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Fallows writes: "When plans for the [President's] speech were announced on Monday evening, I opined on Twitter that it would be better for the major broadcasts not to carry the speech."

The media and photographers in the Oval Office. (photo: Getty Images)
The media and photographers in the Oval Office. (photo: Getty Images)

The Networks Blew the Call on Trump's Planned Speech

By James Fallows, The Atlantic

08 January 19

Once again, broadcasters prove hapless in the face of Trump’s three familiar tools.

n Tuesday night, Donald Trump is planning to give an address on immigration, the southern border, and the government shutdown that has arisen from his insistence that any budget measure must include money for “the wall.”

When plans for the speech were announced on Monday evening, I opined on Twitter that it would be better for the major broadcasts not to carry the speech. There would have been crystal-clear precedent for their turning him down: In 2014, when Barack Obama gave a speech on his immigration-policy plans, neither CBS nor NBC nor ABC aired it live, on the argument that circumstances made the message “too political.” A closer parallel would be hard to find.

There was also a clearly unprecedented reason not to carry the speech: namely, that nearly everything Trump says on this topic is intentionally inflammatory and either carelessly or deliberately untrue. Politics always involves spin and selective emphasis, but the networks would know for sure ahead of time that they were using their resources to advance untruths.

But the networks said yes, they’ll presumably air the speech, and the question now is what else they can do to cope with the reality of an office holder who doesn’t care that he lies.

Below I make the case that the networks and other news organizations must themselves break precedent, to keep up with what Trump is trying to do. Knowing that Trump is going to attack the truth this evening, they must take active measures to defend it. They have this day to prepare. A commitment to real-time, onscreen fact-checking is at this point the most feasible goal for a speech mere hours away. In the longer run, all major media need to think about how to deal with the endless skein of choices like this they’ll face in the next two years.


It’s been nearly four years since Trump came onto the national-candidate scene. In that time, the “normal” media outlets have shown their near-helplessness against three of Trump’s most important weapons and tools.

One is the total impossibility of reestablishing the dividing line between news and entertainment. Back during Bill Clinton’s first term, I argued in Breaking the News that outlets had to be careful to remember that news and entertainment were not the same thing. Parents know that protein and vegetables are different from Mountain Dew and Spam. People filing suit or going on trial know that there’s a difference between a TV-style Judge Judy and a real, working magistrate. Schools are designed to be different from comedy clubs. And so, I argued, people in charge of the news had to remember to make their information as interesting as news could possibly be, rather than the most objectively interesting spectacle ever. In a contest for attention between entertainment and anything else, entertainment will always win. That’s what it’s for.

The challenge for the news media was to “make the important interesting,” rather than to search for the purely interesting. Car-crash footage or the last seconds of a sudden-death playoff game will always be more eye-catching than reports on a drought, or sexual-harassment patterns, or emergency-room standards, or a million other topics. But things that are merely interesting will never lack for coverage. The definition of news is that it attempts to explain things that matter, things that a democratic society needs to know about in order to make sane decisions.

Trump has been the most entertaining figure on the public stage since he came down the golden escalator in 2015. TV news, in particular, has therefore not been able to resist showing him (and his rallies) or talking about him. It’s the civic equivalent of seeing that 9-year-olds are guzzling down Mountain Dew and asking for more Spam. Trump’s going live? Let’s switch to the White House! This needs to change.


The second, long discussed, is the difference between Trump and all previous figures when it comes to public lies. From Richard Nixon and long before to Bill Clinton and long after, normal public figures have told normal lies. That is, they have lied when they had to; they have lied when it was useful; they have lied when they thought they wouldn’t get caught.

Trump just lies. He doesn’t know, or he doesn’t care, about the difference between claims that are true and those that are obviously made up. (Daniel Dale, of the Toronto Star, has indefatigably cataloged Trump’s lies, at a rate of more than 100 a week.) Maybe 4,000 “terrorists” have been apprehended at the southern border? Maybe zero? Who can ever really know? Over the past week, Trump has claimed that former presidents “privately” told him they supported building his wall. All four living ex-presidents have taken the unusual step of denying that they said any such thing.

