Why don’t they just walk out?

During his daily briefings journalists are abused by a president who misinforms the nation. Here's 13 reasons they stick around for that.

12 Apr 2020 8:58 pm 40 Comments

Last week Maggie Haberman of the New York Times observed about Donald Trump’s daily briefings, “As long as he’s fighting with reporters, he can attempt to shift focus from where the government has lagged in its response.”

Which raises the question, “why stick around for that?” As Mehdi Hasan of The Intercept put it:

So why are the reporters, and the networks they work for, allowing him to do it? Being his punchbags on live TV *every single day*? Playing their role in his TV production? Why not ditch these ‘briefings’ and focus on the failed response? Relentlessly, forensically, passionately?

On social media people ask me this question a lot. Why don’t they just walk out?  There is no simple answer to that. I have no elegant explanation. What I have instead is a list of factors that might help you understand why the walk out doesn’t happen. But I want to be clear: I think it should happen. Here’s the way I have put it when people ask me what I would do:

If I ran a newsroom I would not broadcast Trump’s Covid-19 briefings live. I would not send reporters so he can waste their time and use them as his hate objects. I would instruct them to watch it on CSPAN, and report any news that emerges. If he makes a factual claim it has to be verified or no go.

A few months ago this would have been an unthinkable stance for journalists who report on politics. But that is changing. Ron Fournier is a former White House reporter and Washington bureau chief for the AP. You cannot get more establishment than that:

So why do newsrooms keep sending their people to the briefings? Here is my list of factors, which, again, is a long way from an explanation. I’m not defending these propositions. But I am proposing that the answer to the question is some combination of items 1-13 here.

1. What the president says is news. This was a wrong turn taken long ago in American journalism. It’s a kind of bug in the code for how to report on national politics. As a writer for the New York Times said in 1976, “Journalism has long been caught up in the particular tautology that runs, news is what the President says, so what the President says is news.” This never made a lot of sense. For one thing, it effectively hands over editorial control to the president. Another: what the president does is news, what the president says may or may not be. Third: journalists are always working with limited time or limited space. They cannot treat everything the president says as news. Nonetheless, the tautology remains. Trump has weaponized it. And if you think this way — what the president says is news — you’re going to want to be there when he says it.

2. There is enormous prestige in being the president’s official interlocutor because it means you are effectively part of the presidency. This is not something journalists think to mention, but to me it is major. There is glamour in being at the White House every working day. It means you’re important. If you’re not in the actual room where history happens, you’re pretty damn close. That’s seductive. One occasion on which you can feel this is an official prime time press conference in the East Room of the White House. Quitting that is hard if you want to feel important— and close to power.

3. It’s part of our franchise, a thing we are able to do that others are not. This is a prestige factor, as well, but more for the executive suite. Having a seat in the briefing room means your brand has made it to the big time. You are now part of the national press. And if you have been big time forever, like CBS News, that’s not something you relinquish. It’s one of the advantages of media incumbency.

4. We fought for this space in the White House, it’s valuable, we protect it, and we’re not going to give it up. This is how the White House Correspondents Association (WHCA) thinks. Its agenda can be summed up in one word: access to the president and his aides. It’s not only about the briefing room, but work spaces in the White House and the ability to ask questions of the president’s communicatons staff, and perhaps develop valuable relationships. (Update, April 26. On CNN, Brian Stelter asked Jonathan Karl, head of the WHCA, “why don’t they just walk out? See his reply.)

5. The American press tends to be a “herd of independent minds.” Meaning: it often moves as a pack, but each individual believes in his or her autonomous decision-making. Which means it can be acted on collectively, but it rarely acts as a collective. By attacking and ridiculing the reporters in front of him, Trump can lower trust in the press corps as a whole. But the press corps as a whole has developed no effective response to this. Still, there’s nothing in principle that prevents reporters from working together more often. It happens in other democracies. (See, ‘This is the Netherlands, you have to answer questions.’) The White House press works together on so-called “pool” arrangements. But on challenging Trump it’s considered a breakthrough in solidarity if one or two reporters re-ask a colleague’s question that went unanswered.

6. It’s a cheap, easy and endlessly repeatable way to “capture” some news. This is especially relevant for the TV networks. Setting up cameras in the White House and using footage from the podium is cheaper, easier and more reliable than sending reporters to investigate and camera crews to record interviews with sources. This is not a principle of journalism; rather, it’s the logic of content production, which favors predictability, repeatability and cost control.

