The media is allowing disinformation to appear as news.
Around this time four years ago, the media world was all abuzz over an analysis by mediaQuant, a company that tracks what is known as “earned media” coverage of political candidates. Earned media is free media.
The firm computed that Donald Trump had “earned” a whopping $2 billion of coverage, dwarfing the value earned by all other candidates, Republican and Democrat, even as he had only purchased about $10 million of paid advertising.
As The New York Times reported at the time, the company’s chief analytics officer, Paul Senatori, explained: “The mediaQuant model collects positive, neutral and negative media mentions alike. Mr. Senatori said negative media mentions are given somewhat less weight.”
This wasn’t the first analysis that found that something was askew.
In December 2015 CNN quoted the publisher of The Tyndall Report, which also tracks media coverage, saying Trump was “by far the most newsworthy story line of campaign 2016, accounting alone for more than a quarter of all coverage’ on NBC, CBS and ABC’s evening newscasts.”
Simply put, the media was complicit in Trump’s rise. Trump was macabre theater, a man self-immolating in real time, one who was destined to lose, but who could provide entertainment, content and yes, profits while he lasted.
The Hollywood Reporter in February of 2016 quoted CBS’s C.E.O. as saying, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” because as The Reporter put it, “He likes the ad money Trump and his competitors are bringing to the network.”
I fear that history is repeating itself.
For over a month now, the White House has been holding its daily coronavirus briefings, and most networks, cable news channels and major news websites have been carrying all or parts of them live, as millions of people, trapped inside and anxious, have tuned in.
The briefings are marked by Trump’s own misinformation, deceptions, rage, blaming and boasting. He takes no responsibility at all for his abysmal handling of the crisis, while each day he seems to find another person to blame, like a child frantically flinging spaghetti at a wall to see which one sticks.
He delivers his disinformation flanked by scientists and officials, whose presence only serves to convey credibility to propagandistic performances that have simply become a replacement for his political rallies.
We are in the middle of a pandemic, but we are also in the middle of a presidential campaign, and I shudder to think how much “earned media” the media is simply shoveling Trump’s way by airing these briefings, which can last up to two hours a day.
Let me be clear: Under no circumstance should these briefings be carried live. Doing so is a mistake bordering on journalistic malpractice. Everything a president does or says should be documented but airing all of it, unfiltered, is lazy and irresponsible.
As the veteran anchor Ted Koppel told The New York Times last month, “Training a camera on a live event, and just letting it play out, is technology, not journalism; journalism requires editing and context.” He continued, “The question, clearly, is whether his status as president of the United States obliges us to broadcast his every briefing live.” His answer was “no.”
We have trained the American television audience to understand that regular programs are only interrupted for live events when they are truly important, things that the viewers need to see now, in real time. These briefings simply don’t reach that threshold. In fact, some of what Trump has said has been dangerous, like when he pushed an unproven and potentially harmful drug as a treatment for the virus.
No amount of fact checkers, balancing with the briefings of governors, or even occasionally cutting away, can justify carrying these briefings live. The scant amount of new information that these rallies produce could be edited into a short segment for a show. The major headlines from these briefings are often Trump’s clashes with reporters, the differences he has with scientists and the lies he tells. Just like in 2016, it’s all theater.
Donald Trump doesn’t care about being caught in a lie. Donald Trump doesn’t care about the truth.
Donald Trump is a bare-knuckled politician with imperial impulses, falsely claimingthat, “When somebody’s the president of the U.S., the authority is total,” encouraging protesters bristling about social distancing policies to “liberate” swings states, and saying that Speaker Nancy Pelosi will be “overthrown, either by inside or out.”
Trump has completely politicized this pandemic and the briefings have become a tool of that politicization. He is standing on top of nearly 40,000 dead bodies and using the media to distract attention away from them and instead brag about what a great job he’s done.
In 2016, Trump stormed the castle by outwitting the media gatekeepers, exploiting their need for content and access, their intense hunger for ratings and clicks, their economic hardships and overconfidence.
It’s all happening again. The media has learned nothing.“