Trump's vow to return with his first pandemic press briefing in three months means the press faces a stark decision — is it in the nation's best interest to provide nonstop, unedited coverage of his briefings knowing that Trump will lie and mislead the public about a national health emergency? Or is it time to pull the plug on the Trump freak show?
For generations, the Beltway press has operated under the simple premise that relaying information from the President of the United States, particularly in a time of crisis, is vital to the fourth estate's role in a functioning democracy. But that premise only works if presidents are trying to solve the crisis, not muddy it, like when Trump claimed the U.S. would soon have "zero" coronavirus infections.
With the looming return of the briefings, everyone in the news business knows Trump is going to lie nonstop, because he has lied nonstop about the public health crisis for four months. “No country has ever done what we’ve done in terms of testing. We are the envy of the world,” he lied over the weekend, adding "The Democrats are purposely keeping their schools closed, keeping their states closed." These are the kind of mindless utterances that are guaranteed to punctuate his briefings. What's the point of airing them live and in full to a national audience? There's absolutely no news value attached to this reckless exercise.
"Over time, the news conferences have become increasingly devoid of actual news," ABC News conceded in the spring. The New York Times agreed: "The daily evening briefing has largely been turned into a lengthy infomercial starring Mr. Trump, who brags about his administration’s efforts, mocks his critics and berates reporters."
The distressing fact is it was the White House that unplugged the briefings before television news executives got up the courage to do the right thing months ago. And the White House only ended the briefings in late April after Trump stunned the nation and the world by suggesting Americans ingest cleaning products in order to cleanse themselves of the Covid-19 virus. (Trump's polling numbers have never recovered.)
Another briefing low point came when Trump hosted one of the most bizarre televised performances by a sitting president. The planned rant, which rambled for more than an hour, featured a campaign-style commercial that was aired in the briefing room and attacked the media as well as Trump's critics who have hammered him over the administration's botched handling of the pandemic.
This, while Trump was lying about dismantling the White House's pandemic team, accused hospital workers of stealing much-needed surgical masks, and told governors on a conference call that he hadn't heard complaints about a lack of coronavirus tests.
The solution today isn't difficult to figure out — news outlets cover the briefings and relay any important, factual information. But let C-Span air the briefings from beginning to end. There's no reason to give Trump an unobstructed, national platform to lie about a pandemic. It's the height of irresponsibility because TV executives know Trump cannot be trusted.
Instead, the media's unhealthy addiction endures. Married to the idea that every fragmented Trump thought constitutes breaking news, television outlets have committed themselves to carrying the freak show live, uninterrupted for four years. They changed the rules overnight when Trump was inaugurated and suddenly White House press briefings were treated as must-see TV, even though during the final six months of Barack Obama's presidency, just three percent of daily White House press briefings aired live, according to Media Matters.
Recall that in 2014, when Obama requested ten minutes of primetime to address the nation about immigration reform, all three TV networks denied the request, insisting Obama's comments were likely going to be "overly political." Yet Trump's endless partisan harangues receive free airtime for as long as he wants to pontificates incoherently.
Based on Trump's recently staged sessions at the White House, there's a high likelihood that upcoming pandemic briefings will devolve into plainly partisan events. In what CNN called a "blindly political speech," Trump recently summoned reporters to the Rose Garden for a "press conference," and then proceeded to take no questions. Instead, he rambled on for nearly an hour about immigration, policing, statues and monuments, trade and climate change, and warning that Democratic nominee Joe Biden would "destroy our country." CNN's Jim Acosta tweeted that Trump had "soiled the WH Rose Garden with that performance" and that "Presidents do not use the Rose Garden in that kind of naked political fashion."
Yet last Thursday, reporters dutifully filed in for another White House media event, which was meant to showcase Trump's first term deregulatory efforts. Instead, he warned that Biden was threatening to dismantle suburbs in America.
There's no way that airing Trump's ceaseless stream of dangerous pandemic lies for an hour at a time constitutes news.
Ed. Note: This thread from NYU's Jay Rosen is a must-read (click through for the entire thread):
I have these questions for CNN, MSNBC, CBS, ABC, NBC, NPR, PBS, and members of the @whca ahead of an event at the White House today that is being called a briefing. (Short thread.)
Here are some things to ask yourselves... 1/
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) July 21, 2020