Over the weeks, I’ve been unduly drawn to the daily drama of the White House’s coronavirus briefings. In part, it’s the fascination of watching a train wreck—and not just any train wreck, but the same one, day after day after day. (Art credit: 1920 Portland, Oregon train wreck, public domain.)
But I’ve also wondered how I’d react if I were one of the reporters in those briefings.
I’ve attended hundreds of press conferences. Mostly as a science writer, but also as a medical writer, and as sports writer. I’ve even done it in the politically charged arenas of environmental, food safety, or public health, three times with U.S. Cabinet Secretaries.
There’s a way in which reporters expect these things to play out.
What is “supposed” to happen is that the convenor makes an announcement, describes a scientific finding, etc. Sports are a little different, in that you usually meet the athlete after they’ve won a berth on the Olympic Team, but the concept is similar.
After the initial presentation, reporters’ questions usually fall into three categories:
- Requests for clarification or additional details.
- Requests to put the presentation into context.
- Questions about any other relevant topic circulating in the news. If the newly minted Olympian’s top rival just got busted for doping, for example, the winner better be prepared for a question about that.
What you never, never do is praise the presenter. It’s OK to say, “thanks for taking my question,” or “that was a really nice presentation, but I think I missed something on your third slide,” but that’s about the limit.
It’s also standard to start questions with a preface. In science writing, that might be something on the order of, “last week, a team from Germany found [fill in the blank]. How does this relate to your finding?”
Questions like this serve two purposes. (1) They alert the presenter that you know your stuff. (2) They give the presenter a chance to show they also know their stuff.
The Coronavirus Task Force Q&A sessions, however, never follow this script, at least when Trump is fielding the questions. (Pence is actually quite adept at doing so, as are the technical experts.)
The result is a recurring debacle in which neither side ever seems to learn. Trump takes all such questions as insults. The press can’t seem to realize that he will never let them complete a question and that rather than starting with a preface like “so and so says…,” they better jump straight to the point, because otherwise he will interrupt and argue with the preface.
With Trump, complicated questions don’t work because he simply doesn’t have the patience to hear them out…but the reporters never seem able to grasp that simple fact: you have a very limited number of words before you get shut off. Make them count.
It’s also the case that some reporters appear to be looking to provoke him into saying something outrageous…and Tump, of course, always takes the bait.
I do not know the solution to this—all I know is that it’s an impasse.
In a democracy, part of the press’s job is to hold power accountable to truth. But I have no idea how to interview someone who mangles facts as badly as Trump does. He says something, you quote him, and then he calls you “fake news” for doing so. That has really got to rankle. As a reporter, with more than 3,500 articles to my credit, I can tell you that misquoting someone is the thing you least want to do.
But if I were in that press room, I’d also be aware that letting it descend every day into a reality-show brawl is devastating to our nation’s health and safety.
Yes, there is enormous fascination to watching the unfolding of a train wreck. But in this case, we are all passengers on the train in the process of wrecking.
That also means that I am VERY glad I am not a White House correspondent. At the moment, their jobs are impossible.