It was a good speech. Eloquent. Inspiring. Reassuring. Too bad most people didn’t see it.
On Thursday, President Bush gave a prime time address to the American people. Including his State of the Union address, it’s only the fifth time he’s spoken in prime time since he became president. However, ABC is the only one of the four big broadcast networks that bothered carrying it. The other three, CBS, FOX and NBC, should be ashamed.
Granted, the White House never formally asked the networks to carry this speech. But it shouldn’t have to. A presidential address on any topic is a big deal, and deserves to be shown. Back in August of 1998, all the networks broadcast President Clinton’s mea culpa, when he admitted he did have, “a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong.” The networks were told just hours before that appearance that Clinton would speak, yet they managed to make the time to carry it.
That presidential address was nothing but spin. Clinton succeeded in using the power of his bully pulpit to convince the American people that he should not be removed from office, because his sexual behavior with an intern, and his lies about that behavior, were a private matter between him and his family.
Bush’s speech on Thursday, however, was important. White House correspondents were told that the administration considered it, “Bush's most crucial address since he went before a joint session of Congress on Sept. 20.” The president called on the American people to assume new responsibilities for homeland security, and assured us that the federal government is also working hard to keep us safe. He did what he could to reassure Americans, many of whom are still trying to adjust to life in the post-September 11 world. But because three of the four networks decided to go ahead with their scheduled programming, millions of Americans didn’t get the message.
Network executives will argue that they decided not to run the speech because it would have cost them money. However, there’s no reason they couldn’t have pushed back their regular broadcasts by a half hour, and still have pocketed the advertising revenue. That would have allowed Americans to watch the President first, then still catch “Friends” or “Survivor”.
Those executives also say that the speech wasn’t important, because President Bush wasn’t going to make any news anyway. Well, since September 11, reporters working for the networks have done a great job of covering the news, and dealing with a story that often changes from hour to hour. But sometimes it’s best to hear something straight from the top. In this case, why not just carry the speech, and let Americans decide for themselves if it was newsworthy?
Last year, FOX decided not to carry the three presidential debates between Bush and then Vice President Al Gore. And NBC decided to allow its local affiliates to carry either the debates or a baseball playoff game. Writing in the October 3, 2000 New York Times, then FCC Chairman William E. Kennard took those networks to task. He pointed out that, “in 1996 Congress gave the television industry space on the broadcast spectrum…valued by some industry experts as worth more than 70 billion dollars. This generous gift came with a caveat: As the broadcasters reap billions from use of the airwaves, they must also serve the public interest.”
Now, as then, the networks have violated their pledge to serve the public. We can only hope that, the next time the President of the United States speaks, all four broadcast networks will deign it worthy of coverage.