Last week, some news outlets—including CNN and MSNBC —made the decision to stop airing the entirety of Donald Trump’s daily press conferences on the new coronavirus. With the president’s statements veering more and more into fiction (“Nobody knew there would be a pandemic or epidemic of this proportion”—3/18/20), conspiracy theories (“Where are the masks going? Are they going out the back door? How do you go from 10,000 to 300,000?”—3/29/20) and miracle cures (“The hydroxychloroquine and the Z-Pak, I think as a combination, probably, is looking very, very good”—3/23/20), a growing number of journalists, including Rachel Maddow and Ted Koppel (New York Times, 3/25/20), had called for news outlets to, as James Fallows wrote in the Atlantic (3/20/20), “stop airing these as live spectacles and instead report, afterwards, with clips of things Trump and others said, and whether they were true.”
On Monday, the decision to cut away on occasion from the daily spectacles — CNN and MSNBC have interrupted them briefly for fact-checking (Daily Beast, 3/26/20), but only Seattle NPR affiliate KUOW (NPR, 3/26/20) appears to have stopped airing them entirely— drew an odd rebuke from Chicago Tribune columnist Dahleen Glanton (3/30/20), who called failing to air Trump’s press conferences in full not just a “mistake,” but one that undermines the entire purpose of journalism:
In effect, it’s censorship. News organizations shouldn’t be in the business of deciding what the public needs to hear and what it shouldn’t when the nation is in the midst of the biggest health crisis of our lifetime….
The public needs to hear everything Trump and his coronavirus task force have to say about the pandemic. It then becomes the public’s responsibility to decipher it and decide what is useful.
Glanton has been an editor and writer at the Tribune since 1989, so clearly she knows that “deciding what the public needs to hear” is precisely what news editors do. Choosing to keep cameras trained on the president necessarily means devoting less time to other stories that might actually inform viewers about the course of the pandemic and how to fight it—whether it’s talking to infectious disease experts on what measures are necessary to limit the death toll (MSNBC, 3/20/20), or reporting on other nations’ successes and failures (CNN, 3/23/20). It’s not “censorship” to limit the president’s screen time, any more than it is to decide not to devote 24 hours a day to interviewing epidemiologists and front-line medical professionals.
To her credit, Glanton wasn’t advocating for straight-up stenography journalism—the we-just-report-what-they-say position that once led NBC’s Chuck Todd to insist that it wasn’t the media’s job to tell viewers if politicians are lying (FAIR.org, 9/18/13). Instead, she tried to walk a narrow line, calling for news reporters to somehow hold politicians’ feet to the fire merely by the power of their presence at staged press briefings: “When politicians lie, journalists ask the tough questions that get to the truth,” but also must “understand that they are merely conduits for channeling information.” If Trump refuses to answer pointed questions or calls them “nasty,” journalists should “calmly repeat the question” — even if, Glanton acknowledged, this can sometimes allow for “the persistence of his obvious lies.”
It’s a troubling quandary: If journalists are limited to allowing politicians to say whatever they want on-air, then asking questions that are never answered, how to decide when this is less reporting the news than feeding the troll? Glanton’s answer, remarkably, was “ratings”:
Trump’s coronavirus briefings have been a TV ratings hit, according to the New York Times, drawing an average audience of 8.5 million cable news viewers—about the same number of people who watched the season finale of The Bachelor….
The public will let the media know without a doubt when it’s time to stop covering Trump’s press briefings. They’ll switch the channel and decide they’re better off watching reruns of The Simpsons.
The notion that news is whatever draws the highest ratings, of course, isn’t one that the journalism industry is totally unfamiliar with — even if it’s usually referred to in less high-minded terms. One might worry, of course, that it might encourage an unscrupulous politician to say the most outrageous things possible, in hopes of forcing news outlets to allow him daily access to the airwaves on the grounds that if people are tuning in, he must be popular. Good thing we don’t know anyone like that!