Networks wasted no time fact-checking Trump's Oval Office address

Posted January 9, 2019 1:23 a.m. EST

— A version of this article first appeared in the "Reliable Sources" newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

Hey there, this is Oliver Darcy filling in for Brian Stelter.


That is the chyron on "CNN Tonight" as I'm writing tonight's newsletter -- and it's the big question heading into Wednesday. Did Trump's speech move the needle? Or, as John King put it earlier in the night, "Did the president win over any Democrats?" It's hard to imagine he did.

The brief Oval Office address didn't include any new arguments or information that would prompt anyone to be persuaded one way or another. As Fox's Chris Wallace bluntly summed up, "The President tonight was making an offer the Democrat's can't accept."

Trump's private admission to TV anchors

Earlier in the day, Trump hosted television news journalists for an off-the-record lunch at the White House where he reportedly made a huge admission. NYT's Peter Baker reported via sources in the room that Trump privately told the journalists he wasn't inclined to deliver the prime time address, but had been persuaded to do so by advisers.

One source told Baker that Trump conceded the speech was "not going to change a damn thing." The source said Trump went even further, saying his trip to the border was just a big photo op. Then he pointed to Bill Shine and Sarah Sanders and said, "But, these people behind you say it's worth it." In other words, even Trump didn't think he would persuade anyone with his speech.

>> Publicly, of course, Trump played up his speech, tweeting late Tuesday night, "Thank you for soooo many nice comments regarding my Oval Office speech. A very interesting experience!"

So were the networks played?

Before the networks made the decision to air Trump's address, a debate raged in media circles: Should the channels turn over their valuable air time for what was almost certainly going to be a political speech? After some deliberation, every broadcast and cable news outlet decided to do so. Ted Koppel told NYT prior to the speech, "When the president of the United States asks for airtime, you've got to do it." And look, at the end of the day, networks were put in a difficult position.

But now, in hindsight, I'm wondering: Are TV execs comfortable with their decision? Bill Carter tweeted, "Networks should feel totally burned. Shouldn't they come out + tell WH: That was a fraudulent request; forget asking for platform for your political posturing ever again?" And Erik Wemple noted, "Looks like the White House secured major network TV time for an address that repeats all of the president's arguments on immigration, only, this time, through a TelePrompTer."

Stelter's view

Brian Stelter emails from Las Vegas: I'm here at CES, where I can report that... umm... almost no one watched the speech or the Democratic response. Here's my sense: The cable newsers are almost always going to carry a big prime time presidential speech. The broadcast networks are inclined to say yes, as well, though it's more complicated for them.

The broadcast execs noted that this was Trump's first time asking for airtime for an Oval Office address. They also noted that the country is in the midst of a partial government shutdown. Given the newsless nature of this address, they are likely to be a bit more skeptical the next time Trump requests time... But this is the bottom line: One of the powers of the presidency is the power to address the nation.

Fact-checks galore

TV networks did air Trump's speech in the most responsible manner in which they could, fact-checking his claims immediately after it concluded. NBC "Nightly News" anchor Lester Holt noted that the president repeated "some of the dubious claims he's made in the past." ABC's Cecilia Vega helped check facts with George Stephanopoulos. "Just because you say it's a crisis, doesn't necessarily make it one," Vega said. Fox's Shep Smith listed off a number of areas on which Trump misled the public during his speech. And CBS "Evening News" anchor Jeff Glor told viewers the he hoped to "fact check any inaccurate assertions."

>> That said, Tom Kludt flagged a salient point from Glor who said, "There is some nuance to some of these arguments that unfortunately [due to] time, sometimes gets lost."

...even in the chyrons

CNN and MSNBC not only spent much of the evening checking Trump's claims against the facts on-air, but they did so aggressively in the chyrons. Throughout the night, I noticed various fact check's (like the one above) being employed by both of the networks.

All that said, are we fact-checking the right way?

Alex Koppelman emails: One argument we've heard frequently during the discussion over whether or not networks should take Trump live is that we all provide comprehensive fact-checks, both on air and online, of what he says after he says it, or sometimes during. That's a good thing, no question -- but when it comes to justifying taking him live, there's a major caveat that I haven't seen discussed: We don't really know if fact-checks work, or whether we're doing them the right way.

A 2011 CJR article noted that one study showed that the more effective way to fact-check the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama is a Muslim would be to state the fact -- Obama is a Christian -- rather than state and correct the falsehood. The same researchers also explored the effect that the race of the people conducting the research survey had on respondents' answers about these facts, and concluded, "our findings suggest that the context in which corrective information about sensitive topics is delivered affects how people perceive and respond to them."

This is not settled science by any means -- but there are people studying it. And if we as an industry are going to rely on fact-checking as our shield when we choose to give over our space to words we know will contain misinformation, we should be talking to those researchers, providing funding for their work, even bringing them in-house to help us test and improve our approach. We owe our audiences more than just going with our guts and hoping it works out.

Highlights from cable

CNN: Hosts Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon featured analysis and fact checking from reporters and contributors. Lemon opened up his show with a thorough fact-check of Trump's speech.

Fox News: After Bret Baier signed off Fox News' special coverage, Sean Hannity spent much of the evening unsurprisingly advocating for Trump's position on the wall. Guests included Lindsey Graham and Mark Levin, both of whom were supportive of the president.

MSNBC: Rachel Maddow scored a big guest, interviewing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who slammed Trump. "The one thing the president has not talked about is the fact he has systematically engaged in the violation of... human rights on our border," Ocasio-Cortez said, according to Mediaite. "He has separated children from their families."

Trump took his talking points from right-wing media?

This should come as no surprise. The Daily Beast reported that ahead of his Oval Office address, Trump "leaned on a number of advisers for how to navigate the government shutdown he'd waged over funding for his border wall." The advisers, per The Beast, included Sean Hannity, and Lou Dobbs who encouraged Trump to continue demanding funding for the wall.

>> Related: Tomi Lahren noted in this tweet that Trump's Oval Office address used similar rhetoric to commentary she had delivered on Hannity's show. "Something @realDonaldTrump said in his #OvalOfficeAddress tonight sounded familiar..."

An ongoing conversation

Stelter emails: The accumulation of daily deceptions and fear-mongering matters a LOT more than a single speech. But this episode has sparked some smart discussions about the media's Trump coverage. Hopefully it'll continue. I talked with The New Yorker's Isaac Chotiner about these issues... Here's the Q&A...

Read more of Tuesday's "Reliable Sources" newsletter... And subscribe here to receive future editions in your inbox...


-- Stephen Colbert's "Late Show" lampooned Trump's speech with a "Bird Box" parody... ("Late Show")

-- Bret Baier has signed a new multi-year deal with Fox News. He will co-anchor Fox's election 2020 coverage and continue serving as the network's chief political anchor... (Deadline)

-- Sumner Redstone and his family have settled a legal dispute with his former companion Manuela Herzer... (WSJ)

-- Ben Shapiro responds to Tucker Carlson's monologue on populism: "In truth, his brand of populism isn't particularly new....It's an attempt to rally government behind preferred conservative causes..." (National Review)