The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Live television enables the president to lie to Americans about covid-19

By being live, Trump circumvents journalists and spins a false narrative, putting Americans in danger.

President Trump is pictured speaking at a coronavirus briefing at the White House on March 21. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Correction: An earlier version of this piece indicated that this was the first time networks had broken into daytime broken. They had, however, done so on several earlier occasions. Additionally, it listed the Mike Wallace Interview show as airing on CBS. This program aired on ABC, though Wallace later moved to CBS.

The combination of fear and boredom generated by the novel coronavirus — and its accompanying social distancing restrictions — has converted millions of Americans into round-the-clock news consumers.

President Trump, with his savvy knowledge of TV and entertainment, has capitalized. Alongside the government’s daily coronavirus briefings, which he continues to dominate, Trump has turned into a near constant presence on Fox News Channel. He’s now even bragging about the ratings he’s generating.

But live television allows the president to make false and misrepresentative statements as he pleases. He has claimed, incorrectly, that the coronavirus is less lethal than the flu and stated, misleadingly, that the Food and Drug Administration has approved chloroquine as a “game-changing” treatment. No stranger to constructed reality, the former host of “The Apprentice” is able to create a narrative where he is the hero who will save the day and have Americans filling church pews by Easter Sunday.

Fact-checkers can do little more than trail in his wake, scrambling to reveal and correct the misinformation that live television news allows him to promote.

Trump is not the first politician to take advantage of the opportunities instantaneous television presents to control the national narrative during a crisis. That title belongs to former Arkansas governor Orval Faubus. In TV’s infancy, Faubus used the medium to place himself at the center of the crisis in Little Rock, Ark., more than 60 years ago. Today Trump resurrects his tactics, only the consequences may be far deadlier.

Arkansas had a record of racial moderation. The University of Arkansas had been the first college in the former confederacy to integrate, with both the medical and law schools following suit, all peacefully without a court order. And following the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation ruling, the state boasted the first towns to comply.

But the strong showing by Faubus’s rabid white supremacist opponent in the 1956 gubernatorial race revealed that there was power in appealing to segregationist sentiment. And in 1957, the governor was poised to run for reelection in a state where voters were notoriously unwilling to grant third terms. Ten days before Little Rock’s Central High was to integrate, Georgia Gov. Marvin Griffin and Roy Harris, the head of the White Citizens Councils, paid Faubus a visit and reminded him about these politics.

A former rural schoolmaster without family money to fall back on, Faubus had no Plan B outside of politics. And he was a pragmatist with a prescient understanding of the publicity potential of television. Although only 5 percent of Americans owned televisions in 1950, by 1957, 42 million TV screens brought television news to eight in 10 American living rooms.

Faubus capitalized on this new reality. At 10:15 p.m., the night before school opened, the governor announced on live Arkansas television that he’d mobilize the National Guard to prevent Central High’s integration. The stunt ensured there would be drama. But the medium amplified the sensationalism of the announcement, sent newsrooms into pandemonium and catapulted a local spectacle into a national crisis.

Furthermore, Faubus used his direct and immediate access to American living rooms, which enabled him to bypass professional journalists, to fabricate his own version of events. While live radio had long allowed politicians to sell their agenda directly to the people, a television screen allowed the governor to look his public straight in the eye as he did so, making his words even more convincing and magnifying their impact.

Faubus insisted that his actions were vital to protecting the lives and property of Little Rock residents. The governor alleged that there had been significant increases in knife and gun sales and that sending in armed troops was crucial to maintaining the peace as “massive” crowds of troublemakers were planning to protest the school’s opening.

Yet, journalists reporting on the school desegregation story in the days before his televised announcement had predicted the opposite — a quiet and peaceful integration. The Arkansas Gazette, in fact, debunked the governor’s claims the next day. But the paper’s front-page attempt to set the record straight was a case of too little, too late. Faubus’s baseless warnings about violence and demonstrators ginned up precisely the segregationist mob about which he had warned.

Over the months that followed, Americans nationwide communed with the evening news each night to find out how the desegregation drama was unfolding in what CBS reporter Dan Schorr called “a national evening séance.” And it didn’t stop there. News directors at all three networks got clearance to break into daytime programming with news bulletins to keep audiences up to date.

Amazingly, during this unprecedented television spectacle, Faubus, a small state governor, would command more airtime than any other person. He went from anonymous governor to the hottest interviewee in politics — all because of television. In the first year that more Americans watched TV than read newspapers, his appearances on ABC’s “Open Hearing,” “The Mike Wallace Interview” on ABC and many others made him a household name.

Faubus’s access to television airtime enabled the Arkansas governor to control the narrative, casting himself as a leader taking charge of the situation (obscuring the fact it was a crisis of his own creation). He whipped up segregationist sentiment and support, while simultaneously claiming that he acted to protect the peace and had not disobeyed a court order to desegregate.

Journalists, armed with facts showing that he had defied federal law to deploy bayonet-wielding troops against nine African American schoolchildren, tried to push back against these clear fabrications and attempted to hold Faubus accountable. But the governor refused to back down, citing nonexistent evidence and opinion polls showing support for him. To viewers at home, it appeared to be the reporters’ word against that of an elected official.

When necessary, Faubus simply derailed interviews with sensationalist claims. If President Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized the National Guard, Arkansas’ governor would organize his own army, making use of “the offer of volunteers from all over the country” — a wildly unsubstantiated declaration that reverberated in living rooms nationwide. Attempting to disprove such lies after the fact simply could not dislodge these claims for many Americans.

Networks respected political office and feared potential regulatory consequences too much to deny Faubus a platform, enabling him to blur fact and fiction, and portray himself as Little Rock’s heroic defender of the peace.

While the circumstances are quite different today, Trump is wielding the same strategy. It is clear that the president ignored intelligence reports warning about the global threat of the coronavirus and failed to take early preventive action. It’s also clear that he has lagged in using every potential tool, such as the Defense Production Act, to ensure that medical workers get adequate protective gear to care for patients.

Yet broadcast live on TV, the president is able to reframe reality to position himself as the leader who knew about the pandemic before anyone else. His response, he tells the television audience, should be rated a 10.

Faubus’s sacrifice of the truth impeded the nation’s journey toward equality. Trump’s misinformation could have lethal consequences for millions of Americans. His previously expressed desire (he backed away on Sunday) to have the nation return to work and church by Easter may have gained him popularity. However, it flew in the face of warnings from public health experts that the worst is yet to come. And Trump’s contention that hospitals don’t need the ventilators they say are essential may ensure that hospitals need to ration care, and let some patients die. The Internet and social media now allow these falsehoods to reverberate longer and louder than ever before, generating memes, tweets, articles and shaping public discourse before and even after fact-checkers have revealed the truth.

In 1957, at the dawn of the television age, the news professionals who gave Faubus airtime were only just beginning to understand its influence for both good and ill. Sixty-three years later, it seems that the networks that carry the entirety of Trump’s daily briefings live hold to the convention that anything a president says is news, and believe denying him airtime would be inappropriate and would exacerbate claims of media bias. But the president lies in a way his predecessors did not. And corrective truth can never have the power of preventing a lie in the first place, especially as more Americans turn to television news for information in our moment of crisis.