Newspapers generally gave big front-page play to President Bush's address to the nation on Nov. 8. The Washington Post ran a streamer across the top of the page: "Bush Says Citizens Must Help in Fighting Terror." This headline broke into two stories, with these underlines: "A Home Front Hungry for Reassurance" and "President Cites 'New Responsibilities.' "
Yes, this is the same Bush speech that 3 out of the 4 major TV networks decided not to carry. While CBS, NBC, and Fox opted to go ahead with their regularly scheduled 8 p.m. programs, ABC carried the prime-time address with one of its spokesmen being quoted: "It's a speech by the president of the United States; we think it's important to bring it to the American people."
I think immediately of World War II and President Roosevelt. Can you imagine the radio outlets of that day (no TV then, of course) deciding not to carry one of his speeches when they find, from reading an advance text (I'm sure none was available back then), that there is no news in it - just reassurance for a public full of fears? It couldn't happen then. And I don't think it should happen now.
It is also important to point out that an administration official told White House correspondents in advance that the Nov. 8 speech would be "Bush's most crucial address since he went before a joint session of Congress on Sept. 20."
The morning after the speech, Democratic national chairman Terry McAuliffe was the guest at a Monitor breakfast. I thought he might defend the networks who had turned their backs on the president. He did not. Very decisively, he said they had been wrong, that the president was entitled to carry his very important wartime message to the American people.
In some pre-breakfast interviews that I had with reporters, I heard no defense of the networks who blocked out the Bush address. No one was saying that TV executives had the right to apply a "news" test to the president's speech. They, too, were saying that this was wartime and the president should have open communication to the people when he talked on matters of war.
This subject is going to come up, probably again and again, because we appear to be headed for a long war. And again and again, the president's main purpose for speaking will be to reassure and inform the people. Yes, some of his speeches will contain news. We, of course, are expecting progress reports. But even those may not (and probably shouldn't be) specific enough to qualify as "news."
Also, as we move closer to the elections of next year, the networks may start to say (if they don't want to carry a Bush speech) that there not only isn't any news in it but it is being delivered for "political reasons" - that just giving Bush that much air time will help GOP candidates all across the nation.
Mr. Bush didn't make any campaign speeches in this last election. He kept his entire focus on the war. And if he continues to be totally (in his actions) our war president, he is entitled to have major communication channels open to his war-related message.
In addition, a president shouldn't have to beseech the TV networks to carry an address that he has called "crucial" to his handling of the war. One excuse for not using the Nov. 8 speech, coming from executives in these networks, was that the White House had made no specific request.
Perhaps it's time for a small, joint White House-journalist wartime committee to be set up, one that could meet regularly and address war-related communication problems.
Who would be good representatives from the media, journalists who would be highly respected and fully trusted by their colleagues? How about David Broder from the print media and Jim Lehrer or Tom Brokaw from TV? The White House group would include, of course, Karl Rove, Karen Hughes, and Andy Card.