January 7, 2019

There is plenty of partisan noise arising about the TV networks giving President Donald Trump a live primetime audience Tuesday night.

Let me be direct. They should. It’s news. It’s in the public interest. Even if you don’t like what you are about to hear, you need to.

The President of the United States asked TV networks to give him at least eight minutes at 9 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday for an Oval Office address in which he may declare a state of national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border.

ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC, CNN and FoxNews all say they will carry the speech live.  Despite critics who say the over-the-air networks should not give the president live primetime airtime , the networks said they would push their 9 p.m programming back.

Newsworthiness is just one consideration. Networks hate to interrupt primetime schedules because it affects advertising schedules. There is a legitimate consideration about whether people who want to hear what he says could just go elsewhere to find it. And is it fair to give one side of the issue a live primetime voice but not give the same access to opposing views?

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Yes, immigration is a political topic but it is more this time. It is intertwined with a government shutdown and if the president declares a national emergency, there will be constitutional questions at stake. It should be some pretty interesting nine minutes.

In 2006, the networks did air a prime-time address about immigration from President George W. Bush.  They didn’t break into regular programming to air an immigration speech by President Obama in 2014. In the 2006 address, Bush said the United States had lost control of its borders and said he would send 6,000 National Guard troops to support border patrol agents:

“On the streets of major cities, crowds have rallied in support of those in our country illegally. At our southern border, others have organized to stop illegal immigrants from coming in. Across the country, Americans are trying to reconcile these contrasting images. And in Washington, the debate over immigration reform has reached a time of decision. Tonight I will make it clear where I stand and where I want to lead our country on this vital issue.”

Bush proposed a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers who have been in the United States for a long time:

“I believe that illegal immigrants who have roots in our country and want to stay should have to pay a meaningful penalty for breaking the law; to pay their taxes; to learn English; and to work in a job for a number of years. People who meet these conditions should be able to apply for citizenship, but approval would not be automatic, and they will have to wait in line behind those who played by the rules and followed the law. What I’ve just described is not amnesty; it is a way for those who have broken the law to pay their debt to society and demonstrate the character that makes a good citizen.”

One factor that was in plan when the networks denied President Obama primetime access is that speech was delivered November 20th, 2014. Every person who works in television can tell you November is a ratings “sweeps” month and TV stations and networks hate to upend regular schedules in sweeps months.  It would also have aired in the second hour of the Latin Grammy Awards that night, which attracted close to 10 million viewers. (That’s a bunch!)

In addition to being in a sweeps period, Obama’s 15-minute speech was not much news. He said he was going to increase personnel at the border, said he would make it easier and faster for some immigrants to get citizenship and would “responsibly” deal with undocumented immigrants.  He said he was against mass amnesty and mass deportation. He said it was an opportunity for responsible and productive people to “get right with the law.” He urged Congress to “pass a bill” but was not specific about what he would accept or veto. There is not nearly as much news in what he said as what Trump appears poised to say Tuesday night.

In a highly unusual move, some local stations (including WLKY Louisville [Kentucky]; three stations in Washington, D.C.; and WNCN Raleigh and WBTV Charlotte in North Carolina) ran the speech and delayed network programming. Some caught hell from viewers for interrupting “The Big Bang Theory” and “Bones.” The fact is that presidents once could command more than half of TV audiences and now are lucky to reach a third of viewers in a primetime speech.

The Washington Post reported in 2014:

“In 1994, 66.9 million viewers tuned in to watch President Bill Clinton’s State of the Union. This year, 33.3 million Americans watched Obama’s latest State of the Union. About the same number of Americans watched the president’s September speech on the Islamic State.”

So, why are the networks airing the speech live at all?

Because it is the President of the United States, and the U.S. government is in partial shutdown.  The subject Trump says he will talk about has a direct connection to that issue.

There is no compelling reason not to air it except that some people won’t like what he says, and not airing it adds to the conspiracy theory that “the media” won’t cover Trump fairly.

I do not believe that networks have an obligation to offer equal primetime minutes to Democrats or anybody else who disagrees with the president. They can if they want to, but I do not think it is required and it is not precedented except for State of the Union speeches. There is no shortage of time on cable networks or in the hours of news programs, the pages of newsprint and the flood of tweets and web coverage that will flow analyzing the speech. Nobody is being muzzled here. Anybody who wants to read reaction can find it on radio, on cable, online and in print.

The president’s speech is news. It is likely to be policy and it involves billions of dollars. Domestic and international markets may react to it.  Yes, viewers can watch it elsewhere, including C-Span and cable, but TV stations are licensed to serve their communities. They should not abdicate that responsibility.

Air the speech.


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