By now you’ve heard that this is a time for “bold, persistent experimentation,” just like during the Great Depression. Let’s leave aside the fact that President Franklin Roosevelt’s constant tinkering and overhauling of the economy didn’t work anything like intended (as UCLA economic historian Lee Ohanian and others such as Amity Shlaes have argued, FDR’s policies prolonged the Depression by years).
President Donald Trump is in fact conducting a bold, persistent, real-time experiment in radical transparency by holding multi-hour-long press conferences every single day. During these things, which are being carried by various broadcast TV and radio stations and cable news channels, Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and key members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, such as National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci and Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah Birx, answer all questions. The exchanges are often heated and ugly, and the many moods of Donald Trump—most of them unattractive—are on full display.
But the response from the press itself is instructive. As Politico‘s Jack Shafer has written recently, for much of Trump’s tenure, the media complained that the president didn’t make himself or his surrogates available enough to the press. Indeed, when Trump’s press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, stepped down two days ago, The Washington Post led its announcement with the comment that she “is leaving the job after eight months during which she held no regular press briefings of the sort that once defined the position.” As if the public didn’t have a good read on what the president was thinking or doing, right?
And what was the response when Trump started showing up for his closeup every day? Elite press critics denounced Trump and especially the cable networks for actually carrying the press conferences. From Shafer:
Leading the pack of objectors are journalist James Fallows and J-school prof Jay Rosen, who would have the cable networks stop airing Trump’s briefings live because they’re unfiltered propaganda. Fallows has even circulated a Twitter petition backing their proposal. Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan, MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow, and others concur. Meanwhile, journalist Jonathan Alter and broadcaster Soledad O’Brien want the political press corps, which ordinarily dominate the briefings, to step aside and let science and health reporters take the lead in questioning the president at these briefings.
A progressive press watchdog group even unsuccessfully petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which has jurisdiction to regulate content on over-the-air radio and TV programs, to force “broadcasters either stop airing them or ‘put those lies in context with disclaimers noting that they may be untrue and are unverified.'”
It’s worth pointing out, as my colleague Elizabeth Nolan Brown did earlier today, that the briefings don’t seem to be helping Trump with the electorate. Recent polls “found overall disapproval for Trump’s pandemic performance stands at 52 percent, up from 48 percent in early March, and 55 percent of Americans polled said Trump ‘could be doing more to fight the outbreak.'”
The White House is publishing a daily transcript of the press briefings, creating a public record of everything Trump and his top advisers say (go here for the archive). If you scroll through them, you’ll find the president doesn’t shy away from discussing the number of expected deaths, the disparate impact of coronavirus on blacks, what might or might not come next, and many other issues. It isn’t his fault that the press keeps asking stupid questions, such as yesterday’s moronic-yet-widely-discussed query about a pardon for Joe Exotic, the main figure in the Netflix series Tiger King.
If Trump’s daily press briefings are disturbing, it’s because of what they reveal, not what they obscure. We are in a moment when government at virtually every level—but certainly at the federal level—first failed to protect public health and then exacerbated problems with subsequent policies that banned non-state responses to the pandemic. Beyond issues of health, the federal government has, with near-unanimity, signed off on an intervention into the economy that is unprecedented in peacetime. Trust and confidence in the government were at historic lows when Trump took office—I’d argue that his election was partly an effect of such attitudes—and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.
To his credit, Trump isn’t hiding in the shadows. If Trump’s answers are unsatisfying, perhaps it’s because nobody in Washington has good answers right now.
The news conference in which Evers announced his Safer at Home order was instructive. The invited media types (which, again, did not include weekly newspapers, except for those who were tipped off) were allowed one question and no follow-ups. Evers deferred repeatedly to Andrea Palm, acting secretary of the state Department Human Services (a sociology graduate, by the way, not a person with any medical background), or to Evers’ legal counsel. That was necessary because Evers announced the order without very many details about what the order would allow or forbid, even at the news conference.
- Why, three days after Evers said a stay-at-home order wouldn’t be necessary, did Evers announce a stay-at-home order? What changed in three days?
- Why does Evers’ Safer at Home order treat every part of the state the same when the virus is clearly more prevalent in two areas — Milwaukee and Dane counties — than anywhere else in the state?
- On what grounds were certain businesses termed “essential” and others termed “non-essential”?
- On what grounds were churches banned from holding services? Did Evers get guidance from any legal counsel as to whether banning church services is constitutional?
- Who in DHS is giving guidance to Evers on public health actions to take? (And the side question: What does DHS consider a coronavirus death?)
All of those are questions that should be asked, but are not being asked, of the governor, by any news media outlet, regardless of that media outlet’s ideological worldview. The question that also should be asked of legislative leaders is when is the Legislature going to vote on Evers’ edicts.