An email arrived the other day telling me the president is using his daily coronavirus press briefings “to spread misinformation, campaign for re-election, and bully reporters who challenge him.”
The email went on: “Instead of enabling this behavior, major news media outlets need to stop” their live, unedited coverage, and I should sign a petition demanding it.
Whoa. No way.
Granted, it’s tough to watch Trump’s cavalier and dangerous disregard of facts, science, and truth; his obsessively political, hateful rants and innuendoes; his xenophobic propaganda; his inability to demonstrate leadership in any way, shape or form; his absurd failure to social distance on stage. He maliciously maligns elected officials who dare to not kowtow and journalists trying to report the truth. He is bad for the country and my blood pressure.
That’s why I stopped watching. Instead, I check in on mainstream media for a credible summary of the day’s news from rational experts and reporters.
But while I ignore the live briefings, I don’t want the mainstream media to do the same.
Like it or not, Trump is president. To not air his briefings would leave the mainstream media open to criticism that it was stifling the president’s attempts to communicate with the country during a national crisis, and it would divert viewers to the Trump-sanctioned channel. The challenge for the mainstream media is to relentlessly, politely (to the extent possible), and unapologetically question, challenge, fact-check — and hold him and his administration responsible for what is said and done.
I’ll confess to a pang of déjà vu from when the media gave outrageous candidate Trump undeserved, priceless attention. The lesson from that mistake: Don’t silence the president, but don’t let him off the hook.
In times of crisis, people crave leadership, information (they want to believe), and hope. Inexplicably, people are finding this in Trump. But the president’s dinnertime ramblings expose his ineptness and incompetence while lives and livelihoods are being lost, and light bulbs are going on. For instance, Trump fan Mike Francesa of WFAN is appalled at what the president says while people are dying “five minutes from where he grew up.”
Local public radio WAMC’s The Media Project (on which I’m sometimes a panelist; listen anytime at wamc.org) addressed a recent decision by a National Public Radio station in Washington State to stop airing the live press briefings (though listeners can still hear them at npr.org.)
The show’s host, Rex Smith of the Times Union newspaper, noted that the station’s action was not censorship, which is what government does when it stifles free speech in violation of the First Amendment. Rather, it was the station making an editorial judgment about newsworthiness. From my decades of running the newsroom of The Saratogian, I understand the distinction and know that such decisions are not taken lightly.
But the public doesn’t make that distinction, as Rosemary Armao, a fellow University at Albany journalism teacher, pointed out. WAMC President and CEO Alan Chartock shared on the show that his staff decided to keep airing the briefings.
They’re right. Better for the media to err on the side of airing – without letting the president and his administration off the hook.