7. Our job is to tell you what happened. You decide what to make of it. There is huge power in this principle. It is an utterly convincing, open-and-shut case to many people in journalism— and in the audience for news. Fox News made it into a tagline: “we report, you decide.” Applied to the coronavirus briefings it means you carry these events live because they happened, they involve the president, everything the president says is news and viewers will decide what to make of it. The trouble, of course, is that such logic does away with the whole principle of editorial control. In practice, Fox News like all other producers picks and chooses what it will report, including when it will go live from the White House podium. “We tell you what happened, you decide what to make of it…” is a clever way to avoid talking about those decisions. Nonetheless to many people in and out of journalism this is wisdom itself.

8. The news media should not be “protecting” the American people from their president. Tom Jones, lead writer for Poynter.org, a leading professional development center in journalism, writes:

Trump’s news conferences must be aired live and in their entirety. It’s critical to see what Trump and his team are doing and how they are thinking even if we don’t like or agree with it. When it comes to the president and his actions, it’s necessary that the media does not shield the American people and, in effect, protect Trump from the public.

9. The briefings let us hear from experts and White House advisors. “It is important for viewers to hear critical information from the administration’s public-health experts like Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx…” That’s the Daily Beast paraphrasing what CNN president Jeff Zucker said on a conference call with employees that was partly about this issue.

10. Sure, Trump is often untruthful, but that’s why our reporters are there, so the audience can hear the president face tough questions from journalists. Zucker said “he felt comfortable airing the briefings live because of those grillings by reporters,” according to the Daily Beast. (In this thread I explain why “grilling” Trump is a farce and counter-productive.)

11. Trump is good TV. Good TV means big ratings. Big ratings means big money. Among people who follow me on social media, this is by far the most popular explanation for why they don’t walk out. What could be clearer? They remember what CBS Chairman Les Moonves said about Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” There was some reporting in the press that Trump’s virus briefings were pulling good ratings. Recently they seem to be trending down. Of course you don’t see many ads during briefings, so that complicates things for the “televising Trump = $$” equation. Ad rates for the cable networks are not set by hourly fluctuations in viewership; they reflect longer term trends. And such a high proportion of their revenue is derived from multi-year contracts with cable systems that the day-to-day shifts in audience size have minimal effect on their yearly balance sheets.

12. TV news has no clue what to do about bad actors using air time to spread disinformation and hate. I am going to turn this one over to Andrew Tyndall, publisher of the Tyndall report, which tracks what the broadcast networks are reporting. I asked him, Why don’t they just walk out?

When television journalism presents a political debate it needs to do more than report on the gist of the competing arguments that are presented by the rival factions. It has to organize a format in which viewers can see those arguments being articulated by real live partisans. The requirement for talking heads on a Meet-The-Press-type show means that potential guests have more leverage over the show’s booking producers, more of an opportunity to game the system.

While it is commonplace nowadays for those operating in social media to concern themselves about how to conduct political discourse when some participants are committed trolls, television booking producers are faced with the same crisis in the extreme. The entire system of talking heads requires that those politicians who are booked in order to re-enact their disagreements in front of television cameras speak in good faith when they appear: good faith meaning that the guiding principle of the encounter should be that the audience be productively informed and honestly persuaded.

The system has no place for bad faith actors; yet no procedures for screening for them transparently and notifying the audience when they have been banned. It is through this loophole that President Trump (but not only he) walks.

13. We can’t abandon the briefing room to the OANN’s and Gateway Pundits of the world. If all the correspondents from the establishment press “walked out,” or quit the briefing room, there would still be people in those seats asking questions. To White House correspondents whose companies long ago made it to the big time, it’s unthinkable to leave that task to the low-rent pro-Trump media— plus a competitor like Fox News. (Update, April 26: A former White House press secretary, who ran the briefings during the Clinton presidency, gives his advice to the press on how to ask questions.)

Finally, I put the question in my title to Mark Lukasiewicz, a former Senior Vice President at NBC News who is now a journalism dean at Hofstra University. He has recently been critical of the major news networks for broadcasting Trump’s briefings live, and for airing live discussions with political figures who repeatedly lie. Here is what he said about “why not walk out?” His answer touches on many of the factors I have reviewed in this post.

