Recently, there’s been a bit of a ruckus over live coverage of Trump’s daily press conferences. His current press secretary has not held a single press conference since being appointed to the position a year ago. But when Trump could no longer hold his frequent rallies, he started holding daily press conferences about the Covid-19 situation. A master of misinformation, Trump is often corrected by others at the same presser – usually after they gush with compliments about our wise leader. Other misleading statements wait for later fact-checking by reporters.
On March 20, some leading journalists began offering reasons for news outlets to stop covering these press conferences live, claiming Trump’s lies and distortions were putting lives at risk. Rather than reiterate their reasoning, I’ll give you links below. Instead, I’d like to think through one contrary position I’ve heard since, which is this: public radio, by virtue of the word “public” in its name, has a unique obligation to report Trump’s pressers live while private media do not.
Katie Herzog, recently furloughed from The Stranger through no fault of her own, has asserted this position via podcasts (links below). I respect Katie because she’s been willing to stick her neck out standing up for free speech, but she hasn’t persuaded me on this issue yet. Here’s where my lack of journalism credentials leaves me struggling to clarify my thinking. I can’t effectively argue my point, but it feels like Katie’s argument for live broadcasts puts public media close to the role of a state run propaganda machine.
I do agree with Katie that people have a right to hear Trump speaking his lies and distortions. One can always hope that when Trump claims to be an expert on South Korea and then states that Seoul has a population of 38 million people, a number that no source supports, people might begin to doubt other assertions he makes. As it stands, anyone serious about hearing these lies and distortions live – and fortunate enough to have Internet access – can listen by going to the White House live stream or C-SPAN, which also archives these events.
Personally, I never watch or listen to Trump on TV. Whenever stations show video clips of Trump, I quickly hit the mute button. This is a deliberate strategy to keep my blood pressure under control. For what it’s worth, I also don’t watch much news, period. Before the virus hit, I watched the PBS News Hour on Mondays and Fridays and some local news and weather. I admit that I do watch more news now, but I really prefer print and online sources to TV, which to me is often over-hyped.
With libraries closed, many people who lack internet access at home cannot hear Trump’s press conferences live unless stations air them. But, really, how many people anxiously await these events other than Katie? I’ve no idea. Trump claims his ratings are sky high, so I’m guessing people are watching. But they’re not watching on PBS. I don’t think the ratings that Trump brags about are radio ratings. People are probably watching via Fox, CNN, or MSNBC.
I think we should let NPR stations off the hook. If KUOW in Seattle declines to air these events live, Katie has other options. I fail to see coverage of a president’s lies and distortions without a filter and fact-checking as a public service. But I appreciate Katie’s willingness to challenge The Atlantic and PressThink. We are truly in an unprecedented situation, a pandemic while we are suffering through a president who simply can’t tell the truth. Sorting right from wrong is more challenging than ever.
Links referenced above:
PressThink, March 20, 2020, by Jay Rosen
The Atlantic, Reporter’s Notebook, March 20, 2020, by James Fallows
Blocked and Reported podcast, March 30, 2020, with Jesse Singal and Katie Herzog
Boyce of Reason podcast, April 1, 2020, with Benjamin Boyce and Katie Herzog