May 9, 2020

Published with permission of PRESS RUN, Eric Boehlert’s new must-read media newsletter. Subscribe here.

Finally emerging from his pandemic-era Fox News bunker, Trump sat for an interview with ABC News this week. For weeks as the U.S. death toll skyrocketed and tens of millions of people lost their jobs, Trump had agreed only to answer pleasing, one-on-one questions from Fox News. He did his best to create an alternate universe, where the deadly cornonavirus would soon "wash away."

Agreeing to be interviewed by ABC, Trump appeared to be taking a risk by exposing himself to tougher questions about his historically incompetent response to the public health crisis, and a mountain of evidence that he personally chose to do nothing to protect the country from a virus invasion. In the end, the soft-as-a-pillow interview on ABC proved to be no risk. And Trump probably knew that going in, because TV journalists, perhaps more concerned about access than answers, simply refuse to hold him accountable in-person.

Accustomed to blustering his way through TV Q&A's and facing minimal pushback, Trump once again delivered an often-incoherent session with ABC, while lying relentlessly. Yet Trump was never closely questioned by "ABC World News Tonight" anchor David Muir, even when the issues of the day include more than 70,000 dead Americans and 30 million lost jobs. Incredibly, Muir failed to call Trump out on the pandemic-related lies he had been telling for weeks during his White House briefings. Meaning, Muir likely knew in advance what Trump's falsehoods would be, yet the anchor did nothing.

Content with the TV "get" (i.e. landing a interview with Trump), Muir did his minimal best to hold the president accountable for what some experts see as the greatest single failure of leadership in the history of the United States presidents. Muir did what so many journalists before him have done over the last five years — he let Trump get away with it. And Muir did it at a time when America is so desperate for answers and accountability.

Can you imagine sitting down for a Q&A with Trump who complains he inherited "broken" coronavirus test from Barack Obama, even though coronavirus did not exist under Obama, and your response is to say nothing?

As Daily Beast noted, Muir also failed to press Trump on:

  • His failure to invoke the emergency Defense Production Act to force private companies to mass-produce much-needed coronavirus tests and personal protection equipment.
  • A new whistleblower complaint that the National Institutes of Health removed him from directing the government’s vaccine research after he questioned Trump's unhinged Covid-19 treatment recommendations.
  • The complete absence of a comprehensive national testing strategy.

The ABC interview was a textbook example of access journalism, its failures, and how it's literally killing us, as Americans fall prey to a deadly disease that the federal government failed to protect us from. Worse, by urging states to "reopen," Trump is actively adding to the death toll, as the virus spreads further to all corners of the country.

Viewers saw no accountability in the ABC interview. They just saw two actors reading their assigned lines and going through the motions. Muir's role: To be mildly curious about Trump's handling of the pandemic, gently questioning him about contradictory Covid-19 statements, and to allow Trump to ramble on. Trump's role: To run out the clock by stringing together a series of nonsensical responses. ("Somebody said to me, like, everybody’s longing for the rallies. We all have a lot of fun at my rallies.")

This isn't exclusive to Muir. Virtually every television journalist who has sat down to interview Trump, and certainly the ones who work for ABC, CBS, and NBC, have all done the same thing. Three years into Trump's presidency, and journalists who have access to him for one-on-one Q&A's are not up to the challenge of interviewing a nonstop liar. (Here was an awful CBS interview with Trump, and a weak NBC one.)

Afraid of curtailing future access, and afraid of offending red state viewers, the TV questioners are content to let Trump spout nonsense. That's not journalism. When the United States is facing a once-in-century health crisis and being crippled by a pandemic, news consumers deserve to get answers from the President of the United States.

The same style of access journalism plagues most of the Sunday morning talk shows, where booking the Republican administration’s guests now seems to be the paramount act of journalism. That means Trump surrogates appear on the shows to promote his nonstop lies and are met with, at best, timid pushback. Hosts seem to think their job in the Trump era is to provide the president and his top officials with comfortable forum to tell more blatant untruths.

Now as the pandemic spreads, access journalism is killing us.

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