U.S.

Dear Media: Stop Looking Backwards at the Daily Briefings

President Donald Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence and members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, delivers remarks at an update briefing at the White House, March 21, 2020. (Andrea Hanks/White House)
Nobody would argue that it’s the job of the press to make the president look good, but focusing exclusively on making him look bad is really a misreading of what journalism is supposed to be about.

If you have watched a number of the daily briefings by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and the pandemic task force, you have probably noticed that the briefings tend to be relatively sober and orderly affairs until the question-and-answer period, at which point the White House press corps invariably succeeds in baiting Trump into the bombastic, combative bunker mentality we all know so well from the past four years. While Trump is of course responsible for acting like Trump, the reporters attending these briefings should reconsider whether they are serving their audience or the public interest in actively working to drive these press briefings off the rails. Specifically, it is time for them to put “gotcha” questions about things Trump did and said in the past on the shelf, for another day, or at least another place.

The briefings serve a specific purpose: to inform the public about the ongoing status of the coronavirus pandemic and the federal government’s response to it. That is, necessarily, a present-and-forward-looking process. It is why we have the briefings on a daily basis, giving the press far more access to the president, vice president, and senior administration officials than is usual. Making those officials available for questions serves a purpose, too. It is the job of the press to raise questions not already addressed, partly to focus the administration on things that may not have pierced their deliberations, and partly to hold their feet to the fire to deliver on promises. Naturally, that involves some backward-looking questions and challenges to the credibility of administration assertions: Last week you told us X, we can see that we are not there yet, can you give us a timetable, etc.

Instead, you get questions like “Are there things you regret in the way you handled the crisis so far?  Are there words you regret?” or “Your administration eliminated a key position in China in July — a medical epidemiologist embedded in China’s Disease Control Agency — and it was just months before the first cases were spotted in Wuhan. So the question is, basically, why the post was eliminated and if that—”

There’s a time and place for inquiries of this nature, both by the press and by congressional oversight, but just trying to spin up the president and get his goat is inevitably going to run the briefing off topic. It’s similar to the constant, badgering effort to drive a wedge between Trump and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief infectious-disease specialist on the coronavirus task force. I have no illusions about the fact that a lot of this effort is driven by the press corps’s deep personal and political antipathy to Trump. Now, nobody would argue that it’s the job of the press to make the president look good, but focusing exclusively on making him look bad is really a misreading of what journalism is supposed to be about, especially in a national crisis when leaders are taking time away from their duties managing the crisis to address the public. You will notice that press briefings by governors and mayors are not like this, at least not to this degree. It is not what citizens are tuning in for.

Even Trump’s harshest press critics seem to realize that the briefings are not always serving their purpose, and are beginning to turn against holding them. “It’s time to put an end to the free-form daily task force briefings featuring the president, the vice president and a rotating cast of other officials,” sniffed the New York Times editorial board. One suspects that this is partly because the briefings are not accomplishing the goal of publicly discrediting and delegitimizing the president. Polls are, for now, showing improving ratings for the public’s view of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus. That may well change, but with much of the worst of the crisis likely still ahead of us, the average voter is more interested, for now, in hoping that Trump and his team can do a good job than in prosecuting his earlier missteps.

Winston Churchill, when he came to power in May of 1940, had perhaps a stronger case than anyone in England to look backwards: almost alone, he had been right all along about the Nazi menace. Yet, in his “Finest Hour” speech a month into his tenure, as he grappled with the fall of France, he called on his nation to stay focused on the struggle ahead:

I am not reciting these facts for the purpose of recrimination. That I judge to be utterly futile and even harmful. We cannot afford it . . . Now I put all this aside. I put it on the shelf, from which the historians, when they have time, will select their documents to tell their stories. We have to think of the future and not of the past. This also applies in a small way to our own affairs at home. There are many who would hold an inquest in the House of Commons on the conduct of the Governments — and of Parliaments, for they are in it, too — during the years which led up to this catastrophe. They seek to indict those who were responsible for the guidance of our affairs. This also would be a foolish and pernicious process. There are too many in it. Let each man search his conscience and search his speeches. I frequently search mine.

Of this I am quite sure, that if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future . . . It is absolutely necessary at a time like this that every Minister who tries each day to do his duty shall be respected; and their subordinates must know that their chiefs are not threatened men, men who are here today and gone tomorrow, but that their directions must be punctually and faithfully obeyed. Without this concentrated power we cannot face what lies before us. I should not think it would be very advantageous for the House to prolong this Debate this afternoon under conditions of public stress. Many facts are not clear that will be clear in a short time.

We are in a presidential election year, so reckoning over the past is not far ahead. We, too, still need many facts clear that are not clear today. There is ample room for opinion writers to examine the president’s record. The daily briefing room, however, should stay focused on what comes next.

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