It’s little wonder that a simple physical examination of Donald Trump set off all kinds of bells, whistles and the occasional klaxon.
Fox News, as it frequently is, was outraged that CNN sent an actual doctor to the White House briefing, one whose definition of heart disease is broader than Fox would like. Others who don’t think much of Trump questioned even the simplest measurements given, noting that the height and weight asserted roughly correspond to those of Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin, who seems to be trimmer.
But that’s just the usual hoo-hah that surrounds everything involving Trump. The more important part passed without much notice. Physicians with mutual respect for one another—in this case, CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Trump’s new doctor, Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson—were discussing laboratory results and prognoses intelligently and without rancor, coming to the same conclusion stated differently.
This was profoundly different from the usual White House briefing, in which White House correspondents who know a lot about the “optics” of politics but, often, little about the subject matter, take turns peppering the briefer with questions on those subjects. It’s even more different than what happens on cable news, in which a passel of ignorant people aligned as if on the old Hollywood Squares game show, shout at each other from predictable positions on a screen grid.
And that’s the problem, both with our news ecosystem in general and the White House briefings in particular.
It’s why coverage of the Republican attempts to destroy the Affordable Care Act was so ineffective. Few people questioning the press secretary seemed to understand the basic principle of insurance, let alone how the current law worked. Even if you’re not planning to have a crash anytime soon, it’s a good idea to have car insurance. Same goes for health insurance. Not crashing or not getting sick doesn’t make you a sucker. It means you’ve been lucky so far.
We in media bemoan lost credibility. In some ways, we deserve it. Newspaper staffs have been cut past the bone. Network news has backed away from foreign coverage. Much of the internet is a festival of partisan hogwash.
But there are simple ways to counteract that. One is by more effectively utilizing the policy experts that are still in the newsroom.
Instead of placing a highly trained and well-compensated White House reporter in a room to be abused by random Huckabees, why not have someone there who actually understands things—a tax policy reporter when the administration is pushing its massive tax overhaul or an immigration reporter on days when DACA is the main news? That way, instead of debating whether the latest stupid insult was “poopnose” or “poophead,” you could press the administration about, say, the merits of ending temporary protected status programs or what actually is effective border security. Like Gupta did, you might actually make some news.
Credibility for the press can come when we demonstrate that we know what we’re talking about. And it’s not that hard.
On my tiny editorial board years back, we had a part time member, a professor of economics who often kept us from looking like idiots. There are other, better examples.
Deborah Howell, the fine editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, took a job as chief of the Washington Bureau of Newhouse News Service in 1990 with a mandate to reshape Washington coverage to make it more useful and interesting. The beats were topics like race, technology, gender, and religion. It was a mixed success.
One problem that should not trouble anyone who tries her idea nowadays is that of serving the egos of myriad editors who all thought they had hung the moon. Few wanted deeply thought out pieces that they didn’t originate. And the stories tended to be long, some very long. Thus, the clients hated what they were getting. They wanted the usual Washington swill from their own swill-gatherers. Between the coming of the internet and the fragmentation of media, their kind of power is gone.
There is reason to believe that much of our audience might want to know prurient details of an old Trumpian assignation. There are others who might like to know what is actually going on in our government. To use an old comparison, everybody can’t be the New York Post (thank heaven) and attract the Post’s audience. You have to be confident that someone wants to be The Wall Street Journal.
Very bad people exploit the ignorance of our staffs of generalists. The attacks on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security continue because nobody has successfully countered the dishonest bad numbers at the core of the attacks. Most Americans who aren’t collecting from the programs believe they never will because no one has convinced them otherwise.
It is far easier to train a physician to practice journalism than the reverse. The same is true of accountants, insurance specialists, and lawyers. We will always need journalists without a specialty who will ask the necessary rude questions of public figures, the ones who notice that the emperor stands before them naked and full of it. But an exchange between a couple of physicians last week shows us that deep knowledge can be useful in cutting through the smokescreens.
Gupta wrote on CNN: “Like most men of his age, President Donald Trump has a common form of heart disease, relatively easy to address if he increases the dose of his cholesterol-lowering medication and makes necessary lifestyle changes.” White House Physician Dr. Jackson disagreed only in downplaying the seriousness of the finding.
Would that budget stories attracted similar precision and lack of hysteria.
Richard Aregood is a journalist and college professor, winner of a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing.