The Well Made Bed, Ready for Lying
And that is causing problems and consternation both from those up front and those socially spaced in every third seat on the floor:
Vice President Mike Pence’s office has reversed itself and will now allow two top public health officials to appear on CNN, after earlier blocking the medical professionals from appearing on the network because it has not carried the nightly White House Coronavirus Task Force briefings in their entirety.
Earlier in the day, CNN’s Oliver Darcy reported that Pence’s office had withheld the health experts from the network out of upset that the network had not carried the portion of the press briefings that include the Vice President and other members of the task force. According to CNN, a spokesperson for the Vice President said, “When you guys cover the briefings with the health officials then you can expect them back on your air.”
CNN and other networks have been under pressure to stop airing the press briefings live, out of concerns that they have given President Donald Trump a platform to make unverified claims or relay other forms of misinformation. Even some on-air personalities have urged the networks to at least do more aggressive forms of fact checking. Some, like The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman, suggested that Pence’s portion of the briefing, typically a more sobering view of the crisis, was just as if not more essential to cover.
“There’s a big debate going on among folks about whether cable should be airing Trump briefings,” she tweeted on Tuesday. “Okay. But if you’re running the beginning of the briefing, why cut away from Pence and the actual health officials?”
On Wednesday, CNN did cover the portion of the briefing where Trump took questions from the media, and also aired portions where Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx spoke to reporters. But to many viewers, it has meant that networks hop back and forth from the briefing to their news anchors, who have tried to do quick fact checks of some of the statements made.
The bone of contention here is CNN cutting away after the president speaks and takes questions to hold panel discussions over what he just said while the briefing turns to the experts, ostensibly the “public interest” portion of the briefings. Now, how you feel about this current fourth season of the ongoing #1 rated reality show in America “President Trump vs The Media” will color how you feel about such things. The Coronavirus Task Force briefings featuring the president have been getting football-like ratings for the networks, which is remarkable.
Actually, hold that thought. Let’s back up…
The Odyssey of Donald John Trump from golden escalator at his campaign kick-off to his current daily posting behind the podium of the Brady Briefing Room had an interesting media-related footnote. In July of 2015, HuffPost announced, via a brief posting by then-writers Ryan Grim and Danny Shea, that the site would no longer be covering the Trump campaign in the politics section. Rather:
After watching and listening to Donald Trump since he announced his candidacy for president, we have decided we won’t report on Trump’s campaign as part of The Huffington Post’s political coverage. Instead, we will cover his campaign as part of our Entertainment section. Our reason is simple: Trump’s campaign is a sideshow. We won’t take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you’ll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.
For those keeping score at home, that lasted until December 7th, when HuffPost declared “We Are No Longer Entertained” and moved the then-Republican frontrunner back to the front page. The rest is history; as it turns out an entertainment background, combined with other factors and circumstances, was enough to win The White House. But the moment was interesting watching one outlet acknowledge, albeit briefly, the blurry lines between entertainment, modern politics, and the media’s role in profiting from the first while covering seond.
Opinions vary on just how much the relentless coverage of candidate Trump added up to in value.The New York Times pegged it at $2 billion while The Street marked it down as $5 billion in free airtime. But most agree all Trump all the time for the news networks accomplished two things: It was great for ratings, and it helped to made New York’s most famous real estate mogul/reality TV star president.
The President’s unique handling, attracting, and — frankly — control over the media and the daily narratives the national political press operate on, will be studied for years to come. But for right now, in real time, traditional media still hasn’t fully figured out what to do with the situation of their biggest ratings draw also not being particularly good for them. Long before coronavirus captivated audiences, how the Brady Briefing Room would conduct business during the 45th presidency has been debated. Alternately over the last three plus years, either the president isn’t having enough press conferences, or should not be covered at all because of the platform the networks give him. Such debate is also a continuation of a similar theme during the 2016 campaign regarding the tsunami of free coverage then-candidate Trump was getting, and whether his rallies should be carried, and should the talking head shows should be dominated by Trump.
Just this week, the third person to hold the official title of “White House Press Secretary” Stephanie Grisham was replaced with out having ever giving a press briefing, traditionally the 1A item on the WHPS’s duties list. Most media and the president’s detractors held such an absurdity up as proof the press was being mistreated again by a president who infamously and gleefully declares with broad strokes that they are “the enemy of the people.” The president’s supporters argue that this non-traditional president doesn’t really need one, is constantly interacting with the press, and haven’t you noticed he’s on TV every day lately and folks still complain. Having gone from no press briefings to daily ones, the old traditional presser is being shoehorned into a new usages while most try to maintain the old rules. The inertia of doing a new thing in the mold of the old way is natural, but predictably not very smooth. Stir in an ab-libbing president with little filter and an antagonist relationship between him and the folks sitting three chairs apart, and it sometimes devolves to straight up cringeworthy.
