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Trump-media coronavirus combat: unhealthy for us all?

Trump-media coronavirus combat: unhealthy for us all?
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As the pandemic grows more severe, reporters have gotten more aggressive in their challenges to President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump State Department appointee arrested in connection with Capitol riot Intelligence community investigating links between lawmakers, Capitol rioters Michelle Obama slams 'partisan actions' to 'curtail access to ballot box' MORE at his coronavirus press briefings — to the applause of some who see this combat as seriously overdue. Allow me a safe space to ask a question about this. I honestly don’t have an answer to the question, but let me ask it:

Is it doing any good?

The White House briefings have clearly become controversial; some label them substitute rallies, allowing Trump to make one misstatement after another on live television. Fact-checking these mistakes later doesn’t have the same effect — too many viewers only see the president’s soundbite. Corrections don’t cut through the media clutter in the same way.

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Almost in response to this, reporters have started to challenge Trump live, in real time, on the White House lawn. PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor and CNN’s Jeremy Diamond are among the most recent to confront the president about sudden shifts in policy or prognosis, often using his own words.

But Trump doesn’t respond to aggressive questions by expanding on his previous remarks. He doesn’t provide new information about masks or ventilators or Easter Sunday services. And he certainly doesn’t apologize for his previous statements and any misunderstandings they may have caused.

Instead, he attacks the news media. And, in the blink of an eye, the briefings are derailed, the focus shifts from the crisis at hand to the president’s unending list of personal grievances.

We know this about Donald J. Trump: He needs an enemy. In his 2016 campaign, one key foil was “the swamp,” that cabal of career public servants who, he believes, represent everything wrong with American government. But he needs those people now; they are there, behind him at the podium, working hard to give his administration a measure of credibility and professionalism.

But he still has his other villain: the media. Intentionally or not, the perceived antagonistic tone and content of the questions allow Trump to turn up the heat, to serve his loyalists — live and unedited — exactly the kind of dish they’ve flocked to his rallies to experience: the persecuted hero battling (just as they do) against the legions of elites arrayed against him.

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And media outlets unwittingly help confirm that image. Trump is, as ever, good for everybody’s ratings. Several hours after a presidential face-off with reporters at the White House, cable news still will be talking about it, pumping up the drama for its own purposes, using dramatic terms typically reserved for reports out of a war zone.

They are not in a war zone, however. They are in a play — the bad guys in a stage production designed and directed by the man at the microphone.

The question remains: Is any of this doing any good?

Journalists are caught in a no-win situation. It is not debatable — they would not be doing their jobs if they didn’t challenge the powerful, especially in the middle of a crisis. But, by doing this, they also provide the president with the adversary he needs right now. The virus has no face. The media does.

And so, their questions generate heat but no light. They allow Trump to accomplish the very things they are trying to counter, the grandstanding and the insults.

The only real solution lies with the viewers.

If we watch these briefings with an understanding of the theatrics, we tune that stuff out. There is valuable information in these news conferences from the experts, the doctors and, yes, even from the president. The rest is a sideshow, meant to distract from all the real trouble and danger. Don’t allow it to distract you.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.