Kayleigh McEnany, the new White House press secretary, is paid to believe in the complete and unalterable newsworthiness of the coronavirus press briefings that her boss convenes each day. News outlets that don’t heed that principle come in for bashing. “It is shameful that CNN did not take the first part of the briefing. They’ve made that a trend,” said McEnany in an appearance Thursday morning on “Fox and Friends.” “It is shameful that MSNBC cut away from the briefing yesterday as President Trump praised American workers for making ventilators.”
“This is the best way for the American people to hear directly from the federal government, directly from their leader during a pandemic,” she said.
McEnany’s judgment, of course, isn’t binding on news organizations, some of which have reached conclusions sharply at odds with her spiel about the “best way” to inform the country. As she herself told Fox News, CNN has made a “trend” of skipping the president’s preambles — good! And MSNBC has also dipped in and out of the proceedings — also good! Picking and choosing which parts of these interminable sessions to broadcast requires skill and agility, in large part because propagandistic and false statements from Trump alternate with newsworthy pronouncements from members of his coronavirus task force, particularly coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx and National
Editorial agonizing isn’t confined to cable-news networks, however. When the briefings began in late February, a number of non-TV news organizations streamed them live on their websites. “It’s a story of huge importance and interest to every member of our sizable audience,” says Daniel Klaidman, editor in chief of Yahoo News, one of the sites that streams the briefings. In the early going, says Klaidman, the briefings “were providing absolutely vital information and context for a country that was trying to, in real time, understand this pandemic.”
Such utility, however, had a finite shelf life. A turning point, says Klaidman, came on April 1, when Trump assembled Attorney General William P. Barr and various military officials and announced a drug-interdiction initiative at the outset of what was billed as a coronavirus briefing. CNN and MSNBC cut away from the announcement, which they struggled to connect to coronavirus. Klaidman and his team had the same misgivings. “I think that was the first time that we decided just to cut away from it,” says Klaidman, noting that his outfit cannot break into the live stream to provide analysis, context or fact-checking chyrons, as can the cable networks. “That leaves us with really one choice: continue taking the feed or cut away, and we made the decision to cut away and that was the moment that began the larger conversation for us.”
From that point on, Yahoo News monitored the sessions with an eye toward cutting away during moments of acute non-newsworthiness. Then came Monday, when Trump played a video to shame the assembled media and tout his own work. That prompted another shift: “It was at that moment that I decided in consultation with my bosses that our default position ought to be: Don’t take the feed, monitor it closely and when we deemed something newsworthy, cut back in,” says Klaidman.
Newspapers have reached similar conclusions. As we reported last week, the New York Times weeks ago made the same decision after spotting the same trend. “We stopped doing that because they were like campaign rallies,” Elisabeth Bumiller, the newspaper’s Washington bureau chief, told the Erik Wemple Blog. In a statement to the Erik Wemple Blog on Thursday morning, Post managing editor Emilio Garcia-Ruiz said the newspaper “began live-streaming the briefings for their critical informational component during a public health crisis. Although they became significantly longer recently, these sessions now contain far less health information and substantially more politics. Given that, we’ve decided to
A survey during Wednesday night’s briefing revealed that the Hill, Politico, Mediaite and websites for the major news broadcasters (ABC News, NBC News, CBS News) were providing at least partial live-streaming of the session. The Erik Wemple Blog asked these outlets about their considerations in streaming the briefings. Aidan McLaughlin, editor in chief of Mediaite, responded that his outlet fact-checks the president and others. “Our position is that it would be odd for our website to shield our readers from potentially vital information delivered by the president and public health officials. Particularly when they are regularly followed by questions and fact checks from the reporters we follow most closely on this site,” noted McLaughlin in an email.
Through a spokesperson, Politico Editor Carrie Budoff Brown tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “We cover the President. We cover his meetings and sprays. We cover his briefings. We cover and fact check the President’s actions and words all day, every day. We will continue to do so.”
And then there’s C-SPAN, the king of unfiltered official proceedings. “We’re not making editorial decisions everyday about whether to show the briefings or how much to show,” notes C-SPAN spokesman Howard Mortman in an email. “We just do it, with our unblinking eye, as a matter of course, part of our mission. We let Americans think for themselves about what they’re seeing. Folks get that.”