More and more each day, President Trump is using his daily briefings as a substitute for the campaign rallies that have been forced into extinction by the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Rather, they have become a daily stage for Trump to play his greatest hits to captive audience members. They come in search of life-or-death information, but here’s what they get from him instead:
● Self-aggrandizement. When asked how he would grade his response to the crisis, the president said, “I’d rate it a 10.” Absurd on its face, of course, but effective enough as blatant propaganda
● Media-bashing. When NBC News’s Peter Alexander lobbed him a softball question in Friday’s briefing — “What do you say to Americans who are scared?” — Trump went on a bizarre attack. “I say, you’re a terrible reporter,” the president said, launching into one of his trademark “fake news” rants bashing Alexander’s employer. (Meanwhile, he has also found time during these news briefings to lavish praise on sycophantic pro-Trump media like One America News Network, whose staffer — I can’t call her a reporter — invited him to justify his xenophobic talk of a “Chinese virus” by asking rhetorically if he considers the phrase “Chinese food” racist.)
● Exaggeration and outright lies. Trump has claimed that there are plenty of tests available (there aren’t); that Google is “very quickly” rolling out a nationwide website to help manage coronavirus treatment (the tech giant was blindsided by the premature claim); that the drug chloroquine, approved to treat malaria, is a promising cure for the virus and “we’re going to be able to make that drug available almost immediately.” (It hasn’t been approved for this use, and there is not yet enough evidence to demonstrate its effectiveness in fighting the virus.)
Trump is doing harm and spreading misinformation while working for his own partisan political benefit — a naked attempt to portray himself as a wartime president bravely leading the nation through a tumultuous time, the FDR of the 21st century.
The press — if it defines its purpose as getting truthful, useful, non-harmful information to the public, as opposed to merely juicing its own ratings and profits — must recognize what is happening and adjust accordingly. (And that, granted, is a very big “if.”)
Business as usual simply doesn’t cut it. Minor accommodations, like fact-checking the president’s statements afterward, don’t go nearly far enough to counter the serious damage this man is doing to the public’s well-being.
Radical change is necessary: The cable networks and other news organizations that are taking the president’s briefings as live feeds should stop doing so.
Should they cover the news that’s produced in them? Of course. Thoroughly and relentlessly — with context and fact-checking built in to every step and at every stage.
“There is a very real possibility that in broadcasting these press conferences live or in quickly publishing and blasting out his words in mobile alerts, we are actively misinforming our audience,” Alex Koppelman, managing editor of CNN Business, wrote in an email for the network’s Reliable Sources newsletter.
Koppelman stopped short of overtly calling for the radical solution. That’s not so for Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University who wrote on his PressThink blog that the media needs to switch into “emergency mode”for covering Trump and clearly communicate that change to its readers and viewers.
“We are not obliged to assist him in misinforming the American public about the spread of the virus, and what is actually being done by his government,” Rosen wrote.
Rather than covering Trump live, he recommended, among other things, that the media should “attend carefully to what he says” and subject it to verification before blasting it out to the public.
It’s important to remember how much Trump’s tune has changed on the coronavirus, from blithely dismissive to self-importantly serious.
This is what he was saying about the virus in public as recently as Feb. 27: “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”
We know, without any doubt, that Trump was ignoring intelligence reports that warned about the likelihood of a pandemic at the same time he was cooing these baseless reassurances. But now he’s claiming that he knew the problem was a pandemic long before others did, and that he took every step possible.
Will people remember the depths of his mendacity and hold him accountable?
“I’m worried about our collective memory when it comes to this,” Charlie Warzel of the New York Times wrote on Saturday. It is this initial lack of action that will cost lives months down the road, he noted. Therefore, “accountability will mean not giving into recency bias when this ends and remembering how it got so bad in the first place.”
There’s a strong counter-argument to be made, of course: that the press shouldn’t be in the business of shielding the public from the president’s statements — no matter how misleading, xenophobic or damaging.
It’s a persuasive argument, and one I wish I could still believe in.
But Trump has proved, time after time, that he doesn’t care about truth, that he puts his financial and political self-interest above that of the public, and that he has no understanding of the role of the press in a democracy. And now lives are on the line.
The news media, at this dangerous and unprecedented moment in world history, must put the highest priority on getting truthful information to the public.
Taking Trump’s press conferences as a live feed works against that core purpose.
For more by Margaret Sullivan, visit wapo.st/sullivan