In all the coverage of last night's Oval Office speech, what didn't necessarily make the headlines was what was going on in many newsrooms across the country. Questions were raised from viewers, listeners and newsroom staffers about whether giving a prime-time slot to President Trump was a good idea. WGBH News contributor and Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy wrote about Trump’s speech and the media debate on whether to air it. Kennedy spoke with WGBH All Things Considered anchor Barbara Howard. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Barbara Howard: The argument against carrying President Trump last night stems back to 2014. That is when the three major networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — declined to carry an address by then President Barack Obama. Can you talk about that?
Dan Kennedy: Sure. I have to say, in the course of doing research for my WGBH News column, I ran across a terrific article that The Atlantic did that got into not only that discussion, but to a decision that the networks made in November 2001 not to let President George W. Bush go live.
Howard: With the Obama one, I know that the networks considered it too politically motivated. Was it the same in 2001?
Kennedy: It was the same thing. It was described as kind of a pep talk a couple of months after 9/11, and I think the networks at that time said, 'Okay, enough.'
Howard: And by the way, I should mention that in the 2014 Obama speech, NPR did carry it. So did PBS. And here's how Obama started:
“My fellow Americans, tonight, I'd like to talk with you about immigration.”
Howard: Back then, immigration reform was a far more bipartisan issue, and Obama was pushing for reforms. But the networks justified not airing that, again, because it was considered too political. And that has now opened the door to critics questioning whether the same could be said in advance of last night's speech, given Trump's proclivity for bending the truth. The question was, why hand the microphone over to him, especially in prime-time?
Kennedy: For the broadcast networks, it's a very big deal to turn over their airwaves to the president. And I think the calculation, quite frankly, was: This is the first time President Trump has asked for live coverage of an Oval Office speech. If you go back to 2014 with President Obama, it was his sixth year in office. He had made this request any number of times, it had been granted any number of times. And so I think the networks felt a little bit more comfortable. I just don't think they were going to turn down President Trump on his very first request, especially as we're in the middle of this government shutdown crisis.
Howard: Well I should point out that Terence Samuel, the deputy managing editor at NPR, fielded questions about this. He explained his reasoning for airing it to NPR's Ombudsman, pointing out that deciding not to air a speech because of a past pattern, like what happened in 2014 with Obama, is “making a calculation ahead of time about what the president is about to say.” Does he have a point?
Kennedy: He does have a point. I should add too that it's very unusual to allow the opposition party to offer a rebuttal on anything except the State of the Union address. And yet, in this case, the networks also allowed that. I think that was kind of a nod to the critics that, yes, this is essentially a political address. We think we should let the president do it, but because it is so politically motivated, we're going to let the opposition be heard as well.
Howard: And then there was the fact-checking that came almost simultaneously, and in some cases it was simultaneous, with chyrons running across the bottom of TV screens, fact-checking as they were all speaking.
Terence Samuel goes on to say that not airing based on that past history is pretending that we are not able to do a good job of telling our listeners what's true and what's not true. It also is making an assumption of what the listeners bring to the conversation, he says. Do you concur?
Kennedy: Oh yeah, absolutely. But you do have a situation here where we have a president who spouts falsehood after falsehood. So it was imperative that news organizations not just give him a platform, but engage in journalism to try to hold him to account as much as they could.
Howard: I know here at WGBH News, we did have those fact checking points up on our web site. It's not just TV screens or just radio waves disseminating this information, like it was once upon a time. You can rely on news agencies to do that kind of fact-checking if you're a good consumer.
Kennedy: My favorite line, from Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel's wonderful book "The Elements of Journalism," is that journalism's first obligation is to the truth. Well, the way to get the truth out there is not to suppress what the president is trying to say, but let him have his say, point out where he's accurate and where he is speaking falsely, and at the same time give the opposition a chance to be heard. And it seems to me that that's pretty much what happened in this particular case.
Howard: That’s WGBH News contributor and Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy. This is WGBH’s All Things Considered.