By:
April 15, 2020

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If a media writer were so inclined, he or she could write about the White House coronavirus press conferences every day. Every single day.

Each day, it’s something — another testy exchange between President Donald Trump and a journalist, more dubious Trump claims that send fact-checkers scrambling and a bunch of other oddball moments unlike anything we’ve ever seen before in the White House briefing room. Tuesday’s newser from the Rose Garden was more of the same.

The press conferences have become simultaneously newsworthy and repetitive. So, too, have the media columns and newsletters — like this one — if they focus on the press conferences every day.

The point: While there are interesting media nuggets in the briefings, media writers can’t write about it every day. Political reporters have to cover it. News outlets must cover it. But not media writers.

Yet by not writing about it, there might be a sense that you’re missing the big media story of the day or a guilty feeling that you’re ignoring critical moments in our history.

There’s no question that these press conferences have turned into something more than just updating the public on the latest coronavirus data, government responses and future plans. Much of that can be blamed on the president. But what role has the media played? And can anything be done to make the press conferences more productive?

First, any reasonable person should acknowledge that President Trump is using the coronavirus news conferences as, in part, campaign rallies. Because the coronavirus has left him unable to hit the road and give stump speeches, the daily press briefings allow him to get his message out to the American people. This clearly matters to him, as he often talks about his “ratings.” Much of his briefings are used to talk about how well he has handled the crisis.

The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker wrote, “Yet in the middle of this deadly pandemic that shows no obvious signs of abating, the president made clear that the paramount concern for Trump is Trump — his self-image, his media coverage, his supplicants and his opponents, both real and imagined.”

You would think that the president and his team are so pressed for time that they don’t have two hours each day to spare. But Trump has clearly made these briefings a priority, as he is out there front and center every day.

The debate rages on about whether networks should air the briefings in their entirety. Two networks — Fox News and C-SPAN — typically show the whole thing. CNN and MSNBC cut in and out, mostly showing them. The major networks rarely show them because they conflict with the evening news. I cannot see a scenario in which every network will just suddenly stop airing them.

But, what about the length? It feels odd to argue for less access, but perhaps these news conferences would stay focused and be more productive if they were closer to 30 or 45 minutes. Because it seems unlikely that the president is eager to cut the news conferences off after a half-hour, it would be left up to those in attendance to do their best to limit the length.

That, too, seems unlikely.

With so many outlets in attendance, all working on various aspects of the coronavirus story, it’s unlikely the press corps would be organized enough to come up with a plan to limit the number of their own questions.

Trump supporters might argue that the media is using a portion of these briefings to antagonize the president. But while not every question has been perfect — and there might be examples of questions intended to get under the president’s skin — most of the questions have been valid. Trump’s biggest blow-ups have come when he is fairly challenged and cannot defend his actions or inactions.

Because of Trump’s desire to hold daily press conferences and because it seems unlikely that the White House media can coordinate a unified plan for how to handle the Q&A portion of the daily briefings, expect more the same.

But, fair warning, it’s just not something that media writers can write about every day.

Bloomberg’s bad look

Bloomberg News founder Michael Bloomberg. (KGC-254/STAR MAX)

This is bad: Six years ago, Bloomberg News killed an investigation into the wealth of some of the top members of the Communist Party in China because it was afraid the Chinese government would retaliate. This is bad, too: Bloomberg News tried to get the wife of one of the reporters to sign a non-disclosure agreement so she couldn’t talk about it. This explosive story was broken by NPR.

Bloomberg did a story in 2012 on the finances of China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin, and the family of Chinese President Xi Jinping. At the time, Bloomberg’s founder, Michael Bloomberg, was mayor of New York City. A follow-up story was eventually quashed. NPR has audio of Bloomberg News editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler, on a conference call, saying, “It is for sure going to, you know, invite the Communist Party to, you know, completely shut us down and kick us out of the country. So, I just don’t see that as a story that is justified.”

One of the reporters on the story was Mike Forsythe. After the initial story, Forsythe received death threats and Bloomberg News moved him and his wife from Beijing to Hong Kong. After killing the follow-up story, Bloomberg News tried to get reporters who had worked on the story to sign nondisclosure agreements, as well as trying to get one from Forsythe’s wife, Leta Hong Fincher.

She told NPR, “They assumed that because I was the wife of their employee, I was the wife. I was just an appendage of their employee. I was not a human being.”

Bloomberg News ultimately suspended Forsythe after accusing him of leaking the whole controversy to other news outlets. He was eventually fired. He’s now an investigative reporter at The New York Times.

Check out the NPR story for more of the details, including Michael Bloomberg’s complicated relationship between being a politician and the owner of a media company.

Why wait?

Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times. (AP Photo/Ted Anthony)

Relatively new New York Times media writer Ben Smith has a compelling interview with a newspaper editor about why it took that editor’s paper 19 days to report a sexual assault allegation against Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. It just so happens that Smith’s interview is with his boss — the Times’ Dean Baquet. And give Smith credit, he asked good questions.

On March 25, a woman named Tara Reade accused Biden of assaulting her in 1993. But the Times didn’t run a story until April 12. Smith asked Baquet what took so long, and Baquet showed transparency in explaining the Times’ thought process.

