At what point does taking the government’s daily coronavirus briefing become malpractice on the part of broadcasters? If experience tells us that day after day the President of the United States makes false or misleading statements about the pandemic that has shut down huge parts of America and forced millions to shelter in their homes, is returning the next day to air the next episode a rational decision—since it’s tradition to hear what the leader of the free world has to say?
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow wondered about that Friday night, noting that yet again, the daily briefing included President Trump celebrating things that sounded good—and perhaps gave Americans hope in the face of a frightening global crisis—but ultimately, as she put it, was Trump “telling people a fairy tale,” which she described as “cruel, and harmful, and needlessly diverting and wildly irresponsible from anyone in any leadership role.”
Maddow argues that in this critically serious time, letting Donald Trump speak without an editor or fact-checker isn’t just bad journalism, it’s dangerous. People are making life-and-death decisions about how they lead their lives, and how seriously to take the spread of coronavirus. “There is a clear pattern here, in this crisis of the president promising stuff that America would love to hear, but it’s not true,” Maddow said. “The specific way the president is failing now is clear…we should inoculate ourselves against the harmful impact of these ongoing false promises and false statements by the president.”
The presidential press conference is an American tradition, of course, made famous in the modern era by John Kennedy, whose ease in front of the camera—and with reporters—established an expectation that presidents would present themselves to journalists regularly and take questions. This tradition was upended by Donald Trump, who enjoys being on television but not being challenged. Case in point just yesterday, when NBC’s Peter Alexander asked what he himself described as a “softball” question about the president’s message to Americans who were scared in the face of the coronavirus. Instead of seizing on the opportunity to calm the country, he attacked the reporter, NBC News, and NBC parent company Comcast.
“When he is talking about the coronavirus epidemic, more often than not he is lying,” Maddow said of President Trump Friday night. “These daily briefings from the White House…if it were up to me—and it’s not—I would stop putting those briefings on live TV. Not out of spite, but because it’s misinformation.”
It’s difficult to imagine the President of the United States stepping up to a lectern fitted with the presidential seal and not carrying his remarks on television. When the president speaks, we have learned from listening to presidents through the decades, it tends to be important. But during this crisis, the president has often seemed not to be speaking with intention and precision, being careful with his words because—as we have seen so clearly in recent days—a president’s words can have immediate effects on stock markets—and people’s hopes.
If it’s important for Americans to know they can believe what the president says, and especially in a time when millions of lives are potentially at risk, how do we balance the tradition of treating a White House briefing as an automatic live event versus being careful about handing over the power of television to someone who can’t be trusted to use its massive reach responsibly?
With the spread of coronavirus effectively shutting down the country’s two largest cities, and entire states like New York closed for all but essential businesses, can broadcasters simply say yes, well, we always carry the president when we know he’s riffing, sharing anecdotes, and often just getting it wrong—if not, as Maddow suggests, lying to make us (or himself) feel better?
One thing has always been clear about Donald Trump: he knows when the cameras are on. If he gave a briefing and knew the networks were recording it, reviewing it for the truth of his promises, and fact-checking it before airing parts that might be important, would that impress upon him the importance of watching his words? Or is that something that this president isn’t capable of grasping—or caring about?
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