The President’s Daily Coronavirus Briefings–What Do You Think the Press Should Do? My Reassessment

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I am hoping that recent events will make the reason for this post irrelevant. But I have my doubts. Despite efforts by his staff to persuade him to limit his appearances at daily press briefings, this President does not seem capable of surrendering the limelight.

In my April 8 post on this topic, I expressed some ambivalence about the idea that the press should no longer cover these briefings live at all.

It was never my belief that they needed to show the two-plus hour nightly events in their soul-sapping entirety, but I also wondered whether disbanding live coverage completely might be a bad precedent.

The approach that some were following seemed to be a good compromise: airing a portion and then cutting away, rather than dropping long-held norms just because he was slashing and burning them.

On Friday, I heard Eli Stokols, a White House reporter for the Los Angeles Times, say that covering this President raises profound problems for the press and is in fact, the central issue for them at this point.

I can imagine that most, if not all, members of the Fourth Estate are struggling to determine how to do their jobs when faced with the double whammy of a pandemic that requires them to deliver timely information to the public—and a President who lies, contradicts himself, insults them, and seems to care not one whit about anyone or anything but himself.

And then, as you know, this President offhandedly suggested that the scientists should look into the question of whether drinking or injecting disinfectants could be a possible treatment for the coronavirus.

For me, that was a moment of clarity.

He faced others on the podium as he raised what he apparently thought was a clever idea, and his scientific adviser, Dr. Deborah Birx, to her discredit, remained silent, eventually mumbling “not a treatment.” She wilted.

Stokols and his colleagues at the LA Times reacted with some thoughtful reporting and observations:

“A slew of federal and state agencies — and the makers of laundry bleach — issued an implicit rebuke to President Trump on Friday, warning the public that his off-the-cuff medical advice and off-the-wall musings in nightly White House briefings could endanger even more lives as the country’s coronavirus death toll passed 50,000…

“Trump’s inclination to view his rhetoric as fungible — his comments are often intentionally open-ended and then open to ex post facto dismissals — reflects a lifelong effort by a highly public figure to blur context and avoid consequences for his comments and actions.”

“Trump’s shifting and often self-contradictory comments are not a bug but a feature of his nightly briefings, where, even amid a profound national crisis and widespread anxiety, questions and specifics typically drown in a sea of self-lavished superlatives.

“Last week, he managed to flip-flop three times on how quickly to lift stay-at-home orders, first insisting that he had “total” authority to order states to reopen, then telling governors that they, not he, had that authority, and then urging citizens to protest decisions by the governors and “liberate” their states.

“When pressed Thursday as to why he continued to float untested and potentially dangerous remedies from the presidential podium, Trump lashed out at the reporter who questioned him.
“I’m the president and you’re fake news,” he said. “I’m just here to present talent. I’m here to present ideas, because we want ideas to get rid of this thing. And if heat is good and if sunlight is good, that’s a great thing as far as I’m concerned.”

The next day, the President falsely claimed that he was sarcastically responding to a hostile press query.

In the meantime, while all responsible parties have been trying to contain the pandemic, protect the public, and find scientifically sound ways to consider when it’s safe to lift the quarantine,  Trump’s suggestion that internal disinfectants were worth considering caused consternation and warnings from many quarters.

So many people spent so much valuable time that should have been devoted to more worthy efforts as this gargantuan threat persists.

Those who raced to address this obvious danger ranged from the Consumer Product Safety Commission to the US Surgeon General to the American Chemistry Council to the makers of Chlorox and Lysol, among others.

And former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, exerting leadership from his basement, tweeted:

“I can’t believe I have to say this, but please don’t drink bleach.”

Lest you think that Americans wouldn’t be foolish enough to consider such a ridiculous idea, the Maryland Emergency Management Agency reported that its emergency hotline received more than 100 inquiries about whether the injection or ingestion of disinfectants could be a cure for COVID-19.

