February 9, 2017 / 12:11 AM / 6 months ago

Court hearing on Trump travel ban draws more than 2.6 mln listeners

(Reuters) - More than 2.6 million people tuned into cable TV or went online to hear dramatic audio-only coverage of a federal appeals court hearing on U.S. President Donald Trump's temporary travel ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries and refugees.

For more than an hour, people around the United States listened to arguments from attorneys for the U.S. government and Washington state, which sued to challenge Trump's executive order imposing the ban.

For those using their TVs to hear the coverage, there were also simple graphics and photos. Others listened to streaming online audio.

The three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco pressed the government's attorney on the lawfulness of Trump's Jan. 27 order, which triggered chaos and protests at U.S. airports and oversea.

The order barred travelers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the country for 90 days and all refugees for 120 days. It banned refugees from Syria indefinitely.

The Republican president, who took office on Jan. 20, has defended the measure as necessary to protect Americans. Critics said it discriminated against Muslims and violated the U.S. Constitution.

Last Friday, a federal judge in Seattle suspended the executive order. Many travelers who had been waylaid by the ban quickly moved to travel to the United States while it was in limbo.

The government appealed the decision, and the San Francisco judges heard arguments in the case on Tuesday night.

All three major U.S. cable news networks aired either parts of or the entire hearing, which ran from 6 p.m. to 7:15 p.m. EST. Only the audio was available because the hearing was conducted via conference call.

More than 2.5 million people combined tuned in on CNN or MSNBC, while another 3 million listened to segments of the hearing on Fox News, according to Nielsen data provided by Fox News.

As many as 137,000 people listened to the court's live feed of the session, said David Madden, assistant circuit executive for the 9th Circuit.

The lack of visuals did not scare away those interested - and even led some to liken the experience to huddling around a radio in the pre-TV era.

"@CNN this is television gold. Reminds me of when I was grounded and had to listen to the radio. #WAvTrump #9thCircuit," Jon Eekhoff (@joneekhoff) said on Twitter.

Madden was surprised by the amount of interest in the hearing, "but I think the court was prepared for it," he said by email.

As lawyers grappled with questions from the judges, law experts and academics, including Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe, provided the kind of play-by-play commentary generally reserved for major sporting events.

The ability of the public to listen to the hearings was particularly important given Trump's questioning of the judges as "so political" and the hearing as "disgraceful," Tribe said.

"It was a moment for an important kind of civic education and public engagement in the process of government," Tribe said.

Reporting by Timothy Mclaughlin in Chicago; additional reporting by Tim Baysinger in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis

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