With Trump’s coronavirus briefings, an old debate takes on fresh urgency
By Jon Allsop
Last Tuesday, CNN’s Dana Bash sang Donald Trump’s praises on air after he gave a coronavirus briefing at the White House. “This was remarkable from the president of the United States,” Bash said. “This is an important thing to note and to applaud from an American standpoint, and from a human standpoint—he is being the kind of leader that people need, at least in tone.” Since then, Trump’s tone during briefings has continued to be remarkable. On Thursday, he gleefully took questions from one of his most reliable boosters, One America News Network (“They treat me very nicely,” he said); asked if he was alarmed that “major media players, just to oppose you, are siding with foreign state propaganda, Islamic radicals, and Latin gangs and cartels,” Trump slammed the press, which, he agreed, is “siding with China.” During the same briefing, he touted the potential effectiveness of chloroquine, an antimalarial drug, against the virus; after Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top government health expert, contradicted that the next day, Trump said he both agreed and disagreed with Fauci. “I feel good about it,” he said. “That’s all it is—just a feeling.” Also on Friday, NBC’s Peter Alexander asked Trump what he’d say to Americans who are scared right now. Trump replied, “I say that you’re a terrible reporter, that’s what I say.”
Yesterday, we got a double dose of Trump. In addition to the daily briefing—a ritual which, up to now, had literally gathered dust under this administration—the president and members of his coronavirus task force went on Fox News for a virtual town hall broadcast live from the White House Rose Garden. Bill Hemmer, who was at the White House, and Harris Faulkner, who patched in from a studio in New York, hosted. As CNN’s Oliver Darcy noted afterward, Fox counts Hemmer and Faulkner “as members of a supposedly fearless and hard-hitting news division”—and yet they failed to push back as Trump reiterated misleading comparisons between the coronavirus and seasonal flu, suggested that failing to end the economic shutdown could be more dangerous than the virus itself (“You’re going to have suicides by the thousands”), and seemingly used an article from the Gateway Pundit, a pro-Trump website, to bash New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has called on Trump to do more to help his ailing state. At one point, Trump said he was hoping to have America “opened up and just raring to go” by Easter. “That would be a great American resurrection,” Hemmer chuckled. Later, Trump repeated the Easter hope at his briefing. Fauci—who has warned Trump not to be complacent about the scale of the problem, and who was back on stage, to general relief, after missing Monday’s briefing—tried his best to temper the president’s obstinacy.
In media circles, the recent briefings have reignited a familiar Trump-era debate: should the networks carry them live? Proponents (Poynter’s Tom Jones, for example) say that what the president says matters, and that the public should be exposed to it. Opponents (including the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan) argue that the press has a duty to the truth, above all else, and that Trump’s frequent lies, misstatements, and self-love cut against that; news organizations, such critics say, would be better served sieving useful information out of the briefings and broadcasting that afterwards. As Sullivan put it, “Business as usual simply doesn’t cut it.”
This isn’t just a squabble for media critics. Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo and Michael Calderone reported yesterday that many outlets are “grappling” with how to cover the briefings, “given both their factually challenged content and the notion that they are, in some sense, not unlike Trump campaign events, a replacement while his rallies are on pause.” (Most networks, very belatedly, learned to stop taking those live.) White House reporters, Pompeo and Calderone write, are also divided on their merits; one likened the briefings to “a clown show.” Every major network started broadcasting Trump’s Monday briefing, but all of them bar Fox cut away to other news programming. The White House said that was “pretty disgraceful.”
The briefings aren’t wholly useless—they’re an opportunity for journalists to question the experts leading America’s response to a seismic crisis. But we can communicate their answers without having to carry them live; indeed, doing so would diminish Trump’s ability to muddy the waters in real time. This isn’t just a hypothetical concern; millions of Americans trust what Trump and his media boosters are telling them. In recent weeks, polls have shown that conservatives, on the whole, have been less concerned about the virus than liberals. Recent reporting has borne some of these findings out. The Post’s Todd C. Frankel spoke with staff at a hospital in West Virginia who said they’ve had a hard time convincing locals that the virus is more than “another partisan attack”; Elaina Plott, of the New York Times, reported last week that residents of a conservative New Orleans suburb saw the virus as “liberal fear-mongering” until a local man contracted a bad case of it. In one extreme case, a man in Arizona died after ingesting a type of chloroquine which is used to clean fish tanks and is not for human consumption. The man’s wife, who also took a dose, told NBC that she’d watched briefings in which Trump mentioned chloroquine. “We saw Trump on TV—every channel—and all of his buddies, and that this was safe,” she said. “Trump kept saying it was basically pretty much a cure.”
