Donald J. Trump relishes the spotlight of live television. Hillary Clinton has long recoiled from it. Now, the television news industry is wrestling with how to balance fairness, credibility and the temptations of sky-high ratings as it prepares for a presidential matchup like none other.
Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, has become a daily fixture on influential programs, startling producers by even personally calling control rooms to shape coverage.
Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, is not absent from cable news; she called in to CNN and MSNBC last week to rebut attacks from her rival. But she remains leery of TV’s unscripted nature, appearing far less often than Trump and irking some bookers who complain about the difficulties of luring her on the air.
For broadcasters, turning down an interview with a candidate is anathema to a news culture trained to pursue maximum access. Yet the starkly different strategies of the candidates are straining the industry’s bedrock notions of evenhandedness.
“The two candidates are running two different kinds of races,” said John Dickerson, the moderator of “Face the Nation” on CBS, who has interviewed both Clinton and Trump on his show.
“At every opportunity possible, you invite both of them on to share their views and answer the questions of the moment,” Dickerson said. “But a lot of this is on the candidates. If they believe a point is better expressed by their surrogate, or not talking at all, that’s sort of their choice.”
Networks are seeking novel ways to maintain balance, like staging voter town halls that provide candidates with equal airtime; seeking a wider spectrum of on-air contributors and campaign surrogates; and bringing more fact-checking into day-to-day segments, as Jake Tapper has done recently on CNN to some acclaim.
Still, the presence of Trump can be irresistible, especially in an election where viewership and advertising rates have soared, generating tens of millions of dollars in additional revenue for an industry threatened by digital competition.
Last week, none of the three major cable news networks — CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC — carried Clinton’s speech to a workers’ union in Las Vegas, where she debuted sharp new attack lines against Trump.
Instead, each chose to broadcast a live feed of an empty podium in North Dakota, on a stage where Trump was about to speak.
The same discrepancy occurred earlier this month, when the cable networks aired Trump’s address to the National Rifle Association live from start to finish. A speech by Clinton in Detroit days later, to a labor union, did not receive the same coverage; all three networks skipped the speech, with Fox News airing a lighthearted segment about a nationwide backlog of cheese.
In interviews, more than a dozen anchors, executives and news producers displayed admiration for Trump’s facility with their medium. Some expressed a bit of soul-searching, admitting unease at the unfiltered exposure he has received, with one anchor describing frustration about being asked to conduct on-air interviews with Trump by telephone, rather than in person. But several offered the defense that whatever viewers make of Trump, he is undoubtedly newsworthy — and always accessible.
“I don’t think anybody has seen anything like this,” said Bret Baier, the chief political anchor at Fox News.
Baier, who has moderated a Democratic town hall with Clinton and has interviewed Trump on his show, said that producers are “really trying to think outside the box” to balance Trump’s ubiquity onscreen.
He also said he was stunned when Trump telephoned a control room at CNN this month, urging a midlevel producer to pursue a story he deemed favorable. It was an intervention virtually unheard-of in presidential politics, where candidates typically rely on an army of media handlers for such tasks. Trump had called producers at MSNBC that morning, as well.
Some network officials concede that Trump can be an unreliable narrator of his own campaign, reversing himself on policies from one interview to the next. But they also say that Clinton — who has been even more reluctant to give interviews to print outlets than to television — is notably less comfortable interacting with the media, sometimes keeping her out of the daily conversation.
“There’s always a challenge if you have one candidate who is not very cooperative, and isn’t interested in going appearance for appearance,” said Chuck Todd, the moderator of “Meet the Press” on NBC.
Clinton’s team prefers interviews with local stations rather than, say, national morning shows, calling it a more targeted way to reach voters in key regions.
She rarely holds formal, televised news conferences — unlike Trump, who sometimes takes questions from reporters for as long as an hour. Cable channels usually carry those events live, and network officials point out the news value in showing a presidential candidate making off-the-cuff remarks.
“As a journalist, one of the most important things that we can do is ask tough questions of the people who would be president — that’s our job,” said Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief. “Donald Trump puts himself in a position to answer questions.”
A thornier subject is Trump’s unrivaled ability to hijack a news cycle, a trait that producers are not yet sure how to handle. Baier, of Fox News, said that Trump’s provocations in interviews and on Twitter seemed designed “to contort the day’s media stories,” adding: “For good, or bad, or however you look at it, he’s been successful at doing that.”
Dickerson, of CBS, has his own name for these distractions: “the shiny object moments.”
“It feels like there are more of those now than ever before,” he said.
Viewers are clearly following along. Prime-time advertising rates spiked at the major cable news networks in the first quarter of the year, rising 45 percent at CNN and 23 percent at MSNBC, compared with the same period the year before, according to Kantar Media, which tracks ad spending.
“We’ve never had a candidate who tweets as much as he does, who speaks as colloquially as he does, on his own terms,” Dickerson said of Trump. He noted that Sen. John McCain, in 2008, also welcomed open talk with the press.
“But there wasn’t the social media environment that would immediately inject whatever McCain was saying into the campaign bloodstream,” Dickerson said. “We have to balance and deal with all of that.”