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:
As a former White House reporter, I don’t say this lightly: Media should ignore the Trump follies, abandon the WH briefing room, and interview governors, doctors, nurses, victims and anybody else approaching the truth.
Stop being props.
— Ron Fournier (@ron_fournier) April 7, 2020
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.