President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Briefing Room, Wednesday, March 25, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Can Trump's daily disinformation show be saved? Yes — turn it into a vector for the truth

Trump's daily coronavirus showcase is making us all dumber. But it could be used to leverage truth to millions


Dan Froomkin
March 26, 2020 12:00PM (UTC)

This article was co-produced with Press Watch, a new website that monitors and critiques American political coverage. Please consider supporting Press Watch by making a donation.

The nation's most eminent media critics are virtually unanimous that television networks should stop the live broadcasting of the White House's daily coronavirus briefings, which Donald Trump has turned into a torrent of dangerous lies, misinformation and self-aggrandizement.

I totally agree that the broadcast networks shouldn't break into regular programming to show the briefings live anymore. Watching them, unfiltered, makes their viewers dumber and less safe.

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But I think the cable news networks would do well to keep the cameras rolling live — as long as they make some major changes in presentation. And I mean major.

Why show them? When the president of the United States gathers experts to his side and holds a briefing on a life-threatening public-health emergency the likes of which none of us have ever seen before, that's news. It's news that has immediacy. People who are into news deserve to hear it live.

These are not political rallies, or spin sessions or even normal press briefings. These are urgent, emergency communications.

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And if — rather than sharing credible updates, thoughtful guidance, expressions of empathy and reasoned optimism — Trump lies, spreads misinformation and toots his own horn during these emergency communications, that is the news. Each and every time he does it.

Time to split the screen

So rather than hide what's happening, news organizations should respond by doing journalism — in this case, some journalistic jujitsu.

When Trump spreads misinformation, the networks need to show viewers, in real time, the correct information. When he lies and contradicts himself, they need to provide the necessary context as he speaks. When he puffs himself up, they need to remind viewers of his massive failures.

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What I'm talking about is more than just fact-checking. It's would also be reality-checking and gaslighting-fighting.

Let's be real: This won't be easy. Up until now, real-time video fact-checking has been a bridge too far for the networks. It would require an all-hands-on-deck approach to sustain the fact-based firepower necessary to offset Trump's firehose of falsehoods. It would require splitting the screen in a whole new way.

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But if not now, when? And, to be honest, there's so much social-media-fueled real-time truth-squadding of the briefings already, the networks have a massive head start.

He's so predictable

Another advantage is that the briefings have become so predictable, with Trump endlessly repeating the same falsehoods and self-puffery. Indeed, CNN's wonderful Daniel Dale recently broke them down into their fairly consistent constituent parts, each of which can be anticipated and prepared for:

  • Inaccurate progress reports
  • False, dubious or questionable medical claims
  • False pronouncements that this was all unforeseen
  • Media-bashing
  • Vague economic cheerleading
  • An empathy shortage
  • Self-promotion, complaints of victimhood
  • Trump being Trump

In addition to the real-time split-screen annotation, network anchors should prepare viewers before the briefing with a preview of the misinformation and lies likely to come. And right after, they should summarize what was said that was accurate, and correct what was said that was not.

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Trump lies because why not?

Do you have a child? Even if you don't, you are certainly familiar with the concept of positive and negative consequences.

Right now, when Trump lies, the only consequences are positive — his base gets just that much more fired up.

Real-time split-screen bullshit-calling is a negative consequence.

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It is real accountability.

When Trump says something true, the split screen can reinforce that.

When he says something false, the split screen can correct him.

When he fails to answer a question, the split screen can call him on it.

When he says something completely contradictory to something he said before, the split screen can quote him.

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When he answers a question in a way that demonstrates he has no idea what he is talking about, the split screen can explain what seems to be missing.

How does that play out in real life?

For example:

When Trump argues — based on "just a feeling" —  that chloroquine could be a "game-changer" in treating the virus, the split screen could warn viewers not to take the drug, that its effectiveness is entirely speculative, that it can have serious medical consequences and that this is an example of Trump's wishful thinking.

When Trump says that his decision to limit visitors from China was "weeks early" — and on account of that, rates his response a "10" — the split screen could remind viewers that Trump was warned about coronavirus by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Jan. 18, at the very latest; that beyond blocking visitors from China on Jan. 31, he did nothing for weeks but downplay it; and that early testing would have dramatically reduced the spread of the virus.

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When Trump talks about "reopening" swaths of the country by Easter, the split screen could note how this flies in the face of what medical experts are saying and what governors are doing. The split screen could also recount Trump's history of tragically bad predictions, among them "We have it totally under control" (Jan. 22) and "the 15 [cases] within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that's a pretty good job we've done" (Feb. 26).

