The coronavirus pandemic has rendered Donald Trump’s Nuremberg-style MAGA campaign rallies impossible, but no worries, he has found a new outlet, hijacking the coronavirus task force daily press briefings. And the news media is being used to “catapult the propaganda,” as George W. Bush infamously once said. Trump can’t hold his massive rallies because of coronavirus, so he’s moved his act to the briefing room:
As the coronavirus renders Trump’s signature campaign tactic impossible, his appearances at the White House briefing room have started to sound a lot like his rallies, featuring great-again rhetoric (“America will triumph”), xenophobia (“the Chinese virus”), conspiracy theories (“the Deep State Department”) and attacks on the media (“You’re a terrible reporter”).
His campaign, in turn, has amplified Trump’s appearances at the briefings and other coronavirus-related meetings online to portray him as a wartime president, and touted his administration’s efforts to win the battle on the coronavirus.
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The rally parallels were on full display at Friday’s press conference, where Trump was joined by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Dr. Debora Birx of the coronavirus task force, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci, among others. What was ostensibly a public health briefing morphed quickly into a very Trumpian affair.
Thought there were no cheering supporters to egg on, Trump still relentlessly attacked journalists in the way he often berates “fake news” at his mass gatherings. His supporters have been known to chant “CNN sucks!” and boo the press corps during the event.
“What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?” NBC News’ Peter Alexander asked.
Trump’s reply: “I say that you’re a terrible reporter, that’s what I say.”
“There’s a lot of fake news out there,” he said later in the briefing when another reporter asked about his attack on Alexander.
When Pompeo needed to leave the briefing, Trump joked that he had to go back to the State Department, “or as they call it, the Deep State Department,” a reference to the conspiracy theory that a shadow force existed within the federal government to undermine Trump. The joke prompted a facepalm from Fauci.
Trump has also insisted on referring to the coronavirus as “the Chinese virus,” despite its racist connotations, going so far as to edit his prepared briefing remarks to cross out the word “corona” and replace it with “Chinese.”
Meanwhile online, his campaign and network of supporters blast out tweets that reinforce his statements at the podium and show clips and photos touting his response to the coronavirus. They’ve also doubled down on his attacks and spin, as the president himself would if he were out on the stump.
This has to stop. Now. The most important lesson of the 1918 influenza pandemic: Tell the damn truth:
The biggest lesson of the 1918 influenza epidemic, according to historian John M. Barry, is that leaders have to tell the truth, no matter how hard it is to hear. Barry, who wrote an influential book on the 1918 pandemic, says that lying about the severity of the crisis in 1918 created more fear and more isolation and more suffering for everyone.
[Trump’s] contradictory messages about the virus, and the dishonesty motivating them, is dangerous right now. Refusing to tell people the truth will cost lives because it undercuts our efforts to flatten the epidemic curve with practices like social distancing. It also erodes the public’s trust in government — and that’s a huge problem.
Margaret Sullivan, formerly the public editor of The New York Times and now media columnist for the Washington Post writes today, The media must stop live-broadcasting Trump’s dangerous, destructive coronavirus briefings:
More and more each day, President Trump is using his daily briefings as a substitute for the campaign rallies that have been forced into extinction by the spread of the novel coronavirus.
These White House sessions — ostensibly meant to give the public critical and truthful information about this frightening crisis — are in fact working against that end.
Rather, they have become a daily stage for Trump to play his greatest hits to captive audience members. They come in search of life-or-death information, but here’s what they get from him instead:
● Self-aggrandizement. When asked how he would grade his response to the crisis, the president said, “I’d rate it a 10.” Absurd on its face, of course, but effective enough as blatant propaganda.
● Media-bashing. When NBC News’s Peter Alexander lobbed him a softball question in Friday’s briefing — “What do you say to Americans who are scared?” — Trump went on a bizarre attack. “I say, you’re a terrible reporter,” the president said, launching into one of his trademark “fake news” rants bashing Alexander’s employer. (Meanwhile, he has also found time during these news briefings to lavish praise on sycophantic pro-Trump media like One America News Network, whose staffer — I can’t call her a reporter — invited him to justify his xenophobic talk of a “Chinese virus” by asking rhetorically if he considers the phrase “Chinese food” racist.)