It is very hard for the press to fact-check or otherwise cope with a figure of this sort. In exposing his lies, they rely on the fact that he cares about being caught—much as religious or ethical leaders rely on the power of the guilty conscience.

Trump doesn’t care. He can’t be shamed. The press (except for Dale) tires of detailing his lies before Trump tires of telling them.


The third is the press’ whipped-dog cringe in anticipation of criticism about any bias toward the left. The simplest illustration, again, is the contrast between their handling of Obama’s recent request in 2014 and this one by Trump. After the Obama decision, news executives lost not a moment of sleep out of concern about attacks from liberal groups for “right-wing bias.” They thought about it as a news decision, and presented it that way. But the certainty of an “enemy of the people!” onslaught by Trump, Fox News, and their allies indisputably weighed on the executives’ minds yesterday.

The network executives’ position has a lot in common with that of the Senate Republicans. Each group knows with perfect clarity what Trump is actually doing. The Senate Republicans know that Trump is using the wall as a distraction and life raft. They know that because they unanimously approved, by voice vote, a plan to keep the government open, with no mention of the wall, before Trump panicked in the face of criticism from Ann Coulter and Fox News. They could pass that resolution again tomorrow—but they won’t speak up in public, so fearful do they remain of being criticized, too. For their part, the network executives know exactly what Trump will do if given air time. (Though they also realize that the formal Oval Office speech is Trump’s weakest venue. He’s not good at reading prepared texts, with his trademark ad-libs of “That’s so true” when he encounters lines he has clearly not seen before.) But they are giving it to him.

They were not afraid of criticism for turning down Obama. They are afraid about what would happen if they turned down Trump. You can think of lots of explanations. But the difference is clear.

An instructive parallel: During the 2016 campaign, James Comey’s FBI was closemouthed about the ongoing investigations of Trump and his Russian connections. To have said anything about them would have opened the bureau to criticism of playing politics. But when it came to discussing Hillary Clinton’s email situation, obviously the calculus of potential criticism was different. Again, you can think of explanations. My point for now is what military planners call the “asymmetric risk,” which warped the FBI’s behavior and that of much of the press.


These are real problems that can’t be solved easily but that at least should be recognized as this election cycle begins. In The Washington Post, the former New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan lays out a useful set of guidelines for avoiding the most obvious perils. Similarly: Jay Rosen of Press Think, Greg Sargent of The Washington Post, Dan Gillmor of Arizona State University, and many others. But Trump’s speech offers an immediate test case.

A “second best” option would be to carry an opposing speech, as networks routinely do after the State of the Union address. That is better than nothing because some other figure—a governor, a senator, whoever else—can directly call out Trump’s misstatements. But it is second best because it will inevitably cast what should be a contrast between reality and dark fantasy instead as a familiar Democrat-versus-Republican, “reasonable people can disagree” partisan dispute.

The better choice would be fearless real-time fact-checking, presenting in sync with Trump’s misstatements the best ascertainable facts. You want a substantive example of how this can be done? Watch once more Chris Wallace’s handling of Sarah Huckabee Sanders this past weekend on Fox News. (He knew what falsehood she had been circulating, he read up on it, and he was prepared to say, “But in fact …”) In format, the fact-check approach during a speech would have to be different. But this is what split screens are for. The bottom panel of the screen, where “the scroll” is usually found, or a right-hand column, like the one ESPN uses on many shows, could be the fact-based Greek chorus. (If you prefer, the model could be Mystery Science Theater 3000.)

Either of these approaches would reflect some awareness that dealing with Trump is not like dealing with other public figures. We’ll see how much the press has learned on this front, starting tonight.

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+62 # wilhelmscream 2019-01-08 12:23
Hypocrisy by NBC, CBS, ABC!!
+2 # hectormaria 2019-01-10 09:57
The media is made up of masochists that seem to get vicarious trills from Trump's contempt of their labor. I can understand his kids, members of his administration and Republicans cohorts putting up with his insolence and overbearing arrogance, but not the Press' capitulation to it.
+17 # Skeeziks 2019-01-08 14:35
"Trump has been the most entertaining figure on the public stage since he came down the golden escalator in 2015."

