The media debate over President Obama’s unilateral action on immigration has been so thunderous that Thursday’s speech almost sounded like an anti-climax.
The president had not only previewed the speech in a Facebook video, he had fresh details leaked to the New York Times Wednesday morning and top White House aides blitzing the airwaves to defend the position he had not yet announced. And the broadcast networks were blowing off the speech, undercutting the notion that this was a major television moment (though it was big as the lead-in to the Latino Grammys, which Univision helpfully postponed in carrying the speech).
It was a well-delivered address with an emotional ending, as Obama focused on a college student brought here illegally at age 4. But the president spent much of the speech saying what his order was not: It was not amnesty. It did not grant citizenship or permanent residency. It was not an abandonment of border security or deporting criminals. It was not different than what previous presidents have done. The system is broken, and if Congress wants compromise, it needs to pass a bill.
Here is what happened right afterward:
On Fox, Bill O’Reilly interviewed Charles Krauthammer, who said that “I find the president’s audacity here rather remarkable” and that Obama’s message to those seeking legal immigration is that they were “chumps.”
“It becomes somewhat offensive when the president pretends this is about high principle,” Krauthammer said.
On MSNBC, Rachel Maddow echoed what the executive order wasn’t—“It’s not a green card, it’s not permanent residency”—and Chris Hayes said Obama’s refrain of “let’s remember who we are” was “particularly effective.” They then interviewed activist Janet Murguia of the National Council of La Raza.
At the same moment, on CNN, Jay Carney was sounding very much like, well, Obama’s press secretary. “It’s necessary because we have a broken system,” he said, where people “live in the shadows” and “undermine our economic system.” Obama had successfully negotiated a compromise with Senate Republicans, and “I was there.” And “most Republicans in the House are in districts with few Latinos.”
Unfortunately for him, Anderson Cooper played a montage of clips of Obama saying he didn’t have the power to halt deportations.
Carney was on a balanced panel that included Newt Gingrich, who said he thinks Republicans will fight back by refusing to vote on nominations, including Obama’s pick for attorney general.
Other voices emerged. O’Reilly, for instance, conducted a respectful interview with Jose Antonio Vargas, the former Washington Post reporter who now crusades as an illegal immigrant brought to this country when he was 12.
Hayes said that MSNBC had reached out to many congressional Republicans and that none would appear on the network.
Cooper moved on to the monster snowstorm in Buffalo. Television loves extreme weather.
The battle lines were hardened far in advance. On the right, there is anger and consternation that Obama is flouting the Constitution, acting like an emperor, and thumbing his nose at Congress. On the left there is relief that the president is finally acting on illegal immigration and triumphing over Republican obstruction.
On the right, it is amnesty. On the left, it is a temporary path to legalization. On the right, it is dictatorial. On the left, it is a challenge to the Hill to pass a bill.
On the right, Obama is contradicting his repeated statements on not having the legal authority to do this, which is true. On the left, Obama is doing what previous presidents have done, which is sort of true but that was on a much smaller scale and in concert with Congress.
Presidential speeches are usually meant to persuade, but I’m not sure how many people still have open minds in this contentious debate that also defied attempts at reform by George W. Bush (who, by the way, was quoted by Obama). Everyone knew what was coming, and just about everyone—certainly in the media world—had chosen sides.
The fact that ABC, CBS and NBC couldn’t spare 15 minutes from their lucrative prime time—even during sweeps—feels to me like a turning point. Yes, we’ve known forever that they’re primarily in the entertainment business. Yes, they have cut way back on convention and midterm coverage. Yes, Obama’s speech was predictable and partisan.
But it suggests to me that they’ve just collectively punted and said, you want live coverage of big political events, switch over to cable news. And that’s a shift that would have been difficult to imagine a decade ago.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.