The daily COVID-19 briefings from the White House have been going on for weeks.
In the past two weeks, the President has attended the daily press events. During that two weeks, a string of lies and misinformation have flowed from the President’s mouth.
The flow of falsehoods is so thick that some think the press needs to put the President in timeout.
Why would they say that?
The “Misinformation President”
I first saw the idea from NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen. Rosen has long argued that this President, and his propensity to lie or, at the very least, stretch the truth, were cause for a change in the way the press covers his administration.
Here’s an excerpt of his post, which was published before the now famous facepalm:
… 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.via Jay Rosen at Pressthink
What’s interesting is, Rosen isn’t the first press critic to say this. On March 13th, Eric Boehler advocated for changing the way the press covers this President.
Its hardly a groundswell, but certainly a recognition of a problem.
Life and Death Consequences
Yesterday, we learned just how life and death the Daily COVID-19 Task Force Briefings are. An Arizona man became the first death directly related to the advice of the President at a briefing.
On Thursday, March 19th, the President touted a drug. He asserted he “felt good” that the drug would work to fight COVID-19.
Saturday morning, Trump tweeted: “HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine,” referencing a scientific journal article about the small clinical trial of 36 patients in France. Several other small studies of other antiviral drugs have also shown glimmers of hope. So what should doctors do?
How likely is it that the possible benefits shown in a small study will turn out to be a mirage? One way of understanding this is to look at what happens with medicines in clinical trials. Experimental drugs are usually studied in three stages of progressively larger studies. The first, called Phase 1 trials, are small studies used to get an early read on efficacy and rule out obvious safety issues. These are then refined in larger “Phase 2” studies and then in the large “Phase 3” studies used by the FDA to decide whether to approve a drug.via Matthew Herper at Statnews
Less than 5 days after the President made this statement, one man is dead, and his wife is recovering after trying to follow the President’s advice.
Below is audio of the woman whose husband died.
At this point, the issue with the Daily COVID Task Force Briefings is literally life and death.
The lies and flights of fancy of a President who has a passing relationship with the truth is killing people.
What would a President in timeout look like?
There are several ways the press could cover the daily Task Force Briefings without allowing the President’s lies, obfuscations, or mistruths to dominate the coverage.
The key question the press needs to answer comes via Professor Rosen: is what he (President Trump) said something we should be amplifying?
News coverage isn’t guaranteed…or at least it doesn’t have to be. While no President in my lifetime has ever lacked press coverage. But no President in my lifetime has made over 16,000 false or misleading claims in his first three years in office.
This problem, as Rosen points out, requires the press to change the way they cover the President, so the public can get the right information without being misled.
Honestly, it isn’t all that hard.
The daily briefings take place at a specific time and place. Rather than streaming the information live, press outlets would time delay the briefings so the important information gets the headline and the misinformation, which usually flows from the President’s mouth, doesn’t.
This time delay could be as little as 15 minutes, and be unobtrusive.
Imagine a briefing, covered “as live” but with context delivering graphics below that either correct or point out errors.
The 15 minutes is in place so producers have time to push those graphics.
The content of the briefing isn’t changed, but the context in which viewers gather information is.
In my not so distant past I’ve been a TV news producer, and director (in local TV, but still). If we have the resources to do something like this locally, certainly the national press could as well.
Not everyone agrees
As support for shifting the way the press covers the President grows, not everyone agrees with the change.
…Trump’s news conferences must be aired live and in their entirety. It’s critical to see what Trump and his team are doing and how they are thinking even if we don’t like or agree with it. When it comes to the president and his actions, it’s necessary that the media does not shield the American people and, in effect, protect Trump from the public.via Poynter.org
There’s room for disagreement, but since no one has consistently tried to do this live, we can only speculate about the impact on the public.
Further, no one is saying the un-contextualized briefings wouldn’t be made public. They would, just later. If the interest is there, people will watch.
Finally, Poynter ends its section on covering President Trump this way:
When necessary, the media can go back and point out any misinformation, mistakes or conflicting messages — and find the truth amid all of that.via Poynter.org
The problem with this is the same problem of putting the genie back in the bottle. Once misinformation is out there, its much harder to fix it. Misinformation lives on forever.
Think about corrections in newspapers. They may get published, but no one ever really remembers them.
Corrections are basically for posterity. The average press consumer doesn’t see it, unless it is pushed as hard or harder than the original article…which almost NEVER happens.
The press and the President have consistently been at odds since he announced his campaign in 2015.
Over that nearly 5 years, the press has tried to placate the President with non-stop coverage. This both delights and enrages the Chief Malignant Narcissist. He feeds off the coverage, good and bad. Both give him what he most desperately needs…attention.
But to put the President in timeout would not reduce the coverage, just make it more meaningful to readers, listeners, and viewers. It would give a level of context, in a “near live” setting, that would help keep the record straight, in a time when its literally life and death.
If the press had put the President in timeout sooner, perhaps a man in Arizona would be alive today.
Some would rather the press work harder to hold the President accountable. Tough questions, they say, are the prescription.
Again, I defer to Professor Rosen:
Right now, with tension high, and an uncertain future, people need the emotional and intellectual support to keep doing the right thing to fight this virus.
Getting accurate information from the government is more critical than ever. It literally has life and death consequences.
The press has a duty to cover the President, but we had nearly 200 years of print only coverage. There’s no evidence that putting a small delay on the President’s public statements would harm the public’s right to know.
If anything, it gives the public more context to understand. Which is what journalism is supposed to do in the first place.
Its way past time the press put the President in timeout.