Trump's border address sparks extraordinary debate inside and outside TV networks

President Trump is tapping into one of the powers of the presidency, ...

Posted: Jan. 8, 2019 5:59 PM
Updated: Jan. 8, 2019 5:59 PM

President Trump is tapping into one of the powers of the presidency, a televised Oval Office address, for his first time. He will receive wall-to-wall coverage for his pro-wall speech on Tuesday night. And to say that there are mixed feelings about that is an understatement.

While the address may not change anyone's mind, there are very strong feelings both for and against the television networks' decisions to televise it in the first place. The debate isn't just raging on social media -- it is happening inside the networks as well.

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At issue: How should a uniquely deceptive president be treated by TV networks that value the truth?

For some, it's a no-brainer: A presidential address from the Oval Office merits live coverage. Period.

For others, it's a no-brainer in the other direction: This particular president is so prone to falsehoods and fear-mongering that his speeches shouldn't be shown live.

The major networks "should refuse to turn over the airwaves to Donald Trump tonight for what they know objectively to be a steady stream of lies," MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski said Tuesday morning.

But MSNBC and its broadcast network brother, NBC, will carry the address, just like its rivals.

Stephen Colbert, the host of "The Late Show," alluded to the internal tensions in a tweet on Monday night. "My network will be carrying Trump's Wall speech live. So at 9pm Tuesday, tune into CBS to See B.S.," he wrote.

This issue is reflective of all the ongoing arguments about Trump and the media. People who believe Trump is a dire threat to the country think that TV networks should not help spread his propaganda. People who believe Trump is saving the country think this debate is indicative of liberal media bias, and that "anti-Trump" media outlets are the true propagandists.

For network executives, tradition and news judgment — the simple idea that this is "a presidential address from the Oval Office" — outweighed concerns about the content.

There is widespread agreement that anchors and reporters will be under pressure to fact-check and contextualize whatever Trump says.

When the White House officially requested airtime on Monday from the broadcast networks, as is customary in these cases, network executives deliberated about it for a few hours.

A TV executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, observed: "He calls us fake news all the time, but needs access to airwaves and cable pipes to deliver his false narrative."

On Monday evening CBS said yes, it would air the address, and NBC and ABC followed within minutes. The Fox broadcast network and PBS will also carry the address, along with all the major cable news channels, including CNN.

Veteran ABC anchor Ted Koppel, speaking with The New York Times, said Trump deserved the "benefit of the doubt."

Many Democratic political pros and other Trump opponents disagreed.

Trump's narrative about the southern border "really is fiction. That's the problem for putting this on the air," former Clinton White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said on CNN's "New Day" on Tuesday.

"The networks, I hope, yesterday struggled with the decision to put this on, because he consistently hasn't told the truth. Someone's got to fact-check that," Lockhart said.

Tuesday's prime time speech follows several other on-camera pitches for a border wall in the last week, including a surprise appearance at the White House briefing room and a 90-minute Cabinet meeting that the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler called a "fact-checking nightmare." These recent television appearances have sparked debate about whether networks should air Trump's remarks in real-time.

Seth Meyers, the host of "Late Night" on NBC, took a position about this on his show Monday night.

"Just because Trump wants to address the nation doesn't mean networks should air it. Otherwise, they're just passing on his lies unfiltered," Meyers said.

Then came his joke: "They should either reject him outright, or if he insists on speaking in prime time, make him do it as a contestant on 'The Masked Singer,'" referencing the new singing competition show on Fox.

Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer released a joint statement on Monday evening calling for equal air time.

"Now that the television networks have decided to air the President's address, which if his past statements are any indication will be full of malice and misinformation, Democrats must immediately be given equal airtime," they wrote.

As of Tuesday morning, all the major cable and broadcast networks have confirmed that they will carry the Democratic speech.

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