Dahleen Glanton: The media shouldn’t muzzle Trump — no matter his lies and ineptitude

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From the moment the coronavirus struck, Donald Trump has used the crisis to promote his personal agenda. And the news media have struggled with how to handle his campaign rally-style briefings.

Last week, they made a decision.

Heeding a growing call from many respected journalists, CNN and MSNBC began cutting away from the lengthy news conferences. KOUW, the National Public Radio affiliate in Seattle — the first state to have a full-blown COVID-19 outbreak — stopped airing the briefings entirely. Others made similar adjustments.

That’s a mistake.

In effect, it’s censorship. News organizations shouldn’t be in the business of deciding what the public needs to hear and what it shouldn’t when the nation is in the midst of the biggest health crisis of our lifetime.

The decision to limit coverage of the briefings has nothing to do with Trump’s rising poll numbers, as his supporters and other conservatives contend. It’s about the risk in giving him a platform to spread misinformation.

After airing the White House briefings live for two weeks, KOUW said it questioned whether the “pattern of false information and exaggeration” were in the best service of the station’s mission — “to create and serve a more informed public.”

“Of even greater concern was the potential impact of false information on the health and safety of our community,” the station said in a statement.

During a pandemic such as this, news organizations have an obligation to provide access to all of the information available. Regardless of Trump’s ineptitude or motives, he is at the helm of the nation right now. It’s in the public’s best interest to keep tabs on what he’s up to.

Whether people like — or trust — what he says, they needed to hear him try to explain how he would reopen the country for business by Easter. People needed to hear him outright lie about the availability of test kits. They needed to see him look reporters in the eye and say he always knew this was a pandemic, though everyone knows he did not.

The public needs to hear everything Trump and his coronavirus task force have to say about the pandemic. It then becomes the public’s responsibility to decipher it and decide what is useful.

When journalists are at their best, we give the public the necessary tools the make the right choices. When politicians lie, journalists ask the tough questions that get to the truth. And in the age of Trump, we must take the extra step of fact-checking everything that comes out of his mouth.

When the going gets tough, journalists can’t just put down our notepads and walk away. While I have criticized his press briefings in previous columns, I have never called for the media to limit his exposure as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and former “Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel have suggested.

As a journalist for 40 years, I’ve covered lots of news conferences involving politicians, including presidents. It has always been a difficult job, but the last three years have been particularly tough for reporters covering Trump.

For the most part, reporters have done great work, despite the president’s eagerness to pick a fight with anyone who dares to challenge him.

By now, journalists are used to criticism from the right that the media are biased against Trump. We have grown accustomed to the president labeling our work as “fake news.” Those who cover the White House regularly, no doubt, are sick of trying to pry the truth out of him and members of his administration.

The daily coronavirus briefings have brought another element of criticism. Some viewers don’t think the journalists are tough enough. The way they see it, Trump has scared them into submission.

They would rather see reporters fight back when Trump attacks them. The reporters don’t — because good journalists know the story isn’t about them. Reporters understand that they are merely conduits for channeling information.

So when Trump hurls insults and dismisses their queries as “nasty” questions, they hold their heads up without saying a word. When he is done with his tirade, they calmly repeat the question — the way a determined journalist should.

The media have a tough line to toe when dealing with Trump. The persistence of his obvious lies has led to an internal struggle within news organizations over whether he should be allowed to use them to disseminate it.

The public, though, is very clear about what it wants.

Trump’s coronavirus briefings have been a TV ratings hit, according to the New York Times, drawing an average audience of 8.5 million cable news viewers — about the same number of people who watched the season finale of “The Bachelor.”

Nearly 12.2 million viewers — the equivalent of “Monday Night Football” audiences — watched his March 23 briefing, according to Nielsen ratings reported by the Times. Millions more are watching every day on ABC, CBS, NBC and online streaming sites — and the numbers are growing.

If news organizations really want to live up to their mission as the government watchdog, they must give the people access to information — and trust them to use the resources provided by the media to sort it out.

The public will let the media know without a doubt when it’s time to stop covering Trump’s press briefings. They’ll switch the channel and decide they’re better off watching reruns of “The Simpsons.”



Dahleen Glanton is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.


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