On Tuesday, President Donald Trump will deliver a primetime address to the American people about the government shutdown he initiated and about the fake crisis at the US-Mexico border that he says justifies it.
And while there no doubt are various innovative coverage formats that could be used to fact-check the speech or otherwise detract from Trump’s tendency to deliberately misinform the public, there is no indication that any of them are going to be used. Instead, millions of people will see the president lying and misleading in various ways with no rebuttal, and at least some of them will come to believe some of the false things he says.
The question of whether, or how, to treat Trump differently from other presidents in light of his relentless dishonesty is an interesting one. But it’s noteworthy that just a few years ago, the networks were comfortable refusing to air a primetime Barack Obama speech about immigration on the grounds that the topic was “overtly political.”
Obama’s 2014 immigration speech
In 2014, Obama was ready to announce a series of executive actions on immigration in the wake of the collapse in negotiations over a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill. The plan had a lot of moving parts, but the centerpiece was to give work permits and formal protection from deportation to millions of unauthorized immigrants while focusing the nation’s immigration enforcement resources on immigrants who’d committed violent crimes.
This was, naturally, very controversial. And Obama, naturally, wanted to try to make it less controversial by convincing people that it was a good idea.
Conservative pundits were, at the time, pushing the notion that Obama was essentially seizing power like a Latin American dictator, so essentially anything that refocused the conversation on banal policy details would have played to his advantage. TV networks, however, didn’t give him what he wanted, in part because it was November sweeps time, but officially because he was playing partisan politics rather than addressing a true national emergency.
As Politico’s Playbook explained it at the time:
A network insider tells Playbook: “There was agreement among the broadcast networks that this was overtly political. The White House has tried to make a comparison to a time that all the networks carried President Bush in prime time, also related to immigration . But that was a bipartisan announcement, and this is an overtly political move by the White House.”
Applying this standard to Trump would lead to the conclusion that networks should not air the address. But networks are airing the address.
Television news loves Republicans
This turnabout where George W. Bush gets free airtime to promote his immigration idea but then Obama doesn’t get free airtime for his ideas because it’s “overtly political,” and then Trump gets free airtime for an overtly political message on immigration, is striking.
It’s particularly striking because, in this case, this mismatch is partisan rather than ideological — Bush and Obama had broadly similar approaches to immigration while Trump has a different one.
It reminds me of nothing so much as the systematic partisan imbalance in Sunday show bookings. Typically, when Republicans are in power, we’re told we get GOP-heavy guest lists to reflect what newsmakers are thinking. But when Democrats are in power, we’re told we get GOP-heavy guest lists to provide a counterpoint to officeholders. (This week, ABC greeted the new Congress by hosting a losing Republican Senate candidate from Michigan.)
I’m not entirely sure how to account for this imbalance in the actual coverage decisions. One popular theory is that Republicans have successfully “worked the refs” and led the press to become paranoid about exhibiting liberal bias to the extent that the bend over backward and display bias in the opposite direction.
I think a more parsimonious explanation might be that the key decision-makers in network television (wealthy anchors, executives, shareholders, etc.) benefit in concrete material ways from Republicans winning elections, and their conduct reflects that reality more than the private ideological convictions of rank-and-file workers.
Regardless, on Tuesday we’re going to have an overtly political Trump immigration speech in primetime — even though when Obama was president overtly political speeches didn’t qualify.