Early in his first term, President George W. Bush addressed the nation in primetime about allowing for limited stem cell research in America and his approval for limited medical research. During the weeks leading up to the announcement, there had a been regular news coverage of the topic, as the White House let reporters know the president was deeply engaged on the issue and was meeting with an array of experts to guide him.
As Bush appeared from his ranch in Texas to make the announcement, all of the major broadcast networks joined the cable news channels in carrying his message live.
The stem cell speech didn't address breaking news and it wasn't about an imminent threat facing the nation. But at the time, network executives said they were happy to air the address. “I don't think it was a tough call because it's an issue that's received so much attention,” CBS News spokeswoman Sandy Genelius told the Boston Globe. ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider agreed: “It's an important issue and one that the country is following closely.” He added that Bush was “going to make news” with the speech.
A decade later the rules seem to have shifted. All four networks have announced they won't carry President Obama's address to the nation tonight about his long awaited plan to take executive action to deal with the pressing issue of immigration reform. (Two Spanish language networks, Univision and Telemundo, will carry the address live in primetime.)
Keep in mind, the issue is so paramount, and Obama's strategy supposedly so controversial, that a Republican senator yesterday warned there might be violence in the streets in response to Obama's actions. Some GOP lawmakers insisted Obama could face a flurry of legal action including impeachment proceedings, while others have urged the entire federal government be shut down if Obama goes through with his plan. Yet according to executives at ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, Obama's address isn't worth covering.
This follows up the networks' decision last year to deny the request to carry a primetime address from the White House regarding the seven million people who had signed up for healthcare under the Affordable Care Act.
Not all of Bush's primetime speeches were covered by the networks. But in addition to the 2001 stem cell address to the nation, Bush also gave an issue-based primetime speech in 2006 about immigration. All the networks complied with the White House's request for airtime and carried the address.
That speech occurred in May, during the television networks' all-important ratings “sweeps” month. Initially, the networks reportedly balked at the White House's request for TV time:
When President Bush decided to give a national address on his plans for immigration Monday, the Big Four networks were not interested in disrupting their May sweeps programming to show it. But they relented, and it seems viewers were very interested in seeing it.
As for the decision to snub Obama on immigration, according to CNN's Brian Stelter, “Some television executives said privately on Wednesday that they perceived Obama's planned address to be more overtly political than Bush's address on immigration in 2006.” [Emphasis added]
Networks are denying the President of the United States access to the public airwaves based on a hunch about the content of the speech? Based on their perception of what will be said? That seems odd.
Additionally, Politico's Mike Allen reported the spin from a “network insider” :
“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.”
First of all, that's false. While Bush did use the address to reiterate his support for bipartisan immigration reform legislation, the news he broke during the speech was that he was sending National Guard troops to protect the U.S./Mexico border. That wasn't “bipartisan” -- after the speech, Democratic governors from New Mexico and Oregon denounced Bush's plan.
Second of all, is the new network standard that if a president announces a primetime address but the opposing party doesn't agree with the contents of the speech, networks won't air the event because it's too “political” ? That's absurd and reeks of a cop-out.
In exchange for using the public airwaves for free, and generating enormous profits off them, television broadcast networks in America agree to set aside time to fulfill their public interest obligation. Tonight's brief, 10 to 15 minute address about immigration reform ought to be one of those times.