How can the White House coronavirus briefings be improved?

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Mike Bebernes
·Editor
·6 min read
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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

President Trump tweeted on Saturday that White House coronavirus press briefings are “Not worth the time & effort!” in light of what he sees as unfair treatment from the media.

The briefings — a near daily event for the past two months — started for officials and health experts to share updates on the administration’s response to the outbreak. But in recent weeks, they have often devolved into political sparring or included incorrect and potentially dangerous guidance from the president, including a suggestion that ingesting disinfectant might kill COVID-19, which was immediately refuted by the medical community.

Trump’s tweets questioning the merits of the briefings came two days after the intense criticism he faced for his disinfectant comments. Monday’s briefing was initially canceled, but was put back on the schedule with only a few hours’ notice.

Why there’s debate

There’s near unanimous agreement that the latest briefings haven’t been effective — though the stated reasons vary based on political allegiance — and Trump’s suggestion that they should be abandoned has been echoed by backers and critics alike.

At the same time, the public has shown an intense interest in the latest information on the pandemic and the best ways to stay safe. This has led to myriad suggestions for revamping the briefings so the coronavirus task force can share vital and potentially lifesaving information, while avoiding verbal barbs and disinformation.

A common suggestion is for news networks to report on important information from the briefing after the fact, versus airing them the live. Others suggest only broadcasting the portions where a public health expert like Dr. Deborah Birx or Dr. Anthony Fauci is speaking.

The main problem with the briefings, some argue, is that the president and the press treat them as political events, and a solution to keep them focused on public health updates would be to allow Fauci and Birx to take the bulk of the questions. Others have suggested the only way to depoliticize the briefings would be to remove the politicians and politics reporters, leaving only the administration’s health experts and science or health reporters.

What’s next

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said there is “absolutely not an effort to cut back” on the briefings, despite none being held over the weekend. Monday’s press conference followed the typical format, though it was held in the Rose Garden rather than the White House briefing room. It’s unclear whether there will be any changes to the briefing schedule or procedures going forward.

Perspectives

Don’t air the briefings live

“Instead of amplifying Trump’s disinformation and misinforming the public about a life-threatening pandemic, the media should report only after the briefings on any actual news and on the list of untruths Trump uttered.” — Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post

The briefings shouldn’t be treated as legitimate news events

“You can’t stop the president from holding rallies and lying, or even from streaming those lies live to a slice of the public. But there’s no reason to cover them as if they are legitimate policy briefings, and it’s a dangerous delusion to believe that asking tough questions on camera can undo the harm of misinformation.” — Matthew Yglesias, Vox

The press is obligated to cover the them, regardless of what form they take

Journalists are supposed to bear witness, not avoid witnessing. For the Washington Post and New York Times to put the backs of their hands to their foreheads and say they can’t bear reporting from these White House briefings because they don’t contain enough news — or because the virus makes them too dangerous to attend — are abrogating their duties.” — Jack Schaffer, Politico

Broadcast the briefings with a delay to allow time to fact-check Trump’s statements

“Give it to us on a 10-minute delay, time for a skilled fact checker to subject Trump’s comments to a lie detector and to give them context. Give it to us on a split-screen, with the president on one side and truth-squad commentary on the other.” — David Boardman, Philadelphia Inquirer

Reporters should reduce Trump’s involvement as much as possible

“Reporters should direct all of their questions to the experts. Exchanges with these individuals are likely to be more effective in shedding light on how the Coronavirus crisis has been, is being, and will be addressed.” — Glenn C. Altschuler, The Hill

The press should stop asking questions that put Trump on the defensive

“The reporters attending these briefings should reconsider whether they are serving their audience or the public interest in actively working to drive these press briefings off the rails. Specifically, it is time for them to put ‘gotcha’ questions about things Trump did and said in the past on the shelf, for another day, or at least another place.” — Dan McLaughlin, National Review

Science reporters should replace political press in the briefings

“There is never a single science reporter in that room — we need journalists who have the expertise to challenge either the medical experts or the President when he’s playing pharmacist-in-chief.” — Joe Lockhart, CNN

Trump should spend less time at the briefings

“If Mr. Trump wants to make his briefings more helpful to the country, here’s our advice. Make them no more than 45 minutes, except on rare occasions. Let Mr. Pence lead them each day, focusing on one issue or problem. Mr. Pence can take the questions, and Mr. Trump can show up twice a week to reinforce the message.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

For all of their flaws, the briefings are actually informative

“Yes, the briefings go off the rails every day as they follow Trump’s guided tour through his mind — where grievances, false information and self-adoration are on display. But the briefings, held six or seven days a week, also tell the public in the most visible way possible that their government — and their president — is fighting for them.” — Keith Koffler, NBC News

As long as Trump is involved, the briefings will be a mess

“In 2016, Trump stormed the castle by outwitting the media gatekeepers, exploiting their need for content and access, their intense hunger for ratings and clicks, their economic hardships and overconfidence. It’s all happening again. The media has learned nothing.” — Charles Blow, New York Times

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters