Last night's Oval Office debacle should be a lesson for the networks

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

A fierce debate roiled the press in the lead-up to President Donald Trump’s Oval Office speech on immigration Tuesday night. On one side were journalists and media critics arguing that the networks should not give the president unrestricted access to their airwaves given his proclivity for lying to the public. The other was led by news executives who argued, as CNN’s Brian Stelter reported, that “tradition and news judgment — the simple idea that this is ‘a presidential address from the Oval Office’ — outweighed concerns about the content.”

The latter position contained a fatal flaw -- the same executives have previously made determinations about whether to air such speeches based on the proposed speech’s content, rather than assuming that any White House speech is inherently newsworthy.

In 2014, for example, the broadcast networks all said they would decline to air a planned prime-time speech by President Barack Obama, with one network insider claiming it was too “overtly political.” News executives were united in the decision that the speech would not have been newsworthy -- even though Obama planned to use it to announce a broad array of major new policy initiatives that impacted millions.

Four years later, executives at those same networks came to the opposite conclusion and interrupted their prime-time programming for Trump’s speech -- even though there was no indication that the president was actually going to announce anything new. And indeed, a wide array of journalists at those outlets and many others subsequently pointed out that he didn’t -- that his Oval Office address was simply a rewarmed version of the stump speech Trump has been giving for years, focused on how a wall is needed to prevent immigrants from coming over the southern border to kill you.

Here’s a sampling of that commentary:

NBC News’ Chuck Todd: Trump's speech “lacked any new information" and was “essentially a re-written version” of his standard campaign speeches.

NBC News’ Peter Alexander: “The president's scripted remarks last night offering almost nothing new, declaring a growing humanitarian and a national security crisis and again claiming a barrier at the border is the only way to keep Americans safe. … The president is not offering a single new proposal or idea -- instead, emphasizing the same dire message about violence and crime that helped propel him to the White House.”

CBS News’ Major Garrett: “The prime-time platform was new,  the arguments, very, very familiar. Notably absent, any new proposals from the president or any hint of concessions that might resolve the ongoing partial government shutdown.” “President Trump delivered his first prime-time address from the Oval Office Tuesday night, reiterating that there is a ‘crisis’ at the southern border but offering no new policy or approach.”

CNN’s Kevin Liptak: “President Donald Trump made a televised appeal to Americans on Tuesday for his long-promised border wall, offering familiar warnings but scant detail on how he will negotiate an end to a partial government shutdown that will cost some federal workers their paychecks this week.”

NPR’s David Folkenflik: “Just to be clear: there was zero probative news value in that.”

The New York Times’ Peter Baker: “In a nine-minute speech that made no new arguments but included multiple misleading assertions, the president sought to recast the situation at the Mexican border as a ‘humanitarian crisis’ and opted against declaring a national emergency to bypass Congress, which he had threatened to do, at least for now.”

The New York Times’ James Poniewozik: “What there was not, after two days of media drama, was a convincing argument for why this needed to be a prime-time event at all. There was no news. There was no new argument. There was just a wall of sound, and the American viewing audience paid for it.”

The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Felicia Sonmez: “But Trump’s scripted remarks contained little that was new. And although he promised to continue negotiating with Democrats to end the budget impasse, he did not detail any fresh offers in his speech.”

The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple: “Looks like the White House secured major network TV time for an address that repeats all of the president's arguments on immigration, only, this time, through a TelePrompTer.”

The Associated Press’ Catherine Lucey, Jill Colvin, and Lisa Mascaro: “President Donald Trump urged congressional Democrats to fund his long-promised border wall Tuesday night in a somber televised address that was heavy with dark immigration rhetoric but offered little in the way of concessions or new ideas to break the standoff that has left large swaths of the government shuttered for 18 days.”

Politico’s Jason Schwartz and Michael Calderone: “President Donald Trump's speech to the nation Tuesday night, in which he offered little he hadn't said before, quickly prompted a round of told-you-so's from critics of television networks’ decision to air the Oval Office address live.”

Politico’s Eliana Johnson: “I didn't hear anything fundamentally different in those 8 minutes than we have over the past three weeks.”

This isn’t the first time Trump and his White House have tricked news outlets into providing live coverage for what turned out to be a political stunt. That makes it all the more necessary for the news executives who decided to air Trump’s speech live to actually reflect on what they’ve done and make better choices the next time the White House comes to them asking for time. As of yet, it’s vastly unclear that this mess will lead to any progress.

The networks got played in predictable fashion, eagerly bending over backward for the president, perhaps out of fear that if they did not, Trump would again lash out at them. The result benefited the president, but not the public. Trump wanted to create a frenzy by fearmongering about a non-existent border “crisis” that could be solved if only Democrats would give him his wall, and they let him set their news agenda. Much of the rest of the press ended up following their lead, splashing Trump’s speech across their front pages.

These results are depressing for those of us hoping that news outlets might have learned something from their previous failures in covering Trump.

News outlets have limited resources, and the time and attention they give to one story invariably comes from another. Historically, journalists have prioritized the things the president of the United States talks about, assuming that they are inherently newsworthy. But Trump poses a unique challenge for this timeworn news strategy because the things he fixates on are often phantasms, phony crises that exist largely in his own mind and those of his sycophants. By letting the president serve as their assignment editor, journalists give up the opportunity to inform the public about other pressing issues.

Two years into the Trump White House, news outlets still haven’t figured out how to handle that problem.