“ … mainly I thought that what The New York Times could offer and should try to offer was the reporting to help people understand what to make of a fairly serious allegation against a guy who had been a vice president of the United States and was knocking on the door of being his party’s nominee,” Baquet told Smith.

That’s where things get complicated. Biden was still in a battle (although in control) with Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination from March 25 until Sanders dropped out on April 8.

Baquet told Smith, “I thought the biggest obligation we had, frankly, was to the story and to having multiple conversations with Tara Reade. And to be honest at that point it wasn’t like we were in a heated race with the clock ticking. The main obligation was to get a really sensitive story as close to right as we could.”

It’s an interesting interview by Smith that did a good job of getting Baquet to pull back the curtain on the story.

In addition, check out Times opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg, who wrote, “What to Do with Tara Reade’s Allegation Against Joe Biden.”

Trouble in L.A.

The grim news in local journalism continues. The latest came Tuesday when the company that owns the Los Angeles Times announced furloughs for up to 16 weeks to those on the business side (non-newsroom). And it’s possible some of those employees — around 40 in all — will be laid off at the end of the furloughs.

The reason? It’s starting to sound familiar. In a memo to staff, Chris Argentieri — president of the California Times, which owns the LA Times and San Diego Union-Tribune — said, “Due to the unexpected effects of Covid-19, our advertising revenue has nearly been eliminated.”

According to The New York Times’ Marc Tracy, Argentieri told LA Times staffers, “The Times has lost more than one-third of its advertising revenue and expects to lose more than half of its advertising revenue in the coming months.”

In addition to the furloughs, senior leadership in both editorial and business departments at the LA Times and San Diego Union-Tribune will take a pay cut, perhaps as much as 15% for three months.

The new normal

Time and again, I’ve pointed readers of this newsletter to the elite coronavirus coverage being done by The Atlantic. Among the most insightful reads is science writer Ed Yong. His latest piece — “Our Pandemic Summer” — looks at what our new normal might look like when we get back to so-called normal. In other words, there might not be a normal again, at least not for a long time.

One health expert told Yong, “I think people haven’t understood that this isn’t about the next couple of weeks. This is about the next two years.”

It’s another must-read piece that lays out exactly what summer and beyond might look like, based on the science and the models. And you might not like the answer to “When will things go back to normal?”

Yong writes, “As the rest of the U.S. comes to terms with the same restless impermanence, it must abandon the question When do we go back to normal? That outlook ignores the immense disparities in what different Americans experience as normal. It wastes the rare opportunity to reimagine what a fairer and less vulnerable society might look like. It glosses over the ongoing nature of the coronavirus threat. There is no going back. The only way out is through — past a turbulent spring, across an unusual summer, and into an unsettled year beyond.”

Speaking of The Atlantic …

Three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Barton Gellman has joined The Atlantic as a staff writer. He is best known for breaking the story of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden for The Washington Post. The Atlantic said Gellman, who was at The Post for more than 20 years, will start by focusing on covering the coronavirus pandemic and the government’s response to the crisis.

It’s just another sign of The Atlantic’s commitment to covering the coronavirus, and it’s paying off. The Atlantic reports that, in March, it more than doubled its previous one-month audience record with 87 million unique visitors and more than 168 million pageviews. It also has added 36,000 new subscribers even though most of its coronavirus coverage has been free.

Brit Hume’s new role

Aside from his various duties as Fox News’ senior political analyst, Brit Hume has now taken up an unofficial role as a media critic. And Trump defender.

Certainly, he has the right to comment on anything he likes, but it should be noted that he has spent the past few days criticizing the media while, seemingly, defending President Trump.

In a strange tweet Tuesday, Hume seemed to frown on the media for reacting to things Trump actually said. He tweeted:

“POTUS claims of absolute power in Covid 19 emergency are constitutional nonsense, another of his serial exaggerations. The reaction to them are another case of media’s insistent focus on the stuff he says, as if that is more important than what he actually does.”

Hume followed that tweet with another that said there’s no indication Trump will exercise total authority … even though he said he has that right, which he does not. (Trump did back away from that stance Tuesday.)

This just comes off as odd commentary from Hume, a media member himself. The gist of Hume’s comments appear to be that the media should know better than to listen to someone who says a bunch of things that aren’t true. Instead of taking the media to task for reporting on some of the outrageous things Trump says, shouldn’t he be taking Trump to task for saying outrageous things? It’s not as if Trump is some conspiracy theorist or cable TV host looking for ratings. He’s the president of the United States.

Hume’s comments follow what has often been a talking point from those inside the administration: Don’t pay attention to what the president says, but what he does.

In recent days, Hume also criticized media questions in the White House press conferences, the banners CNN puts on its screen during press conferences and The New York Times’ coverage of the sexual assault allegations against Joe Biden as compared to its coverage of the allegations against Brett Kavanaugh.

Again, Hume has the right to express his opinion however he likes about whatever he wants, but he is considered more of a reporter than pundit and those Twitter comments come off as biased punditry.

Hot type

Actress Angelina Jolie. (Photo by Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP)

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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