If I were a news manager with responsibility for covering the White House, yes, I would send reporters to cover the coronavirus briefings. I would send them to the rope line when the president is walking out to Marine One. I would send them to the driveway mics when someone from the administration emerged to make a statement.

I would send them because asking questions and demanding answers in all of these settings is an important part of the job. I would send them because at least with Dr’s Fauci and Birx, real information is sometimes being elicited. Not being there eliminates even the possibility of getting new information. Not being there increases the chance that bad information goes uncorrected.

The reporters being subjected to abuse and insults from the lectern is not a consideration. Journalists are accustomed to — and are generally unintimidated by — important and powerful people not liking them and pushing back on their reporting. Reporters around the world have endured much worse.

Boycotting the hearings would also risk subjecting a news organization to retribution from the White House, in the form of restricted access, loss of press room privileges or other measures. I have argued strenuously however that none of this should necessarily air live. Journalists should be able to treat these sessions like the dozens of other media briefings that happen every day, and sift them for news and information that is relevant to their audiences.

One last note: The New York Times does not send anyone to the coronavirus briefings. They walked out.


Why not a hybrid solution? Send reporters, but don’t air the briefings and Q&A live. Rather, compile a fact checked, excerpted version for airing later each evening. I’m not sure the WH Comms team would allow reporters to show up under such circumstances, but I am troubled by a widespread boycott, leaving OANN and Fox News as the only interlocutors.


Yes, good idea.

I feel like there are two distinct questions getting mashed together in this post. One is, yes, “why don’t they walk out?” But the other is “OK, they have to cover it, but why do they have to run it live?”

If outlets sent reporters, and those reporters took in the clown show and then reported back to us on any actual news that’s made there, it would let the outlets preserve all the perks/power/ego privileges you rightly cite, without having to give up completely on the “what the President says is news” ideology. Indeed, if the motivating factor is the desire to be an intermediary, not running the briefings live would give them *more* power in that respect.

They won’t do that, of course. I suspect that, deep down, the basic motivation is fear. Establishment media people are afraid that they aren’t relevant anymore, and they will therefore never call the President’s bluff for fear that, if they remove themselves from the circus, the worst possible thing will happen: nobody will notice.

Well said.

Agree. Reporters should attend. Report facts. Networks should no longer carry the briefings live. They are campaign rallies. 90% BS, 10% information.

Interesting Chicago Tribune piece “They watch Trump’s coronavirus briefings daily. Here’s what they have to say.” which samples how different people view the “briefings”. I wonder about real-time “preliminary” annotations, which characterize the dialog. I’d love to see words overlaid on the screen….”off topic”, “did not answer question”, “personal attack on journalist”, “not true”, “unproven”, “true”, “partially true”, etc. Then a score sheet at the end. On replay, show the score sheet first and fully-researched annotations based on fact checking. Chart the metrics over time to see if the briefing staff improve the quality of the briefings. This process is not limited to Trump, but all who appear – politician, bureaucrat, subject matter expert. Sort of turn the replay into a game show (with sound effects). This is not much different than play-by-play reporting of professional sports, with the fun aspects (sounds and visual effects) of certain Asian celebrity TV shows.

Sam lauda says:

Reporters should stop asking the President questions. Rather, take what he said and do fact check the result of which would be compiled and broadcasted asap.

Delbert Schafer says:

OK to cover, but do not air live. Fact check, confirm, get other viewpoints prior to airing.

Aaron Aaron says:

By allowing themselves to be daily Trump props, the journalists have become the story. I thought that was a journalistic sin.

Air actual information from the CSPAN broadcast, and just don’t go. Or, go, and as soon as Trump interrupts or insults, just go quiet. If asked by Trump to finish the question, “Thanks, you’ve answered my question.”

Nothing journalists can do can improve things. It will only get worse. This is not normal, and normal procedures are not appropriate.

No, the journalists have not become the story, although Trump desperately wants them to be.

T. McManus says:

If every reporter present re-asked the same question until it was actually ( and factually!) answered, the “briefings” in their present form could not survive. And if every unsubstantiated boast or outright lie was met with a cough ( especially in these COVID-19 times), the constant hacking would drown out the “political noise” and probably drive the President out of the room.

marybeth says:


Jeannette Smyth says:

Yeah, it’s face time on the air or story above the fold.
Somebody close to Teddy Kennedy once asked me (an old reporter) why reporters followed him into the bathroom.
I didn’t have to think twice, but I did soften my response.
We want to be present if there is an assassination.

retired news person says:

One key phrase that was missing in this article is the term “public interest”. In exchange for obtaining a valuable license to operate a broadcast station using the public airwaves, each radio and television licensee is required by law to operate its station in the “public interest, convenience and necessity.”

Politics aside, if someone uses the media to broadcast lies, it is not in the public interest. Business and journalistic ethics are secondary.

If we can stop pretending that the issue revolves around ethics we might be able to move forward. Its not about ethics. Its about the money. Nothing else matters. Everything else is an excuse for continuing business as usual. Not a reason.

If we can accept the fact that money drives decision making we can start to look at how we might influence the business model to encourage a more balanced approach.

John Cavnar-Johnson says:

Why do the news shows bleep profanity and broadcast Trump’s far more dangerous obscenities (the lies, slander, and bullshit)?

Never show Trump live. If you have to show him on tape, bleep the lies.

Bruce Buckley says:

I am amazed to read this. It sounds like journalists and the media also live in an alternate reality. Do you really think that if you weren’t there we would “miss” valuable information from Drs. Fauci and Birx? Really? Maybe in the Pony Express days, but today there is zero chance that anything they say there is uncovered by a journalist as important information that they wouldn’t also get out to everyone within milliseconds after leaving 5he briefing. You are simply playing a role in Trump’ deranged reality show. STOP BEING A PROP!

My dream coverage of this administration’s White House press conference: No more live airing. Air after reviewing and drawing in cartoon bubbles pointing out obvious lies. Yes, we should all watch C-Span instead but I would miss the news scroll I’ve been accustomed to since post-9/11. Yes, you fought for those seats. You have a right to sit in them. I personally cannot stand the sound of his voice, so mute every thing he says and glance at the closed captions. Or try to read about it later.

As a retired network radio anchor and correspondent, I agree with all these comments. I am also grateful that I can listen and watch, if I choose to, and not have to report on such lies and manipulation anymore. Your drunk uncle keeps saying the same things over and over.

Joseph Wilson says:

I have added respect for The New York Times for not physically appearing at the White House briefings. MSNBC and others pulled from covering his campaign rallies live and went to segments when he Donald Trump made actual news, although seldom factual. While I work from home and either news channel plays in the background, I turn off the television and listen to music, podcasts, or audiobooks.

Sandra Fox says:

I’ve completely stopped watching these “Briefings”. They are boring..too long..not informative. I agree, cover them, but don’t broadcast them live. Report on any relevant information. They have become free campaign ads for his re-election.
Have reporters take notes and not ask questions that give the President the opportunity to lie and belittle them.

Miriam Fisher says:

#2 is the real answer- reporters LOVE being in the White House. I have a conflicted love/hate relationship with the Fourth Estate. Every one of them that I have ever met ( not local reporters, but national ones like The NY Times) are as insufferable as the right wing says they are. Here’s the problem: they do, in fact, just like they never tire of telling us, keep us free.

Tom Morrison says:

I totally endorse the C-SPAN model. Have your reporter’s watch it & then report any news to their viewers. Don’t worry about OAN, et al, taking over. The public is fully aware of what those sites are and will filter it accordingly.

Though they’ve gotten enormously better at it, the journalists have always paid too much deference to those behind the podium. The pleasure of watching them currently hold him accountable, unfortunately is far outweighed by his lies & propaganda.

David R Sheild says:

A juvenile thought yet refreshing fantasy . One day while drowning in Trumps pathologic lying. I remembered the scene in the movie Animal house where everyone fakes a sneeze and cries Blowjob. The Whitehouse press should instead just cry out loud Bullshit.

Tim Schmidt says:

The press has to be quicker with a retort when Trump goes off. he’s just filling time because he doesn’t like the question. “thank you Mr. president for broadcasting my resume or letting me know my company is fake and failing. But you didn’t answer my question. Or pointed still “Why won’t you answer my question.” Or “yes, you have told us that before. Will you now answer the question.”

