Press corps theatrics don't help us in a crisis

Press corps theatrics don't help us in a crisis
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One thing the nation doesn’t need now is unnecessary drama. But that is coming in high doses each day once President TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders says he wouldn't 'drop dead' if Trump decided on universal healthcare Overnight Health Care: Trump officials lay groundwork for May reopening | Democrats ramp up talks with Mnuchin on next relief deal | Fauci says death toll could be around 60,000 Hillicon Valley: State officials push for more election funds | Coronavirus surveillance concerns ramp up pressure for privacy bill | Senators warned not to use Zoom | Agencies ask FCC to revoke China Telecom's license MORE steps to the podium for the COVID-19 press conferences. Drama seems to follow Trump into any setting, of course, but the antics of the White House press corps put the theatrics into overdrive. American news consumers become the collateral damage, losers in this rhetorical brawl.

The briefings normally start out fine with Trump providing prepared remarks and then yielding to the experts in medicine and government logistics. Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes for Health, Dr. Deborah Birx of the State Department’s Global Health division, and others have shined with their knowledge and perspective.

Once the floor is opened to press questions, however, chaos ensues. Reporters shout, wave their hands, pontificate, issue editorials disguised as questions, filibuster and interrupt the podium speakers. There is no other place in the nation where decorum is so sorely lacking, and it is happening at the worst possible time. Heated arguments at the local tavern display more class than these press antagonists in front of the nation’s government and medical leaders.

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This is not the time for political posturing, media grandstanding or Trump resistance. The nation is suffering. Citizens need information and want hope.

The news media should be stepping up to provide the information needs of a democracy. That includes providing perspective and suitable challenges to bureaucratic pronouncements, exaggerated claims and wishful thinking, regardless of where such things originate. On a macro level, journalists have performed well in this role, especially considering the difficult circumstances. When it comes to behavior in the COVID-19 pressers, however, the press’ urge for confrontation and sensationalism overwhelms their sense of professionalism.

The daily White House press briefings on COVID-19 should be great vehicles for information flow to the public. Reporters have been demanding transparency and access from the Trump administration since inauguration day, and now they have it. The president and the COVID-19 response team are right there every day now for live questions in front of the entire nation. The journalists in the briefing room are fouling up this great opportunity.

Journalists have used the precious time at these pressers to go on tangents about Trump using racist terminology, promoting false hope, and the economic downturn on Trump hotels. Trump predictably didn’t manage these inquiries with tact, but this hardly seems the time to be poking Trump to see what reaction can be had. Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Senate deadlocked on relief measures The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden vs. Trump as Sanders exits race GOP rep calls for US to bring international case against China over coronavirus MORE was even asked to criticize Trump’s handling of the press. The guilty reporters are not really seeking information, they are seeking a moment to raise their profile on a national stage.

The COVID-19 crisis looks like it will be around for a while, but the daily White House briefings can’t continue with the current unworkable structure. A format change has to be made.

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First, these spectacles have to be shorter. Dr. Fauci can’t be standing in front of a press room for an hour and a half each day. He has real work to do. Same for the cabinet secretaries and other government officials. The White House can have the president parade out to make a scripted statement and look presidential, but he then needs to leave so as to not be a distraction. Cap these events at a half hour. Opening statements need to be trimmed, with details provided on-line to the media (and public) in fact sheets.

Establish an order for reporters to ask questions. This can be fairly done with a rotation system. Freedom of the press doesn’t guarantee any reporter the right to ask a question anyway. Childish shouting and interrupting needs to stop.

Encourage news outlets to send their medical correspondents to these pressers. Most political reporters who hang out in the White House press room likely didn’t even take a science class in college. Reporting about this crisis needs technical expertise. Most journalists lack that expertise. Their questions in the briefings demonstrate such.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt guided the nation through the depression and a world war. He held nearly a thousand press briefings during that time. None was broadcast live. The reporters in attendance were hand-picked and prohibited from directly quoting the president. That was extreme press management. Trump’s team is providing much more access and openness. The press can still scrutinize government decisions aggressively during this national crisis, but the stakes are too high right now for anything less than the highest of professional standards.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.