The nation’s television news outlets, especially the three major cable-news networks, are grappling with a nagging paradox as President Donald Trump continues to orchestrate his White House briefings on the novel coronavirus pandemic.
On the one hand, their ratings have never been higher, and viewers’ appetites for the live sessions have shown no signs of dwindling. On the other hand, journalists and executives at MSNBC, CNN, and the often Trump-friendly Fox News—which scored an impressive 6.2 million viewers for Sunday’s installment of the Trump show, according to Nielsen—are increasingly facing the likelihood that they are becoming an uncritical and unvetted transmission belt for propaganda and misinformation.
Despite internal handwringing among producers and journalists as the week unfolded, however, the bosses at MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News once again decided on Thursday to broadcast every moment of Trump’s self-congratulatory and largely fact-free cheerleading live as the United States achieved the dubious milestone of becoming the world’s No. 1 coronavirus-infected country—surpassing even China’s 81,000-plus cases by more than 2,000, with twice China’s death rate.
“These White House sessions—ostensibly meant to give the public critical and truthful information about this frightening crisis—are in fact working against that end,” wrote Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan, summarizing such concerns. “Rather, they have become a daily stage for Trump to play his greatest hits to captive audience members. They come in search of life-or-death information, but here’s what they get from him instead: Self-aggrandizement… Media-bashing… Exaggeration and outright lies.”
In an echo of the self-criticism expressed during the 2016 presidential race, when the cable networks repeatedly broadcast Trump’s campaign rallies live and unexpurgated, top MSNBC anchors have already argued publicly that their own network should not air the president’s pandemic musings in full.
Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough tweeted during Trump’s briefing on Monday that there was “no public benefit to this briefing,” and the cable news networks should “cut away.” MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, who anchors the network’s most highly rated program, also repeatedly called for news networks to stop carrying Trump’s statements live, saying that the president’s daily comments contribute to the spread of misinformation.
“If it were up to me, and it’s not, I would stop putting those briefings on live TV,” Maddow said on her show earlier this week. “Not out of spite, but because it’s misinformation. If the president does end up saying anything true, you can run it as tape. But if he keeps lying like he has been every day on stuff this important, we should, all of us should stop broadcasting it. Honestly, it’s going to cost lives.”
Privately, several staffers at CNN and MSNBC have acknowledged that airing Trump’s pressers live and in full likely amplifies the spread of misinformation about the disease and its potential cure. In one instance, Trump’s enthusiastic promotion of a malaria medicine, chloroquine, as therapy for COVID-19, reportedly prompted an elderly couple to take a poisonous version of the chemical, resulting in the wife being placed in an intensive-care unit while her husband died.
An NBC News insider, however, said the White House briefings should be not be ignored, but instead thoroughly covered and aired, albeit with journalistic vetting and fact checking. “I completely get the criticism of the performance,” this person said. “But let’s remember that the White House press corps absolutely torched the Trump White House for eliminating the daily briefings. Now there’s a high-profile daily press briefing that often includes the president and vice president, so you can’t have it both ways.”
Acknowledging that Trump is frequently a source of misstatement, the NBC News insider added: “I think the best way to handle the president in the briefing is that you handle the president like you handle the virus. He has to be contained and quarantined and his falsehoods have to be scrubbed so that they don’t rub off on you.”
On Thursday evening, as the U.S. death and infection toll mounted and health care first responders coped with inadequate hospital facilities and medical equipment, Trump began the White House briefing by complaining about a Washington Post story quoting Washington state’s Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee as exhorting the president on a conference call to step up and act like leader in the tradition of quarterback Tom Brady.
“Somebody in the fake news said that one of the governors said, ‘Oh, we need Tom Brady.’ Yeah. He meant it in a positive way,” Trump claimed as he launched into a defensive rant. “We need Tom Brady, we can do everything positively, but they took it differently. They think Tom Brady should be leading the effort. That’s only fake news. And I like Tom Brady. I spoke to him the other day. He’s a great guy. But I wish the news could be real. I wish it could be honest. I wish it weren’t corrupt. So much of it is, it’s so sad to see. We had a great meeting."
When an Asian American reporter asked the president—who has habitually referred to COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus”—what he’s doing to combat hate crimes against people of Asian heritage, Trump responded: “Well, I don’t know. All I know is this: Asian Americans in our country are doing fantastically well. I’m very close to them, as you know. And they’re doing fantastically well. And I think they appreciate the job we’re doing.”
When Trump left the podium and Vice President Mike Pence took over, MSNBC continued airing the briefing while CNN cut away so anchor Wolf Blitzer and medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta could dissect the president’s false claims, and returned to the briefing when government doctors Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx made presentations.
On MSNBC, anchor Chuck Todd then supplied some political and optics analysis.
Since at least Sunday’s briefing—when Trump joked sarcastically about Sen. Mitt Romney’s self-quarantine, complained about the “billions of dollars” he has allegedly lost because he’s president, and defended his continuing involvement in his family business by claiming George Washington did the same—staffers and managers at CNN and MSNBC have been treating the briefings with increasing caution.
Going forward, they said, they will be ready to cut away from the briefings when newsworthy facts and figures—usually shared by federal public-health officials such as Dr. Anthony Fauci—give way to unsupported presidential speculation and outright falsehoods.
“We might take it from the top and then cut away after the first lie, and return when the lies stop,” said one cable-network producer.
“Sunday was like open-mic night,” an MSNBC staffer told The Daily Beast, adding that Trump might still be benefiting politically and winning respectable approval ratings for his handling of the pandemic because “people want to believe he’s got this. So they crawl toward the mirage, and when they realize it’s a mirage, they eat the sand.”
“They’re so full of misinformation. Someone has already died from it,” a different MSNBC insider said, citing the story of an Arizona man who ingested fish-tank solvent, chloroquine with phosphate, after hearing Trump tout that key ingredient in its prescription-drug form at one of his press conferences.
On Monday, both CNN and MSNBC cut away from Trump’s unusually lengthy briefing after an hour, while the Fox News Channel continued to carry it until the end.
“Of course they did,” scoffed a CNN employee. “And yesterday [Tuesday] they produced a propaganda show”—a reference to the Fox News town hall with Trump in which anchor Bill Hemmer, with the president in the White House Rose Garden, and Harris Faulkner in her makeshift home studio, asked him a series of softball questions.
During his hour on-air, Trump used much of his time to tout his presidential record, jab at Democrats like “Sleepy” Joe Biden and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and praise his Fox News hosts. Among many gushing comments from the Fox personalities accompanying the president, at one point Fox News contributor Dr. Nicole Saphier raved to Trump how “as a nation we are beholden to you for your decisive, swift action.”
A Fox News insider, however, defended the town hall: “Given we are operating in an unprecedented evolving hour-to-hour crisis, this was a major television feat to pull off and the entire town hall made news which any network would have been thrilled to have.”
Other cable staffers said the networks were inclined to lean-in to live events because it is logistically more difficult to remotely produce TV packages as many employees are now scattered geographically, working from their homes.
“It’s a tougher call than it would be in normal times because we’re all trying to do as much remote work as possible,” said another source who does not support taking Trump’s pressers live. “Live events alleviate the burden on our incredibly diminished control-room staff.”
—With additional reporting from Justin Baragona