Reading that, the noted Constitutional scholar Lawrence Tribe tweeted:

“What worries me is how many DIDN’T call but just tried Trump’s insane experiment on themselves or their kids.”

On April 24, Congressman Adam Schiff tweeted:

“A week ago I asked whether it was responsible to carry Trump’s nightly stream of consciousness on live TV.

Today, he suggested drinking or injecting disinfectants or ‘sunlight’ to kill the virus.

So I will ask again: What value is there to this spectacle?”

There’s no longer any doubt in my mind. I fully agree with Adam Schiff. We have a President who is hazardous to our health. He needs to be quarantined—his every word fact-checked and accurately reported.

And it’s just as important that the press and cable TV programs stop allowing him to control the narrative. The public needs information.

That’s why they listen so intently when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks—or Maryland Governor Larry Hogan—or the mayors who have been thrown in disarray when the governors of their states have precipitously decided to disregard scientific caution and remove the quarantines.

We’re not getting information from these press conferences. We’re getting bad theater, farce-turned-deadly.

As many have pointed out, his wacky schemes often serve as a distraction: reporters must follow the story and not ask their questions about the climbing and undoubtedly underreported incidence of infection and death and—his protestations notwithstanding—the lack of adequate testing, largely because he refuses to exert power when he really must.

Here’s a possible example of what might have been reported immediately after Trump made his bizarre recommendation.

“President Trump suggested today that ingesting or injecting disinfectants might be a treatment for coronavirus. This is a dangerous suggestion that could prove lethal, as the makers of Chlorox and Lysol rushed to emphasize. We regret to report that you will endanger your health and possibly lose your life if you listen to the President.

“And now, here’s a report on the impact of the lifting of regulations to prevent water pollution in neighboring communities…” or “Here’s the latest on President Trump’s pressuring the United Kingdom to bail out his failing golf course in Scotland….” or “What will the implications be from the President’s recent temporary Executive Order halting the issuance of many new green cards?”

With his poll numbers plummeting, his staff is reportedly engaged in an effort to persuade him to shorten these dreadful marathons. That is, at least, a start. But we’ll see if they’re successful, and if so, for how long.

He’s not suitable for prime time.


Continue reading “The President’s Daily Coronavirus Briefings–What Do You Think the Press Should Do? My Reassessment”

The President’s Daily Coronavirus Briefings: What Do You Think the Press Should Do?

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There is no doubt that in the midst of this fearsome pandemic, the calm factual voice of a trustworthy leader is sorely needed. But what we are getting from this President are not the Fireside Chats that President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave to calm the nation. This President’s litany of falsehoods, which began on Day One when his hapless then-Communications Director lied about the size of the crowds, has ruled him out as that persona.

I am very frightened by his daily press briefings, which many have pointed out are his way of remaining in the limelight while his campaign rallies are on hold. Instead of Fireside Chats, we are getting State TV: with a captive audience.  This President holds “press briefings” that remind me of an autocrat’s taking over the means of communication to lull a willing public, eager for hope, that all will be well. In essence, he’s saying (I’m making no attempt to mimic his speech patterns here): 

Pay no attention to all the evidence that I have repeatedly failed as your leader in curbing this pandemic, first by destroying the pandemic preparedness office set up by the Obama administration, then by ignoring those who warned me the pandemic was coming, then by calling it fake news, then by saying it’s no worse than the flu and totally under control, and then by not listening to my scientific advisers’ pleas for social distancing. We lost precious time? Don’t believe it; that’s fake news. Trust me: It’s all gonna be fine.

Forget that I continue to fail, ignoring urgent requests from governors, forcing them into character-building bidding wars against each other and the federal government (FEMA) in a Wild West sellers’ market for life-saving equipment, refusing to call for a nationwide shelter-in-place. So what if I belittle and insult the governors who have requested federal help? I can even criticize the physicians and nurses who are in the front lines if I want to, accusing them of hoarding or selling their supplies. They’re greedy. They had enough supplies before the pandemic; why can’t they make do now? Look, somebody’s gotta be responsible, and it sure won’t be me.

