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?