April 13, 2020
For the health and safety of the American public, it’s probably best to avoid the daily White House press conference. I know there’s a lot of buzz about the proceedings, with all sorts of reporting about what is said, who said it and how the reporters are going after the speakers. It certainly makes for interesting theater. But it’s woefully short on substance and filled with misrepresentations.
No surprise there. That’s exactly what it’s designed to do. The daily ritual, sometimes stretching out to two hours, is intended as a media spectacle that has nothing to do with providing information and more to do with dominating the airwaves and establishing the terms of discussion for ”the commentariat” on the cable political news shows that follow.
The point of this spectacle is to have everything revolve around the ego, agenda and spontaneously combustible personality of one man and one man only. Everything else that happens up there is a side show. That includes what precious little accurate information is actually provided by medical professionals like Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has been director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease since 1984 and actually knows what he’s talking about.
With public gatherings ruled out the President can’t hold his regular revival show rallies. He’s been stripped of his standard opportunities to grandstand and congratulate himself for hours on end in front of a self-selected crowd of fawning admirers. Instead he’s had to assemble his own road show, this time under the banner of the White House press room. The fact that he holds these in late afternoon is timed perfectly to coincide with – and overshadow, the profitable local news programs of TV stations. In this way, regional affairs get subordinated, and the citizenry gets swamped instead by a nationalist discourse that is all about what the federal government is and is not doing.
It doesn’t help coverage that the attending media are overwhelmingly from the political side of editorial. That means they are accustomed to what’s called “horse-race coverage” of public affairs: who wins, who loses, who’s gaining leverage and whether the speaker sounds “presidential.” They are not medically trained. They are not science reporters. They are competing with each other to get an edge and they are not able to confront people directly because that would challenge the most prized coin of their realm – access to those in power.
Savvy politicians know how to work such a crowd. They trade on familiarity. Note how many reporters are on a first name basis. It’s also clear that the president knows something about their careers. Substantive questions are quickly parried with a personal thrust or barb that’s designed to disarm the questioner. To be fair, even the most well-intentioned reporter in such a situation has an impossible job. The lies and narcissistic claims come flying in faster than they can be swatted away. There is little opportunity to recall previous video or movements when contradictory things were claimed. Even the occasional dispelling of lies and misstatement made by way of interjections from a studio that monitors the proceedings is not enough to overcome the circus-like aura that pervades this show.
The most effective thing the reporters could do is simply walk out en masse when any of them is attacked verbally. Or better yet, the cable networks covering this spectacle ought to turn off the cameras and refuse to air it.
There are healthier, more informative media environments for learning the latest news of the pandemic. The country’s major newspapers have done a very fine job. So, too, most urban papers. And there are plenty of fine sources online. My own preference is to take a larger look at things than following on an hourly or daily basis. We all know the trajectory of this pandemic. It’s going to be a long one. In Albert Camus’ “The Plague,” the Algerian port city of Oran endures for a full year. Let’s hope our affliction is shorter.
Based upon the more informative daily briefings by the likes of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, California Gov. Gavin Newsome, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, there’s good reason to believe that reasonable measures can dampen the worst of what we are dealing with – provided there is enough supply from the federal government for hospitals and medical staff.
That’s the real news we are all awaiting. Especially when it’s accompanied by an empathetic tone that conveys an understanding about what it actually means that people are suffering.
The media spectacle of these daily briefings recalls earlier efforts at taking grandiose stands that ultimately failed spectacularly. I recall my days studying European history, when I took a tour of the old fascist landmarks of Nazi Germany. Chief among them was the Nuremburg Platz, a vast stadium and open field where Hitler held his rallies and spoke for hours over a blaring microphone and his filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, filmed the famous propaganda movie, “Triumph of the Will.”
When I visited that Nuremburg stadium in 1985 it was reduced to virtual rubble and serving as a dumping ground for impounded automobiles. Such are the ruins of authoritarian fantasy.
Today the president has his own Leni Riefenstahl. It’s called FOX news. But eventually, this too shall pass. I’d advise starting now by turning it off.