If the president says it, is it breaking news?
The Big Four broadcast networks have come down hard on one side of the issue — all agreeing to air President Donald Trump’s prime-time address on immigration and the U.S. border with Mexico. The speech comes exactly three weeks before Trump’s State of the Union Address will once again run on every network; it also comes after years of evidence of Trump’s willingness to put falsehoods on the public record as a means of achieving his political ends. To broadcast this address in full as an event worthy of reshuffling a network’s agenda — as opposed to, say, using the tools of a network news division to cover and contextualize the speech after it’s happened — grants an even greater pulpit to a man who hardly needs the help.
Granted, there’s obviously precedent for a commander-in-chief speaking to the nation in a televised address, but there’s precedent, too, for his request getting rejected, as then-President Barack Obama’s was in 2014, when he, too, sought to speak about immigration. But the preponderance of presidential addresses carried live over time puts NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox in a vexed position — to turn this president down means to open oneself up to criticism from the right for silencing or ignoring him. That’s the exact line that has driven network news divisions and print publications alike towards vastly overcovering the every thought and utterance of Trump’s supporters, all in the name of not ignoring them, or of finally giving people who already speak quite loudly “a voice.”
But saving face is a short-term gain, avoiding a day of criticism from but hardly winning the faith of a bloc of voters who never trusted network news to begin with. And what’s lost is greater. A news outlet interviewing the president, or placing his words into a piece that evaluates their veracity and impact throughout, is different from presenting his uninterrupted and uninterrogated thoughts as in and of themselves worthy of sending out to every American household with a TV. Network news divisions, notionally, exist to serve the public interest, to inform and enlighten; simply presenting what the president thinks, in an era in which the president can be heard any number of ways, may fall short of that in more cases than we’d have realized pre-Trump, but it falls especially short with a president whose thoughts are so frequently governed by his own set of facts.
Trump’s rationale for why, suddenly, a border wall is so urgently needed that quelling dissension required shutting down the government is worthy of note. But “note” is not the same thing as simple transmission. And if that rationale comes at the cost of requiring network news division — with their many journalists forced to sit pat for the length of the speech — to simply present a case it is reasonable to assume would not meet its factual standards, at length, it’s too high to bear.
Much has been made of the lessons learned since the 2016 election disrupted American politics; one such lesson, likely learned too well, was the degree to which news organizations missed the Trump phenomenon, and to which they ought to listen to his followers. Another that hasn’t fully been metabolized has been the fact that a candidate, and now a president, who will say anything may make for good television, but it makes for pretty skewed lists of editorial priorities. Trump already sets the agendas for America’s politics and, increasingly, its culture. Allowing him to act as the assigning editor for the media — dictating what is covered when, and how it’s talked about — is a privilege he falls shorter of earning each day. TV news should cover what he does. It needn’t stop everything simply to share what he says.