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To air or not to air: Networks face pressure over broadcasting Trump's immigration address

NBC, ABC, and CBS, which have not had a consistent policy when it comes to airing presidential addresses on immigration, will air Trump's speech.
Image: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers remarks on Oct. 22, 2016 in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Virginia Beach, Va., on Oct. 22, 2016.Win McNamee / Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s planned prime-time address on immigration Tuesday night put the broadcast networks in a difficult — and familiar — position as they debated whether to carry the address live. But in the end, they agreed to the White House request and will air the speech.

The White House asked the broadcast networks to set aside at least eight minutes at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday for an Oval Office address in which Trump may declare a state of national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border.

As of early Monday evening, CBS, ABC, Fox and NBC had decided to air Trump's address, according to sources familiar with the decisions who were not authorized to speak publicly. Late Monday, PBS and Telemundo confirmed plans to broadcast Trump's remarks. The major cable news channels — MSNBC, CNN and Fox News — were also planning to air the speech.

The decisions came after an afternoon of debate on social media about whether the networks should give Trump the requested airtime, and what precautions they should take about what he might say.

Adding an additional wrinkle, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer released a joint statement demanding equal television airtime to combat what they predicted would be a speech by Trump full of “malice and misinformation.”

The Democrats’ senior leaders declined to say who they would put forward to rebut the president.

The four major networks have not had a consistent policy when it comes to airing presidential addresses on immigration. They aired President George W. Bush’s prime-time address on immigration in 2006, but did not air one by President Barack Obama in 2014.

The precedent set by not airing Obama's addressed was seized upon by Democrats and liberal pundits who pointed to the decision as a rational for denying Trump airtime.

Jon Favreau, who worked under Obama as a speechwriter and now hosts an influential liberal politics podcast, noted the networks' previous choice not to air Obama's immigration speech.

"So this should be a relatively easy decision," he tweeted.

Adam Parkhomenko, a Democratic strategist, predicted that the networks would end up broadcasting Trump's address.

"If you listen carefully, you can hear network execs coming up with tortured, wholly unbelievable reasons for why they will air Trump’s speech tomorrow night when they deemed one from Obama too political and refused to carry," Parkhomenko tweeted.

The prospect that Trump will declare a national emergency complicates the situation, since the president could be announcing significant national news.

Networks and cable news operations have come under pressure to limit Trump's unfiltered messages, with critics and news fact-checkers asserting that the president routinely spreads falsehoods.