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Bully pulpit: Should US networks simply stop broadcasting Trump and his dangerous Covid-19 briefings?

Some have scaled back their live coverage of the daily briefings.

Image: DPA/PA Images

THE QUESTION OF whether US journalists should cover Donald Trump’s utterances simply because he is the president is not a new one. It has however taken on a fresh urgency in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis. 

The latest scarcely believable incident was Trump wondering aloud during last night’s briefing whether injecting disinfectant into patients could help with Covid-19 treatment. His comments have been met with horror by doctors who’ve unsurprisingly said that doing so could be extremely dangerous.

It is not the first such incident since the White House began daily coronavirus briefings and questions over how reporters cover them have been growing louder and louder. 

Trump’s first apparent preoccupation was his repeated touting of malaria drug hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19.

Not only is there insufficient results to show that drug can be effective in fighting the disease, but his fast-and-loose promotion of the drug was criticised as being dangerous.

One man in Arizona died after he ingested chloroquine phosphate he had in his house to clean a fish tank

Trump has even sought to bring conspiracy theories into the daily briefings and the US top infectious diseases expert Dr. Anthony Fauci has visibly shown his frustration on occasions

There have been times when Trump appeared to field questions directed at the medical professionals and an analysis by the Washington Post calculated that he speaks for 61% of the time despite the expertise in the room. 

Throughout all these controversies and the mounting Covid-19 death toll in the US, now above 50,000, Trump has shamelessly spoken about viewing figures. 

“Because the ‘Ratings’ of my News Conferences etc. are so high… the Lamestream Media is going CRAZY,” Trump has tweeted.

“President Trump is a ratings hit,” he said in another tweet, quoting the first sentence in an article in The New York Times. 

“President Trump is a ratings hit, and some journalists and public health experts say that could be a dangerous thing,” the full sentence read. 

The newspaper went on to say that Trump “has repeatedly delivered information that doctors and public health officials have called ill-informed, misleading or downright wrong”.

As questions over the ethics of covering the press conferences live has grown, networks have made some efforts to scale back their coverage, or at least been seen to. 

“All of us should stop broadcasting,” MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow said last month. “It’s going to cost lives.”

For media watchers they haven’t gone nearly far enough, lecturer at the City University of New York’s school of journalism Jeff Jarvis says it’s becoming increasingly more frustrating. 

“I think we have to back up, ask ourselves and remind ourselves what journalism’s job is. It is to inform the public, we should not ill-inform the public,” he told TheJournal.ie

So we should ask whether what we’re doing is meeting the mission or not. Airing Donald Trump is misinforming the public. Period. Airing him live is giving him a platform for his ego and his campaign, which is wrong. So I’m among those who believe strenuously that we should not be airing him live. That we should know about as a populace, as a citizenry, we should know exactly how dangerous and stupid he is, but we do that in the context journalism. 

Jarvis argues that, especially in the context of the current health crisis, the news media is no longer the “deliverers of information” because so much of it is now on social media and official sources.

Instead the news media needs to “add value to the flow” and that simply “letting Donald Trump speak for two hours at dinnertime in the United States is dangerous”.  

Often when journalists are accused of failing in their duty they’re accused of not asking ‘the tough questions’ or even the right questions, but in the case of someone like Trump asking any kind of question is often irrelevant because he’s as likely to either lie or use it as an excuse for a rant.  

So what should a newsroom’s gameplans be when approaching these briefings? 

“A lot of folks, including my colleague Jay Rosen in New York University, I think Margaret Sullivan at the Washington Post and others have argued that news organisations should send their interns to the press briefings,” Jarvis says. 

Let him blather, watch it on C-Span, send them the questions. That’s one strategy, another strategy right now would be to send a science reporter. It’s not going to make any difference though. 

The New York Times is among the outlets who have stopped sending veteran correspondents to cover the briefings. 

“Nowadays, it seems they make little news,” The New York Times’ executive editor, Dean Baquet, told The Washington Post. “We, of course, reserve the right to show them live [via web streaming] if we believe they will actually make news. But that hasn’t happened in quite some time.”

The New York Times has also been seen to tie itself in knots in contradicting Trump’s nonsense though.

Only this afternoon it deleted a sentence in an article and a tweet in which it said that Trump’s disinfectant idea was dangerous “in the view of some experts”.

“To be clear, there is no debate on the danger,” the NYT later conceded.  

Of the major US networks, MSNBC and CNN haven’t stopped showing the briefings entirely but they’ve cut off the briefings at some points if they go wildly off topic. 

The White House has noted this and there has even been criticism from the administration about it.

An MSNBC network spokesperson told The Hill that the network cut away from one briefing “because the information no longer appeared to be valuable to the important ongoing discussion around public health”.

Another method that networks have been using is banner text on the screen (known in the industry as chyrons) to counter Trump’s misinformation during the briefings. 

One such example that was shared widely online recently was CNN declaring that his briefing amounted to ‘propaganda’. 

But while such chyron screenshots may turn into viral content for the networks, many have questioned whether they make any effective difference. 

Mark Lukasiewicz, a former NBC executive who now works for as a senior journalism academic at Hofstra University, told ABC News recently they do not

“I don’t think it’s effective at all,” Lukasiewicz said. “The misstatements are too frequent and too complex to be effectively fact-checked in the moment. It’s a very hard exercise to do.”

Instead of running chryons on the the screen in an attempt to fact-check Trump, many have pointed out that simply not broadcasting him in the first place would be a better decision. So why isn’t this happening? 

“It goes back to the syndrome in American cable news of the ‘missing white woman syndrome’,” Jarvis argues.

Years ago, there were a couple stories in a row of a white woman who went missing in Caribbean island or something like that. And they would stay on the story non-stop and they were afraid of going off the story because they look to their competitor and say, ‘well, they’re still on it so we better be’.  So it is a perpetual motion machine.

“The current business model of mass media brought to the internet inevitably leads to cats and Kardashians. And Donald Trump,” Jarvis adds.

“So a lot of this is the fault of our business model. And I’m a capitalist, I’m not suggesting that we can just overnight get rid of advertising or such. But we’ve got to change the metrics of success we operate on.” 

But when it comes to Trump, even if some networks do stop broadcasting the briefings live, it is not possible to ignore them completely. If something extraordinary does occur, as it did last night, it is likely to be big news anyway.

There is a wider question about whether the briefings are doing more and more reputational damage to the US generally and a specific one about what effect they will have on the US election later this year. 

One of the biggest powers of the US presidency is what Theodore Roosevelt described as the bully pulpit it provides and Trump is stretching this to previously unimagined lengths.

Whether the US people can stand back and listen for much longer remains to be seen.

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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