Jeanne Kaether says:

How about devoting some of the abundant time spent covering Trump to covering Biden? Now that he’s the evident nominee, it’s deeply concerning that media coverage isn’t more balanced. I’d rather hear his ideas about economic recovery.

14 Apr 2020 at 5:52 pm

There’s a parallel, albeit a strange one, between the John F. Kennedy presidential news conferences and those of Donald Trump. As a pre-teen future news junkie, I watched the former, even though I didn’t understand most of what was being said, because they were full of finger-pointing (good) humor, glamour and competition for recognition, with a cast of characters like superstar May Craig.

As a senior, I watch the latter to see the theatrics, posturing and attempts at one-upmanship. It’s a less civil form of competition with the appeal of a train wreck (a/k/a guilty pleasure).

In both cases, that’s show biz…

One of the main reasons to show these ‘briefings’ live is that it gives the citizenry the opportunity to see the liar-in-chief show his greatest talent: lying.

We also can watch the abuser-in-chief abuse anyone who crosses his path which is the cardinal sign of a scared bully. We tuck that into our memory file for future use as he continues the same behavior, never learning a thing from his pathetic ignorance. We can mark that.

Thirdly, by watching, the citizenry can learn how an amoral, unscrupulous, ignorant president behaves. Maybe we will learn enough not to elect another one……………….ever!

His ONLY talent.

You presume that everyone watching is rational and has the public good in mind. But many viewers do not. Why let Trump feed them live?

It really is a Daily Liars Poker Game Show . . . and the First Liar doesn’t have a chance. I watch some of it to see who will start lying first, then how the Press or other players standing up there with the Acting POTUS, react, to deflect, deny or accept the OBVIOUS LIE. It has all the parts of Live TV Drama . . . except we are all watching a LIVE TRAIN WRECK ! Best show on TV !!!

Charles Wood says:

OMG! TDS gone wild. I agree with Jeanne Kaether let’s cover Mr. Biden, too. Only let’s cover him like we do Mr. Trump. Let the gaffes, foot in mouth responses, innuendos,
and slips of the tongue be fact checked also.

One thing I should explain: My “agenda” for these events is that they increase the supply of good information about a public health crisis, and decrease the flow of misinformation, gaslighting, strategic distraction, etc. That’s my bottom line. Not triggering a melt down or show down and getting satisfaction from that.

I am finding that a lot of readers have a different aim. They want to see Trump get his comeuppance. When they call for tougher questions or more confrontation in the briefing room, they are not asking themselves if that leads to better information for people to make what could be life-and-death decisions. They’re not asking themselves if it leads to public understanding. They want to see someone finally stick it to Trump, and make him understand that he’s a liar and an incompetent. Or at least show the nation what a clown we have for a president.

I understand that impulse. But in my view it has nothing to do with the public purpose of journalism, and as a professor of it, that is what I have to put first. The public needs reliable, quality information. Do the briefings conducted by Trump provide that? Disinformation and sowing confusion are his methods to prevent public understanding. Are the briefings capable of arresting that pattern, or are they a continuation of it? That is what I have been asking myself.

Stephen Lieman says:

I am all in with your “agenda” for these Daily White House Events [I prefer not to call them “briefings” because brief they ain’t].

Given what we know about the President and his proclivities as a liar, gaslighter, bully, etc. broadcasting him live decreases the flow of good information and increases the flow of misinformation, gaslighting and distraction.

I would love to see each cable news channel come up with a specific policy regarding when going live makes sense. In my ideal world, there would be a policy item that says if one of the protagonists is a known liar or gaslighter, that is reason enough not to go live. If such policies were in place, the decisions could be about good journalism and not about the current occupant of the White House.

Drew Kime says:

“It’s critical to see what Trump and his team are doing and how they are thinking even if we don’t like or agree with it.”

That would be useful, except that we *don’t* see how they’re thinking. We see what they’re saying, which is not at all the same thing.

The President, nor the Press has a lock on virtue. Would like to see more balanced reporting. We have no group reporting

No need to ask Trump questions, just be present and broadcast, this will be enough, no need to provoke and be a pear.

Anthony Fauci should resign, form a shadow COVID-19 Task Force (composed of the world’s best epidemiologists, virologists and physicians) and hold a daily press briefing timed to exactly coincide with and step-on these sham briefings, and then let the media outlets decide which alternative is newsworthy.

Wait…you all still watch television…?

Ha ha