● Exaggeration and outright lies. Trump has claimed that there are plenty of tests available (there aren’t); that Google is “very quickly” rolling out a nationwide website to help manage coronavirus treatment (the tech giant was blindsided by the premature claim); that the drug chloroquine, approved to treat malaria, is a promising cure for the virus and “we’re going to be able to make that drug available almost immediately.” (It hasn’t been approved for this use, and there is no evidence to demonstrate its effectiveness in fighting the virus.)
Trump is doing harm and spreading misinformation while working for his own partisan political benefit — a naked attempt to portray himself as a wartime president bravely leading the nation through a tumultuous time, the FDR of the 21st century.
The press — if it defines its purpose as getting truthful, useful, non-harmful information to the public, as opposed to merely juicing its own ratings and profits — must recognize what is happening and adjust accordingly. (And that, granted, is a very big “if.”)
Business as usual simply doesn’t cut it. Minor accommodations, like fact-checking the president’s statements afterward, don’t go nearly far enough to counter the serious damage this man is doing to the public’s well-being.
Radical change is necessary: The cable networks and other news organizations that are taking the president’s briefings as live feeds should stop doing so.
Should they cover the news that’s produced in them? Of course. Thoroughly and relentlessly — with context and fact-checking built in to every step and at every stage.
“There is a very real possibility that in broadcasting these press conferences live or in quickly publishing and blasting out his words in mobile alerts, we are actively misinforming our audience,” Alex Koppelman, managing editor of CNN Business, wrote in an email for the network’s Reliable Sources newsletter.
Koppelman stopped short of overtly calling for the radical solution. That’s not so for Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University who wrote on his PressThink blog that the media needs to switch into “emergency mode” for covering Trump and clearly communicate that change to its readers and viewers (in full):
Even this far into his term, it is still a bit of a shock to be reminded that the single most potent force for misinforming the American public is the current president of the United States. For three years this has been a massive — and unsolved — problem for the country and its political leadership.
But now it is life and death. On everything that involves the coronavirus Donald Trump’s public statements have been unreliable. And that is why today we announce that we are shifting our coverage of the President to an emergency setting.
This means we are exiting from the normal system for covering presidents— which Trump himself exited long ago by using the microphone we have handed him to spread thousands of false claims, even as he undermines trust in the presidency and the press. True: he is not obliged to answer our questions. But neither are we obligated to assist him in misinforming the American people about the spread of the virus, and what is actually being done by his government.
We take this action knowing we will be criticized for it by the President’s defenders, by some in journalism, and perhaps by some of you. And while it would be nice to have company as we change course, we anticipate that others in the news media will stick with the traditional approach to covering presidents.
This we cannot in good conscience do.
Switching to emergency mode means our coverage will look different and work in a different way, as we try to prevent the President from misinforming you through us. Here are the major changes:
* We will not cover live any speech, rally, or press conference involving the president. The risk of passing along bad information is too great. Instead, we will attend carefully to what he says. If we can independently verify any important news he announces we will bring that to you— after the verification step.
* We plan to suspend normal relations with the Trump White House. That means we won’t be attending briefings. (We can watch them on TV.) We won’t gather around him as he departs in his helicopter. We won’t join in any off-the-record “background” sessions with Administration officials. We won’t enter into agreements of any kind with the Trump team, which includes those nameless “senior advisers” who mysteriously show up in news stories.
* We have always tried to quote public officials accurately, including President Trump. In emergency mode we add a further check. In addition to, “does this fairly represent what he said?” we will ask: is what he said something we should be amplifying? If it is simply meant to demonize a group of people, rewrite a history that now embarrasses the President, or extend his hate campaign against journalists who are doing their job, we may decide not to amplify it, even though it happened. An old tenet of White House reporting states that what the president says makes news— automatically, as it were. Today we are disabling that autoplay system and replacing it with a manual one.
* In general, we will be shifting the focus of our coverage from what President Trump is saying to what his government is doing. We will be de-emphasizing the entire White House beat and adding people who can penetrate the bureaucracy from the rim, rather than the center of the distortion machine.
