The decision by major broadcast networks to carry President Trump’s Oval Office address live in prime time on Tuesday has set off a fierce debate over journalistic ethics and responsibilities in an age of unusual mendacity in politics.
What is normally an easy decision for network executives — granting airtime to a sitting president to address the nation — led to hours of hand-wringing by journalists and producers wary of giving a platform to a president whose public remarks, particularly on immigration, have been marked by untruths and misleading claims. Liberals wondered why news outlets would defer to a president who, hours earlier, had taken to Twitter to label journalists as “the Enemy of the People,” “the real Opposition Party” and “crazed lunatics.”
Eventually, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox agreed to a request by Mr. Trump for the airtime, forgoing their 9 p.m. entertainment shows — and millions of dollars in associated ad revenue — for his Oval Office appearance, in which he plans to address the government shutdown. The networks said on Tuesday that they would also broadcast a response from Democratic leaders, including the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York.
The decision was controversial and predictable at the same time.
Executives at the major networks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive private discussions, cited the government shutdown — and the millions of Americans affected by it — as the primary reason for airing the president’s remarks. This was also Mr. Trump’s first formal request that the networks carry a prime-time address, a rarely used arrow in the presidential quiver.
“When the president of the United States asks for time to make an address to the American public, I don’t think you can say no,” Ted Koppel, the longtime ABC anchorman, said in an interview. Any concern about misleading claims, he added, “is a judgment you can only make after you hear what he has to say.”
Others argued that traditional ways of covering the president should not apply to the norm-breaking Mr. Trump. Former aides to President Barack Obama pointed out that his request for airtime in 2014 to discuss immigration reform was turned down by the networks, which called the subject overly political. Stephen Colbert, the late-night host, went so far as to criticize his own employer for agreeing to broadcast the speech.
“My network will be carrying Trump’s Wall speech live,” he wrote on Twitter. “So at 9pm Tuesday, tune into CBS to See B.S.”
In reality, television executives are juggling a slew of concerns, some tied to public responsibility and others crassly commercial. Tuesday is a relatively slow night for prime time, so airing the president’s address will not pre-empt a ratings magnet like a National Football League game. Executives in New York are mindful of their national affiliates, many of which cater to red-state audiences that might be antagonized to discover their local station is declining to show Mr. Trump’s remarks.
Producers at several networks cited the uncertainty surrounding the shutdown, and an impending suspension of federal paychecks, as inherently newsworthy. That won’t stop a large portion of the public from criticizing the news media’s decision to air the speech live. And Tuesday evening’s broadcasts will be scrutinized for whether journalists can sufficiently fact-check and contextualize Mr. Trump’s remarks in real time.
Even as the news landscape has fractured, the four major networks still have the biggest audience in mass media. Some journalists have questioned if a different approach is necessary, given that live coverage of a president’s speech is easily accessible on multiple streaming and cable venues.
“There are so many sources of news now, but the networks’ policies haven’t changed very much,” said Andrew Heyward, a former president of CBS News. “One very attractive option would be to promote the fact that it’s live with a crawl, and then if it turns out to be newsworthy, you can do a special report. You then pull selected sound from it and give it context, as opposed to having to get trapped in something and having to react to it.”
Mr. Trump’s aides have told networks to expect the president to speak for eight minutes. The debate over whether it was responsible to air the speech is likely to last much longer.