We need to stop editing him

The public must get a chance to hear how Trump talks, because, as I wrote on Feb. 27, "Big media is covering up Trump's terrifying incoherence in a time of emergency."

More often than not, mainstream reporting on even the most incoherent and contradictory Trump briefing consists of cherry-picking quotes that make him sound coherent, and in no way indicate the true nature of the lunacy.

To some degree, we're getting the worst of both worlds right now. When Trump says something outrageous, the media unthinkingly broadcasts it live — then ignores it.

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As Tom Jones, the media writer for Poynter.org, argues:

[I]f we don't air Trump's words in full, it's easy to argue that the media is actually protecting him by not showing his irresponsible side. At that point, only the good parts would get through and that, perhaps, would give the indication that he's handling this well even if he is not. Isn't that dangerous not only for the short-term, but the long-term health of the country?

Here's what David Boardman, the esteemed dean of Temple University's school of communication, tweeted recently:

Indeed, on Monday, Trump's frequent references to the deadliness of the flu and car accidents was an unmistakable sign to anyone watching that he was trying to devalue individual human lives as part of his rationalization for relaxing public-health restrictions.

But that was lost in the mainstream press coverage which, like this New York Times story, quoted him but completely failed to connect the dots the way that people who listened to the whole thing almost certainly did.

The split screens could be brutal

The funny thing is that the corporate media is under no illusions about Trump — and though you can't always see it in the news stories, you sure can see it in the news analyses.

CNN and MSNBC would be on safe ground using language from, say, the New York Times or the Associated Press on their split screens, right?

Well, Times star reporters Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman, recently mentioned some of the traits that Trump regularly puts on display in these briefings: "the profound need for personal praise, the propensity to blame others, the lack of human empathy, the penchant for rewriting history, the disregard for expertise, the distortion of facts, the impatience with scrutiny or criticism."

You could take this part of their story and just put it up right next to his face:

[E]ven as he has seemed to take the crisis more seriously, Mr. Trump has continued to make statements that conflicted with the government's own public health experts and focused energy on blaming China, quarreling with reporters, claiming he knew that the coronavirus would be a pandemic even when he was minimizing its threat only a few weeks ago and congratulating himself for how he has managed a crisis he only recently acknowledged.

Or this part for when Pence comes on:

Officials have learned that the president craves a constant diet of flattery, which they serve up during daily televised briefings.

Similarly, Jonathan Lemire, Jill Colvin and Zeke Miller recently wrote an outstanding analysis for the Associated Press whose thesis was that Trump "has never been known for his patience or long attention span."

CNN or MSNBC could mine it for any number of valuable split-screen audience alerts.

For instance, they wrote that "the president frequently gets in the way of health professionals trying to chart a course of action."

Or: "Trump has been missing the spotlight and has told people that he knows the nation is watching the briefings and doesn't want to give up the stage."

Alternately, CNN could turn to its own treasure, the aforementioned Daniel Dale, using as a guide his recent article about how homebound Trump has turned the briefings "into a kind of special spinoff of the familiar Trump Show — replete with all the usual misinformation, self-promotion and potshots." Heck, they could just plug his vital Twitter feed right into the split screen.

It could get great ratings

Whichever network does this first could win over a big audience. As Michael M. Grynbaum wrote in the New York Times on Wednesday, the briefings are a ratings hit:

Mr. Trump and his coronavirus updates have attracted an average audience of 8.5 million on cable news, roughly the viewership of the season finale of "The Bachelor."

And the numbers are continuing to rise, driven by intense concern about the virus and the housebound status of millions of Americans who are practicing social distancing. On Monday, nearly 12.2 million people watched Mr. Trump's briefing on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, according to Nielsen — "Monday Night Football" numbers.

Millions more are watching on ABC, CBS, NBC and online streaming sites. (Because of the way Nielsen ratings are measured, reliable numbers are available only for cable news.) And the audience is expanding even as Mr. Trump has repeatedly delivered information that doctors and public health officials have called ill informed, misleading or downright wrong.

Fox News, not surprisingly, attracts the most viewers by far. But imagine if some other network could amass the viewers who watch, not in belief but in disbelief.

Or don't show it at all

My preference is for a live feed of the Trump briefings, featuring a diligently curated split screen that holds him accountable for his deceit and deficiencies.