I hope trump will keep on the "down" escalator back to where he should have stayed.
+13 # elizabethblock 2019-01-08 14:57
Criticism from Ann Coulter - That's the same Ann Coulter who said we should invade Muslim countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity. After which she was dumped as a columnist by the National Review. Why should anyone pay attention to her?

Someone coined the epithet "Vichy Republicans." How about Vichy journalists?
+12 # gdsharpe 2019-01-08 15:50
Anyone reading this who gives a damn should be contacting ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, and yes, Fox and implore them to live "tape delay" Trump's speech for a minute or two to allow time for real time fact checking, the results of which can be a crawl at the bottom of the screen.
Email, Twitter, telephone calls. The Networks could mutually agree on how much time would be fair and equitable.
+19 # neis 2019-01-08 16:04
I need a fact check on this, but, since these 3 stations are still broadcasting on public airwaves, they are accountable to FCC licensing obligations. Unless these too have been removed and obliterated over the years, I suggest the following for people to do:
1.) CALL the station, and ask when their next licensing hearing occurs, when they have to re-apply for their broadcast license (this should get a few nervous "hold" responses); then...
2.) tell the person that, if the station broadcasts the President's expected prevarication, you will have no choice but to attend that hearing, and also write the FCC, that the station should be DENIED is broadcast license renewal, on the grounds that the station has not met its obligation to serve its viewing/listeni ng public wisely, fairly and accurately, and has knowingly abetted the dissemination of false information harmful to that viewing public.
3.) await the bewildered reaction.
Have fun, folks!
0 # tclose 2019-01-09 10:49
This is a good idea and I will do this. But keep in mind that the present (and future, until January, 2021) FCC is Republican oriented, with 3 of the 5 Commissioners being Repubs and 2 being Dems; the Chairman, Ajit Pai, is a Republican who has proved himself to be a pro-industry advocate on most issues.
0 # lorenbliss 2019-01-12 02:09
Alas, tclose; neis' suggestion is as futile as it is alluring.

Firstly, the political makeup of the FCC no longer matters. The Mainstream Media is what it is -- the world's first privately owned, for-profit version of Josef Goebbels' Ministry of Enlightenment and Propaganda - precisely because the Capitalists who own it and the two Ruling Class parties demand it be so.

Secondly, bear in mind their predatory malevolence and our powerlessness are each absolutely real:

Which -- thirdly -- (again) proves beyond argument the absolute necessity of revolution as the only alternative for human survival.

But that will never happen here as long as the vast majority of U.S. proletarians continue emulating the Evil of our morally imbecilic Capitalist masters by preying upon one another just as I witnessed this very afternoon – two young musclebound jail-tattooed homeless thugs versus one very elderly, very obviously impoverished cripple.

Solidarity? This is the revolutionary prerequisite the psychological capability for which has been permanently identity-politi cked or Ayn-Rand-brainw ashed out of probably 85 percent of the U.S. 99 Percent.

Thus the conditions of our existence will continue to worsen -- with the dystopian dysfunction of Mainstream Media merely another measurement of the depth of our grave.
+14 # Concerned Citizen 2019-01-08 16:10
The fate of this temporary occupant of The White House has been cast. Nothing he can do or say and nothing the media does now will keep him from his destiny with public disgrace. What is in question now are the fates of those who have laced their hides to his, extended the suffering he has wrought, and tarnished their names forever. May the last vulgar vestiges of this evil presence be quickly swept away from our sight and our collective consciousness cleansed of its memory!!!
+19 # Farafalla 2019-01-08 16:13
The MSM networks don't have the balls to delegitimate Trump by showing his lies. They have done everything to normalize him. Some have made improvements like PBS Newshour actually using the word lies. But NPR plays it safe. So, it's Democracy Now with Amy Goodman to get honest coverage.
+7 # hkatzman 2019-01-08 17:16
How about, using Mr. Fallows lie listings, along with a count of the number of lies. After a predetermined, specified number of substantial lies, the network could cut the transmission mid-sentence and return to "Big Brother."
+4 # Nom de Plume 2019-01-08 18:07
It's pretty irrelevant what the "major" networks do - Trump's fans will all be watching on Fox News and salivating about the wall they've all wanted for so long to solve the security "crisis" at the southern border.

