Trump’s lies will be televised. Networks should fact-check them.
By Jon Allsop
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.
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.
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:
- With politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Beto O’Rourke, and Elizabeth Warren increasingly reaching the public through self-deleting “Stories” on Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook, transparency advocates are worried that an important record is being lost, the Post’s Cat Zakrzewski reports. And BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel writes that Ocasio-Cortez’s relentless online presence makes her a perfect foil for the pro-Trump media: “They both know how to captivate and play to their audiences, leveraging the power of their followings, deflecting criticism, and staying on the offensive at all costs.”
- For CJR, Gitlin writes that Warren’s clear platform is an opportunity for the media to scrap campaign clichés. “The means-over-ends obsession with the tactics of winning, losing, setting, and changing horse-race expectations,” Gitlin writes, is “one of our least illustrious traditions… But the good news is that the kind of campaign Warren wants to run, even misunderstood, might help raise the maturity level of our political discourse.” The Post’s Sullivan, meanwhile, explores NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen’s “citizens agenda” as a “radical idea” to improve campaign journalism.
- The Dallas Morning News laid off 43 staffers yesterday. About half of them worked in editorial jobs.
- The Times reported last month that, during the 2017 Alabama Senate special election, Democratic tech experts weaponized a hoax right-wing Facebook page and Russian-sounding Twitter accounts to hurt Roy Moore, the controversial GOP candidate. Yesterday, the Times’s Scott Shane and Alan Blinder surfaced another underhanded effort designed to discredit Moore: “Dry Alabama,” a fake social media campaign supposedly run by Baptist teetotalers. The Post has an overview of the liberal “false flag” campaign in Alabama, which “used tactics inspired by Russian disinformation teams” and “underscored the warnings of disinformation experts who long have said that threats to honest, transparent political discourse in the age of social media are as likely to be domestic as foreign.”
- More strange news out of Alabama: the state’s pension fund “has become sole owner of one of the largest chains of US local newspapers,” the AP reports. Retirement Systems of Alabama now holds over 100 titles in 22 different states through the company CHNI LLC. The properties were spun off by Raycom Media as part its sale to Gray Television.
- An appellate court ruled yesterday that an official in Loudoun County, Virginia, violated the First Amendment when she blocked a resident who criticized her on Facebook. The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which argued the appeal, said it was the first decision by an appellate court to apply the First Amendment to a public official’s social media account.
- A coming, a going, a new start, and a renewal: Texas Monthly appointed Dan Goodgame, a former Time Washington bureau chief, as its new editor. The New York Observer axed its editor, Ben Robinson, after 10 months on the job and announced it would not be replacing him. Slate jumped into the daily news podcast game with What Next, hosted by Mary Harris. And Twitter renewed AM to DM, BuzzFeed’s live morning show on the platform, for another year.
- The government of Gabon put down an attempted coup yesterday after a group of soldiers briefly seized the state broadcasting apparatus and called on citizens to overthrow President Ali Bongo, who is convalescing from illness outside the country. In Nigeria, meanwhile, the military raided four offices belonging to a national newspaper over the weekend, detaining at least two journalists and seizing equipment.
- For CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Marguerite Y. Holloway reflects on her attempts to track the daily activities of a New York City rat.