2020 Time Capsule #6: The Press Conference

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

About the author: James Fallows is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and author of the newsletter Breaking the News. He was chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and is a co-founder, with his wife, Deborah Fallows, of the Our Towns Civic Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

These things were notable about yesterday’s installment of what has become the regular daily White House briefing on the coronavirus pandemic:

  1. That it happened at all. Early last year, Donald Trump directed Sarah Huckabee Sanders, then his press secretary, to stop conducting daily press briefings, which had been routine for press secretaries for decades. Sanders held her last briefing a little more than a year ago. Her successor, Stephanie Grisham, has not held any at all. Until this month, Trump himself had appeared at very few formal press conferences. The last one I find a record of was in September, 2018. Instead Trump would talk at informal press scrums, usually while walking to or from a helicopter.

    Now Trump is on TV, answering questions, day after day, including the weekends. This brings us to…
  2. That it was a virtual campaign rally, At two of the briefings this week, Trump had dropped his previous pooh-poohing of the virus threat, and his personal criticism of media figures and other politicians, and had instead struck a somber, “we’re in this together” tone. As I noted here, this shift in tone was greeted by some in the press as a sign of Trump’s new statesmanship.

    In the past two days, Trump has been back to the more accustomed tone of tweets and his rallies. In those settings he has had two constant themes: that he is so great, and that his critics are such cheating losers, each point usually based on information that was false.

    The tone, and the false data, returned yesterday. Much of what Trump said was false: Most dramatically, his claim that the FDA had just approved use of an anti-malaria drug for treatment of COVID-19, and that it would be a “game-changer.” (FDA officials immediately clarified that they had done no such thing.)

    Trump’s new fondness for these “briefings,” and their increasing conversion into Trump campaign rallies with scientists rather than local-government officials as the supporting cast, should cause cable-news producers to reflect on the path they are headed down.

    In the year after Trump declared his candidacy in the summer of 2015, cable channels ran so many of his “Lock her up!” rallies live and at full length, that the coverage amounted to hugely valuable free campaign publicity. One source calculated the free-airtime values as being worth several billion dollars.

    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.

    Their real reason for live coverage back during Trump’s rise was that ratings went up: People wanted to watch these spectacles. Even if that’s still true, we certainly have learned that Trump will use most of his time to attack and lie, and that panelists’ corrections never catch up. In time of crisis, cable-news channels are making the public less informed, and thus increasing public danger, by providing such a convenient platform for lies.

    Also, as 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.
  3. That Trump edited the script. As Jabin Botsford, a Washington Post photographer noted, Trump scratched out the word “corona” in his speaking script, and replaced it with “Chinese,” so that he would talk about the threat of “the Chinese virus.” When he read most of the rest of the prepared text, Trump sounded as if he were seeing it for the first time. This was a word he cared about.
  4. That he ended with … this question. I lack the spirit to go into all of this now. You can read the story here and here. Again, nothing like it had ever happened at the White House before.

Update: As I write I see that Jay Rosen, at his Press Think blog, has come to the same conclusion about live event coverage. His item covers many other steps in what he calls “emergency mode” handling of Trump, but on live events he says:

Switching to emergency mode means our coverage will look different and work in a different way, as we try to prevent the President from misinforming you through us….

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.

I agree with that, and with Rosen’s conclusion, addressed to readers:

We feel we cannot keep telling wild and “newsy” stories about the unreliable narrator who somehow became president. Not with millions of lives at stake. We have to exit from that system to keep faith with you, and with the reason we became journalists in the first place