A robust debate broke out this week concerning the decision television networks made to provide airtime for President Donald Trump to address the nation on Tuesday night.
As most everyone should know by now, the president used the time to argue his stance that Democrats in Congress need to agree to funding for an expansive border wall between the United States and Mexico.
Presidential addresses from the White House shown during prime-time hours have happened in the past. No one can say that there isn't precedent. But with respect to Trump's speech last night, two overriding issues come into play for those who believe the networks should have refused the airtime.
The first is the nature of the address. Most presidential remarks from the Oval Office to the nation on live television have dealt with matters of heightened national security, such as the decisions to go to war or the response to an attack on our nation.
While some may say the border situation falls into that category, most people would conclude it's just a political budget fight — not something that should be given the weight of a universally broadcasted presidential address.
The other concern is about Trump himself. Even many Trump supporters would agree this president has a penchant for misleading and lying. Do news organizations fail in their missions if they provide a platform for uninterrupted false statements from the president?
Obviously I've never been in the position that network news executives found themselves this week, but my experience in journalism certainly shapes the opinion I've formed about the issue. And what I actually watched Tuesday night on my television helped cement it.
I've concluded that the networks did make the right choice. I fully understand the arguments to the contrary, and the content of the speech Trump delivered in many ways supported those arguments. It was filled with political posturing and falsehoods.
But I also believe in weighing context for journalism decisions, and given what is happening with our federal government currently, a presidential speech from the White House is important for the nation to watch and consider. We are almost three weeks into a major government shutdown over this proposed border wall, the effects of it are getting more noticeable each day and there's a strong chance it could go on a long time. There was also a possibility, given what the White House and Trump had said prior to Tuesday's speech, that he was going to declare a national emergency on this issue (he did not, but networks had no way to know for sure if he would).
Unlike a Trump campaign rally, which cable networks have irresponsibly shown uninterrupted many times in the past three years, this was a short, focused address. It wasn't done in a loud arena or airport hangar with all the effects of a rock concert. Importantly, this speech was then followed by a rebuttal from the Democratic congressional leaders. And on all of the news channels that I could peruse, the rest of the evening was devoted to a heavy dose of discussion about the merits and accuracy of both sides' cases.
I watch nighttime news shows fairly regularly, and I can tell you that Tuesday night's discussions were among the most substantive and focused that I've seen in a long time. I don't think that was an accident. People weren't reacting to vague or inflammatory tweets, or over-the-top rally rhetoric or anonymously sourced claims in the news. It was all about the words that were spoken to everyone who was watching, and what they meant.
If networks had shown Trump's speech, refused to allow any rebuttals and just resumed normal programming without any context or fact checking, then it would have been a journalism disservice. But that's not what happened, thankfully. It was handled well, and hopefully the nation is a better informed and engaged as a result.