Trumps Coronavirus Briefings Are a Ratings Hit. Should Networks Cover Them? – The New York Times

Posted: March 26, 2020 at 6:06 am

President Trump is a ratings hit, and some journalists and public health experts say that could be a dangerous thing.

Since reviving the daily White House briefing a practice abandoned last year by an administration that bristles at outside scrutiny Mr. Trump and his coronavirus updates have attracted an average audience of 8.5 million on cable news, roughly the viewership of the season finale of TheBachelor.

And the numbers are continuing to rise, driven by intense concern about the virus and the housebound status of millions of Americans who are practicing social distancing. On Monday, nearly 12.2 million people watched Mr. Trumps briefing on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, according to Nielsen Monday Night Football numbers.

Millions more are watching on ABC, CBS, NBC and online streaming sites. (Because of the way Nielsen ratings are measured, reliable numbers are available only for cable news.) And the audience is expanding even as Mr. Trump has repeatedly delivered information that doctors and public health officials have called ill informed, misleading or downright wrong.

The president has suggested that the coronavirus is comparable to influenza, which is far less lethal, and has invoked the death toll of car accidents. He has also encouraged the use of medications that have yet to be proved effective against the virus; on Monday, a man in Arizona died after he and his wife consumed a form of chloroquine, a drug that Mr. Trump has promoted on the air.

How to report on Mr. Trumps fabrications has long been a source of concern among journalists and press critics, dating to the blanket cable news coverage of his rallies in the 2016 presidential campaign. Even after Mr. Trump took office, journalists have debated the civic benefits of broadcasting the presidents remarks to the nation with the need to supplement his statements with corrections and context.

The emergence of the pandemic has raised the stakes for what had existed mostly as an insular discussion among media ethicists. Now, the presidents critics say, lives are at risk.

I would stop putting those briefings on live TV not out of spite, but because its misinformation, the MSNBC host Rachel Maddow declared to her viewers last week.

The veteran anchor Ted Koppel said on Wednesday that television news executives had forgotten a crucial distinction of their profession.

Training a camera on a live event, and just letting it play out, is technology, not journalism; journalism requires editing and context, Mr. Koppel wrote in an email. I recognize that presidential utterances occupy a unique category. Within that category, however, President Trump has created a special compartment all his own.

The question, clearly, is whether his status as president of the United States obliges us to broadcast his every briefing live, Mr. Koppel continued. No. No more so than you at The Times should be obliged to provide your readers with a daily, verbatim account.

Network producers and correspondents say there is often some internal debate about whether to carry the presidents appearances live and unfiltered. But given the intensity of the national crisis, many executives have concluded there is no justification for preventing Americans from hearing directly from the president and his health care administrators.

And a significant portion of the country is looking to Mr. Trump for its facts. A CBS News poll on Tuesday said that 90 percent of Republicans trusted Mr. Trump for accurate information about the pandemic; 14 percent of Democrats said the same.

Fox News has been a particularly popular venue for those who want to hear from the president. The network regularly accounts for roughly half the overall cable news audience for Mr. Trumps briefings.

On Monday, Fox News alone attracted 6.2 million viewers for the presidents briefing an astounding number for a 6 p.m. cable broadcast, more akin to the viewership for a popular prime-time sitcom. This past weekend, Fox News recorded its highest weekend viewership since its 2003 coverage of the gulf war.

Americans trust in the news media is also split along partisan lines. The CBS News poll said 13 percent of Republicans trusted the news media for information about the virus, versus 72 percent of Democrats.

Mr. Trumps hostility toward the independent press has done much to deepen that divide, and he has not hesitated to use the pandemic briefings an ostensibly nonpartisan venue to amplify his attacks.

Last week, the president denounced journalists as angry, angry people and berated the NBC News correspondent Peter Alexander as a terrible reporter, after Mr. Alexander asked the president to provide a message for concerned Americans. The Trump campaign later raised funds with an email highlighting Mr. Trumps insult.

One of Mr. Alexanders colleagues at NBC News had died from the coronavirus a day earlier.

Mr. Trump has also used national TV appearances to spread incendiary and unproven accusations. At a Fox News town hall on Tuesday, he read aloud a critical headline about Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York that had been published by a fringe right-wing conspiracy theory site, The Gateway Pundit.

Mr. Trumps attacks on journalists have prompted outrage from First Amendment groups. The chief executive of PEN America, Suzanne Nossel, called Mr. Trumps remarks at the briefings an appalling daily spectacle and an international embarrassment.

The White House, in turn, has been critical of TV networks that do not do its bidding. On Monday, after CNN and MSNBC cut away from the final portion of Mr. Trumps briefing, a White House spokesman, Judd Deere, called the move pretty disgraceful.

CNN responded that the network will make our own editorial decisions. MSNBC said it had cut away only because the information no longer appeared to be valuable to the important ongoing discussion around public health.

John Koblin contributed reporting.

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Trumps Coronavirus Briefings Are a Ratings Hit. Should Networks Cover Them? - The New York Times

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