Previously published at WGBHNews.org.
Let’s get this out of the way first: Of course the networks made the right decision in giving President Trump airtime to deliver yet another pitch for his border wall. Yes, he lied, as we all knew he would. Yes, he engaged in fear-mongering, which is to say that he opened his mouth and spoke. But the notion that television executives should have said no to a president making his first request for a prime-time Oval Office address in the midst of the shutdown crisis (a crisis of his own making, but still) is hard to take seriously.
And yet that’s where we are. One activist, Ryan Knight, who tweets under the handle @proudresister, went so far as to post the phone numbers of the major broadcast networks so that his 267,000 followers could protest Trump’s appearance. “Call the networks & tell them you don’t support their decision to give airtime to a man who lies to the American people, demonizes immigrants & emboldens right-wing extremism,” Knight tweeted. His call had gotten more than 7,600 likes and nearly 4,900 retweets as of this morning. The hashtag #BoycottTrumpPrimeTime proved popular as well.
I’m not saying there weren’t real concerns about the wisdom of allowing Trump a prime-time platform. The extent to which we ought to give normal treatment to this most abnormal of presidents is an ongoing dilemma for journalism. But it would have been virtually unprecedented not to go along with the White House’s very first request for a prime-time Oval Office address. “There are three things going on: a tradition of saying ‘yes,’ that they probably want to feel it’s newsworthy and important, and that no news executive wants to be accused of partisan bias by not airing it,” former CBS News president Andrew Heyward told Scott Nover in a piece for The Atlantic. I also thought Nate Silver of Five Thirty Eight put it well:
Silver added: “So put him on and fact-check him.” Which is what they did, or at least tried to do. How effective were they? Ah, well, that’s where the major networks — our last truly mass medium — fell short. I did not attempt a comprehensive assessment, but I clicked back and forth between CBS and NBC and was unimpressed. Mostly there was a lot of so-called analysis pointing out that neither Trump nor the Democrats, in the form of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer’s response, had moved toward any sort of compromise.
CBS’s Nancy Cordes deserves some credit for pointing out that the Democrats really can’t give in lest it embolden the president to shut down the government every time he wants something. Contrast that with the Associated Press’ mind-boggling tweet in which Trump and the Democrats were assigned exactly equal portions of blame:
Cable news actually did better. I didn’t have a chance to watch them during Trump’s address, but afterwards CNN and MSNBC put up some unstinting chyrons about the president’s lies while their guests talked about what we had just seen. Two examples: “Trump Falsely Claims Mexico Trade Deal Will Pay for Wall” (CNN). “Trump Claims Southern Border Is Drug Pipeline. Fact: Most Narcotics Enter U.S. Via Ports of Entry” (MSNBC). No surprise there. But on Trump’s favorite network, Fox News, Shepard Smith was allowed to offer some rare prime-time fact-checking in which he found Trump’s claims fell well short of the truth on matters such as violent crime by undocumented immigrants, drugs at the border, and whether the president’s trade deal with Mexico would pay for a wall.
Everywhere I looked this morning, news outlets were filled with fact-checks. I thought it was notable — although less notable than it would have been a year or two ago — that both The New York Times and The Washington Post referred to the president’s falsehoods in their lead stories. The Times’ Peter Baker, in his third paragraph, described Trump’s address as “a nine-minute speech that made no new arguments but included multiple misleading assertions.” The Post’s Philip Rucker and Felicia Sonmez called it “a forceful and fact-challenged televised plea” in their very first sentence.
More than anything, what struck me about Trump’s address, the Democrats’ response, and the news coverage was a sense of fatigue. No one’s mind was changed. It didn’t seem like anyone was into it, especially once it was clear that Trump was not going to take the constitutionally dubious step of declaring a national emergency. Trump himself had said at an off-the-record lunch earlier in the day that he’d been pushed into giving the speech against his instincts. He, Pelosi, and Schumer seemed tired and disengaged, going through the same points they’ve been making over and over. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, was pretty cranked up. But she was the exception.
In the end, Trump’s address wasn’t worth getting agitated about, wasn’t worth watching, and won’t be remembered.