Practically every time Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus pandemic he lies, exaggerates, offers false hope, and spreads misinformation. His statements are increasingly a menace to public safety. It’s time for cable news networks to stop giving him a platform for his untruths by refusing to provide live coverage of his press conferences.
I don’t take this position lightly. Generally speaking, we in the media should be careful about filtering a presidential message or deciding which of his or her words are worthy of being aired — particularly in times of crisis. In the past, I’ve defended the decisions of cable networks to broadcast Trump’s lie-filled campaign rallies and speeches. Sunshine, in almost all cases, is the best disinfectant.
But these are not ordinary times and this is no ordinary president. After more than three years in office — and more than 16,000 false or misleading statements — Trump’s word simply cannot be trusted. At a moment of true national cataclysm, allowing him to use the bully pulpit in such an irresponsible manner is a risk we can’t afford to take.
Consider what happened on Thursday when the president spoke to White House reporters.
Trump referenced two drugs, chloroquine and remdesivir. He called them potential game-changers, declaring that “we’re going to be able to make that drug available almost immediately,” and saying they had been approved for use in the coronavirus fight “very, very quickly” by the FDA.
In fact, chloroquine, which is approved by the FDA to treat malaria, has not been approved to help those with the coronavirus. Remdesivir, an antiviral therapy once viewed as a potential treatment for Ebola, is still in clinical trials.
Trump’s lies amount to dangerous misinformation and provide false hope about how soon a treatment could be ready.
Far worse, however, was Trump’s response when asked why the United States has not been better prepared for the pandemic. The president resorted to a familiar tactic — attacking the news media. “We were very prepared,” Trump falsely asserted. “The only thing we weren’t prepared for was the media. The media has not treated it fairly.”
The president went on to complain about “corrupt news” put out by what he called the “very dishonest” press.
It’s bad enough that Trump is lying about his administration’s incompetent response to the coronavirus. Now he’s sowing doubt about the credibility of news organizations that are essential to providing clear and honest information to the American people.
His words raise the risk that Americans — particularly those who support the president — will ignore public health information that could potentially save lives.
This is not the first time that Trump has undermined the fight against the coronavirus. For weeks he played down the threat and suggested it would all blow over rather quickly. In lulling Americans into a false sense of security, Trump almost certainly made the pandemic worse. Not surprisingly, polls show his supporters are less inclined to take the threat seriously.
News outlets should thus treat Trump’s public statements like propaganda and misinformation — because that’s what they are. Fact-checking is essential, but it’s not enough. Airing his press conferences live, without immediate correction — which, because of the volume of Trump’s lies, is almost impossible to pull off — risks letting false information trickle out to the public.
The cable networks should instead record the press conferences and only play the statements that can be verified as accurate. If they insist on airing the appearances live, they should do so with a significant delay so false or misleading statements can be corrected in real time. Print journalists should avoid reprinting the president’s misstatements, and if they do, should provide side-by-side fact-checks. As Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism at New York University, put it in a blog post, the media should create a “truth sandwich” when reporting on Trump. “First you state what is true. Then you report the false statement. Then you repeat what is true.”
The media, Rosen says, "is not obligated to assist [Trump] in misinforming the American people about the spread of the virus, and what is actually being done by his government.”
Monitoring the president’s rhetoric, like this, is no small decision. But as Dan Kennedy, journalism professor at Northeastern University, said to me, "We can’t knowingly put out disinformation and misinformation. We have to put the public first.” The simple fact is that the president can’t be trusted to tell the truth. Period. In a crisis as grave as this one, allowing him to spread misinformation is an unacceptably risky move.
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Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.