But if that's not going to happen, then yes, I agree with my colleagues who have said that the networks should stop airing them live. Their arguments are incredibly strong.

NYU journalism professor and noted media critic Jay Rosen has been advocating for years that the press corps suspend normal relations with the Trump White House. Last week, he encouraged newsroom leaders to shift to an emergency setting because, at a moment of life and death, "the single most potent force for misinforming the American public is the current president of the United States."

Rosen urged news organizations to pledge, among other things:

We will not cover live any speech, rally, or press conference involving the president. The risk of passing along bad information is too great. Instead, we will attend carefully to what he says. If we can independently verify any important news he announces we will bring that to you — after the verification step.

Washington Post media writer Margaret Sullivan noted that Trump "is using his daily briefings as a substitute for the campaign rallies that have been forced into extinction by the spread of the novel coronavirus."

Many top media executives, in retrospect, realized that airing Trump's campaign rallies in 2016 — in their entirety, without viewer warnings — was a horrendous mistake.

Sullivan argued that, at this point:

Trump has proved, time after time, that he doesn't care about truth, that he puts his financial and political self-interest above that of the public, and that he has no understanding of the role of the press in a democracy. And now lives are on the line.

The news media, at this dangerous and unprecedented moment in world history, must put the highest priority on getting truthful information to the public.

Taking Trump's press conferences as a live feed works against that core purpose.

Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows called on cable-news executives "to reflect on the path they are headed down." He explained:

From Trump's point of view, it makes sense to turn these events into the unfiltered airtime he used to count on at mass rallies. From the media's point of view, it made sense to cover the first few of them live. But given the rising falsehood quotient in what Trump says, and his determination to cut off or divert questioners who try to ask about these falsehoods, cable networks should stop airing these as live spectacles and instead report, afterwards, with clips of things Trump and others said, and whether they were true.

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow challenged her own network's practices:

"If the president does end up saying anything true, you can run it as tape," Maddow said on her program. "But if he keeps lying like this every day on stuff this important, all of us should stop broadcasting it. Honestly, it's gonna cost lives."

And MSNBC did actually cut away toward the end of the Monday briefing.

Boston Globe columnist Michael A. Cohen wrote that he generally considers sunshine is the best disinfectant.

But these are not ordinary times and this is no ordinary president. After more than three years in office — and more than 16,000 false or misleading statements — Trump's word simply cannot be trusted. At a moment of true national cataclysm, allowing him to use the bully pulpit in such an irresponsible manner is a risk we can't afford to take.…

News outlets should thus treat Trump's public statements like propaganda and misinformation — because that's what they are. Fact-checking is essential, but it's not enough. Airing his press conferences live, without immediate correction — which, because of the volume of Trump's lies, is almost impossible to pull off — risks letting false information trickle out to the public.

Andy Kroll wrote in Rolling Stone:

It's time to stop carrying his coronavirus briefings live. Cover them, edit out the bad information, and give the American people only the essential information (such as Dr. Fauci's warnings and updates) that they need to deal with the crisis. To continue to air them in real-time, unedited, is to actively confuse and mislead the American public.

The briefings shouldn't even be happening

If you believe the briefings shouldn't be on TV, then I would argue that your biggest beef should be with the fact that they're being held at all.

I think journalists should demand that public-health officials hold a daily technical briefing for medical reporters, and that White House briefings be limited to urgent announcements.

As the New York Times' legendary health reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. wrote recently, public-health experts are "united in the opinion that politicians must step aside and let scientists both lead the effort to contain the virus and explain to Americans what must be done":

The microphone should not even be at the White House, scientists said, so that briefings of historic importance do not dissolve into angry, politically charged exchanges with the press corps, as happened again on Friday.

Instead, leaders must describe the looming crisis and the possible solutions in ways that will win the trust of Americans.

Above all, the experts said, briefings should focus on saving lives and making sure that average wage earners survive the coming hard times — not on the stock market, the tourism industry or the president's health. There is no time left to point fingers and assign blame.

Then again, maybe one action would follow the other. As Fallows wrote for the Atlantic:

[A]s a practical matter, if the briefings were no longer covered live, Trump would lose interest in attending himself. Then the scientists could come back on stage — and eventually they could be covered live again.


Dan Froomkin

Dan Froomkin is Editor of Press Watch. He wrote the daily White House Watch column for the Washington Post during the George W. Bush administration, then served as Washington bureau chief and senior writer at Huffington Post, covering Barack Obama's presidency, before working as Washington editor at The Intercept.

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