* Experience has taught us that there will occasionally be times when the President makes a demonstrably false claim, or floats a poisonous lie, and it is too consequential to ignore. We feel we have to tell you about it, even at the risk of amplifying his deceptions. In those special cases, we will adopt a news writing formula that has been called the “truth sandwich.” It is a more careful way of reporting newsworthy falsehoods. First you state what is true. Then you report the false statement. Then you repeat what is true. Like so:
In January and February, President Trump minimized the danger of the coronavirus. “We have it totally under control,” he said on Jan. 22. But two days ago he tried to erase that fact and escape accountability for his prior statements. “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic,” he said. If we judge by his public statements this is an outright lie. On Feb. 27, at a White House meeting he said: “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”
Refusing to go with live coverage. Suspending normal relations with his White House. Always asking: is this something we should amplify? A focus on what he’s doing, not on what he’s saying. The truth sandwich when we feel we have to highlight his false claims. This is what you can expect now that our coverage has been switched to an emergency setting.
One more thing. Because we don’t know that we have done this right, and because your confidence in us describes the limits of what we can achieve as journalists, we will be hiring immediately a public editor who is empowered to field complaints, decide if something went wrong, find out how it happened, and report back.
Early in President Trump’s term, Marty Baron, the editor of the Washington Post, spoke these memorable words about the President’s “enemy of the people” rhetoric: “We’re not at war, we’re at work,” said Baron. This was a smart warning not to get caught up in bringing down a president.
Today we are recognizing that our journalism must shift, not to a “war” but to an emergency footing. (Donald Trump, meanwhile, is calling himself a “wartime president.”) We feel we cannot keep telling wild and “newsy” stories about the unreliable narrator who somehow became president. Not with millions of lives at stake. We have to exit from that system to keep faith with you, and with the reason we became journalists in the first place.
It’s important to remember how much Trump’s tune has changed on the coronavirus, from blithely dismissive to self-importantly serious.
This is what he was saying about the virus in public as recently as Feb. 27: “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”
We know, without any doubt, that Trump was ignoring intelligence reports that warned about the likelihood of a pandemic at the same time he was cooing these baseless reassurances. But now he’s claiming that he knew the problem was a pandemic long before others did, and that he took every step possible.
Will people remember the depths of his mendacity and hold him accountable?
“I’m worried about our collective memory when it comes to this,” Charlie Warzel of the New York Times wrote on Saturday. It is this initial lack of action that will cost lives months down the road, he noted. Therefore, “accountability will mean not giving into recency bias when this ends and remembering how it got so bad in the first place.”
There’s a strong counter-argument to be made, of course: that the press shouldn’t be in the business of shielding the public from the president’s statements — no matter how misleading, xenophobic or damaging.
It’s a persuasive argument, and one I wish I could still believe in.
But Trump has proved, time after time, that he doesn’t care about truth, that he puts his financial and political self-interest above that of the public, and that he has no understanding of the role of the press in a democracy. And now lives are on the line.
The news media, at this dangerous and unprecedented moment in world history, must put the highest priority on getting truthful information to the public.
Taking Trump’s press conferences as a live feed works against that core purpose.
I’ve said for weeks that someone needs to go to court to get a “gag order” to stop Trump from speaking or tweeting about the coronavirus pandemic, and that goes for his ass kissing sycophant vice president as well. Only the medical professionals should be speaking. But since this is unlikely, the television news media needs to cease live coverage of Trump hijacking the coronavirus task force daily press briefings, and follow the “emergency mode” media guidelines discussed above.
UPDATE: As Jennifer Senior writes in an op-ed at the New York Times, President Trump Is Unfit for This Crisis. Period. (excerpts)
“President Trump, hellbent on re-election, is focused on massaging numbers and silencing bearers of bad news. That’s what autocrats do. And it’s endangering lives.”
“His preening narcissism, his compulsive lying, his vindictiveness, his terror of germs and his terrifying inability to grasp basic science — all of it eclipsed his primary responsibilities to us as Americans, which was to provide urgent care, namely in the form of leadership.”
“This crisis has unhelmed and unmasked him. He’s incapable of leading. When it comes to Trump, truth, decency and self-possession have been in quarantine from the start.”
UPDATE: Republicans For The Rule Of Law chronicles the failure of the Trump administration to acknowledge, let alone address the novel coronavirus spreading across the nation, using their own damning words.