For all these reasons and more, although he refuses to accept a pinky’s worth of responsibility as the deaths mount and the economy continues in free fall, Trump will be remembered in the history books as bearing huge responsibility for more loss of life and economic turmoil than any of us could imagine. In other words, as the worst president this country has ever seen. (See The Washington Post article about the “Denial and Dysfunction” that delayed a response for 70 Days.)

But he insists on appearing before us nightly, not practicing social distancing from those who share the crowded podium with him. Look at me, he says. Listen to me. Buy my snake oil.

Former Vice President Joe Biden had a virtual Town Hall Sunday night to talk about the pandemic. Did you see it? I didn’t. It was streamed on his website, but I can’t find a video. Doesn’t the apparent Democratic nominee for the Presidency deserve a bit more attention from the press at this point? 

I can’t bear to watch much of Trump’s briefings, but I am eager to hear what Dr. Anthony Fauci, the highly respected Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has to say when he’s allowed to speak. Asked if the Administration had the outbreak under control, Fauci said:

 “I will not say we have it under control…That would be a false statement…we are struggling.” 

Sunday night (at the same time that Biden was appearing), Trump again spoke about the wonders of hydroxychloroquine, a drug designed to treat malaria and rheumatic diseases such as lupus, as though it was the answer to this pandemic and would save the lives of the dying. He had been advised against doing so by Fauci and his colleague, Dr. Deborah Birx, but he insisted there was no time to test it—it had to be out there. When a reporter asked Fauci if he agreed, Trump refused to let him answer.

According to a tweet from Andrew Freedman, a climate reporter for The Washington Post,

“This is a really chilling moment from a science standpoint, with Trump having just pushed an unproven COVID treatment and Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the U.S., getting muzzled on live TV. Was clear Trump didn’t want to be contradicted.” (emphases mine throughout)

I hasten to note here that I believe CNN correspondent Chris Cuomo was wise and correct when he encouraged reporters not to “politicize” Fauci by asking him questions in front of the President that would necessitate a contradiction. We need Fauci.

But look what this debate says about where we are in this country: reporters would have to censor themselves from asking questions that will provide much-needed scientific information to avoid embarrassing the President.

Fauci had said Sunday morning, on the “Face the Nation” TV program, that “in terms of science, I don’t think we could definitively say” this drug works for coronavirus. He had reportedly had a heated discussion with non-scientist Peter Navarro, Trump’s Director of Trade and Manufacturing, who had said there was “clear scientific evidence of the drug’s efficacy.

Fauci, who has a worldwide reputation dating back to his work during the AIDS epidemic, had said there was only anecdotal evidence. Trump obviously chose the non-scientist’s opinion over the scientist’s.

During Sunday’s briefing, Trump insisted that the drug is completely safe, with no side effects. But Megan L. Ranney, an emergency physician at Brown University, told a New York Times reporter that she’d never seen “an elected official advertise a ‘miracle cure’ the way Mr. Trump has done.” 

“There are side effects to hydroxychloroquine. It causes psychiatric symptoms, cardiac problems and a host of other bad side effects.”

When it is prescribed, it is used very cautiously. 

Some hospitals have been using it out of desperation. According to Dr. Adhi Shara, chief medical officer at the Mount Sinai South Nassau County branch of Mount Sinai Health Systems in Long Island, New York, they’ve been using hydroxychloroquine and the antibiotic azithromycin (which Trump also touts) “pretty much since day one.”

The results have been mixed, he told The New York Times.

“We’ve been throwing the kitchen sink at these patients. I can’t tell whether someone got better on their own or because of the medication.”

It is truly bizarre the extent to which the President has latched onto this alleged “miracle cure.” The Guardian has an excellent article describing the events leading up to the drug’s receiving the White House seal of approval. It’s worth reading the full article, but here’s an excerpt.

