It is a simple question. Only the answers are complicated. Not to mention numerous.
Should ABC, CBS and NBC have televised President Bush’s speech Monday night urging the prompt disarmament of Iraq?
No: "The president is giving a speech to a group of people in Cincinnati, which is different from an address to the nation," said NBC publicist Allison Gollust.
Yes: Who gives a damn where the president is speaking? They have electricity in Cincinnati, don’t they? Cameras can be plugged in and lights turned on and batteries charged, can’t they? The topic of the president’s address was an important one not only to Americans, but to people all over the world, a matter of war and peace, life and death, a continuously plummeting stock market or one that can breathe easier for at least a few days about at least one major issue.
No: The White House did not ask ABC, CBS and NBC for air time, which is customary in a case like this. Spokesman Ari Fleischer explained the decision by saying that he did not want to worry people by raising false alarms. "No matter how we did our best to create reasonable expectations," he said, "a rumor mill would have grown suggesting that military action was imminent."
Yes: Who gives a damn about that? The networks should have broadcast the speech without waiting to have been asked. The rumor mill could have been rendered inoperative by sound reporting in advance about the general tone of the president’s speech.
No: The speech was not really news; rather, in the words of ABC’s Paul Friedman, it "was primarily a new framing of the president’s position."
Yes: So what? A new framing of the presidential position on a crucial issue is news, so much so that it was the front page headline in virtually every newspaper in the country the next morning.
No: October is an important month for television as new shows premiere and returning shows try to retain and increase their audiences. How could the networks possibly be expected to pre-empt such cultural landmarks as King of Queens or Fear Factor or The Drew Carey Show for a speech by so un-entertaining a fellow as George Bush?
Yes: They wouldn’t have to pre-empt them. They could simply delay them half an hour. At this time of year, CBS regularly delays its prime-time programming for that long, or sometimes even longer, when the Sunday football games run late. Surely George Bush on the prospect of war is more compelling viewing than the Jets and the Chiefs!
No: The president’s speech got a lot of coverage even without ABC, CBS and NBC. The Fox broadcast network carried it in its entirety. So did all three of the all-news cable networks.
Yes: Good for Fox broadcast, but otherwise not good enough. As of July, 2002, only 69.8 percent of American households were getting cable. That means that Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC are not available to almost one-third of the citizens of this country.
Ultimately, though, the answer to the question is yes: ABC, CBS and NBC should have carried the president’s speech, for the "no" answers are not really answers, but excuses.
It is, in the final analysis, as my friend Cal Thomas says: "The broadcast networks have a responsibility here. They are granted licenses by the government with the expectation that they will be motivated by the public interest as well as by private profit. They are to inform the nation, not just feed it bad jokes with a laugh track. They should acknowledge the importance of an address by a president of either party by carrying that address live and letting people make up their own minds about its news value."
Monday night, while the president was speaking, one of the contestants on Fear Factor was being covered from tip of head to tip of toe with 200,000 bees. The news value here seems minimal.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .