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WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 15: President Donald Trump spoke on border security during a Rose Garden event. NPR stopped its "special coverage" of the president's remarks before he finished speaking.
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WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 15: President Donald Trump spoke on border security during a Rose Garden event. NPR stopped its "special coverage" of the president's remarks before he finished speaking.

When a U.S. president schedules a Rose Garden announcement to talk about declaring a national emergency, it's a pretty safe bet that NPR will carry it live.

That was the case this morning, when NPR started airing "special coverage" of President Trump's declaration of a national emergency in order to help finance a U.S.-Mexico border wall.

But the president didn't make it easy for NPR and its member stations, and other news organizations that cut away from regular programming, to broadcast the remarks live. Trump started out at 10:39 a.m. ET talking about international trade for several minutes before moving on to the topic of why he was declaring a national emergency. NPR carried those remarks live for 20 minutes, during which the president repeated his rationale, as well as some of his past claims that have been proven untrue.

At 10:59 a.m., NPR stopped carrying the event live and returned to Morning Edition, for analysis of the announcement. The president kept speaking until 11:29 a.m., eventually taking a few questions from members of the press.

(What a listener heard depended on where they were listening. Once the "special coverage" stopped, some local NPR-affiliated stations continued with Morning Edition or other scheduled programming, depending on their time zone. Others immediately switched back to live coverage of the president. That's because stations are independent entities and make programming decisions that they feel are best for their communities.)

My office heard from listeners who criticized the decision to air the announcement live and others who criticized the decision to drop it. We also heard from listeners who praised the decision to air only a portion of it. I asked newsroom officials about their thinking.

Terence Samuel, a deputy managing editor, said the decision "was based purely on news value." It was important to hear what the president had to say, in what was a historic declaration, Samuel said. So, NPR listeners heard the president say, more than once, what he was doing and why he was doing it and what he hoped to accomplish, Samuel said, and then, "We felt at that point that he was not saying anything that the audience had not heard."

As the president repeated himself, Samuel said, "we didn't feel that it was adding value." He added that the newsroom continued to listen to the remarks for anything newsworthy.

(As a side note, listening to the live remarks by radio also was at times frustrating, as the president had people in the audience stand up — people who listeners could not see.)

Back in January I sided with the newsroom's policy to carry most presidential addresses live, despite this president's pattern of making statements that are misleading or simply not true when the facts are examined. Listeners should have the opportunity to hear a president's own words, and I had confidence that NPR would fact-check that speech, which ran just a couple of minutes, afterward.

But no news organization has an obligation to turn over its airtime automatically, even to a president. NPR does not carry all campaign speeches live, including those by sitting presidents, for example. Today's unscripted remarks were eventually repetitive, as Samuel said, and at times, to my ear, felt more like a rally for supporters than a serious presidential address. While the president's answers to questions from reporters were illuminating, notably when he seemingly undermined his own legal case, that could be covered through after-the-fact reporting.

One listener who wished NPR had continued to broadcast the president's remarks wrote that she switched channels. That's also an important point: There were other places to hear the full thing, at least for those who had a broadband or television connection. NPR's website and its Facebook page carried the remarks in their entirety.

In this case, NPR made the right call.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Jensen was appointed as NPR's Public Editor in January 2015. In this role, she serves as the public's representative to NPR, responsible for bringing transparency to matters of journalism and journalism ethics. The Public Editor receives tens of thousands of listener inquiries annually and responds to significant queries, comments and criticisms.