But not the way they are being conducted now, which is as a substitute for the rallies Trump can no longer hold.
As a former White House reporter myself, I respect, in principle, that everything a president says is news. When he speaks, journalists must take note. Those on the social media sidelines who urge that news organizations boycott the briefing room are simply wrong.
The real question is how to report what a president says when it is disconnected from reality.
During these daily briefings, Trump has lied that the virus is “something that we have tremendous control over.” He has promoted an unproven drug treatment for combating the infection. He rewrites the history of the epidemic to make his own performance look better (“I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic”). He erupts at individual journalists (“You’re a terrible reporter”). He plays the victim (“It costs me billions and billions of dollars to be president”).
In other words, the briefing has become a sort of live-action version of Trump’s Twitter feed. He is spreading misinformation that could actually put people’s lives in danger.
So the first thing that should happen is this: The networks, with the exception of C-SPAN, should quit carrying the briefings live. On Monday night, nearly all of them went halfway there and cut away when the session began running off the rails. Only Fox News carried the whole thing.
Let’s all hit the pause button and make sure that what we give our readers and viewers is the whole story. This is something two former White House press secretaries — Mike McCurry, who held the job under Democrat Bill Clinton, and Ari Fleischer, who did it under Republican George W. Bush — recommended all the way back in 2017.
They wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review: “If the briefing is ‘embargoed’ until its conclusion, it will become just one of several raw ingredients that journalists can use to prepare their reports on the work of the president and the White House. It would instantly become a toned-down briefing, and reporters would use the information from the briefing and test it against other sources as they prepare coverage.”
It’s likely that, deprived of the rush he gets from a live television audience, the president will lose interest in showing up in the briefing room. There would be less temptation for reporters to grandstand as well. But on the off chance that Trump continues to appear behind the lectern, there is something else the journalists in the briefing room could do.
Joe Lockhart, who succeeded McCurry as Clinton’s spokesman, noted that the critical value of these daily sessions is hearing from people who actually know what they are talking about.
“In times of crisis, you should always let the experts lead,” he said. “The main idea is to reassure people and the President isn’t doing that because he’s not an expert.” Briefings might begin with the press secretary or chief of staff giving a brief summary of what Trump is up to — who he met with, what issues he is dealing with — and then turn things over to the most authoritative voices in the room.
Absent a rational process like this, reporters in the room should coordinate on their own to control the flow of questions and hold off asking any political ones until the end.
If the experts are allowed to lay out the facts first, we might also be spared having to watch the pained expressions on their faces as Trump tells whoppers. Anthony S. Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has gotten high marks for offering candid assessments at these briefings, but as he noted, it’s not his job to muzzle the president: “I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down.”
Finally, journalists should give up thinking that there is anything to be accomplished by confronting Trump on his dissembling or that he will ever admit to making a mistake. “Accountability IS a legitimate aim, but only a politician with a sense of shame can be held accountable by tough questions,” press critic Jay Rosen tweeted a few days ago: “People who think that confronting Donald Trump more forcefully with facts he cannot deny will produce some kind of accountability must never have lived with a malignant narcissist.”
You can’t stop Trump from acting like Trump. But never has it been more crucial for the media to limit the damage he leaves in his wake.