I can understand why network executives granted Donald Trump the airtime he wanted last night.
They knew he would lie. But these are not brave people. And they — at least initially — had at least some reason to believe that Trump might commit some urgent news, and they might look stupid or disrespectful if they missed it.
But there will be no excuse next time.
Trump commandeered the airwaves for nothing more than one more tired toot on his racist dog whistle. He lied constantly, of course. There was nothing presidential about his address; it was pure politics. There was no news. It even sucked as TV.
Yes, there’s an urgent national crisis, but it’s the one of Trump’s own making: The partial shutdown of the U.S. government. He barely addressed it.
The networks made the wrong call. And they failed to reverse themselves even after Trump apparently indicated to network anchors who accepted his invitation to an off-the-record lunch that the speech was a formality even he didn’t think would make a difference to anyone.
(Why would the anchors go, if not to inform their networks’ decision about whether to broadcast or not? The answer, sadly, is because they are enablers by nature.)
The networks then failed to rise to the occasion either with real-time fact-checking or by properly setting the stage. There was lots of good advice flying around yesterday, and they should have taken it. For instance, from one of my favorite media critics of the moment:
Advice for networks to minimize their utility as propaganda tools:
1) Before the speech, get a panel of experts on autocracy to explain what rhetorical devices autocrats use, so the audience will recognize them
2) Use a time delay. Check facts and correct lies during speech.
— Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior) January 8, 2019
But now that the networks have been well and truly played, publicly humiliated, and lost a lot of ad money to boot, let’s hope they have learned their lesson.
Let’s hope they are now emboldened, so that next time Trump asks for airtime, they will either flatly reject him or demand solid reasons for why they should accede.
They should demand that he credibly demonstrate why a presidential address is justified, what urgent national need he is responding to, and what is new and urgent about the message he is sending to the American people.
Barring that, they should tell him to take his dog whistle and shove it.
UPDATE: When I posted my thoughts on this topic last night on Twitter, they were greeted with more than a little skepticism. Here’s more: