The tone-deaf coverage of Trump’s ‘Clorox variety hour’

What is it that people say about the definition of insanity? On Monday, President Trump said he would bring back the coronavirus press briefing, which he abandoned a few months ago after suggesting from the podium that bleach and sunlight are effective against the virus. (They still aren’t.)

Back then, allies told Trump that the briefings were hurting his reelection prospects. Trump now seems to think that reviving them will help those prospects. “I was doing them and we had a lot of people watching, record numbers watching in the history of cable television,” he said Monday. “There’s never been anything like it.” That much, at least, is true.

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Yesterday, as the briefings prepared for a second season, so did the discourse surrounding them, including tired TV clichés. Media critics argued, again, that the briefings amount to disinformation, and that networks shouldn’t air them live; some pundits expressed hope, again, that Trump might put medical experts front and center this time. “Will he do the right thing and allow Dr. Fauci to lead these?” Joe Scarborough asked yesterday, on Morning Joe. “Or is he just gonna go out there and go back to his Clorox variety hour?” Later, a reporter asked Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, whether we could expect Fauci or Dr. Deborah Birx to be at the briefing. “You’ll have to tune in to see,” McEnany replied.

Around 5pm Eastern, Trump walked into the briefing room and—surprise!—there were no experts in sight. (Trump said, by way of mitigation, that Birx was “right outside.”) Reading from prepared remarks, Trump said that “unfortunately” the public health situation in the US is going to “get worse before it gets better.” He then took questions and contradicted that assertion. In response to other questions, Trump contradicted McEnany’s earlier account of how regularly he gets tested (McEnany: more than once a day on average; Trump: once every two or three days on average) and sent his best wishes to Ghislaine Maxwell, an associate of the late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein who was recently arrested on charges of trafficking children on Epstein’s behalf. Trump also called the coronavirus “the China virus.” He read that from his prepared script.

How did the cable news networks treat the briefing? MSNBC and Fox News aired it from the start, but CNN, notably, did not, only cutting in for the Q&A portion. On MSNBC, Chuck Todd cut away from the briefing partway through to offer a fact check, before returning to it; after it finished, CNN brought on its fact checker, Daniel Dale, to perform a similar service. And Trump’s remarks elicited plenty of skepticism among cable talking heads. “Trump didn’t actually do anything in that briefing room today,” Ali Velshi said, a few hours later, on MSNBC. “He didn’t wear a mask. He didn’t provide useful information.… He just lied again.”

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In some ways, however, the political press responded to the briefing just as it has responded to briefings past. Most egregiously, many outlets and reporters noted prominently that Trump had changed his tone. (That framing was so ubiquitous on TV that The Daily Show cut examples into a mash-up, which is how you know you really messed up.) ABC News got the tone coverage started even before the briefing had begun; afterward, Trump got called “sober” and “somber,” and was credited with a “pivot.” At least one reporter referred to the briefing performance as “sort of like teleprompter Trump.” The president reading off a page never ceases to inspire awe.

Some of the same coverage noted that the supposed change in tone has come remarkably late, and won’t necessarily herald a meaningful change of approach. Still, the overall tone framing was quickly and brutally lampooned online. Many critics pointed to Trump’s Maxwell comment as evidence that his tone remains unchanged; Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, argued that even when Trump’s words hit new notes, the tone of his voice remained petulant. The critics are right to cast such coverage as naive and credulous; journalists have hailed changes in Trump’s tone before, and always, he has reverted quickly to type. More importantly, Trump’s tone is irrelevant—in general, but particularly at a time when at least 140,000 people are dead thanks to his administration’s disastrous handling of a public health crisis. Tone won’t bring those people back. Tone won’t stop more people from dying. Tone won’t fix America’s testing infrastructure. Tone won’t rescue people’s livelihoods.

One interpretation of the tone obsession is that it reflects a broader, stubbornly amoral approach to political coverage—a warped, superficial fixation on strategy, polling, and style. A kinder interpretation is that it reflects wishful thinking—a persistent desire to believe that maybe, this time, the president really does grasp the severity of the situation, and might act on it. There’s probably some truth in both. Either way, we urgently need a change of course. Actions speak louder than words. They are certainly a much better way of judging a president.

In April, after a previous bout of media tone-watching, the Daily Beast’s Asawin Suebsaeng, Justin Baragona, and Sam Stein reported that Trump knows he can game media coverage by sporadically making nice, and often chuckles about that fact with his aides. “It’s so easy,” he reportedly said in 2017. “Can you believe it?” Sadly, we can. Currently, there’s no briefing on the president’s schedule for today. That might mean simply that The Briefing, Season Two, isn’t airing on a daily schedule. Either way, the president already got exactly what he came for.

