President Trump isn't watching too much TV; it's just the wrong kind.

Published Dec. 14, 2017


Because President Donald Trump has said he is a reader — big-league reader, reads documents, the best documents — I hope that he is reading this, and not, say, watching a Fox & Friends recording on the gigantic flat-screen TV that he had installed in the White House dining room, even though he says he rarely watches.

We need to talk about the president's TV habit. The one he doesn't have.

Trump has been in something of a feud with this news organization over a recent report about his White House routine. The president pushed back — not against the descriptions of staff turmoil or his prodigious Diet Coke intake, but the news that he "spends at least four hours a day, and sometimes as much as twice that, in front of a television."

Trump took a break from his usual practice of live-tweeting Fox & Friends and Morning Joe to reject that detail:

"Another false story, this time in the Failing @nytimes, that I watch 4-8 hours of television a day — Wrong! Also, I seldom, if ever, watch CNN or MSNBC, both of which I consider Fake News. I never watch Don Lemon, who I once called the 'dumbest man on television!' Bad Reporting."

There is something bizarre about a reality-star president — a TV fixture for decades before The Apprentice — feeling the need to deny his affection for the medium that made him. There is something even more bizarre about him tweeting a denial that is contradicted not only by his extensive public record but seemingly by the Twitter post itself. (Or did Trump come to his opinion of Don Lemon by reading documents?)

But I will defend Trump at least this far: I don't care how much time he spends watching television. As a TV critic, I am the last person to judge someone for spending too much quality time with their DVR.

The problem is not how much TV Trump watches. It's the kind of TV he watches. As Trump's associates report and his Twitter feed confirms, his video diet of choice is cable news, the most agitating, psychically toxic programming you can immerse yourself in, even if you don't have possession of the nuclear codes.

This is not to say cable news is bad journalism. There are talented people in the business doing great reporting. But it is to say that cable news — as a genre, a gestalt, an environment to spend hours a day in — is by nature agitating and provoking.

That's the cable news business model. Conflict means urgency, and urgency means viewers glued to the channel. So it seeks out arguments and pushes buttons. It is a machine designed to generate stress and negative emotion.

Trump does not exactly lack for that as it is. His entire career philosophy has been that fighting is humankind's most productive state, that the fight-or-flight response is to be savored and cultivated.

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So he seeks out more of it on cable, using it for affirmation and motivation, to pump himself up for battle. He stews in its acidic anger-juices, seething and tweeting and sending out more waves of hostility for cable news to reflect back.

Because this feedback cycle results in news everywhere, all of us end up trapped in the mindset of an angry cable-news junkie, even if we're not watching. It's like secondhand smoke.

Some critics have suggested that Trump watch different programming — maybe some edifying scripted TV. But honestly, I don't see much evidence that Trump has the level of introspection to be changed by a work of fiction. That requires some ability to recognize that perspectives besides your own are valid and that you might have something to learn from them.

In 2002, the documentarian Errol Morris interviewed Trump about his favorite film, Citizen Kane, about a business mogul with political ambitions whose drive for power left him friendless and empty. Trump saw the source of the protagonist's troubles differently. His advice to Charles Foster Kane: "Get yourself a different woman."

So color me skeptical that Trump might binge a season of The West Wing and become a believer in high-minded, reasoned debate. Art doesn't work that way under the most hospitable circumstances. It's not medicine or hypnosis.

That's fine: TV doesn't need to be a vehicle for self-improvement. Sometimes it can just be an escape. But Trump's instinct is to use it as exactly the opposite, like a bull waving a red cape in front of itself. I'd be happier if Trump would simply spend his morning and evening screen time with any kind of programming that wasn't designed to make him angrier. A mindless sitcom. An old movie. (Citizen Kane is on Amazon!) Anything to unwind, rather than wind up.

Much has been reported about the efforts of Trump's chief of staff, John F. Kelly, to control the flow of information and visitors to the president. Maybe the most effective step Kelly could take would be to quietly get the White House's TV provider to drop everything except the Golf Channel.

James Poniewozik is the chief television critic for the New York Times.
© 2017 New York Times