For weeks now, the nation's broadcasters have faced a moral dilemma every time President Donald Trump mounts the White House podium to deliver his "coronavirus briefing." While ordinary journalistic standards compel coverage of any president's remarks — especially during a national crisis — this president's relentless utterance of falsehoods, propaganda points and potentially deadly disinformation mocks those same standards.
Should media outlets meekly give Trump hours of free airtime to mislead and misinform their audiences? Can they cut short or even ignore his destructive rants without violating their own principles? When the president's speech poses a daily menace to human health and American democracy, how should responsible TV networks present him?
At CNN, the news producers try to resolve these difficult questions with assiduous fact-checking and commentary from reporters in the immediate wake of Trump's diatribes. It is a noble gesture toward accuracy and decency.
But White House officials recently threatened to withhold interviews with Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the administration's top pandemic experts, unless the network stops interrupting the lengthy briefing coverage to correct Trump's lies. By blackmailing network producers with punishment, officials clearly aim to delay the fact-check until the briefing's conclusion — when most viewers have stopped watching.
Although the White House abandoned that scheme after CNN's Oliver Darcy exposed it, the ploy went well beyond the usual Trumpian bullying of the press. It was an obvious attempt to foist Trump 2020 campaign swill in the guise of vital information about the pandemic. Indeed, Trump's constant repetition of whoppers about his administration's handling of the pandemic, his promotion of untested medicines, his attacks of Democratic elected officials, his obnoxious treatment of conscientious reporters and his nauseous displays of narcissism have led some observers to urge the networks to stop televising the briefings.
The latest polling data suggest that Trump is doing himself more harm than good with these ludicrous and depressing performances. Anyway, for news organizations to ignore a daily presidential press briefing would represent an extraordinary, unwelcome departure from traditional values.
Yet there is a possible solution that would do far more to correct the record.
What if CNN, or any other honest broadcast outlet covering Trump's daily appearance, were to run a fact-checking chyron under his squawking image in real time? Instead of waiting for the conclusion of his daily outpouring of mendacious bile, an electronic subtitle of truth could rectify his fabrications and delusions almost as soon as they emerge from his mouth.
Admittedly, an instant-correction chyron would be a radical answer, especially in the eyes of media executives who all too often have rolled over for Trump during the past four years. But we are in the midst of an existential threat like we have never seen before, in a critical election year when those same executives know all too well what damage this president is doing to the nation. Insisting on facts and candor — in real time — would deliver a salutary shock to a numbed system.
Every major network has the capacity to provide live correction of Trump's lies. It should be fairly easy, in fact, because he repeats the same nonsense over and over again, from his claims about miracle drugs to his insistence that he predicted the pandemic. More than the capacity, however, they have an obligation to ensure that the truth reaches their endangered audiences alongside the perverted presidential messaging. At CNN, the producers and correspondents are seeking to fulfill that mission. This is merely a more effective way to do it.
Actually, news executives already know how to do this — because they've already done it many times. Banners correcting Trump misstatements have appeared beneath his image from time to time, dating back to the 2016 campaign. But the networks aren't using that technology now to consistently correct his lies during the coronavirus briefings.
The inventors of the original scrolling pixel banner named it after the powerful Chiron, a figure in Greek mythology revered as the wisest and most just of the centaurs. America needs news organizations that will highlight words of wisdom and justice as the antidote to deceit, wickedness and "fake news."
To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.