“The story of how hydroxychloroquine was anointed the Trump administration’s miracle drug for the coronavirus pandemic is a distinctly modern tale of misinformation within a global information ecosystem beset by widespread uncertainty, fear, media fragmentation and hyper-partisanship.

“Belief in the drug’s potential to cure patients infected with the virus followed an extraordinary trajectory from a small [and now acknowledged as highly flawed, not double-blinded or randomized controlled] study conducted in France (Trump’s “very good test”) to Silicon Valley social media influencers, Fox News, and the largest bully pulpit: the White House.

“But it’s also a story as old as medicine itself. When an epidemic killed thousands in ancient Rome, said Aaron Shakow, a research associate at Harvard Medical School and historian of medicine, the chief physician of the emperor Nero circulated a recipe for an old miracle cure.

“‘It was an attempt by Nero to sustain his legitimacy in the midst of this catastrophic event,’ Shakow said. ‘Epidemics are dangerous to rulers.’”

One can picture Trump, as the death toll exceeds projections, claiming that if only everyone had listened to him and taken this “safe” drug, hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved.

And, not surprisingly, he also has a small financial interest in Sanofi, the drug company that makes a brand name version of this medication. Its patent has expired. Am I being too cynical to anticipate an effort to renew the patent due to the alleged urgent need?  Others around him also have financial interests in Sanofi, including one of his major donors.

Also not surprisingly, there are now shortages of the drug for lupus and rheumatoid arthritis patients, as well as for those stricken by malaria. These patients are suffering, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that malaria patients may well die due to sudden redirections to the US of a drug that is effective for that disease, but not proven effective for COVID-19.

This is just one example of the perverse nature of Trump’s acting as spokesperson. 

The spread of such dangerous misinformation in real time has created a dilemma for news people. Forbes asked:

“At what point does taking the government’s daily coronavirus briefing become malpractice on the part of broadcasters? If experience tells us that day after day the President of the United States makes false or misleading statements about the pandemic that has shut down huge parts of America and forced millions to shelter in their homes, is returning the next day to air the next episode a rational decision—since it’s tradition to hear what the leader of the free world has to say?”

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, the subject of the article, says it is not a rational decision:

“I would stop putting those briefings on TV. Not out of spite, but because it’s misinformation. We should stop broadcasting it, honestly, because it’s gonna cost lives.” 

Some have said the mainstream networks should air only fact-checked, edited recaps. Others say, and do, air just a portion and then cut away and summarize the rest. Still others point out that since the news media’s own credibility has been questioned (in good measure, due to Trump’s “fake news” campaign), setting a separate set of rules for covering him would simply deepen the mistrust.

And this thoughtful view comes from Jack Schafer in Politico:

“The un-coverists greatest fear isn’t that Trump will lie or that Trump’s lies will somehow deceive them. What they worry about the most is that the average viewer will be sucked in by Trump’s lies. This paternalistic mindset holds that the same individual who can be trusted to vote in elections can’t be trusted on his own to listen to long, unbroken statements from the president. He must be guided and protected by volunteer censors. However well-meaning the un-coverists are, I find their efforts more troubling than I do Trump’s lies.”

I find this a very difficult and vexing decision—for both the newscasters and for us, the viewers.

The President is using these briefings to assuage his ego and campaign for reelection—as well as to continue to attack (and fire) the public servants and others who’ve blown the whistle on him or whom he views as personal threats for any reason. 

He is endangering us with his falsehoods and diverting us from the other harms he’s doing. (This just in: he’s fired the overseer of his administration’s handling of the $2 trillion relief package Congress just passed.) Nevertheless, he is the President. 

How do you think the news media—including White House correspondents in that small briefing room who are actually jeopardizing their own health—should handle these made-for-TV events?

And I hope we can extend this discussion to my fellow bloggers in other countries: Do you feel your leaders are over-reaching and taking advantage of the pandemic? What is happening there with regard to press coverage—and how is the public reacting? And what are your thoughts about what’s happening/should happen in the US?