duthiers, Mark Strassman, Wes Lowery and Michelle Miller.
Kim Godwin, CBS News’ executive vice president of news, said, “‘The Power of August’ is a tribute to the life-changing events that eerily took place in the same month. Looking back at these important anniversaries offers a deep history of our nation and the roots of systemic racism and the starts and stops of progress the nation has experienced throughout the last several decades.”
In relation to this project, CBS News also announced the launch of CBS Village — “a new cross-platform franchise that will showcase the organization’s inclusive reporting, giving voice to diverse communities.”
In Tuesday’s newsletter, I misspelled the name of The Atlantic’s Ed Yong. My apologies to Mr. Yong and all readers of the Poynter Report
- The Daily Beast’s Will Sommer with “Fox News Editor Thought Their Disastrous Seth Rich Story Would Be ‘Vindicated.’”
- The 19th*’s Shefali Luthra with “Pregnant in a Pandemic: The ‘Perfect Storm for a Crisis’.”
- Politico’s Michael Kruse with “Trump’s Scare Tactics Aren’t Working on Women in the Suburbs.”
Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More resources for journalists
- Subscribe to Alma Matters – Poynter’s new newsletter for college journalism educators
- The Psychology of Misinformation — Aug. 27 at 11 a.m. Eastern, First Draft
- Survive and Thrive in Freelance and Remote Work (Self-directed) — Sept. 1, Poynter
- How to report on 2020 political advertising on Facebook (Webinar) — Sept. 16, Poynter
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