The seemingly endless internal cable-news debate over whether or not to air President Donald Trump’s increasingly clownish daily briefings on the coronavirus pandemic reached a new level of hand-wringing this week after the president on Monday used his time, and the presence of TV cameras, to run a campaign ad attacking his critics.
“It was like a Super Bowl-level ad buy, but for free,” said an NBC News insider who, like others in television journalism, was appalled at how Trump was able to “hack into” a White House briefing ostensibly about public health in order to serve his political ends.
“Donald Trump is his own worst enemy in that he is actually forcing more of the networks’ hands to cover this even less,” the NBC insider said. “Only he could find a way to ruin his own free air time.”
Shortly after taking the White House podium, the president introduced a series of video and audio clips that began with a white screen captioned “the media minimized the risk from the start.” What followed was several minutes of TV news clips showing various pundits dismissing the threat of the coronavirus early on (no mention, of course, of the president’s weeks-long campaign last month to downplay concerns over the pandemic as a new partisan “hoax”), and several governors praising Trump’s handling of the crisis.
Following the clip, the president warned the seated press corps that maybe instead of taking questions, “I’ll ask you some questions because you’re so guilty.” He also railed against The New York Times, remarking that “If you had libel laws they would have been out of business even before they’ll end up going out of business.”
CNN and MSNBC both cut away from the briefing midway through the bizarre ad, only to return once the president continued speaking; Fox News and its sister network, the Fox Business Network, ran the video in full. “It’s a national emergency and Trump is the President of the United States,” a Fox News insider told The Daily Beast, defending the network’s coverage. “It would be odd for a cable news channel not to take the briefings given the circumstances.”
But while it is perhaps unsurprising for Fox, a largely and often overtly pro-Trump outlet, to run the propaganda video in full, its appearance on MSNBC and CNN airwaves reignited private concerns among staffers about broadcasting the president’s self-congratulatory, often misinformative coronavirus briefings.
“This is absurd,” said one cable-news staffer, who recalled screaming at his television as the attack ad ran on his network. The source suggested the video looked like something the president’s confidant and unofficial adviser Sean Hannity would’ve aired on his primetime Fox News show.
“Which taxpayer-funded government staff employee spent the entire day editing misleading excerpts of three-month-old press clips to make the president look better?” the NBC insider demanded. “Whose job is that, when viewers are tuning in to learn what the government and CDC guidelines are, and what we should do so that we don’t die?” The president himself said the video was made by his loyal aide and attack dog Dan Scavino.
Among some staff at MSNBC, the briefings have been viewed as yet another proxy fight between network chief Phil Griffin and his boss, NBC News President Andy Lack. According to two knowledgeable insiders, Griffin has favored airing the briefings but has been more receptive to cutting away when they go “off the rails,” while Lack has allegedly made it known that he supports carrying them live.
Per one network insider, top MSNBC hosts have appealed directly to Griffin to argue against carrying the briefings live. But the network has continued to do so, often only cutting back to its anchors when Trump gets off-track—a threshold that is increasingly difficult to determine, seeing as the president’s default posturing is one of constant meltdown.
“Why are we still playing this game?” one MSNBC staffer fumed after Monday’s presser. “On the one hand, we have a duty to show the news, so we always just wait to see [what he says before cutting away]. But when has this ever been anything other than a reality television show?”
As Monday’s briefing aired, and the network cut in and out of its bizarre moments, MSNBC anchor Ari Melber openly noted for viewers: “We are going to avoid airing any more of this White House briefing until it returns to what it was supposed to be, which was the coronavirus task force providing medical information. What we just saw, I want to be clear with you, a video the White House put out which suggests they are spending their precious time right now making videos that defend the president's record and tenure rather than provide the much-needed emergency medical information that was promised at these daily briefings.”
And MSNBC’s Morning Joe co-host Joe Scarborough has continued to be publicly incensed by outlets carrying the president’s rants. “The networks would never give Barack Obama this much free time to ramble on about what a great job he was doing regardless of the crisis,” he tweeted during Monday’s briefing. “Network leaders would be freaked out by conservative criticism and buckle under pressure. This nonstop coverage is just preposterous.”
