The Media Today

Trump’s lies will be televised. Networks should fact-check them.

January 8, 2019

Donald Trump will address the nation in prime time tonight (at 9pm ET, to be precise) about the continuing partial shutdown of the federal government, and what he calls “the Humanitarian and National Security crisis on our Southern Border.” The event will be his first Oval Office broadcast as president. His announcement yesterday, and accompanying formal request for air time, presented networks with a quandary: if Trump uses his address to lie, is it OK to carry it live?

The “if” in the above sentence is doing a lot of work. Trump’s record of immigration lies is damning; he made 1,130 false or misleading statements on the topic between his inauguration and December 30, 2017, according to The Washington Post’s Fact Checker. The planned address is premised on the idea that there is a national security crisis at the US-Mexico border, which, as the Post’s Greg Sargent pointed out, there is not. “The public will be better informed about the shutdown and the border,” wrote Media Matters’ Matt Gertz, “if they instead spend their evening watching Ellen’s Game of Games on NBC.” As TV producers and executives deliberated yesterday, Sargent, Gertz, and many others argued that Trump’s lies should disqualify his speech from a live airing.

ICYMI: The challenges of covering a shutdown marked by lies

In the end, the networks did not heed their call. CBS was the first broadcaster to confirm it would carry the address. “Tune into CBS to See B.S.,” Stephen Colbert, a star host on the network, responded. Soon afterward, NBC, ABC, PBS, and the Fox broadcast network all followed suit, and they will be joined, on cable, by CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. Their rationales for the decision remain unclear, though one unnamed exec told CNN’s Brian Stelter it was a hard choice: “If we give him the time, he’ll deliver a fact-free screed without rebuttal. And if we don’t give him the time, he’ll call every network partisan. So we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.”

Protection from Trump’s attacks is a poor reason for networks to carry his words: reputational management should not stand in the way of the truth, and Trump’s attacks on the press are relentless and unconditional, not part of a quid pro quo. But there are other, more compelling arguments in favor of showing the address, with newsworthiness foremost among them. Just because the president says something does not make it newsworthy—cable networks, for instance, have mostly stopped their wall-to-wall coverage of Trump’s rallies, which rarely offer more than reheated, and frequently delusional, catchphrases. Trump may serve the same menu tonight, of course—and if he does, the prestige Oval Office setting will not make it more newsworthy than it is on the campaign trail. But a set-piece presidential address in the middle of a prolonged shutdown is, at least on its face, a weightier proposition than a rally, particularly given credible talk that Trump might use it to declare a national emergency.

The debate is far from settled. For the time being, with networks having made their decision, attention could usefully turn to what formats they might use. This, in itself, is a complex question. Could networks run on a delay to allow them to add on-screen context? Maybe, but if one network were to undercut its competitors, a race to live would likely ensue. Could networks ask for an advance copy and mark it up? Yes, but Trump is prone to deviation. Could the Democrats be given equal time to rebut Trump’s lies, as Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have requested? Different perspectives are good, but we obviously should not rely on politicians to do journalists’ work.

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At the very least, networks should consider using chyrons and other graphics to fact-check Trump’s words in real time, as CNN did during a rare White House press briefing in November. Whatever they choose to do, and whether it works or not, broadcasters must not let Trump’s lies go out untrammeled. And if the address turns out to be another nothingburger stunt, one of them could just turn him off.

Below, more on Trump’s upcoming address:

  • The Obama precedent: Some commentators claimed a double standard yesterday, pointing out that CBS, NBC, and ABC refused to run an immigration speech by Barack Obama in 2014 because it was “overtly political.” (Cable news networks did carry it.) Others disagreed. “I don’t think Obama’s 2014 speech in the sixth year of his presidency—which he went ahead and delivered anyway—is comparable to Trump’s planned address, which involves using the formal Oval Office setting for the first time in his presidency,” CNN’s Stelter writes.
  • The Netanyahu precedent: A much more recent guide could come from Israel, where Channel 10 cut away from its coverage of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last night. Netanyahu, who is facing multiple allegations of corruption as well as an election later this year, promised a “dramatic announcement,” but instead delivered a tirade against law enforcement, The Times of Israel’s Michael Bachner reports.
  • The humanitarian angle: The White House is playing up the humanitarian situation at the border in a bid to shift the terms of the shutdown argument, Politico’s Anna Palmer, Jake Sherman, and Daniel Lippman report. “Sure, they’re still talking about the wall—on which they are demanding Congress spend $5.7 billion—but this new line of thinking is taking increased prominence,” they write. “Expect to hear it tonight.”
  • The debate: I shared this yesterday, but in light of Trump’s address announcement it’s worth sharing again. Last week, CNN’s Oliver Darcy asked the Post’s Margaret Sullivan, Columbia Journalism School’s Todd Gitlin, Politico’s Jack Shafer, and George Washington University’s Frank Sesno whether networks should carry Trump’s words live. “The consensus among them seemed to be against” it, Darcy writes.

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Warren’s bid for president, and how the media can do better ahead of 2020

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.