If you were channel surfing in the U.S. last Thursday evening, you might have caught Greyâ€™s Anatomy on ABC or Bones on FOX. Itâ€™s what youâ€™d expect on Thursday, right?
Not this past Thursday. Right around the time Bones and Booth were assessing their umpteenth skeletal murder victim, a major presidential announcement was taking place. On the Big Four networksâ€”ABC, CBS, FOX, NBCâ€”it was nowhere to be seen.
Americans have grown up with the image of presidents plastered all over their TV screens for reasons both pivotal and not so pivotal. This one clearly falls into the pivotal category: congressional Republicans are predicting dire consequences, and the resulting rift may determine whether the U.S. government gets anything done in the next two years.
If thereâ€™s sound reasoning behind the decision not to air the Presidentâ€™s speech, you wonâ€™t hear it from the networks. All of them have declined comment. So letâ€™s take a look at some possible explanations:
- It was already on Facebook. Media executives may have reasoned that the Presidentâ€™s Facebook video, released on Wednesday, made his Thursday night address redundant. But itâ€™s unlikely: the Facebook video was only 59 seconds long and laid out no specifics.
- The networks were obfuscating for Obama or showing their preference for Republicans. Both are variants of the age-old claim of media bias. The fact that opposing pundits see opposing biases in the same event speaks volumes about this alternative. (I wrote about â€œmedia biasâ€ more extensively in Chapter 3 of my book.)
- Itâ€™s sweeps monthâ€”the regular period during which networks estimate viewership and, as a result, set local ad rates for the coming months. The sweeps explanation strikes me as both entirely possible and disturbing: in this one instance, at least, the networks that have historically played a major role in delivering news opted for profit over public service.
- Itâ€™s complicated. This is a variation of points 1 and 2. As disturbing as I find the networksâ€™ decision, it would have been far worse in, say, 1973, when the Big Three networks were the dominant purveyors of news. With the media landscape so fragmented, and Americans getting their news from a myriad of platforms, perhaps the networks decided the impact of their decisions would be relatively minor, shoving sweeps month to the fore.
- Univision will take care of it. I hesitate to even mention this one, because it is ugly. I donâ€™t want to believe that any network executive might have said, or thought, â€œHey, immigration is a Latino issue, so let â€˜theirâ€™ network handle it.â€ To the extent that anyone thought this, it speaks to the persistent â€œus and themâ€ orientation that entrenches our horrifying racial and ethnic divides.
I am not sure what the real explanation is. I do think, though, that network news still carries some obligation to the public trustâ€”which means the networks owe us an explanation. How disappointing that they have chosen not to provide it.