Trump's Oval Office Address Presents News Executives With A Catch-22

Jan 8, 2019
Originally published on January 8, 2019 4:21 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Many presidents have addressed the nation from the Oval Office, and in many cases, the major TV networks gave them the prime-time slots they asked for. President Trump's request for airtime tonight has led to a debate about how the networks should handle his desire for unfiltered access to millions of viewers. It's not clear he'll make news, and he is known for straying from the truth in public speeches.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has talked with people at the networks today and joins us now from our New York studios. Hi, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Explain the argument some journalists have made that the big TV networks should not be broadcasting Trump's speech tonight.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, to the extent that there's a national security crisis that the president has invoked a lot in recent weeks and months and the past couple of years, it seems to be something of a manufactured one or - or a self-generated one. There's not real belief among network executives that he's going to make news tonight. They have not shared in any real detail anything that would suggest that.

And, of course, there's the president's estrangement from facts - hostility to facts and estrangement from the truth. And in fact, The Washington Post compiled some charts showing that his misstatements, his misleading statements, statements even one could consider deceitful, have only grown in recent weeks and months as we come to this point in the debate on border security and the border wall.

And so those are some real issues if you're trying to make sure that your audience is - millions of people walk away more edified after watching a presentation rather than less.

SHAPIRO: And yet the networks have decided to carry the speech live. So explain what they're going to do tonight.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think we're going to see how they treat it. The president will get his address. It will be eight to 10 minutes. They are offering, of course, the Democrats in response a couple of minutes from Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.

And then I think you're going to see a lot of fact-checking unfold. They all say they're going to fact-check in real time. But what you're going to see is the fruits of that after the president has had the chance to make his case to the public. And I think that's the way that'll play out.

SHAPIRO: NPR's also carrying the address live. We'll have special coverage later this evening. You spoke with the head of our newsroom about that decision. Explain the reasoning.

FOLKENFLIK: Nancy Barnes said, you know, we've done this going back almost two decades, every single Oval Office address, which are the ways in which presidents often mark importance. And she noted that, essentially, there's going to be a sandwich. That is, there's going to be a half hour of special coverage leading into the president's address, not just leading out of.

So people who are tuned in to NPR stations are going to hear context and texture about what's going on even before the president starts to speak - in that way, setting the table for what he says rather than simply accepting the message he's offering.

SHAPIRO: Now, as you mentioned, top Democrats asked for equal time to rebut the president's remarks. The networks granted that request. So we'll hear from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer after the president. How unusual is that?

FOLKENFLIK: Pretty rare. Oftentimes, the crises that are being addressed by presidents - Hurricane Katrina, the invasion, the financial crisis - don't have immediate partisan responses. This is seen as more political, and network executives felt, heck, we should really accede to this if we're going to go ahead.

SHAPIRO: We have seen a lot of hand-wringing from network executives over this decision, some of it anonymous, both before and after they announced that they would carry the speech. Do you think that not carrying it was a realistic option for them?

FOLKENFLIK: I think that networks had to think harder perhaps than they did in this case. It was his first request. They didn't want to be seen, including NPR, as rejecting that first request.

But there are other ways of doing it. You could do it on delay. You don't have to do something live to actually cover something. You could, you know, make sure to fact - if you did on delay, make sure to fact-check it visually on the screen. You could offer a series of ways of doing it that aren't the way in which we're doing it now, which is to say a very conventional approach to an address by very unconventional president.

SHAPIRO: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

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