For a moment the cable news found something they agreed on.
At eleven thirty on Wednesday, shortly after President Biden finished an inaugural address calling for an era of reconciliation, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer stated that “the world has witnessed democracy standing up to one of its greatest tests.” MSNBC’s Brian Williams said Mr. Biden gave “the kind of inaugural address our presidents used to give”.
At Fox News, the home of right-wing stars like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham who worked tirelessly on behalf of former President Donald J. Trump, anchors and experts took turns praising the message from Mr Biden and the man who delivered it.
“I’ve heard those inaugural addresses since 1961,” said Chris Wallace, the Fox News Sunday anchor. “I thought this was the best inaugural address I have ever heard.”
It was an unusual – and perhaps fleeting – moment for a cable news landscape shaped by the Trump years. The cultural divide over a polarizing president and the increasingly broken notion of what is true and what is a lie seemed to be looming on 24-hour news networks every day, with record-breaking Americans gathering to revolt or console themselves .
So it was strange to hear Republican strategist Karl Rove tell Fox News viewers that Mr. Biden made “a great speech for the moment” when CNN’s Jake Tapper demonstrated the “steely determination and compassion” of the praised the new president.
Although he did not denounce news agencies by name, Mr Biden dosed his remarks with tacit media criticism, warning of “lies told for power and profit” and urging Americans to “reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manipulated are produced. “
On Fox News, Wallace said journalists should be careful. “It was a call to all of us – whether we are in the air, on the cable, or on the air, whether we are on social media or on our Twitter accounts – to understand that we must deal with the facts, the truth to hear everyone else out, ”he said.
Mr. Hannity was due to give his opinion on Mr. Biden’s speech on Wednesday evening, and it seemed doubtful that he would be so charitable. In the afternoon, Ben Domenech, a right-wing expert and regular Fox News guest, admitted Mr. Biden had started on a “very good” grade, but specifically added, “The evidence will be in the pudding.”
Other pro-Trump news outlets that had held back to proclaim Mr Biden president-elect were more willing to attack Mr Trump’s successor in his first few hours in office, even after his victory was irrefutable. On Wednesday’s Newsmax, an expert described the enormous security presence for the inauguration as an attempt to “further suppress the voice of the American people”.
On television, the day was split into two acts: Mr. Trump’s defiant exit, followed by Mr. Biden’s triumphant arrival.
The inauguration days have been relatively unchanged for decades, much like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Academy Awards or the Super Bowl. There is a playbook for television producers: the president-elect arrives at the White House to meet his predecessor; a motorcade drives to the Capitol; Anchors speak poetically about the peaceful transfer of power.
On Wednesday, almost a year after a pandemic that killed more than 400,000 Americans, two weeks after a violent crowd of Trump supporters rioted in the Capitol, and a week after Mr Trump became the first president to be charged twice , there was a distinctly different tone.
“You don’t see a lot of tourists or spectators, you see a lot of police and military personnel,” Blitzer said shortly after 7 a.m. on CNN over footage of the sophisticated security apparatus and the deserted streets of Washington. On CBS, anchor Tony Dokoupil asked, “How did we get to the point where Washington DC has more law enforcement agencies than there are in overseas wars?”
Shortly after 8 a.m., news cameras were being trained on Marine One, the presidential helicopter, as it drove past the Washington Monument and settled on the South Lawn of the White House to drive off the image-conscious Mr. Trump for one final ride.
“It’s a breathtaking moment,” Tapper said on CNN as the president stepped onto the trademark in his oversized red tie and Melania Trump in a jet black Chanel ensemble approached the plane. (Fox News host Ainsley Earhardt called the first lady’s outfit “a very Audrey Hepburn look.”)
The aerial view of all major networks came from a camera on top of the Washington Monument. It delivered a tableau that wouldn’t have been out of place in the opening credits of “The Apprentice,” including sunshine that glimmered off the surface of Marine One as it soared into the sky, soon-to-be ex-president of Towing.
Networks that have devoted themselves to criticizing Mr Trump over the past four years stuck to their topic in the final hours of his presidency. Without any coverage, Mr. Tapper declared Mr. Trump “embarrassed”. His colleague Dana Bash added, “He looks small. He looks like a little man. “
With Marine One in flight, ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos recalled another presidential helicopter departure: “The picture in my head,” he said, “is Richard Nixon in 1974.”
Correspondents noted Mr. Trump’s absence from the inauguration ceremony, the first president in 152 years to skip the swearing-in of his successor. “This is a moment to turn the page,” said John Dickerson of CBS News. “We have never seen a president try to hold onto the book.”
Marine One took Mr. Trump from the White House to Andrews Air Force Base, where he staged his own farewell scene. Visually, it did not match the patriotic regalia that awaited Mr. Biden in the Capitol. A short chant of “Thank you, Trump” could be heard from the small crowd.
This was neither the terrifying protagonist of “The Apprentice” nor the combative activist of his rallies. Instead, Mr. Trump gave a spontaneous and somewhat awkward speech that concluded: “Have a good life.”
On Fox News, the final images of his tumultuous reign were overlaid with sympathetic comments. “He never got a break when it came to the press,” Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy told viewers. “It must be a little subdued that no one in the history of the American presidency has been beaten as badly as Donald Trump in the past four years.”
Mr Trump retained his role as executive producer for the presidency through to the end. He was walking a red carpet to Air Force One and got on the plane when the Village People disco anthem “YMCA” boomed over the speakers.
The cameras stayed on Air Force One as they prepared for takeoff around 9 a.m. A well-known valedictory theme could be heard with muted anchors: Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”. The song reached a climax when Air Force One’s wheels left the ground. On CNN, the panelists couldn’t suppress a few giggles in what looked almost like a script.
Cut to a picture of Mr. Biden and the future first lady attending a morning service.
“The Biden family,” said anchor Anderson Cooper. “A new beginning.”
Tiffany Hsu contributed to the coverage.