As the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage the country, the national media have been confronted with the same dilemma that has plagued them since the beginning of the Trump presidency: whether they should broadcast the president’s briefings and rallies live.
During a daily coronavirus briefing last week, the question was raised again as President Trump suggested injecting disinfectant and using ultraviolet light as treatments for the virus.
“Supposing we hit the body with a tremendous, whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light…and then I said supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way. And I think you said you’re gonna test that,” Trump said. “And then I see disinfectant, where it knocks [coronavirus] out in a minute — one minute — and is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning. Because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs.”
Trump’s comments prompted a slew of Democratic politicians, corporations and medical experts to warn the public not to use cleaning supplies to treat the virus (as #donotdrinkbleach trended on Twitter). After more than 100 people called into a Maryland hotline inquiring about using disinfectants, the state’s Emergency Management Agency urged people not to do so on its Twitter account.
Trump later said his comments were sarcastic, and freshly minted White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended him, saying, “Leave it to the media to irresponsibly take President Trump out of context and run with negative headlines.”
It’s not the first time Trump has used the daily briefing to spread misinformation. In March, Trump said, “Anyone who wants a test can get a test,” which remains false as most states are still falling short of the testing levels needed. Officials from the Department of Health and Human Services told the Associated Press states will be able to test at least 2 percent of their populations each month. Currently, only 40 percent of states are hitting that threshold, according to the AP.
Trump also repeatedly touted hydroxychloroquine, a common anti-malaria drug, as another possible treatment, despite warnings by National Institutes of Health Director Anthony Fauci that evidence of the drug’s efficacy against the virus was anecdotal.
A recent study from the Veterans Health Administration indicated that coronavirus patients who took the drug actually died at higher rates, and on April 24, the Food and Drug Administration cautioned against usage of the drug outside of hospitals due to “reports of serious heart rhythm problems.”
The disinfectant fiasco led media critics to call for a moratorium on airing live briefings. Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, along with other academics, wrote an open letter to the heads of ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, MSNBC and CNN demanding they stop airing Trump’s live briefings.
“We ask that no speech, rally, or press conference involving the president be covered live anymore. The risk of passing along bad information and harmful advice is too great,” the letter stated. “News organizations need to attend carefully to what he says and only share information that they can independently verify. By asking themselves ‘is what he said something we should be amplifying?’ news organizations can offset the damage these briefings are producing.”
[Related: Networks Weigh Airing Trump’s Coronavirus Briefings]
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan also lamented the media’s response to Trump’s spreading of disinformation, writing “I very much doubt that history will judge mainstream journalism to have done a terrific job covering this president — including in this difficult moment.”
Recently, Andy Lack, the chairman of NBC News and MSNBC, wrote a column arguing that the media was “winning” because they were fact-checking the president and providing Americans with much-needed coverage of the pandemic.
Sullivan responded: “Is this winning? Only in the sense that a verbally abused spouse is winning if she manages to get the kids off to school after another sleepless night.”
The decision is difficult for news networks. As the president has boasted, the televised press briefings often attract upwards of 10 million viewers. That’s a lot of money for the networks, especially during the pandemic when the news business is taking a hit.
During the 2016 campaign, networks faced a similar dilemma over whether to carry Trump’s rallies live. CNN, in particular, was notorious for airing long, uninterrupted Trump rallies in the early months of the campaign.
“If we made any mistake last year, it’s that we probably did put on too many of his campaign rallies in those early months and let them run,” CNN President Jeff Zucker said in October 2016. “Listen, because you never knew what he would say, there was an attraction to put those on air.”
Zucker later added that the increased viewership from Trump rallies “certainly didn’t hurt.”