'This is new territory': Trump's address proves newsworthy, but networks see risks

Networks are prepared to fact check Trump's Oval Office address, which comes amid a lengthy government shutdown.
Image: President Donald Trump during a cabinet meeting at the White House on Jan. 2, 2019.
President Donald Trump during a cabinet meeting at the White House on Jan. 2, 2019.Evan Vucci / AP

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By Claire Atkinson and Jason Abbruzzese

Broadcast networks, confronted with a political impasse over immigration that has led to one of the longest government shutdowns in U.S. history, felt compelled to grant President Donald Trump airtime on Tuesday, according to network officials who spoke with NBC News.

But they are doing so with a degree of anticipation that Trump could use the opportunity to further spread false information.

ABC, CBS and NBC will each air Trump's address from the Oval Office at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday, as will Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. The networks will also air a Democratic response.

“We work hard to make sure that everything on our air is factual,” said an official at one of the networks, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter and asked not to be identified. “This is new territory.”

Presidents have previously used Oval Office addresses as special occasions to speak to the country about pressing topics. Trump has claimed the U.S. is in the midst of an immigration crisis and has even considered whether he can declare a national emergency over the situation. His opponents say the claims are false and part of a political strategy to secure funding for the border wall that he campaigned on.

One official familiar with the decision-making process at NBC News, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said that the company's decision hinged on the current news environment, most notably the government shutdown.

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NBC News also weighed its ability to fact-check the president's speech, something it is planning to do aggressively.

But executives were well aware that the decision has stirred controversy, including one tweet from the main NBC News Twitter account that asked "Should the TV networks air the president's prime time address Tuesday?" that received more than 21,000 responses.

Debate over the networks' decisions, which began on Monday, spilled over into Tuesday. Writing in The Atlantic, James Fallows argued against the networks' decision but also called the occasion "an immediate test case" of whether coverage of the 2020 election would be different from the 2016 election.

Others, including Arizona State University journalism professor Dan Gillmor, have called for networks to put Trump's address on a delay rather than carrying it live and used that time to fact check his statements.

Jon Klein, former president of CNN's U.S. operations, said the networks could have rejected the speech and left it to cable news networks, noting that the speech will almost inevitably be political.

"It’s clearly meant to be political theater," Klein said. "It would be valid to reject it, put it on cable, make your case there, still get tens of millions of viewers."

Nate Silver, editor-in-chief of the politics and data analysis website FiveThirtyEight, which is owned by ABC, pointed out that Trump's propensity to mislead the public is well known.

"'Don't put the President of the United States on TV because he might lie' is a pretty weird position for a journalist to take," Silver tweeted. "Most people know that Trump is not honest."

Trump's actions on Tuesday night could also have ramifications for future requests.

Andrew Heyward, former CBS News president and currently a visiting scholar at the MIT Media Lab, said he was not surprised that the networks decided to carry the speech considering the ongoing shutdown but noted that the current "toxic, polarized atmosphere" did represent unique circumstances.

The most surprising decision, he added, was the one to carry the Democratic rebuttal.

"The notion of rebuttal is usually reserved for state of the union address," Heyward said. "That is unusual, that is much tougher call. Once you have a rebuttal you’re essentially saying this is a political speech."

Dylan Byers contributed reporting.