NEW YORK -- After CNN's John King described a video played at President Donald Trump’s coronavirus briefing this week as propaganda, the response was predictable. So why is CNN airing it?
The moment intensified a debate over how much unfiltered airtime the president should get virtually every day during a pandemic.
The coverage is a moving target, with CNN and MSNBC taking a more critical approach lately. Yet despite on-air talent like Rachel Maddow, Don Lemon, Chris Hayes and Joe Scarborough suggesting they'd pull the plug if it were up to them, their bosses have given no indication that they will.
Each day, the decisions are also being played out in newsrooms across the country.
“Journalists have long taken pride in their gatekeeping role, selecting from each day's many developments those that are most deserving of the public's attention and presenting them in a way that helps citizens understand what's at issue,” said Thomas Patterson, professor of government and the press at Harvard University.
“Indiscriminate coverage of the president's press conferences sullies this tradition,” he said. “One is left to wonder why. Is it ratings? Is it fear of Trump's wrath? It certainly is not journalism.”
It's not so simple for the news executives making the call.
When Trump began the briefings, they were undeniably news. Yet the events evolved beyond health updates to give some journalists the sense they're being used. Three markers stand out: the March 30 parade of corporate executives, including a pillow manufacturer praising the president; the April 1 discussion of drug smuggling by law enforcement officials; and Monday's video, a seeming response to newspaper investigations that were critical of Trump's early actions during the crisis.
The White House generally gives no guidance before each day's briefings on what Trump plans to address, although the president offered a day's notice about Thursday's announcement of a back-to-work plan.
A network can choose not to cover Trump live. But what if he strides to the podium and instantly makes news — declares a day the country should reopen, for instance — and your rivals are showing it while you aren't?
“The instinct to go live to important people in the middle of important stories is pretty deeply embedded,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, a former NBC News executive now dean of Hofstra University’s School of Communication.
The risk that misinformation will be spread in the middle of a health emergency now is so great that the networks curb those natural inclinations, he said.
“All of us should stop broadcasting,” MSNBC's Maddow said last month. “It’s going to cost lives.”
Top cable executives wouldn't talk for attribution about their decision-making process since the situation is so fluid.
“We are using our news judgment when it comes to these briefing events to navigate them as best we can to make sure our viewers have the news and they have the news with context,” said one.
It's a day-to-day decision, said another.
Recently, CNN and MSNBC have kept analysts on standby during live briefings, and dip out for fact checks or if they feel the subject has gotten too far afield.
“We are going to avoid airing anymore of this briefing until it returns to what it was supposed to be, which was the coronavirus task force providing medical information,” MSNBC’s Ari Melber said during at a cutaway on Monday.
CNN provides counterpoints with sharply-worded on-air chyrons at the bottom of the screens. One said Wednesday: “Trump Again Falsely Claims He Has Right to Override Governors’ Decisions on Social Restrictions.”
“I don’t think it’s effective at all,” Hofstra’s Lukasiewicz said. “The misstatements are too frequent and too complex to be effectively fact-checked in the moment. It’s a very hard exercise to do.”
Fox News Channel, its audience dominated by Trump supporters, usually carries Trump in full — unless he bleeds into Tucker Carlson's prime-time show.
Tom Jones, analyst at the Poynter journalism think tank, said he believes journalists should not shield Trump from the public.
“While Trump’s press conferences might occasionally be dangerous and divisive, not showing them would be irresponsible,” he said.
His exception would be if briefings conflict with national or local news programs on broadcast network or their affiliates, which lately they've done. ABC, CBS and NBC have stopped airing the briefings, yet stream them online and give local affiliates the option to air them if they wish.
With Thursday's announcement of a plan for reopening the country, network affiliates in New Orleans; Chicago;, Charlotte, North Carolina; Richmond, Virginia; and Louisville, Kentucky all showed at least some of Trump's session.
“A lot to digest,” anchor Debra Morgan of WRAL-TV in Raleigh, North Carolina, after breaking away from Trump after a half hour.
As Trump has boasted, the briefings are successful in the ratings, although that's the case for virtually all news programming lately. During the last two weeks, Fox News has drawn nearly 5 million viewers in the hours between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., when the briefings are usually held. CNN (2.2 million) is up 204% over the same period a year ago and MSNBC (1.9 million) is up 47%.
Cable executives would face political blowback if they abandon the briefings. CNN's Oliver Darcy reported that Vice President Mike Pence's office for several days blocked administration health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci from appearing as guests on the network because the briefings were not aired in full.
Any decision to stop live airing the briefings will almost certainly come from top executives like Warner Media News and Sports Chairman Jeff Zucker or NBC News Chairman Andy Lack.