I have vociferously defended the news value of the White House Coronavirus Task Force daily press briefings, shoving back hard against the embarrassing, anti-journalism demands of anti-Trump media figures insisting that they be censored or boycotted. I will continue to do so. But that doesn't mean that I believe that the pressers are being wielded or executed properly or wisely by the president, or that their format shouldn't be revamped. In a Thursday house editorial entitled "Trump's Wasted Briefings," the Wall Street Journal's editors argue that Trump is too often squandering these news conferences by allowing them to descend into petty feuds, as they drag on for hours on end. There's a point of diminishing returns, they say, and Trump's current format and posture aren't serving the country's interests -- or his own political interests -- particularly well:
The briefings began as a good idea to educate the public about the dangers of the virus, how Americans should change their behavior, and what the government is doing to combat it. They showed seriousness of purpose, action to mobilize public and private resources, and a sense of optimism. Mr. Trump benefitted in the polls not because he was the center of attention but because he showed he had put together a team of experts working to overcome a national health crisis. But sometime in the last three weeks Mr. Trump seems to have concluded that the briefings could be a showcase for him. Perhaps they substitute in his mind for the campaign rallies he can no longer hold because of the risks...
They last for 90 minutes or more, and Mr. Trump dominates the stage. His first-rate health experts have become supporting actors, and sometimes barely that, ushered on stage to answer a technical question or two. Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the task force, doesn’t get on stage until the last 15 minutes or so. That becomes the most informative part of the session, since Mr. Pence understandably knows details the President doesn’t. Mr. Trump opens each briefing by running through a blizzard of facts and numbers showing what the government is doing—this many tests, that many masks, so many ventilators going from here to there, and what a great job he’s doing. Then Mr. Trump opens the door for questions, and the session deteriorates into a dispiriting brawl between the President and his antagonists in the White House press corps.
The press plays right along and is too relentlessly hostile and antagonistic, but that dynamic is also exhaustingly familiar. The editorial goes on to admonish the president that his political "outbursts" are "notably off-key at this moment," making the case that the upcoming "election is now about one issue: how well the public thinks the President has done in defeating the virus and restarting the economy...[voters] will judge Mr. Trump by the results, not by how well he says he did." The editors close with some advice:
If Mr. Trump wants to make his briefings more helpful to the country, here’s our advice. Make them no more than 45 minutes, except on rare occasions. Let Mr. Pence lead them each day, focusing on one issue or problem. Mr. Pence can take the questions, and Mr. Trump can show up twice a week to reinforce the message.
This is a ridiculous tweet. He could get his views across without bragging, endlessly repeating himself, and getting into petty squabbles with the junior varsity players in the WH press corps. And he could stop talking much sooner to give Pence, Fauci, Birx and Giroir more time. https://t.co/ui7sN3WgGx— Brit Hume (@brithume) April 9, 2020
This isn't about NFL-sized ratings or beating the "fake news" media. It's about keeping an anxious nation consistently and reliably informed in the midst of a once-in-a-generation public health crisis, and the resulting economic disaster. The more Trump has strayed into absurdity and animosity, the less the American people have been impressed:
Even as Trump boasts of big ratings for his daily briefings, approval of his handling of coronavirus has flipped negative since March. pic.twitter.com/h0MiX04DJQ— Josh Jordan (@NumbersMuncher) April 10, 2020
As for the Journal's counsel, while I think that Vice President Pence does a superb job at these pressers, suggesting that Trump surrender the stage five days a week is unrealistic. He's the president, and I have no problem with him wanting to preside over parts of either most or all of the briefings. But reining in the format and limiting the duration of these daily events is an excellent idea. Sprawling, two-hour marathons lack focus and are just too much to digest, even when things don't go off the rails. Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer has been suggesting this for weeks:
It’s good the President is accessible to the media. But these press conferences should go no longer than 30 mins. When it goes this long, the press tends to runs out of science-based or substantive Qs. And POTUS can’t resist smacking them. Shorten these things.— Ari Fleischer (@AriFleischer) March 29, 2020
Trump's public protestations aside, his team appeared to heed some of the recommendations -- at least for one day. Thursday's briefing was approximately one hour, and the sequence made a lot more sense, as I observed:
Much better today— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) April 9, 2020
Handful of POTUS q’s
Handful of q’s
“See you tomorrow”
Roughly an hour
Make this standard
Hoping for discipline and consistency from this president may a quixotic aspiration, but he and his communications team would be very smart to recognize that time is precious, that driving targeted messages is advantageous, and that they shouldn't fritter away these events with political feuding. It's neither the time, nor the place.
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