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Trump criticized for bait and switch on 'birtherism'

Donald Trump’s renouncement of birtherism came with some media gamesmanship that compelled television news networks to air 20 minutes of endorsements by retired military men before the candidate briefly got to the point.

“We all got Rick-rolled,” said CNN’s Jake Tapper, a reference to the Internet prank of replacing an expected link with a video of singer Rick Astley’s 1987 hit, “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

The bad blood continued after the Friday morning event when the Trump campaign barred text reporters and a television producer from joining him on a tour of the new Trump International Hotel in Washington. In response, cable and broadcast networks refused to use any video of the tour.

Trump’s long-expressed doubts that Obama was born in the United States — despite a birth certificate proving Obama’s eligibility for the presidency — resurfaced with a Washington Post interview Thursday in which Trump would not say whether or not he believed the president was born in Hawaii in 1961.

With criticism of his birther movement starting anew, Trump’s campaign signaled that the candidate would address the issue Friday at a Washington event. When Trump stepped to the podium at 11:04 a.m. EDT, he was carried live on CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC.

Following a short statement that didn’t address the birther issue, Trump stepped aside for a succession of Medal of Honor recipients to approach the microphone and endorse him.

The networks stuck with the event, essentially a Trump commercial, until Fox News Channel pulled away at 11:25 a.m. for a studio discussion and the other two networks shortly followed suit. By 11:30, Trump stepped back to the podium and all the networks went back to him live.

After claiming that opponent Hillary Clinton had started the birther discussion, a false claim for which he offered no evidence, Trump took credit for ending it.

“President Barack Obama was born in the United States,” Trump said. “Period. Now we all want to get back to making America strong and great again.”

He then stepped away without taking questions.

Tapper called the appearance “a disservice to the people who were offended by that movement, people who thought it was racist.”

“What they did was tease us, play us,” said CNN’s Dana Bash, saying the networks would not have aired the veterans’ statements otherwise.

Bash isn’t likely to find much sympathy among Trump supporters, many of whom distrust and dislike the media. Ripping reporters is a time-honored tactic among Republican office-seekers, and Trump has eagerly joined in.

“It was political and media genius,” said Melissa Francis during the Fox News program “Outnumbered.”

What it amounted to was the equivalent of over $1 million worth of free media time for Trump, estimated Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis.

“You don’t think Hillary wants her events to be covered like this? Of course she does,” Kofinis said. “It’s more than a question of fairness. It really is a question of responsibility. This is not a reality TV show. I’m not sure that everyone has come to terms with that.”

The cable networks need to take greater control over their airtime and not just cede it on the promise of getting news, or the hope of getting a boost in viewership, said Mark Feldstein, a former broadcast journalist and now a professor at the University of Maryland.

“They are more than willing to swallow the bait because they know the ratings are going to go up when Trump goes on the air — even when their credibility goes down when they realize he has conned them,” he said.

It comes after a TV-friendly day where Trump discussed some of his medical records with talk show host Mehmet Oz, drawing laughter and applause when the television doctor said Trump had high testosterone levels, and “Tonight Show” show host Jimmy Fallon playfully mussed the candidate’s hair during a lighthearted interview.

Following the Washington event, Trump’s campaign invited the television networks’ pool camera to join him on a tour of his Washington hotel. Reporters were barred. ABC News producer Candace Smith, Friday’s pool representative, who usually accompanies the camera operator and reports back to her colleagues about what she saw, tweeted that she was “physically restrained” from doing so.

For Trump, it ensured that no one would immediately question what CNN’s John King called “the biggest flip-flop of the campaign.”

Television networks agreed not to use the cameraperson’s footage. “The TV pool traditionally doesn’t participate in events that our reporters or producers are not allowed to attend,” said Bryan Boughton, Fox News Washington bureau chief and current chairman of the TV pool.

The networks also took the unusual step of making sure the footage of Trump’s tour wouldn’t be used by erasing it. That prompted conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt to take to Twitter to suggest it was a step too far.

“Deleting tape you don’t like is the opposite of journalism,” Hewitt tweeted.

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