Even this far into his term, it is still a bit of a shock to be reminded that the single most potent force for misinforming the American public is the current president of the United States. For three years this has been a massive — and unsolved — problem for the country and its political leadership.
But now it is life and death. On everything that involves the coronavirus Donald Trump’s public statements have been unreliable. And that is why today we announce that we are shifting our coverage of the President to an emergency setting.
This means we are exiting from the normal system for covering presidents— which Trump himself exited long ago by using the microphone we have handed him to spread thousands of false claims, even as he undermines trust in the presidency and the press. True: he is not obliged to answer our questions. But neither are we obligated to assist him in misinforming the American people about the spread of the virus, and what is actually being done by his government.
We take this action knowing we will be criticized for it by the President’s defenders, by some in journalism, and perhaps by some of you. And while it would be nice to have company as we change course, we anticipate that others in the news media will stick with the traditional approach to covering presidents.
This we cannot in good conscience do.
Switching to emergency mode means our coverage will look different and work in a different way, as we try to prevent the President from misinforming you through us. Here are the major changes:
* We will not cover live any speech, rally, or press conference involving the president. The risk of passing along bad information is too great. Instead, we will attend carefully to what he says. If we can independently verify any important news he announces we will bring that to you— after the verification step.
* We plan to suspend normal relations with the Trump White House. That means we won’t be attending briefings. (We can watch them on TV.) We won’t gather around him as he departs in his helicopter. We won’t join in any off-the-record “background” sessions with Administration officials. We won’t enter into agreements of any kind with the Trump team, which includes those nameless “senior advisers” who mysteriously show up in news stories.
* We have always tried to quote public officials accurately, including President Trump. In emergency mode we add a further check. In addition to, “does this fairly represent what he said?” we will ask: is what he said something we should be amplifying? If it is simply meant to demonize a group of people, rewrite a history that now embarrasses the President, or extend his hate campaign against journalists who are doing their job, we may decide not to amplify it, even though it happened. An old tenet of White House reporting states that what the president says makes news— automatically, as it were. Today we are disabling that autoplay system and replacing it with a manual one.
* In general, we will be shifting the focus of our coverage from what President Trump is saying to what his government is doing. We will be de-emphasizing the entire White House beat and adding people who can penetrate the bureaucracy from the rim, rather than the center of the distortion machine.
* Experience has taught us that there will occasionally be times when the President makes a demonstrably false claim, or floats a poisonous lie, and it is too consequential to ignore. We feel we have to tell you about it, even at the risk of amplifying his deceptions. In those special cases, we will adopt a news writing formula that has been called the “truth sandwich.” It is a more careful way of reporting newsworthy falsehoods. First you state what is true. Then you report the false statement. Then you repeat what is true. Like so:
In January and February, President Trump minimized the danger of the coronavirus. “We have it totally under control,” he said on Jan. 22. But two days ago he tried to erase that fact and escape accountability for his prior statements. “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic,” he said. If we judge by his public statements this is an outright lie. On Feb. 27, at a White House meeting he said: “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”
Refusing to go with live coverage. Suspending normal relations with his White House. Always asking: is this something we should amplify? A focus on what he’s doing, not on what he’s saying. The truth sandwich when we feel we have to highlight his false claims. This is what you can expect now that our coverage has been switched to an emergency setting.
One more thing. Because we don’t know that we have done this right, and because your confidence in us describes the limits of what we can achieve as journalists, we will be hiring immediately a public editor who is empowered to field complaints, decide if something went wrong, find out how it happened, and report back.
Early in President Trump’s term, Marty Baron, the editor of the Washington Post, spoke these memorable words about the President’s “enemy of the people” rhetoric: “We’re not at war, we’re at work,” said Baron. This was a smart warning not to get caught up in bringing down a president.
Today we are recognizing that our journalism must shift, not to a “war” but to an emergency footing. (Donald Trump, meanwhile, is calling himself a “wartime president.”) We feel we cannot keep telling wild and “newsy” stories about the unreliable narrator who somehow became president. Not with millions of lives at stake. We have to exit from that system to keep faith with you, and with the reason we became journalists in the first place.
I need to clarify what kind of text this is. I am not a news organization with a White House press pass. I am a journalism professor and writer who is also a press critic. Since 2015, I have written a lot about the problem of covering Donald Trump. This post is a further elaboration of that work. It is written in the voice of an editor’s note “announcing” a new policy. But I am not a news executive in a company of journalists, and I don’t want to give the impression that a national news organization has made this shift. As far as I know that has yet to happen.