Will Fox so any fact-checking - or even broadcast the Demos' response?
+1 # gdsharpe 2019-01-08 23:16
Fact checking, no Dem's response, likely yes. (As I write it is all over now...)
0 # gdsharpe 2019-01-08 23:21
No, not likely.
+3 # gdsharpe 2019-01-08 23:23
Good point. If Trump said his gut told him that the Moon was made of green cheese, they'd accept that as true.
+4 # dandevries 2019-01-08 18:09
The one thing to be said for broadcasting the speech is that it will without doubt be completely ridiculous. And with no cheers from the lugnut gallery.

I'm actually kind of looking forward to it. And I haven't looked forward to a scripted Presidential address since the days I hoped Reagan might drool all over himself. We'll see.
-16 # Yachtsman 2019-01-08 18:59
For those who don't think the President's speech should be covered, remember that approximately 1/2 of the voters and an overwhelming number of states elected this man and are anxious to hear if he will stand for the principles for which he was elected -- and his job approval ratings remain very consistent.
+3 # opinionaire 2019-01-09 12:07
Nearly 3 million more voted for Clinton, and that does not count the number who either did not vote or chose to vote for a third party. Therefore, not close to half voted for the Great Pumpkin. If not for Comey's ill-timed and erroneous announcement, Russian interference to thwart Clinton, and the outdated Electoral College, we would not be under the tiny thumbs of the would-be king now.
-12 # dlet60 2019-01-08 19:24
Let him speak & let the public decide. It's also OK for the pundits and the opposition to speak after. He is the President, let him have the bully pulpit.
0 # Robbee 2019-01-09 10:07
Quoting dlet60 2019-01-08 19:24:
Let him speak & let the public decide. It's also OK for the pundits and the opposition to speak after. He is the President, let him have the bully pulpit.

- well said!

i was looking forward to what nancy had to say about it -

dickhead had nothing new to say, except a new lie that dems had proposed a steel wall so he had agreed - a trial balloon to show fake progress!

meanwhile nancy named the border crisis "manufactured" - a name likely to stick! we'll hear it forever! - dickhead's handling of asylum seekers from d c manufactured a so-called "crisis"? - our "national emergency" is dickhead in d c!

now dickhead famously says he refused to speak, but aids forced him to?

after the speeches, none of the major tv networks continued coverage - overnight cbs covered the speeches and criticized dickhead's claims on the basis of facts - dickhead will not like what folks saw on cbs - dickhead will fuss?

cbs network also carried bernie's fact-check response!

when dickhead goes on tv and has nothing persuasive or new to add? what's not to like?

the last time dickhead went on tv from the white house, 2 days after dems took the house, nancy spoke eloquently and movingly about her plans, including, despite dickhead's dire warnings not to, "oversight"!

nancy is great tv - networks always give her a rebuttal! - i can't wait for dickhead to give a national address again? - in other words i can't get enough of nancy!
+14 # Nom de Plume 2019-01-08 20:51
Mr Trump, tear down this wall!
+8 # Texas Aggie 2019-01-08 23:52
The networks have argued that if they broadcast his speech, they will be contributing to evil and will be castigated for that. If they don't broadcast it, they will be accused of partisanship.

The solution to their problem is to not broadcast it live, but rather later at which time they can interrupt his speech at necessary points and explain the real deal instead of whatever lie he just bloviated. Then go on to the next instance of lying and correct that one, and so on until the end of the speech.
+14 # Porfiry 2019-01-09 09:08
George Lakoff, the linguist, says the more you talk about someone the more legitimate someone seems.
+7 # EternalTruth 2019-01-09 11:50
Exactly. Everyone should just ignore him unless he’s actually doing something. Not tweets, not rallies, not speeches. Laws signed or vetoed, judicial and executive appointments, and policy decisions/direc tives are the only things we should be discussing about him (and crimes/impeachm ent of course!). Otherwise it’s strictly “Don who?”

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