White House coronavirus briefings: How much is must-see TV?

Why We Wrote This

How does one best convey information during a public health crisis? That’s a question media outlets are grappling with as they cover the president’s daily briefings, which tend to mix valuable information with inaccurate assertions.

Alex Brandon/AP
President Donald Trump calls on a reporter as he speaks about the coronavirus, with Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, at right, in the briefing room of the White House, March 31, 2020, in Washington. The number of reporters in the room has been reduced to allow for social distancing.

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Within the media, debate is swirling around whether cable networks should televise President Donald Trump’s daily briefings live. They are often long – well over an hour – and contain a mix of valuable information, particularly from the scientists on the White House’s coronavirus task force, as well as misstatements and grandstanding. 

CNN and MSNBC, which lean liberal, have taken to showing only parts of the briefing, cutting away when it is deemed to be off-topic. On Wednesday, CNN skipped the first portion when Mr. Trump opened by touting an “enhanced counternarcotics operation,” a decision anchor John King called “shameless.”

The network did the same the day before, declining to show the president’s opening remarks, which had highlighted, in a notably somber tone, projections of between 100,000 and 240,000 deaths from the virus in the United States. 

The network’s decision that day seemed “a little petty,” says Kelly McBride, chair of the Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. 

But she understands the hesitation over giving the president unlimited airtime. One alternative, she suggests, would be to “summarize the entire press conference and edit it down to key points.” 

Which statement best describes the daily White House briefings in the age of coronavirus?

(A) They are fact-based and analytical; (B) They convey questionable or even false information; (C) They are vital to the public interest; (D) They are opportunities for grandstanding; or (E) All of the above.

The answer is (E). Praise and blame for this daily stew of essential public service and political reality TV sit at the feet of both President Donald Trump and the reporters asking him questions. 

The ethics here are profound. Lives are on the line, and everyone involved plays an important role – the president and his team, journalists, and ultimately, the public, which must follow safe practices and figure out fact from fiction.

Editor’s note: As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

“Everybody has a responsibility here,” says Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. 

The fact that President Trump is up for reelection, with Election Day just seven months away, only adds to the drama.

Within the media, debate is swirling around whether cable networks should televise Mr. Trump’s briefings live. These daily sessions are often long – well over an hour – and contain a mix of valuable information, particularly from the scientists on the White House’s coronavirus task force, and diversions that can include unproductive exchanges between Mr. Trump and antagonists in the press corps.

The news that Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and a member of the task force, now needs a security detail reinforces the central role of information in this crisis. Dr. Fauci, known to correct Mr. Trump at times in public, has both fervent admirers and critics. And there’s no doubt that when Dr. Fauci speaks at briefings, people pay attention.

CNN and MSNBC, which lean liberal, have taken to showing only parts of the briefing live, cutting away when it is deemed to be off-topic. On Wednesday, CNN skipped the first portion when Mr. Trump opened by touting an “enhanced counter-narcotics operation,” a phalanx of military advisers flanking him at the podium. 

Some would call the decision to highlight a tangential topic “shameless,” CNN anchor John King said. “This is a coronavirus task force briefing.” 

After the narcotics discussion ended, and the actual coronavirus briefing started, with the usual cast at Mr. Trump’s side – including Drs. Fauci and Deborah Birx – CNN showed the briefing live. 

The network did the same the day before, declining to show the president’s opening remarks, then going live with the experts. On that day, Mr. Trump had highlighted, with a notably somber tone, projections of between 100,000 and 240,000 deaths from the virus in the United States. 

The decision to skip the president’s opening remarks on Tuesday seemed “a little petty,” says Kelly McBride, chair of the Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. 

But she understands the hesitation over giving the president unlimited air time, and suggests an alternative, including transparency with viewers. 

“You can summarize the entire press conference and edit it down to key points,” Ms. McBride says. “You certainly have the prerogative to run the whole thing. And if you’re going to run a portion of it live, you have to tell your audience why you think that portion live is more important than any of the other portions live.” 

A love-hate relationship 

Some media critics have pleaded for TV networks to stop running the president’s briefings altogether. They are, in effect, a substitute for the campaign rallies he can no longer hold, and contain exaggerations and lies, writes Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post. Examples: The president argued that tests for the virus were readily available when they weren’t. Ditto a nationwide website that Google would roll out “very quickly,” which it hasn’t. 

Jack Shafer, Politico’s senior media writer, has a different take. The effort to suppress attention to the briefings reflects a “paternalistic mindset” toward the public, he writes. And besides, it won’t work. Trump-friendly Fox News will keep showing the briefings, as does C-SPAN. Live streams are all over the web. 

The backstory to Mr. Trump’s dealings with the media is crucial to understanding the current state of play. More than a year ago, the Trump White House stopped holding daily press briefings. Disdain for the press corps was palpable. Mr. Trump pivoted instead to “chopper talk” gaggles with reporters as he headed to Marine One for trips out of town, or visits with the press corps on Air Force One.

These regular interactions reinforced the notion that Mr. Trump sees himself as his own best press secretary, going back to his days as a real estate developer who would call reporters under an assumed name to advocate for himself. 

Mr. Trump has long had a love-hate relationship with the press. He hates being confronted, but he loves the attention media bring. These conflicting impulses have come to the fore amid the COVID-19 crisis, and are most evident in the daily press conferences. 

“You see a little bit of everything in these briefings,” says William Jacobson, a law professor at Cornell University and conservative blogger.

“You see straightforward information, you see the science, you see Trump as he describes himself, as the cheerleader for the nation,” Professor Jacobson says. “You also see his interaction with the media.”

He agrees Mr. Trump loves the attention, but he also sees reporters looking for “that sound bite, that gotcha moment.” The president is smart enough to sense it and doesn’t want to give it to them, Mr. Jacobson says. 

Confrontation vs. information

One of Mr. Trump’s biggest antagonists is CNN’s Jim Acosta, whose White House press credential was revoked temporarily in 2018 after he refused to relinquish the microphone at a press conference. At Monday’s press briefing, Mr. Trump called on Mr. Acosta with a “here we go.” The CNN reporter read a series of statements by Mr. Trump, going back several weeks, that seemed to play down the severity of the looming crisis – such as “just stay calm, it will all go away.” 

Mr. Trump insisted all the statements were true, then attacked CNN. The exchange was highly predictable, and didn’t elicit any new information. It also furthered Mr. Trump’s longstanding claim that the media are out to get him. 

“I’m not sure we need members of the media trying to provoke confrontation when the nation needs calm and information,” says Jeffrey McCall, a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. “We don’t need reporters seeking a ‘moment’ to stand out.”

Still, he says, journalists at the briefings are doing a fine job, and serving effectively as surrogates for the public.

“The problem is that these become rhetorical-slash-theatrical events,” Professor McCall says. “We do see some grandstanding from Trump, but that’s his nature. He got elected by being outspoken and by being grandiose.”

Ultimately, says Ms. Culver, the media ethicist at the University of Wisconsin, it’s a critically important time for TV networks to be exercising their editorial judgment. And it’s a time for journalists to show their mettle in serving the public interest.

“Are we as citizens getting what we need from these briefings when they’re displayed live,” she asks, “as opposed to journalists performing the function they’re supposed to perform, which is to verify and fact-check information before it’s shared?”

In the end, Ms. Culver notes, everyone – the president, the press, the public – shares the same goal: to act individually and collectively to maximize the survival rate amid the biggest viral threat facing the planet in more than a century.

Editor’s note: As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

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