They are in uncharted waters, not because Trump is the first president to request airtime for a major address. But because “Trump is unlike any president that the country has ever had in the sense that he frequently and routinely says things that are untrue,” said Mike Ananny, an expert in media and technology at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
This presents a dilemma for television networks and affiliated local stations around the country aiming to fulfill their “role as first informers,” as a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters described their function to The Washington Post. At the same time, these outlets are under mounting pressure not to propagate the president’s false statements, which have proliferated amid his standoff with congressional Democrats over wall funding and the partial government shutdown.
“The challenge that the media faces is you don’t want to give a platform to somebody who is known to lie a lot, but at the same time, this is still the president of the United States, who has a lot of power and continues to use that power,” Ananny said in an interview with The Post. “The challenge the press has is to call the president out for what I expect will be the lies he will tell, because he tells them all the time, and to call them out in real time.”
The networks could hold Trump accountable using a number of measures, such as insisting on an advance copy of the speech or instituting a delay to make time for on-the-spot fact-checking, Ananny said, rather than just giving Trump a pass in wall-to-wall coverage.
It wasn’t clear Monday which, if any, of those options were on the table. At the end of November, CNN made an attempt to fact-check a White House press briefing in real time by placing a “Facts First” box on-screen as press secretary Sarah Sanders spoke. The network didn’t immediately respond to a query about whether it would employ a similar strategy on Tuesday.
The dilemma is especially acute as the news media suffers from dwindling public confidence, a trend affecting many major American institutions. On the left, the dissatisfaction is driven in large part by the way the industry dealt with Trump’s provocative entrance on the political scene more than three years ago — and the perception that outlets have continued to give him too much oxygen.
By the end of the 2016 campaign, Trump had earned about $5 billion worth of free media coverage, dwarfing the amount earned by his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, according to the data analytics firm MediaQuant. Critics howled during the early days of the campaign, when cable news carried Trump’s rallies live and uninterrupted. These objections resurfaced as the president returned to the campaign trail ahead of the midterm elections in November.
Now, journalists face a new test, Ananny said.
The stakes are made clear by the sheer number of falsehoods that emanate from the president’s lips, and from his Twitter account. As of the end of 2018, Trump had made 7,645 false or misleading claims since assuming office, according to a tally maintained by The Post’s Fact Checker. Members of his administration keep repeating a false claim about the number of terrorists apprehended at the southern border, as White House press secretary Sarah Sanders did when she appeared on “Fox News Sunday,” drawing a rebuke from host Chris Wallace.
One response to the White House’s request for a national platform for its immigration message, Ananny said, would have been to “band together” and tell Trump, “We’re not covering you at all, because you have shown yourself to be untrustworthy and unable to handle the power of a real-time address in this way.” There is precedent for denying the White House live coverage, such as in 2014, when President Barack Obama spoke about his executive actions on immigration but major networks stuck with their scheduled programming.
That was not the approach they chose this time around. As major networks, including CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, Fox News and Fox Business Network, signaled by Monday evening their intention to carry Trump’s speech live, they faced calls to develop new means of holding to account a president unconstrained by fact. The consequences of the presidential theatrics were underscored by Trump’s suggestion in recent days that he might declare a national emergency enabling him to build the border wall without legislative approval — a tactic sure to invite legal challenges.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) argued in a joint statement Monday that they should be allowed an equal amount of time to respond.
“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,” the Democratic leaders demanded. The 1987 repeal of the fairness doctrine means television and radio broadcasters are no longer required to air conflicting views on significant public issues; balance is mostly self-policed. CNN said it would carry the Democratic response live, according to the Hill newspaper.
The idea of a brief delay, allotting between five and 30 minutes in which networks could process Trump’s words before they broadcast them to the nation, gained traction among the president’s critics, as well as among media experts.
Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to Obama, said in Twitter such a move was necessary in coverage of Trump to “fact check his comments in real time.” Connie Schultz, a journalist and the wife of Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a possible presidential contender, endorsed the proposal, suggesting that the media’s legitimacy was at stake.
It wasn’t only political partisans recommending precautionary measures. Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, wrote on Twitter that media outlets, in aiming to rise to the challenge, would be susceptible to “public pressure and comment,” eager to “show that they are listening in the way they frame, present and fact-check the speech.”
But Daniel Dale, a Washington correspondent for the Toronto Star who has extensively tracked the president’s false statements, warned on Twitter that “immediately fact-checking Trump’s immigration lies is harder than immediately fact-checking most other Trump lies — they’re often written into his speeches by people more sophisticated at deception than he is.” Yet, he also suggested that networks should be prepared for some of the repeated fabrications, including claims about terrorists crossing the southern border.
Joe Lockhart, a former White House press secretary under President Bill Clinton, urged media outlets to “demand to see the text in advance and if it is not truthful either don’t air it or fact check it live on lower third.” If Trump went off-script, as is his wont, “cut away,” he advised.
There was little time for networks to prepare.
In all likelihood, the task of fact-checking the president and presenting a dueling narrative, will fall to the late-night personalities who will also have audiences across the country on Tuesday. Seth Meyers, in his first show back from the holidays on Monday, was already gearing up for the task. He said the president was eager to deliver a prime-time address to “repeat his lies.”
Stephen Colbert, one of the president’s most pointed critics in entertainment, put his followers on notice about what they might see if they tuned in to his network on Tuesday evening. How CBS would present the speech remained unknown. That the network would allow Colbert a rebuttal was virtually guaranteed.