The protest to that previous paragraph will be a decrying of “both side-isms” while the decryer pivots to their preferred side so let us qualify a bit further: The Brady Briefing Room is a uniquely bad stage for the modern presidency — especially this one — and modern media to be interacting in. There are good presidents and bad presidents. There are good journalists and bad journalists. There is hard news gathering and there is made for TV shows. The traditional press briefing has long since become the latter. To be the president is to have the bully pulpit practically whenever you want it. To be a White House credentialed correspondent is a career highlight, as high profile as it gets short of an anchor’s chair, and the place to make or break your career. To imagine so many factors and personal agendas in a room full of politicians and reporters, broadcast for the world to see, takes a back seat to truth, justice, and the American way just because the lights are on is to be pollyannaish or deliberately obtuse.
“The president lies!!!!” Yes, he does, among other things. Welcome to politics in the year of our Lord 2020. This is not the first, nor will be the last, president that lies, colors, blame shifts, gaslights, and otherwise manipulative of the facts into their own favor. The president had 70 odd years of book available on him when he ran for office, was elected anyway — and to certain supporters because of those traits — and will be president at least through January, if not four more years. Repeating what everyone who cares to know already does isn’t brilliant insight.
“The press is biased!!!” Yes, what are you, new here? The media, the press, or whatever other term you want to use to lump all of reporting together into two or three syllable invecting is made up of people. People, all of them, are biased. Factor in how honestly those folks attempt to broker truth balanced against their jobs and roles in the grand scheme of things as part of discerning who to believe on what subject. But “unbiased” is the stuff for the reading circle on the quiet rug in kindergartens, not the healthy antagonistic give-and-take between the free press and elected officials.
The national news media that centers on the president and the news networks, and the ecosystem of journalists, pundits, and personalities that all thrive in it has to be kept in the proper perspective. TV news on the national level is a business first, television show second, exclusive in-club third, and investigative/reporting units when they have free time from the first three. That isn’t a slam or criticism necessarily, it’s just the reality of the situation of billion dollar media companies covering the most powerful people in America in a high profile way while trying to make a profit. While we are at it, using the term “The media” here is unfair, since there are far more folks doing work in that realm than the privileged few that have hard passes to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The correspondent in Syria trying not to get shot while telling the world of the unspeakable horrors there, or the jailed journalist desperately trying to show the world the brutality of the Chinese Communist Party to the people under their thumb, or the reporter trying to right a wrong through written word and hopefully some video, would love the bandwidth and profile provided to the White House press corps. But till we get a better term, The Media will have to do in this takes-two-to-tango scene.
President Trump wants, needs, and craves the media attention to keep his MAGA train going. The Media needs the rub and ratings from their biggest story and star to make their own names and fortunes on. As those two forces continue to work out their issues in real time, we are going to get more of this symbiotic relationship whether we want it or not.
I suspect we are in the beginning of a change, for good and ill, of how national political media works. In an evolving world where great reporting is more vital than ever, but the business models, mediums, and gatekeeping are not moving at the same speed as technology and appetites. Tough days are ahead for the old guard, with traditional ways navigating the brave new world with the same old linear storytelling in an asymmetric media world. Every person with a smartphone is a videographer, broadcaster, and journalist to the things going around them with platforms to get that message out, at least in their own heads and theories. Just showing the president, then having a panel discussion on what everyone just saw for themselves, only with better production values than the amateurs, isn’t going to cut it in the arena of ideas these days. But chasing the presidents comments and tweets makes for goobs of steady content with minimal effort to acquire, and the path of least resistance and effort also tends to be a profitable one, so here we are.
The president certainly has found a way to bend coverage to his advantage thus far, and will continue to try and do so as he seeks his reelection. The Very Online ebb and flow of the debate over White House press briefings, and by extension coverage of the president himself, of tradition and decorum and norms that must be held, is a mostly a waste of time. The national news media and the president need each other far too much to ever stop talking about each other. At the present, the Brady Briefing Room is not a source of information that can not be garnered anywhere else. It is where opposing sides gather for various reasons of their own to hotbox power and influence in an enclosed area to intensify the high. That isn’t serving anyone well, let alone the American people, and certainly not the principles involved. Everyone is getting their screen time, but no one is looking particularly good here.
But pressers are still good for ratings, and old habits die hard, so tomorrow the president and the media will light up the LED lights and partake in the ritual once again even while arguing for and against it, sometimes both at the same time.
Turns out inertia is a hell of a drug, hotboxed and otherwise.