It was, of course, a sort-of Rorschach test, the coverage of the Trump inauguration. Pleasing to some are the powerful images of pomp and circumstance as a new leader is installed. Unnerving to others is the reality that demagoguery put Donald J. Trump at the swearing-in ceremony.
The inauguration was also and dramatically a Rorschach test for the U.S. TV news media – outlets saw what whey wanted and reacted in vastly different styles.
But some things just creep you out, if you're just watching as a viewer. Like, for instance that feeling you get when you turn on the TV and you're watching some twisted version of Dynasty. Remember Dynasty? A 1980s drama about the razzle-dazzle and excesses of superrich families. It was tacky but filled with truths – older, white-haired men and their glam, younger wives will galvanize attention because they rule the universe.
Hopscotching across the cable and network coverage of the inauguration of President Donald Trump showed pundit after pundit talking about "change." They talked about a "a change election" and a "reset" for Washington.
Change? Nobody was saying this as far I could tell, but here's a difference between retro and change. Real change is moving forward. Watch two days of inauguration coverage, from the Inaugural Concert on Thursday evening to the swearing-in ceremonies on Friday morning – and an axiom is delivered. The world is still run by older white men who probably use a comb-over and have a decades-younger wife.
On the U.S. all-news channels there was, inevitably, huge emphasis on the "peaceful transition of power" being a hallmark of American democracy. As if peaceful transition never happened anywhere else. On Fox News, Charles Krauthammer droned on about it: "We do not appreciate how unusual it is to have peaceful transition of power." He went on to cite the situation in Gambia, where the president had refused to step down, postelection. Be glad we're not Gambia, was his message.
Tucker Carlson took the opportunity, after talking to Krauthammer, to hammer Democrats who decided to boycott the inauguration, chiding them over and over for staying away, when, as he reminded them, Hillary Clinton had managed to show up. Throughout, Fox News used the occasion to complain about Democrats. And, later on Fox, Bret Baier went on a tirade against other, unnamed outlets, which featured someone calling Trump's inaugural speech "Hitlerian." Baier agreed strenuously with a Fox News pundit who described Trump's speech as "patriotism on steroids."
On CNN, John King gently pointed out that what he called Trump's "scathing speech" was out of sync with the facts – "It's a pessimistic view of where we are now," he said. "Jobs are up, crime is down." He called it Trump's campaign "writ large." Nobody on CNN was calling the speech "Hitlerian." That was actually unfolding on MSNBC where Chris Matthews said, as the screen showed Barack Obama's departing helicopter, "It was not just the racial, and I shouldn't say racial, that speech, I should say Hitlerian."
In the early going on Friday morning, both CBC and CTV had more coverage of the protests than most U.S. channels were carrying. Much emphasis was placed on the crowds in Washington and what kind of people were there, celebrating or protesting. If this was meant to offer a snapshot of the United States, it was wrong-headed – Inauguration day is hardy representative. On CBC, Peter Mansbridge tried to illustrate the size of the crowd and police presence by pointing out he'd been obliged to take the subway to the Canadian Embassy. He did this ruefully, it being a totally new experience for him, obviously.
On CTV, Lisa LaFlamme noted that Hillary Clinton "looked quite sombre," which was a vast understatement. Nobody, across all channels, seemed to note the look on Michelle Obama's face, a look that bespoke anger and disappointment. At one point, just before the inauguration, her side-eye look at the Trump family was an Oscar-worthy communication of dismay. Tucker Carlson would not share her dismay. He described the Trump family as "real and impressive people" who had done so much to get Trump elected.
The pundits went silent during the actual inauguration ceremony and Trump's speech. Then came the analysis and, then, at one point, every network and cable news outlet was showing footage of violent protests. The sight of a Bank of America branch being vandalized seemed to animate news producers everywhere. A reach for symbolism of some sort. But on NBC, old-hand Tom Brokaw was asked if the scenes of riot and protests reminded him of the turbulence of 1968. He looked bewildered and said, "No. If you pull back, there's not many people protesting." In truth, the riot seemed limited to one street. That's TV for ya.
The size of the crowds on the National Mall was handled with some delicacy. This was odd because anyone who saw the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009 remembers the Mall being full, overflowing and noisy. What viewers saw on Friday morning was, in comparison, sparse.
It will take some time before the number of people watching on TV is revealed, but some viewers must have had that eerie feeling that a perverse revival of Dynasty was under way. The incoming president gave a speech livid with populist fury, an indictment of "the establishment" and yet, in his person, demeanour and in reality, he confirms that the establishment, the force of true power remains anchored in old white men with a comb-over and decades-younger wife. The TV news outlets took different, varying views, of course.