President Donald 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 — 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 “The Bachelor.”
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 Trump’s 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 only available for cable news.) And the audience is expanding even as 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 proven effective against the virus; on Monday, a man in Arizona died after he and his wife consumed chloroquine, a drug that Trump has promoted on the air.
How to report on Trump’s 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 campaign. Even after Trump took office, journalists have debated the civic benefits of broadcasting the president’s 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 president’s critics say, lives are at risk.
“I would stop putting those briefings on live TV — not out of spite, but because it’s misinformation,” MSNBC host Rachel Maddow declared to her viewers last week.
Veteran anchor Ted Koppel said 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,” 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,” 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 president’s 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 Trump for its facts. A CBS News poll Tuesday said that 90% of Republicans trust Trump for accurate information about the pandemic; 14% 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 Trump’s briefings.
On Monday, Fox News alone attracted 6.2 million viewers for the president’s briefing — an astounding number for a 6 p.m. cable broadcast, more akin to the viewership for a popular prime-time sitcom. Fox News said this past weekend drew the network’s highest weekend viewership since its 2003 coverage of the Iraq War.
Americans’ trust in the news media is also split along partisan lines. The CBS News poll said that 13% of Republicans trusted the news media for information about the virus, versus 72% of Democrats.
Trump’s 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 NBC News correspondent Peter Alexander as a “terrible reporter,” after Alexander asked the president to provide a message for concerned Americans. The Trump campaign later raised funds with an email highlighting Trump’s insult.
One of Alexander’s colleagues at NBC News had died from the coronavirus a day prior.
Trump has also used national TV appearances to spread incendiary and unproven accusations. At a Fox News town hall Tuesday, he read aloud a critical headline about Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York that had been published by a fringe right-wing conspiracy theory site, The Gateway Pundit.
Trump’s attacks on journalists have prompted outrage from First Amendment groups. The chief executive of PEN America, Suzanne Nossel, called Trump’s 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 Trump’s 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 only cut away “because the information no longer appeared to be valuable to the important ongoing discussion around public health.”