Commentary

Keep Pressers Classy and Concise Sans the Senseless Scandal

By Jeffrey M. McCall | April 13, 2020 | 1:29pm EDT
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence look on during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House on April 2, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence look on during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House on April 2, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

The wheels have surely come off of the Trump administration’s daily COVID-19 press conferences. That was clear last week when a reporter wasted the nation’s precious time during a crisis by asking President Trump about pardoning some guy who stars on a Netflix program called “Tiger King.”

The mainstream media has bashed the Trump administration throughout his term for lack of transparency and lack of press access to the administration’s power brokers. Then the COVID-19 crisis hit and the administration began daily press briefings with seemingly unlimited time for reporters’ questions. That would appear to be a great thing for getting important information into the news pipeline and keeping the citizenry updated. Lack of transparency is hardly an issue these days.

But with Trump and the media, nothing is ever easy. The daily COVID-19 pressers feature regular clashes between Trump and the reporters, distracting from the supposed objective of informing the public about a national crisis. To be sure, Trump speaks too much and tries to dominate these events, often at the expense of the experts on stage. But the reporters have less interest in covering the news than in baiting Trump, grandstanding with long-winded and combative questions, and making commentaries disguised as questions. 

Now the television outlets are debating whether to even broadcast the daily briefings, questioning the newsworthiness of the events. Of course, if Trump disallowed the cameras, these same outlets would be outraged, demanding the briefings be broadcast live and in their entirety.

The daily COVID-19 press briefings are definitely newsworthy, even if some news organizations now question the news value. What these news outlets don’t like are Trump’s grandiose statements and his dominating the limelight. But the other key officials leading the nation’s crisis response are right there every day to explain their strategies and take inquiries. The public needs this opportunity to hear from these experts. The press could easily reduce Trump’s stage presence by directing their questions to the assembled experts, instead of trying to bait Trump and hog a moment in the resistance for themselves. 

While the briefings, indeed, provide news of the day, they are no doubt way too long and create more political theater than the public wants or needs in the midst of this crisis. The extended duration of the briefings dilutes what valuable information is provided. The vacuous journalist sidebars and skirmishes are distractions that just clutter up the flow of essential information.

These daily events could benefit from a condensed format.

It is clear the most newsworthy components are provided in the early stages when Trump announces new initiatives and the medical/logistical experts provide their data and perspectives. Allow these opening remarks for fifteen minutes, take media questions for fifteen minutes, and then dismiss everybody to get back to work to actually address the national crisis. If these pressers were, indeed, briefer, it would make it easier for television channels to carry them live and in their entirety. It would also make it easier for citizens to sit through them.

It is pretty much just a courtesy at this point to even allow the press to ask questions during the briefings. Little actual news has been generated from the reporters’ questions; most of the queries just rehash old material, ask for impossible speculation, or pick fights with Trump.

Trump's clashes with the journalists in attendance should not be considered actual news these days. That Trump and the media don’t get along is not newsworthy any more, particularly when a pandemic is in progress. The press should seek clarification from government leaders and challenge the official proclamations, but stooping to battle Trump over the meaning of the word “our,” as happened last week with CBS correspondent Weija Jiang, is just not helpful in advancing the nation’s deliberations during a time of national crisis. Nor is CNN’s Jim Acosta’s regular verbal wrestling matches with Trump, as Acosta relishes the stage and his role as provocateur.

A recent Gallup poll showed the public disapproves of the media’s coverage of the pandemic crisis. While many reporters across the country are doing helpful journalism under difficult circumstances, the public perception of the media will be largely defined by how journalists perform in the daily COVID-19 briefings. It would behoove the White House press corps to step up their game with a more measured and condensed approach to these pressers. An already distressed nation will thank them.

Jeffrey M. McCall is a Professor of Communication at DePauw University.  He is a recognized authority on media and journalistic ethics and standards, having been interviewed and quoted by over 125 newspapers. He has made over a hundred appearances on radio and television shows.  He is a contributing op-ed columnist on contemporary media issues, and is the author of the book "Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences."

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