Editorial: Bush speech short-shrifted

Oct 14, 2002  •  Post A Comment

ABC, CBS and NBC made a big mistake last week not broadcasting President Bush’s speech about the possibility that the United States will go to war against Iraq.
On Monday evening, Oct. 7, Mr. Bush delivered a scheduled speech at the Cincinnati Museum Center that presented his case against Saddam Hussein.
How important was the speech? In its coverage of the address, The New York Times said, “The long list of demands that the president laid out in a purposeful speech set a very tough standard for avoiding war.” Furthermore, The Times noted that the president’s speech was primarily targeted “to the American public, the one audience above all whose support he must keep to succeed if war comes.”
Network executives said the primary reason they skipped the speech was that the White House did not formally ask them to cover it. Indeed, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said the administration deliberately avoided asking that the speech be broadcast live because it was afraid a “rumor mill would have grown suggesting that military action was imminent.”
Given the content of Mr. Bush’s speech, we find Mr. Fleischer’s comment disingenuous at best. But that’s more a political issue, and not our purview here. Our concern is the Big 3 TV networks and the abdicating of responsibility.
The fourth major network, Fox, to its credit, worked with Major League Baseball to push back the start time of the National League playoff game scheduled for that night so the president’s speech could be televised.
But the other networks thought it more important to air “The Drew Carey Show,” “King of Queens” and “Fear Factor” than to hear Mr. Bush’s justification for going to war.
We are sympathetic to the fact that it’s tough for the networks to make a buck these day. And yes, they have forgone millions in ad revenue covering the 9/11 terrorist attacks and their aftermath. But the networks need to exercise better judgment and need to be willing to drop regular programming when there is an event as important to the public discourse as Mr. Bush’s speech last week.
CBS pioneer William Paley, forever the conscience of network news, said it best when he observed that it would be a bad day for TV if the news divisions were thought of as profit centers. Unfortunately, that day has long since arrived. And unfortunately, the ideals Mr. Paley stood for are sadly lacking at most major networks today.
Indeed, we are saddened as we recall an interview Mel Karmazin gave The New York Times three years ago next month. Mr. Karmazin, then chairman and CEO of CBS, was asked whether he ever sensed the presence of Mr. Paley in his office.
“His ghost?” Mr. Karmazin asked. “Well, if it makes a better story for you, sure I feel Paley’s ghost.” Then he wiggled his fingers, raised his eyebrows and said, playfully, “Whoooo!”