Cut him off. Split the Screen. How to deal with presidential misinformation in an emergency

President Trump’s regular news briefings spread harmful misinformation about public health.  The gap between the lived reality of the coronavirus pandemic, on the one hand, and the common operating picture presented by the president, on the other, is distressingly large.   The daily scrums now substitute for campaign rallies.

It’s long-past time that the news business changes the way it broadcasts, covers, and presents these events.  This is a must. If life-saving, shared truths about public health are being jackhammered into shards by a single powerful source, it would make sense to take the fight against harmful information back to the source.  Right now, that source is President Trump. Full stop. 

Trump’s unfettered access to the airwaves, flanked by experts, his repetition of self-praise, and the repeated paeans to his leadership that members of the civil service are obliged to offer up, has contributed to a sense that he is on top of the pandemic response; simply hearing Trump say “it’s hard not to be happy with the job we’re doing” over and over will convince a lot of people that it probably is true.  This is the repetition effect distilled to its essence. Claims become familiar over time, and what’s familiar is plausible. All Presidents exploit their access to the media in crises, and Trump believes that his re-election is in his self-interest.  So I don’t particularly care, at the moment, whether Americans think the President is doing a good job responding to COVID-19.  Those are perceptions, and they may change over time.

But harmful misinformation and the daily etching of a false picture of reality should deeply trouble reporters, network producers, coverage managers and editors.  Trump is again using the media’s predispositions and habits in service of truth decay.  He has touted drugs that aren’t available or don’t work; he has lied about conversations with leaders and officials; he has lied about his own response; he has misrepresented science; he has been wrong about the availability of tests, of personal protective equipment, of ventilators, about his own actions, the actions of governors, the spread of the virus here and elsewhere.  Today he said that “some states have virtually no problem at all,” which is false.  90 percent of Republicans trust Trump for information about the virus – the same percent who trust medical professionals.  But Trump isn’t echoing medical professionals.  And the large space between these two sources of data understandably create confusion.  The President’s signaling capacity is unparalleled; with a few words, he can undo a carefully orchestrated pandemic response plan.  I further worry that Trump is setting the stage, unwittingly, for mass panic.  Panic occurs when the public is suddenly confronted with a reality that is different from the reality they have they conditioned to accept.  (“Be brutally honest about reality and offer a rational basis for hope,” is what Adm. James Stockdale, medal of honor winner and one-time vice presidential candidate said about leadership. H/T@juliettkayam). 

NYU Professor Jay Rosen (@Jay_RosenNYU) has argued since 2016 that journalists should stop covering Trump normally and instead treat him as the source of a national emergency.  His advice has not been accepted, probably because there is no comfortable template for covering a President who is an emergency himself (something Rosen acknowledges) and in part because there remains a huge fear of being perceived as openly hostile to conservatives and Republicans.  I could add a number of other reasons why the transition would have been difficult absent a true national emergency, but Rosen has already accounted for many of them.  His advice seems prescient, and now is as good a time as any to test the proposition.   Rosen does not believe that back and forth between Trump and increasingly aggressive reporters is useful. He thinks it plays to Trump’s strength and, most importantly, does not clarify for viewers what the truth is.

Dan Froomkin of PressWatchers has an idea.  He says that networks shouldn’t break into regular programming to cover the briefings.  (Network audiences are much larger than cables’s.). If there’s news in the briefing, people will find out instantly through any number of other media platforms.  But cable networks, he says, should cover them live, with a caveat.  For one thing, there are “urgent, emergency communications” embedded in the briefings, before or after Trump speaks.  For another, people who want to hear the President speak should be able to hear him speak.  The harmful misinformation that shoots out of the briefing does not obviate the fact that it is news, and there has to be some way to responsibly cover it.  Froomkin suggests that the cablers change the presentation. He wants them to “split the screen” and correct Trump, in real time, as he speaks. (Many of his falsehoods are predictable and producers can prepare for them.)   Will fact-checking Trump in real-time amplify his misinformation?  Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of Hofstra’s journalism school and a long-time former executive at ABC News and NBC News, told me on Twitter that he agrees that social media fact-checking “amplifies more than it corrects.”  But, he said, “the truth is that virtually no-one has even TRIED on live TV.”

A third view is that the more Trump’s unvarnished side is exposed, the more people will see him for who is he.  I don’t know if that’s the case; I think Americans have a pretty good idea of who he is. And at least 40 percent of them, plus or minus a few points, like what they see.  The media should not have as its goal the purchase to change minds about Trump.  They should, I think, focus on containing, mitigating and suppressing the misinformation that he puts out.  There may not be a way to do that without creating the appearance of bias, but we are in an emergency, and political attitudes about media bias are aren’t going to change. Forget bias. Focus on solutions.  Rosen has a set of them. (Clear reporters out of the White House, don’t put Trump on live television, use the truth sandwich method to avoid amplifying misinformation, be transparent and clear about motive.)  Froomkin has others. The Atlantic’s James Fallows has still more.  Our national emergency calls for a new approach to what Rosen has called the “most potent source of misinformation” in the country. If not now, then… when?