The Media Today

With Trump, sunlight is not the best disinfectant

April 27, 2020

It’s an old journalism cliché that sunlight is the best disinfectant, but it’s new to have to state that neither should be ingested. As you will doubtless have heard by now, on Thursday, President Trump wondered aloud, in the White House briefing room, about the potential medical effectiveness of injecting both sunlight and disinfectant (“it does a tremendous number on the lungs”) as cures for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. The mixed-message walkback—a specialty under this administrationfollowed. Kayleigh McEnany, the new White House press secretary, accused the media of “irresponsibly” taking Trump’s words out of context. Trump himself then cast his comments as sarcasm—he was trolling reporters, he said, “just to see what would happen.” Many observers took the remarks very seriously. Staffers for a state emergency hotline in Maryland said they fielded more than 100 calls from members of the public asking if disinfectant was actually a coronavirus cure. Several states issued warnings against injecting it, as did the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration. “NEVER INGEST BLEACH,” Domestos, a British cleaning-products manufacturer, tweeted. “NEVER INHALE BLEACH.” So now you know.

Trump’s medical musings echoed through the news cycle for days, including on the Sunday shows yesterday. That irked at least one Sunday-show guest. Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, had already downplayed Trump’s remarks once—in an interview with Fox which aired Saturday, she said that when the president gets new information, “he likes to talk that through out loud,” and that he “was still digesting” some (information, not bleach) on stage—but yesterday, both Chuck Todd and Jake Tapper asked her to comment on them again. “It bothers me that this is still in the news cycle,” Birx told Tapper. She then implicitly criticized the media for dredging up a days-old controversy when there’s vital new science to report.

ICYMI: Why did Matt Drudge turn on Donald Trump?

As Tapper pointed out, this was misplacing the blame. Recently, Birx—who has been held up, along with her colleague Dr. Anthony Fauci, as a precious voice of reason and expertise within the administration—has started to come in for criticism, in some quarters, for failing to push back strongly enough on Trump’s unhelpful interventions. On Meet the Press yesterday, Andrea Mitchell seemed horrified by Birx’s interview with Todd. “I think that the credibility of the scientists really now is on the line,” Mitchell said. “They have to decide whether to stay inside and be valuable, or whether or not they have to see another alternative, like Jim Mattis, and quit.” It wasn’t just Birx who fell short of condemning Trump’s disinfectant comments over the weekend. (Surgeon General Jerome Adams’s advice to “PLEASE always talk to your health provider first before administering any treatment/medication to yourself or a loved one” also comes to mind.) Journalists have given Birx and Fauci, in particular, some latitude in their public remarks, recognizing the fine line they have to tread between loyalty to Trump and the facts-first candor we would normally expect from government experts. But this latitude cannot be limitless.

The irony here is that Birx was right, albeit for the wrong reasons: it is bothersome that the news media has to expend time and energy on dangerous nonsense, especially right now, when there’s so much important news and a diminishing number of journalists covering it. Over the weekend, many news reports about Trump’s remarks had an inadvertently satirical quality. With the exception of the New York Times—which satirized itself by writing that “some experts” view the ingestion of disinfectant as dangerous (it later removed that wording)—this wasn’t really the media’s fault. Under a president like Trump, the basic ways we’ve been trained to write and talk about politics inevitably bestow seriousness on the clownishly absurd—and thus risk elevating, or even legitimizing, it—because we trade in seriousness and the president does not. Many commentators, especially on cable news, openly ridiculed Trump’s bleach talk. (Morning Joe, for instance, cut it with clips of Dr. Nick Riviera, the quack physician from The Simpsons.) But someone has to tell people, in all seriousness, that injecting disinfectant is a terrible idea. The hundreds of calls to the Maryland hotline only underscored that point.

Some would argue that when it comes to injecting sunlight and disinfectant, sunlight is not the best disinfectant—debunking disinformation, experts say, can help spread it. Clearly, there’s a difference (in reach, at least) between an amateur online conspiracy theorist and the president of the United States. There are, however, steps we can take to limit public exposure to such dangerous presidential rhetoric. We could try saving our peak outrage for the matters of life and death. And we could do much more to disengage from the daily White House press briefings, the usefulness of which—always dubious—has long since been outlived. There’s no good reason to carry them live; there are better reasons to send reporters, but even those seem less compelling by the day. At the very least, we could stop the briefings from driving so much of the conversation—on cable news, in particular.

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Trump may be making that decision for us. Allies have urged him to scrap the briefings, which they fear are hurting his political standing. On Friday, Trump kept things short and didn’t take questions; over the weekend, we didn’t get any briefings at all. (On Saturday, Trump tweeted that the briefings were “not worth the time & effort,” on account of the “Lamestream Media’s” bad attitude toward them.) A briefing is currently scheduled for today, however—and even if Trump does pivot away from the practice, he’ll surely continue to share unfiltered pseudo-advice via other channels, such as Twitter. In covering it, we should keep one question front of mind: what serves our readers and viewers best? There’s no question that not ingesting bleach fits that category. Trump’s streams of consciousness require closer, case-by-case thought.

Below, more on the coronavirus:

Other notable stories:

  • On April 15, Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s dictator, skipped celebrations marking the birthday of his late grandfather, Kim Il Sung. Since then, speculation has grown that Kim is in poor health; over the weekend, TMZ claimed—citing a China-backed outlet—that he may even be dead, following “botched heart surgery.” Yesterday, officials in South Korea denied that, telling CNN that Kim is “alive and well.” As Choe Sang-Hun writes for the Times, “The lack of real information from the hermetic country is giving rise to rampant rumor mongering,” leaving experts “to parse through it all for signs of the truth.”
  • On Saturday, the Times looked inside the “cloistered campaign” of Joe Biden, who is reportedly exasperated with the media narrative that he is invisible compared to the president. For the Post, Matt Viser listened to Biden’s podcast, which—in tone, reach, and production quality—is “a dramatic departure from the daily show put on by Trump.” Per Viser, Biden is “unusually invested” in the podcast, and often weighs in on its production.
  • Randall Stephenson is stepping down as CEO of AT&T, the parent company of CNN. He’ll be replaced by John Stankey, the company’s president and COO who, until recently, headed WarnerMedia, AT&T’s media and entertainment arm. The handover will take effect on July 1, several months before Stephenson was expected to depart.  
  • Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s battle with Britain’s tabloid press is gearing up, CJR’s Amanda Darrach reports; the couple is currently suing a clutch of titles on grounds including breach of privacy and unlawful reporting activities. Last week, they informed the editors of four British papers that they will never again engage with their reporters.
  • Last week, editorial staffers at Vedomosti, a Russian business newspaper, published a scathing column claiming that Andrey Shmarov, the paper’s new editor, censored articles critical of Vladimir Putin and Rosneft, the state-owned energy company. Shmarov was installed as editor after new owners acquired Vedomosti last month.
  • And Richard Hake, the long-serving WNYC journalist and host of Morning Edition, has died. He was 51. Karen Frillman, a colleague of Hake’s, told the Times that he was “unflappable as a broadcaster,” and “really had an appetite for everything that New York offered.” The news industry is also mourning the loss of Josh Kovner, an investigative reporter with the Hartford Courant who died last week. He was 61.

ICYMI: Why capitalization matters

Correction: An earlier version of this newsletter misstated the date of Dr. Deborah Birx’s interview on Fox News. It broadcast on Saturday, not Friday. The post has been updated.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.