Cable news should cancel the Trump Show

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President Donald Trump speaks at a daily coronavirus briefing at the White House on March 22, 2020. | Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Airing Trump’s daily “briefings” live misinforms people and undermines public health officials.

For the sake of public health, journalistic integrity, and the public’s basic mental health, it’s time to stop broadcasting President Donald Trump’s daily “coronavirus task force” briefings live.

Every president has had occasion to call upon broadcasters to air his words to the public when he has newsworthy or urgent announcements to make. When Trump said he wanted to address the nation from the Oval Office about coronavirus, it was right to extend him the opportunity to address the crisis. It was even right to offer some forbearance to his history of incessant lying once he started making himself the star of daily coronavirus briefings.

But no president in American history has ever had the privilege of having his every word simulcast across news networks. And we’ve now seen enough of Trump’s daily events to know that these are not briefings in any conventional sense. As James Fallows puts it, they are “Trump campaign rallies with scientists rather than local-government officials as the supporting cast.”

In ordinary times, of course, any politician is entitled to hold rallies. But that’s what these events are — ersatz rallies held for political purposes rather than bona fide attempts to inform the public. You can’t stop the president from holding rallies and lying, or even from streaming those lies live to a slice of the public. But there’s no reason to cover them as if they are legitimate policy briefings, and it’s a dangerous delusion to believe that asking tough questions on camera can undo the harm of misinformation.

Television networks should do what many print or digital news organizations do — watch the spectacles and then cover anything newsworthy that takes place, without treating them as actual sources of public information.

Trump misleading people is harmful

I am not a medical doctor, and I have no idea how effective hydroxychloroquine may prove to be as a Covid-19 treatment. There are evidently some researchers who are excited about this, but the relevant government officials seem much more restrained.

One veteran clinician with expertise in infectious diseases described it to me as “maybe 20 percent better than doing nothing.”

Given the scale of the problem at hand, “20 percent better than doing nothing” would be a meaningful improvement and it is correct and good that the FDA is working on this.

But to have the president of the United States up on stage dramatically overhyping what we know about this is harmful.

It’s never good when politicians lie. But in a public health crisis, you have a lot of people seeking accurate information and some of those people turn toward the news media. It’s important for those of us working in the media to try to provide that information.

When a person turns on the television and sees the president of the United States giving inaccurately optimistic assessments of the progress of testing, vaccine research, and treatment it encourages people to be less careful with their hand-washing and social distancing than they otherwise might be. That costs lives.

And while offering a post-briefing “fact check” is better than nothing, it doesn’t really undo the harm of showing it in the first place. What’s called for is news coverage that incorporates the fact that the president is saying things, but that focuses on providing people with accurate information — there are not currently Covid-19 treatments that scale very well, leaving hospitals at risk of becoming overwhelmed and unable to offer ventilators to everyone who needs them, making it morally urgent to do everything possible to slow the spread of the virus until a more comprehensive testing regime can be put in place.

Instead, there are reports from Mexican pharmacies of Americans rushing to stock up on anti-malaria medications.

The press cannot, in general, stop people from providing misinformation.

But they don’t need to provide a platform for it, even if the misinformer is the president of the United States. Turning these briefings into entertaining spectacles that Trump enjoys is creating serious problems for responsible officials who are trying to provide people with good information.

The Trump Show is making life hard for Anthony Fauci

Anthony Fauci, the longtime head of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease, has emerged as a star figure during a public health crisis that urgently needs a well-regarded and authoritative voice from the government.

But no one recurring feature on the daily briefings has been the part of the show where Dr. Fauci awkwardly corrects his boss, the president. As Vox’s German Lopez observes, “Fauci alone has corrected Trump on whether the outbreak will get worse, how long a vaccine will take to make, whether testing is widely available, and how long social distancing guidelines will remain in effect, among other examples.”

It’s good that Fauci is around to provide accurate information. But this puts him in an inherently awkward situation. As he describes in a recent interview with Science magazine, he is doing his best to push medical expertise in an administration that is often disdainful of expert advice.

But the president, according to sources cited by the New York Times, “has become frustrated with Dr. Fauci’s blunt approach at the briefing lectern, which often contradicts things the president has just said.”

There is no really good solution to this dilemma.

Top public health officials can’t responsibly fail to correct misinformation when they are speaking in public about a public health crisis. But at the same time, Trump is the president and he is within his rights to fire or silence Fauci if he gets annoyed by him — exactly what happened to Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, when she issued prescient warnings February.

The best solution for the country, by far, would be for Trump to get bored with the idea of doing these daily briefings. Then Fauci could get back to focusing on his job of providing good internal and external information rather than worrying about managing his relationship with Trump.

If the briefings stopped being treated as breaking news events and started being treated as just more Trump political communications, he might lose interest in doing them. And he’d be able to cope with his annoyance at being contradicted by Fauci from the White House podium by just not staging them in the first place. NIH officials could communicate with the media from the NIH, Trump could tweet or whatever else he likes to do, and TV news could try to focus on informing people.

“Tough questions” are not the answer

One source of disagreement with my prescription is many journalists’ belief that the opportunity to ask the president tough questions live on camera is invaluable, and provides an important source of accountability.

For some politicians, that’s probably true. But for Trump it’s all part of the show. He likes to cast the media as his real political opposition, which has two advantages for him. First it trains his followers to view unflattering reporting as hostile political communication rather than factual information. Second, it exploits the fact that the media, unlike Trump’s actual opposition in the Democratic Party, optimizes for some mix of ratings and journalistic value rather than message effectiveness.

Under the circumstances, journalists fighting with Trump on camera doesn’t hold him to account, it just further ups the level of drama and spectacle. Trump is not much of an epidemiologist but he’s a legitimate master showman and even the most rigorous journalists should be wary of playing into his show.

Of course, television news itself is one part news and one part television. Airing the daily edition of the Trump Show is good showbusiness, and for some producers and executives that may be good enough. But to the extent that the people involved care about journalistic values — informing the public and holding the power to account — the best approach is to report on what happens without airing the events live.

Author: Matthew Yglesias

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