The anxiety of the American people continues to grow as they witness more and more of their fellow citizens becoming ill and dying from COVID-19 (coronavirus). Medical experts are not predicting a peak until at least late April or early May. In the meantime, our families, friends, and neighbors can be seen suiting up in masks and gloves before daring to venture outside.
However, it is now time for journalists to take the metaphorical gloves off. Historically there has been a protocol for the conduct of reporters who cover the president of the United States. They have generally complied with the rule that respect must be shown to the office, if not its current occupant.
Consequently, reporters are accustomed to behaving with a certain meekness when addressing the President. They ask their questions with deference and patiently await a reply. They resist any impulse to interrupt or correct the President if he wanders off topic or supplies a false answer. They lean toward overextending courtesy in order to avoid being seen as rude.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump requires a total rewriting of how the press interacts with the President. His innate paranoia and hostility toward the media that he repeatedly slanders in Stalinist terms as “the enemy of the people” poses unique challenges for covering him. For example, Trump often won’t allow a reporter to complete a question when he senses that it will be difficult for him to answer. And since it is the reporter’s job to be probing and even provocative, that happens with some frequency. The result is that Trump’s response often fails to address what the reporter was asking. And the reporter isn’t given an opportunity to complete the actual question or to ask a follow up.
This is a tactic that Trump uses to avoid scrutiny of his words, actions, and intentions. It is a bully’s tactic that relies on the victim being too submissive to object. And that is where the conduct of the press needs the most work. Without a more aggressive posture, Trump will simply roll over the press and escape any real accountability. This can be observed daily at the Coronavirus Task Force briefings that Trump has hijacked and is selfishly exploiting as de facto campaign events.
There is no compelling reason for Trump to attend these briefings since he has no relevant knowledge or experience to contribute. He upstages the doctors and scientists whose information is actually useful. Trump’s presence merely allows him to lie with abandon, brag about things he hasn’t done, and insult the press corps and his political foes. He even tracks the ratings of these briefings and vainly attributes any increase in viewership to himself. Which is preposterous since there are at least as many Trump opponents tuning in as supporters.
It’s time for the press to start fighting back. They need to insist that they be allowed to ask questions without being cut off. They need to demand that Trump give answers that are responsive to the question. If necessary, they need to interrupt his incoherent filibusters to drag him back to the topic of the question. And they need to confront him when he tells another obvious, provable lie. He may get away with that when he’s “interviewed” on Fox News (the only cable news network he isn’t afraid to appear on), but that should not be the standard anywhere else.
The press needs to make these adjustments, not for any partisan objective or to disparage the President. They need to do it because at this critical time in our nation’s history people’s lives are dependent on getting credible information and holding the powerful to account. Trump’s ego, belligerence, and pathological lying cannot be allowed to divert the media from its traditional role to shine a light on the darkness of self-serving and/or corrupt politicians. They must meet Trump’s rancor with renewed determination and devotion to the public that relies on them. In the language of the TV reality world that Trump ought to understand: “It’s time to stop being polite and start getting real!”
How Fox News Deceives and Controls Their Flock:
Fox Nation vs. Reality: The Fox News Cult of Ignorance.
Available now at Amazon.