Below, more on the Trump administration and the coronavirus:

  • She said what? Following McEnany’s briefing yesterday, some Trump fans on Twitter accused Kimberly Halkett, of Al Jazeera, of calling McEnany a “lying bitch.” As Halkett pointed out, she can clearly be heard telling McEnany, “Okay, you don’t want to engage.” The official White House transcript of the briefing backs Halkett up; nonetheless, on Fox, Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity both sowed doubt about her explanation.
  • He said what? Part I: On Monday, Rep. Ted Yoho, a Florida Republican, confronted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, in Congress; said she was “disgusting” for linking a covid-era crime spike in New York to poverty and unemployment; then called her a “fucking bitch.” A reporter from The Hill overheard Yoho’s abuse, and published it.
  • He said what? Part II: Last month, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed in which Vice President Mike Pence declared that the Trump administration was “winning” against the virus, and accused the media of scaremongering. Yesterday, nearly three hundred staffers at the Journal and its parent company, Dow Jones, wrote to Almar Latour, the paper’s publisher, complaining that the op-ed and others like it reflect a broader “lack of fact-checking and transparency” and an “apparent disregard for evidence” in the Journal’s opinion pages. The signatories called for a clearer distinction between news and opinion content online. The Journal’s Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg has more.
  • What’s at stake, part I: Yesterday, Tom Frieden, who led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under President Obama, published an analysis showing that many states are failing to report crucial data mapping the spread of the virus. “Because of the lack of national leadership, we don’t have common standards, definitions, targets or accountability,” Frieden said. The Washington Post’s Lena H. Sun has more.
  • What’s at stake, part II: For CJR’s Year of Fear series, Sandra Sanchez reports from South Texas, where the virus is surging. Sanchez’s husband was recently hospitalized with covid-19. “He is just two miles away from us but we have no access to him,” Sanchez writes. “He calls me on a landline phone when he feels good. The hours, and sometimes days in between, I fear the worst. But I know he is lucky to have gotten into a hospital at all.”


Other notable stories:

  • Last night, protesters gathered again in Portland, Oregon—in solidarity with Black lives and in protest of Trump’s deployment of federal forces to the city—and law enforcement again used tear gas and munitions to disperse them. During Monday’s protests, Mathieu Lewis-Rolland, who is normally an events photographer, captured an image of a federal agent pointing a gun at him; yesterday, Lewis-Rolland told BuzzFeed that the federal tactics constitute “the most horrifying thing I have ever experienced in my life.” Also on Monday, a federal officer punched Mike Baker, a Times reporter, in the head.
  • Yesterday, Twitter announced a sweeping crackdown on content linked to the sprawling QAnon conspiracy theory; the platform has banned more than seven thousand accounts so far, and will place restrictions on many others. According to CNN’s Oliver Darcy, Republican officials and candidates who have been associated with Q won’t be “automatically included” in Twitter’s clampdown. One such candidate, Lauren Boebert, recently won a Republican congressional primary in Colorado. For CJR, Bill Grueskin writes that her rising national profile, combined with covid cutbacks, is posing a challenge to local reporters.
  • On Monday, Tucker Carlson claimed, on his Fox show, that the Times was planning to publish his home address, and threatened to reciprocate by broadcasting the addresses of reporter Murray Carpenter, photographer Tristan Spinski, and Times media editor Jim Windolf. The Times said it had no plans to publish Carlson’s address—but that didn’t stop right-wing Twitter users from doxing Carpenter. The Post’s Allyson Chiu has more.
  • Recently, Michael Pack, Trump’s pick to lead the US Agency for Global Media, fired the top editors of the broadcasters he oversees, and also purged the leadership of the Open Technology Fund, a publicly funded nonprofit that fights online censorship worldwide. Yesterday, however, an appeals court ruled that Pack does not have the same authority over the OTF that he has over the broadcasters, and blocked his move. Politico has more.
  • Paul Farhi, of the Post, checks in on NPR, which is nominally a “public” broadcaster, but no longer gets much direct funding from the federal government, and is now feeling the ill effects of the media-wide covid advertising crunch. John Lansing, its CEO, told Farhi that NPR is on course for a $10 million deficit this fiscal year. All this, Farhi writes, “raises a definitional question: Can NPR still be called a noncommercial broadcaster?”
  • Yesterday, the Times published a special package commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The package will appear in print on Sunday. The digital and print versions will both be available in braille, thanks to collaborations between the Times and outside groups. Nieman Lab’s Sarah Scire has more details.
  • For Vanity Fair, Tom Kludt spoke with some of the reporters assigned to cover the NBA’s restart, which is slated for next week. The reporters are on lockdown in the league’s covid-free “bubble,” where they must abide by burdensome rules. Joe Vardon, of The Athletic, says the bubble might be “the last great American sportswriting assignment.”
  • In Pakistan, Matiullah Jan, a journalist and critic of the country’s military, was reportedly kidnapped yesterday. He was later released. Al Jazeera has more. In other press freedom news, police in Zimbabwe arrested the journalist Hopewell Chin’ono, who was a Harvard Nieman fellow in 2010. Fungai Tichawangana has more for Nieman Reports.
  • And peak 2020 was achieved yesterday in Ukraine, where an armed activist seized a bus, took its passengers hostage, and demanded that Volodymyr Zelensky, the country’s president (yes, him), publicly endorse Earthling, a 2005 Joaquin Phoenix movie about animal rights. Zelensky complied. Police freed the hostages, and no one was seriously hurt.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.