In the end, President Trump got the prime-time platform he sought as a result of a crisis he helped create.
Executives at the nation’s leading broadcast TV networks reacted warily on Monday when the White House approached them to request airtime Tuesday night for a presidential address about border security and the funding of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. The request, from White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, initiated nearly a day of deliberations inside network offices about how to respond.
It’s rare for the major networks — ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC — to say no to any president when he asks for time to address the nation during prime viewing hours. Administrations make such requests rarely, and usually amid national crises, such as war, economic calamity or in the aftermath of tragedies like the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But this time, the reaction was more reserved, several broadcasters said. The concern was that Trump’s speech might wind up being “political propaganda,” as one network executive put it, in his standoff with congressional Democrats, who oppose funding the wall. There were also worries about how to handle Trump in the event that he made misleading claims about the issue, as he has frequently.
By late afternoon Monday, however, the networks signaled their assent one by one.
The decision, officials said, was driven less by the issue itself than by the circumstances surrounding it.
“The bottom line is we have partial government shutdown with 800,000 federal government workers facing a period where they won’t be paid, and it’s having an impact on the country,” said Chris Isham, CBS News’s Washington bureau chief.
Another network news executive put it in similar terms: “You have hundreds of thousands of people without paychecks. . . . It’s the second-longest shutdown in history. It’s sort of like wars and things like that. As the leader of the free world, it’s the president’s right to address the nation.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing company policy.
The sense of a national emergency, of course, is largely of Trump’s making. He precipitated the funding standoff with Congress last month over his desire to fulfill his campaign pledge to build the wall with Mexico paying for it.
He made this point explicit in an Oval Office debate with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) last month, saying, “I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it. I will take the mantle of shutting down, and I’m going to shut it down for border security.”
He said last week that the shutdown could last for months or even years if he is denied the $5.7 billion he is seeking from Congress to initiate construction on the border and that he could invoke a state of emergency to take funding from other parts of the federal budget to begin the project.
The question of whether Trump would invoke a state of emergency also added newsworthiness to his speech, another broadcaster said.
The response from the networks was different than it was when President Obama addressed immigration reform in 2014. In that instance, his press secretary, Josh Earnest, floated the idea of a televised prime-time speech past the networks. The networks were cool to the proposal, which their officials described as an informal request rather than a formal ask. Obama gave the speech, but the networks didn’t televise it.
But Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to Obama, described the White House’s interactions with the networks in 2014 this way: “A formal request is a made-up thing. We called the networks and asked for time. They turned us down,” he tweeted on Monday.
Trump may have helped his own case by announcing the speech on Monday afternoon, several hours before the networks had agreed to broadcast it.
“We all basically said we wouldn’t be receptive because it was very political, and there was no crisis around it,” said one official of the 2014 speech. This time, “we are operating against a backdrop of the crisis of a government shutdown.”
Network executives did air an Oval Office address from Obama in 2011 during a standoff with Congress over raising the federal debt ceiling. “It was political, and he was blaming the Republicans,” the network executive added, “but we agreed to run the presidential remarks in that case, as well as the Republicans’ request to respond.”
Such requests go from the White House to the Washington bureau chiefs of the networks, who then consult with their entertainment counterparts. As a general rule, the network’s entertainment executives are reluctant to cede prime airtime, because it disrupts viewing patterns and advertising revenue. But, said one news-side executive, the White House is “pretty careful not to misuse the office, and they are cognizant of what this means” as far as the networks’ business.
Network news executives said they would be fact-checking Trump’s address but declined to provide details of exactly how they planned to do so. Some of the fact-checking will be done on the broadcast networks’ sister cable networks and via their websites, not on the broadcast itself.
Network officials said it was likely that their affiliated stations would all carry Trump’s speech, although under their contracts, the stations have the right to preempt the address.
“As a CBS affiliate, the major factor of whether we air a prime-time address of this nature rests with our network,” said Richard Dyer, the president and general manager of WUSA, the CBS affiliate in Washington. “Of course, the fact that the shutdown is directly affecting a large portion of our audience makes it very newsworthy and appropriate for us to provide. However, even though we’re in D.C. we do not air every available President Trump press event. We make a choice based on the news value for our audiences.”