"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,” said the former CBS News president Andrew Heyward in an interview, emphasizing, however, that the final element was surely the smallest sliver of the pie.
When the president made his ask on Monday, the networks stuttered—and a routine decision-making procedure suddenly seemed conspicuous. Though all the major networks have since announced that they plan to air Trump’s remarks, their agonizing ignited a flurry of meta-criticism on the nature of presidential addresses: whether they’re innately newsworthy, whether they’re intrinsically political, and whether a right of reply from Democrats should be granted. It also generated criticism about addresses from this particular president, as Americans who are critical of Trump debated what deference should be shown, if any, to a commander in chief who they believe consistently misleads the American people.
As Westin noted, airtime for presidential addresses is typically granted: The decision is close to a no-brainer in times of national emergency, such as a terrorist attack, or a time of outsize civic significance (think of former President Barack Obama’s speech about the killing of Osama bin Laden). “In my day, and I was CBS news chief from 1996 to 2005, [it] was fairly routine in how it was handled,” Heyward, now a visiting scholar at MIT and Arizona State University, told me. “I can't even recall a time where there was much debate over whether to air it or not.”
Networks have to weigh whether these presidential announcements are newsworthy—and it’s usually determined that they are. For overtly political speeches, like the one Trump is delivering tonight, a balancing test should be applied, Frank Sesno, the director of the George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, told me. “You put the president's words and appearance against the observable facts,” Sesno said, noting that bureau chiefs are looking for “a compelling news value” and “substance.”
“It's his first Oval office speech, it's happening in the middle of a government shutdown, there's a new Congress, and he's made funding for the [border] wall contingent on finding a resolution to the government shutdown, which affects not only the 800,000 government employees but also people trying to take advantage of government services,” Sesno said. “By those standards, it is a newsworthy event.”
Sesno, who covered the White House from 1984 to 1991 and served as CNN’s Washington bureau chief from 1996 to 2001, said that these requests are where the relationship between the White House and the press really matters: specifically, the credibility of the president and the press secretary. Westin told me that he once spent 40 minutes on the phone with Don Baer, former President Bill Clinton’s communications director, arguing about the nature of such a request. “I think the deliberation about whether to air this revolves around a track record of falsehoods both from the president and the press secretary,” Sesno said.