When David Westin was the president of ABC News during the Clinton, Bush, and early Obama years, the occasional request from the White House for a prime-time presidential address was almost always granted, debated only privately among network executives deciding whether to give up their airwaves.
“It was more or less assumed that we would take them … When we had prime-time addresses in the Oval Office, it was clearly a very newsworthy event,” says Westin, who is now a Bloomberg TV anchor. “But, as time went on, there were questions about whether the president was speaking as head of government or head of a political party.”
The major networks this week debated a similar set of questions after President Donald Trump requested airtime Tuesday night. Only this time, their deliberations have been complicated by the president’s posture toward the news media itself, and their hand-wringing is spilling out into public view. But while critics have been quick to blast the networks for ultimately acquiescing to Trump—accusing them of backing down from a president who repeatedly calls them “fake news” and giving a platform for Trump’s distortions—the networks’ decision making is more complicated than their relationship to the president and their fear of retaliation. The networks have no way to win.
"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.
A former senior Obama White House communications official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to compromise current work, walked me through the standard operating procedure for making such requests: First, the press secretary or another top communications official would call whoever was the on-call bureau chief. (The major networks rotate who is on call at any given moment.) Then, that person would serve as a liaison to the other networks’ bureau chiefs, filling them in on the details. Lastly, each bureau chief would run the request up their chain of command, where at the top sits the network president. The former official suggested that, in general, network presidents are directly involved in the final decision.
As for turning a president down, there’s precedent going back decades. CBS chose against airing a presidential address from George W. Bush in November 2001—an incident Heyward said he only vaguely recalls. “This was the exception to the normal practice, so I'm sure it wasn't a decision taken lightly,” Heyward said. Time magazine reported that month that Bush was planning a “high-level pep talk” in the wake of 9/11 and recent anthrax attacks: “Two major networks, locked in a battle over sweeps period ratings, opted not to broadcast the address,” Time wrote. “NBC chose to air ‘Friends,’ the top-rated program on TV, while CBS stuck with the enormously popular ‘Survivor.’” Heyward said he’s “sure” the decision was based on “news value, not just what successful shows would be preempted.” The most recent example of the networks denying a president airtime was in 2014, during Obama’s second term. All the major broadcast networks declined the White House request for remarks on immigration, saying that the address was too political in nature.
In the wake of the major TV networks’ decision to broadcast Trump’s speech, some critics have challenged them to fact-check the president rigorously. Sesno agreed with that instinct, stressing that “the critical issue here is not whether it's covered but how it's covered.” Trump’s address will also be followed by a rebuttal from the Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. This format, typically reserved for State of the Union addresses, also has recent precedent, as former Speaker John Boehner rebutted an Obama primetime speech in 2011. "It is reasonable and editorially justifiable on every level to have a response on this,” Sesno said. “I think there needs to be a clear and concerted response when the issue is as fraught as this."
Of course, the responsibility to fact-check the president is shared beyond the networks. After Trump speaks, America’s journalists across all forms of media will get to work to sift through the noise, separate fact from fiction, and contextualize what the president has to share with the nation.