As if there was ever any suspense. In his brief address, Trump delivered incorrect and incomplete statements about coronavirus and his administration’s response. An earlier headline on this article captures the gist: “AP FACT CHECK: Trump misstates some of his virus actions.”
*Whereas Trump said “we will be suspending all travel from Europe, except the United Kingdom, for the next 30 days,” the ban doesn’t cover all of Europe, nor does it apply to legal permanent residents of the United States.
*Whereas Trump said the travel measure “will not only apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo, but various other things as we get approval,” it will actually apply just to people.
*Whereas Trump said the government is “cutting massive amounts of red tape to make antiviral therapies available in record time. These treatments will significantly reduce the impact and reach of the virus,” the National Institutes of Health’s Anthony S. Fauci said earlier Wednesday that these solutions aren’t imminent.
*Whereas Trump boasted that insurers would drop co-payments for coronavirus treatments, the generosity is a bit more limited:
Trump tonight said health insurers “have agreed to waive all copayments for coronavirus treatments, extend insurance coverage to these treatments.” WH official says Trump meant to echo what VP said yesterday that insurers “have agreed to waive all copays on coronavirus *testing.”— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) March 12, 2020
Whenever Trumpian misinformation happens — all the time, that is — there’s a debate about whether it’s willful or careless. You know, the mendacity vs. incompetence question. There was some discussion, for instance, that he may have misread his teleprompter in asserting that the ban would indeed apply to cargo. This sort of discussion, though, doesn’t much matter in the throes of a public health crisis. No matter their motivation, the falsehoods piled onto the public square on Wednesday night, pushing reporters and concerned citizens to seek out sources more credible than the president of the United States.
Corrections dribbled out little by little. The president himself got in on the action:
Hoping to get the payroll tax cut approved by both Republicans and Democrats, and please remember, very important for all countries & businesses to know that trade will in no way be affected by the 30-day restriction on travel from Europe. The restriction stops people not goods.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 12, 2020
Uncertainty about the travel restrictions plunged Charles de Gaulle airport into chaos:
The amount of bogus information that filtered its way to the public is impossible to calculate. Journalist Matt DeRienzo put his finger on the issue with this tweet:
My Facebook feed is full of headlines from last night from mainstream, credible news organizations that say Trump has "banned all travel from Europe." We knew soon after that this part of Trump's speech was wrong. But that wrong information is very sticky on social platforms.— Matt DeRienzo (@mattderienzo) March 12, 2020
Americans are accustomed to relying on the president to accurately outline official actions in an official address. That’s why journalists and others tweeted and Facebooked direct quotes from the poorly informed presidential address.
Short of electing an honest president, there’s no effective bulwark against the falsehoods issuing from the White House. TV networks can help, however, by resolving never to carry live remarks from Trump in any context whatsoever. Such a move would require restraint, considering how often Trump speaks before the cameras. He does rallies all the time; he does “chopper talks” and other short question-and-answer sessions more frequently than his modern predecessors; he hops on the phone with Sean Hannity and “Fox & Friends.”
Each time, he leaves a mess. Sometimes the TV folks clean it up in a subsequent segment; sometimes they don’t.
The Erik Wemple Blog sent inquiries to TV news networks asking how they managed to correct the president’s misstatements and whether the episode would affect their willingness to embrace this arrangement in the future. We’ll update this post with any responses.
There are difficult considerations at play in any decision to carry a live presidential address. One argument in favor of presenting the addresses is that they show the president at work; they convey his mood; they give the White House a chance to unite Americans behind a common cause. Only in recent years have they doubled as a misinformation threat. In January 2019, the major broadcast networks made the controversial decision to air a prime-time Oval Office address from Trump on immigration; it happened in the midst of a protracted government shutdown, a dynamic that figured into the decision to grant the president network time. Though the TV outlets geared up to fact-check the proceedings, there’s no way to keep up with Trump on falsehoods. “We work hard to make sure that everything on our air is factual,” a network executive told NBC News of the challenge. “This is new territory.”
“New,” indeed, as of 2017, or even 2018. But not in 2019, and not today.
It’s time that news networks treat an address from Trump as an uninformed White House source: Listen to the address, check its claims, then prepare a report. Don’t let this fellow speak directly to your audience. He can do that on Twitter.