Later, he lamented how the press briefing had become “a taxpayer funded campaign ad.” He concluded: “Outrageous that the networks are still taking these press conferences.”
Over at CNN, concerns about carrying the task-force briefings have been loud and clear, but the network has also continued to air them. However, the cable outlet has attempted to push back on the president’s spiteful outbursts.
On Monday, after CNN cut away from Trump’s attack ad, it returned to carrying the briefing live, but with a series of on-screen chyrons pulling no punches: “Trump Refuses to Acknowledge Any Mistakes,” one read. “Trump Uses Task Force Briefing to Try and Rewrite History on Coronavirus Response,” blared another. But the bluntest of them all: “Angry Trump Turns Briefing Into Propaganda Session.”
Sources told The Daily Beast that those “banners,” as CNN calls them internally, were produced by individual show producers—often echoing what anchors, correspondents and analysts were saying on the air—and had the approval of network chief Jeff Zucker, who has struggled with how much of the briefings to cover but perhaps sees an opportunity to counter the president’s fact-free ravings with real-time, aggressive fact-checks.
A top CNN executive told The Daily Beast that the “early briefings” in March largely consisted of hard information from experts on the White House Coronavirus Task Force—such as government doctors Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx—about how the administration was addressing the pandemic. “I think what you would find inside CNN is that there were quite a number of people who thought those were useful and advocated taking them in full,” said the executive, who asked not to be further identified.
As the televised briefings increasingly became a forum for Trump to congratulate himself and trash his critics, however, “I think the thinking has evolved in the last few weeks as CNN has had to make a real-time decision about what we’re going to put on our air,” the executive said. Thus the network has been continually dipping in and out of live coverage of the briefings depending on who’s speaking and what is being said.
“It’s useful to actually see the president taking questions from reporters, because I think it’s revealing,” the executive added. “What happened Monday was a revealing moment about a president who seemed to make the press the enemy instead of the virus.”
But like many of Trump’s remarks, the coverage decisions are hardly grounded in science.
“It’s harder and harder to see where the medical information is,” added the NBC source, describing an internal “escalating debate” over whether to air the briefings at all. “[Monday’s briefing], even by the gonzo standards of 2020, was a whole other breaking point, where the question will be whether we switch from covering it and dropping out as warranted to not covering it and dropping in as warranted.”
“It’s just becoming increasingly difficult to decide what to do,” the cable-news staffer told The Daily Beast. “It’s hard not to carry the president of the United States talking about a major news event, but for decades in this industry, American journalists did not carry presidential political events—they only carried news events. It was a simple rule, and this guy has blurred that rule.”
With Trump, “we have a president who completely turns news events into political events, and people shouldn’t carry them if he’s going to handle it like this. [On Monday] he lied about almost every single program he brought up to make himself look good—and you can’t counter that. It was literally a campaign speech and it wasn’t true.”
Cable insiders also continue to fear that the prospect of booming viewership has given the networks pause when considering whether to abandon the manic, reality-TV-like briefings. A former network news executive told The Daily Beast that the pressers—much like Trump’s campaign rallies—had become a ratings boon but said journalists they had spoken to were alarmed at audiences becoming “conditioned” to the nightly press conferences that have lasted for up to three hours.
While CNN and MSNBC continue to struggle with internal questions over how much of the briefings to carry live, The New York Times—which initially carried live video of the White House pressers on its website—entirely stopped doing so last month.
“We’ve decided not to live-stream stream the briefings because they were becoming like campaign events,” Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet told The Daily Beast. “We will write about them as warranted.”
Another cable-news insider admitted airing the briefings live had become problematic and expected internal discussions to take place this week as to whether networks continue to give Trump unfettered air time. “The level of misinformation is disturbing and we need to make a decision how to handle this. [Monday] crossed a line.”