How reporters should handle coronavirus briefings

How reporters should handle coronavirus briefings
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On March 29, in a series of tweets, President TrumpDonald John TrumpProgressive group launches M pro-Biden ad buy targeting young voters Ilhan Omar: GOP response to calls for police reform 'was vicious' White House considers sweeping travel ban on members, families of the Chinese Communist Party: report MORE bragged about the “astounding ratings” of his daily coronavirus briefings. Citing a New York Times article that compared the size of the audiences of the press conferences (which were broadcast on many network and cable stations, and driven by the intense anxiety of millions of Americans) to the season finale of The Bachelor and Monday Night Football and said they’re “continuing to rise,” Trump claimed “the Lamestream Media is going CRAZY.” According to the president, one “lunatic” had warned colleagues “we must stop him.” And then Trump signed off: “See you at 5 p.m.”

The president, it is clear, uses the briefings to congratulate himself on a “fantastic” response to the crisis, bask in the praise of officials on the podium, give mixed signals on whether the economy should be open and churches packed in time for Easter and whether Americans should wear masks, endorse as yet unproven claims about Hydroxychloroquine, deflect blame for shortages of medical supplies on “incompetent” Democratic governors and blast reporters who ask “nasty” questions about the failure of his administration to prepare for the pandemic.

While acknowledging the civic value of providing citizens with the president’s perspective during a national crisis, several media outlets have recently expressed concern about carrying briefings live, unfiltered, without context or fact-checks. The Washington Post, the New York Times, and CNBC stopped sending veteran correspondents. “Nowadays,” declared Dean Baquet, executive editor of the Times, the lengthy sessions “make little news.” CNN, MSNBC, ABC, NBC, and CBS have cut away from the briefings.  Citing “a pattern of false and misleading information,” a Seattle-based NPR station followed suit. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Rachel MaddowRachel Anne MaddowSusan Rice sees stock rise in Biden VP race Trump dings CNN, 'Morning Joe' ratings as Tucker Carlson sets record Susan Rice 'humbled and honored' by rumors Biden considering her for VP MORE argued against broadcasting the sessions, “not out of spite,” but because they are “going to cost lives.”

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I suggest a somewhat different approach. Reputable media outlets should continue live broadcasts, reserving the right to return to regular programming. They should send reporters to the briefings. Following opening remarks by President Trump and other officials on the podium (which, alas, is better suited to a reality TV show than social distancing), 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. The experts are also likely to be more candid about inconsistencies on policies and messaging inside the Task Force and disagreements between the White House and the governors, and the questions put to them will be more useful than the seemingly partisan “gotcha” questions to a president who controls the microphone.

Questions for Dr. Anthony FauciAnthony FauciFauci's wife speaks out about criticism: 'They are making things up' Fauci says relationship with Trump is good, but would step down from task force if asked Hillicon Valley: Twitter accounts of Obama, Biden, Musk, others compromised | U.S. announces sanctions on Huawei, citing human rights abuses | Pompeo 'confident' foreign adversaries will interfere in elections MORE, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and for Dr. Deborah Birx, Response Coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, should include: Will the Coronavirus peak in the rest of the country as well as New York and New Orleans in the next two weeks? Or will there be roving hotspots in other cities and rural areas in the next few months? If the latter, when and how might social distancing guidelines be relaxed? Do you expect a second coronavirus wave in the fall? If so, will testing mitigate its impact — and will a sufficient number of testing kits be ready? Will it take 12-18 months to find out if Hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment for COVID-19, as President Trump maintains, or will we know by September? Do you share President Trump’s view that the report by the HHS Inspector General documenting hospital shortages was politically motivated?

Questions for the person in charge of the federal government’s medical supply chain, Navy Rear Admiral John Polowczyk (or is it FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor; or Peter Navarro, the self-proclaimed expert on Hydroxychloroquine; or Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerProgressive group launches M pro-Biden ad buy targeting young voters Trump shakes up campaign leadership, demotes Parscale Hillicon Valley: Twitter accounts of Obama, Biden, Musk, others compromised | U.S. announces sanctions on Huawei, citing human rights abuses | Pompeo 'confident' foreign adversaries will interfere in elections MORE, the walking advertisement for nepotism rules): How many masks, personal protective equipment, and ventilators have been sent to the states from what Mr. Kushner refers to as “our” stockpile? How do those numbers match up with the requests made by governors? What supplies have been produced and distributed under the Defense Production Act, which Mr. Navarro said strong presidents didn’t need to use? Will the remaining supplies arrive too late?

Airtime and astounding ratings are Donald Trump’s oxygen, his ventilator. They have helped him embed a “post-truth” political culture in the United States in which experience, expertise, and objective reality are trumped by “alternative facts” and appeals to emotion.

White House correspondents, of course, do not and should not have the power to silence a president. But by giving more time on center stage to people who know something — or should know something — and asking tough but urgently relevant questions, they can make the coronavirus briefings a lot better than they are now, and maybe, just maybe, save some lives.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.