When the president speaks, the world listens.
Therein lies the problem.
President Donald Trump’s daily briefings on the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) are broadcast live by all major news networks. The New York Times reports that an average of 8.5 million people watch them in real time. These briefings are a chance for the highest authorities in the land to tell us about the current scope of the pandemic and what is being done to stop it.
If only these opportunities were actually being used for that purpose.
Instead, the president and his administration have repeatedly misled the public. Trump used the word “hoax” to refer to the spread of the disease just days before pivoting to a more serious tone.
He understated the timeline and overstated the amount of testing being done. He has hawked chloroquine, a drug used to fight malaria and lupus, as a cure for COVID-19 despite there being little to no evidence that it actually works. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did not yet approve chloroquine for that purpose.
A couple in Arizona were listening when Trump announced that chloroquine could help cure COVID-19. They had chloroquine phosphate in their house, a version of the substance used to clean fish ponds. Thinking that they could protect themselves from COVID-19, they ingested it.
Trump’s voice extends even to Nigeria, where three people are in the hospital after taking the supposed cure.
Even when he isn’t impacting the basic health of people by pushing unverified medical information, Trump cannot seem to stop himself from making wildly dangerous claims. He said that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has established “death panels” as a result of ventilator shortages, a blatantly false story that originated from a crank website called Gateway Pundit.
Trump has begun claiming that it’s imperative that the country open back up for business as soon as possible, despite virtually every public health official in the country, including his own advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, saying it would be a catastrophic mistake.
Trump believes that the dramatic losses in the stock market spell trouble for his reelection. It seems he would be much happier to send the working class into harm’s way and continue the spread of COVID-19 than risk losing his seat, making it clear that reelection is on his mind.
The role of journalism is to spread the truth. We are not here to be stenographers nor are we here to present information leaving the reader to decide for themselves what the story is about, even though that “information” may be claims made in blatantly bad faith.
It’s a hazard to public health to have the president address the nation live and unchecked on the air. He is saying things that are not true, dangerous and disingenuous. Spreading his message without safeguarding against it and annotating his lies goes against all journalistic principles.
“I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down,” Dr. Fauci said in an interview.
But in a way, the networks can.
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has said that Trump’s press conferences should not be broadcast in real time and veteran broadcaster Tom Brokaw of NBC, said the same to the New York Times.
It’s time for the industry to step up to the plate and do what is necessary. It is vital to report on what happens at the briefings and to point out when the truth is not being told. This means keeping public health in mind and not airing Trump’s uncensored words.