Presidential addresses from the Oval Office, or anyplace in the White House, are close to sacred in the United States, and with good reason. John F. Kennedy told us about the Cuban Missile Crisis in such an address, Ronald Reagan comforted the nation after the Challenger explosion, and Barack Obama on a Saturday night informed us that Osama bin Laden had gotten the justice he deserved.
Different presidents, different times. Up until this week, every presidential address from the White House had something in common: it was about an event so profound, so above our day-to-day partisan politics, that the president was warranted in interrupting our regular television viewing and lives to tell us about it. At that moment, the president was the closest to embodying the American spirit and its people.
I suppose the television networks hoped that Donald J. Trump might have risen to this occasion and somehow done something similar with his address from the Oval Office about immigration. That is the only valid reason to have given him this broadcast forum.
Lies and Half-Truths
But the network executives undoubtedly knew, as all of us did, that Trump would use this occasion to give a quieter rendition of his campaign speech. It was a delivery of lies and half-truths. For example, hundreds and not thousands of illegal immigrants are encountered at the border every day, and most of the illegal drugs are brought to America through legal points of entry and wouldn’t be shut out by a border wall.
As the Washington Post correctly noted, the deceptive statements began at the very outset of Trump’s speech and its dire warning about the “security crisis at the southern border.” This is not quite the case as the number of people trying to illegally enter our country via Mexico is the lowest it has been in twenty years.
The First Amendment guarantees Trump’s right to lie as much as he wants, as it does for everyone living in America. But there’s no guarantee in that Amendment or anywhere in the Constitution that he as president is entitled to national airtime.
Indeed, the major broadcast networks in 2014 denied that opportunity to Obama, who delivered a speech from the Oval Office about the very same topic, immigration, because they thought his speech was “overtly political” and would lose viewers who wanted to watch The Big Bang Theory during the crucial November “sweeps” month.
That speech was a piece of lofty philosophy compared to the rabble-rousing we heard from Donald Trump. Maybe that’s why the networks agreed to air Trump’s address – they hoped it would deliver high ratings. Overnight ratings show that the Democratic response drew more viewers than Trump’s speech.
And so, once again, the television networks and all-news cable operations enabled Trump, just as they have from the moment he first announced his candidacy in 2015 and characterized Mexicans as “rapists.”
Given how Trump has demonized most of these media as fake news because they dare to report truthful stories that are unflattering to the president, these outlets pre-empting regular programming to put him on television at 9 pm for an address that demonized needy and desperate people attempting to enter this country is especially unfortunate.
The Fake News is doing everything in their power to blame Republicans, Conservatives and me for the division and hatred that has been going on for so long in our Country. Actually, it is their Fake & Dishonest reporting which is causing problems far greater than they understand!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2018
Ironically, by granting primetime coverage for a patently political speech from the Oval Office, the networks for those nine minutes became the purveyors of fake news that Trump says they are.
This debasement of the hallowed American tradition of solemn addresses from the Oval Office into another political stunt was underlined by the equal time House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer requested and were accorded for rebuttal.
No rebuttal time was needed or requested by Democrats when Reagan put aside his 1986 State of the Union speech – then and always an appropriately political address – and spoke from the Oval Office of the astronauts who had perished in the Challenger disaster, slipping “the surly bonds of Earth.”
Even when addresses from the Oval Office did have political content – such as Lyndon Johnson‘s 1968 announcement that he would not seek another term as president, or Richard Nixon‘s 1974 statement that he was resigning from his office – they were about actual events crucial to our nation, not attempts to win a political argument.
Have the networks learned their lesson after Trump’s address? Not likely, if they didn’t already learn it in the past two years. This one address is not likely to pull down our democracy, but the media need to realize that they have to do things differently in the age of Trump. Courtesy and custom can’t be followed blindly with a president who in his words and actions daily poses threats to our democracy.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.