What the president says does matter. It’s for precisely that reason that networks shouldn’t carry it if it isn’t true—not without adding sufficient context, at least. When it comes to presidential untruths, it’s tempting to think of this crisis, with its greatly raised stakes, as newly dangerous territory. But Trump’s misstatements have always been highly dangerous. Even when the stakes were lower, his lies, and our overindulgence of them, helped build an information climate that is severely hindering our work now. The time to end “business as usual” and more aggressively moderate Trump’s words is long since past. So now will have to suffice.
Below, more on the coronavirus:
- The art of the deal: In the early hours of the morning, after days of wrangling, leaders in the Senate and the Trump administration announced that they’d finally sealed a bipartisan, $2-trillion coronavirus stimulus and rescue package. The details of the legislation are expected to be revealed today. Politico has more. For CJR, Craig Aaron, president and co-CEO of the nonprofit group Free Press, argues that Congress should pass a recovery package for journalism, too, including more funds for public media, subsidies for local newsrooms, and investment in community news and innovation.
- Rings to fill: Yesterday, the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese government gave in to mounting pressure and announced that the Tokyo Olympics, scheduled for this summer, would be postponed until 2021. NBCUniversal, which was set to broadcast the Games in the US, already sold 90 percent of its ad space for the event at a combined price of $1.25 billion—a record figure for the Olympics—and was planning to use its coverage to promote Peacock, its forthcoming streaming service. NBC’s parent company, Comcast, has said it is insured against cancelation; still, as one expert told the LA Times, the IOC’s decision creates “a world of hurt” for the network.
- “News powerhouse”?: On Monday, Kevin Roose and Gabriel J.X. Dance, of the Times, wrote that the coronavirus has made Facebook a “news powerhouse” again; according to an internal report, the platform has seen an “unprecedented increase” in news consumption, with traffic from Facebook to other sites also way up. But Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton pushed back on the conclusion that the spike “signals some fundamental change in Facebook’s role in news.” The coronavirus, he argues, “is a really really really really big story, and Facebook is riding the same wave of interest that everybody else is.”
- Failing to spot a tsunami: For The Atlantic, the techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci argues that credible media outlets have been complicit in America’s failure to properly prepare for the coronavirus. Until recently, coverage, Tufekci writes, was hampered by “widespread asystemic thinking: the inability to think about complex systems and their dynamics,” with much of it indulging “scientism—the false comfort of assuming that numbers and percentages give us a solid empirical basis.”
- Keeping track: For CJR, Emily Sohn profiles the COVID Tracking Project, an effort—led by Atlantic writers Alexis Madrigal and Robinson Meyer and the data scientist Jeff Hammerbacher—to collate coronavirus testing data from across America. “Without testing, there’s no way to know how widespread the virus is, where it is most concentrated, or how great anyone’s risk for infection is,” Sohn writes, and yet the federal government has so far lagged in providing such numbers.
- In brief: The fact-checking site Snopes said this week that it’s been overwhelmed by the spread of misinformation around the coronavirus, and that it’s now limiting its focus to areas where it thinks it can have “significant impact,” because “exhausting our staff in this crisis is not the cure for what is ailing our industry.” George Greenwood and Mark Bridge, of The Times of London, revisited their paper’s coverage of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, and found that much of it “eerily foreshadows” 2020. And Trump retweeted a meme featuring Dr. Anthony Fauci… that was intended as a criticism of Trump.
- In memoriam: Alan Finder, a former reporter and editor at the New York Times, died yesterday after contracting the coronavirus. He was 72. Finder retired in 2011, but continued to take on journalistic projects, including shifts on the Times’s international desk. Kevin Sack, a Times reporter, called Finder “one of the menschiest guys around.”
Other notable stories:
- For CJR, Lauren Markham profiles Lizzie Johnson, a full-time fire reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, who stuck around Paradise—the California town devastated by the 2018 Camp Fire—to chart the aftermath of the fire and the town’s recovery. “These wildfires are the closest thing you have to war journalism in the United States,” Johnson told Markham, “the death, the widespread devastation, the way things look.”
- Yesterday, the publishers of the Times, the Post, and the Journal issued a rare joint statement urging China to reverse its decision, last week, to expel reporters working for the three papers—part of an escalating feud between the US and Chinese governments. The statement appeared in each of the three papers’ print editions, as well as online.
- Jeremy Barr, of the Hollywood Reporter, reviewed over 1,000 pages of emails between staffers at Fox News and federal officials. The emails, Barr writes, reflect the “symbiotic relationship” between Fox and the Trump administration; on one occasion, a producer promised Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, an “easy” and “enjoyable” interview.
- And there’s still an election going on. Bernie Sanders’s campaign seems to be plowing ahead despite Joe Biden’s mounting delegate lead; yesterday, it confirmed that Sanders would attend a presidential debate in April, should one be held. The Democratic National Committee has promised one, but so far, has not announced a date, location, or partner.