The long U.S. tradition of providing equal time to the opposition party after a president’s yearly State of the Union (SOTU) address must now apply to Trump’s daily COVID-19 “briefings.”
These chaotic, embarrassing, deeply disturbing displays of presidential dishonesty and incompetence define Trump’s “state of the pandemic” addresses.
They demand a regular immediate rebuttal.
Some networks have considered suspending their coverage entirely. Others have simply switched away in the midst of Trump’s broadcasts.
But that’s a major dereliction of duty. The American people and the world must witness the Trump catastrophe in its fullest reality.
What’s really missing is equal time being provided for rebuttal, perhaps by opposition Democrats or progressive political leaders and actual experts who are not aligned with the Democratic Party.
There’s deep precedent for this. The 1966 State of the Union address by President Lyndon Johnson was immediately followed with a programmed rebuttal from Republican leaders Sen. Everett Dirksen and Rep. Gerald Ford.
Various forms of response followed each SOTU address until 1987. The protocol then settled into a nationally televised talk from one or two members of the opposition party, which was aired immediately after the president’s speech.
The concept of such “equal time” dates back to the Fairness Doctrine officially adopted by Congress in 1949. With the spread of radio came worries that wealthy owners would use their licensed stations to impose their political point of view. So, they were required to provide equal time to someone with a balancing opinion.
The Doctrine was extended to television in 1959. But it was trashed in the Reagan ‘80s. The 1996 Clinton-Gore Telecommunications Act ended ownership restrictions, feeding the formation of Fox and other mega-networks that blare out their unanswered bias non-stop.
Trump’s briefings are clearly not official State of the Union addresses. And a lawsuit demanding equal time based on federal license requirements would likely fail.
But Trump has in essence turned these briefings into campaign events. He continually pronounces his catastrophic failure to cope with the pandemic as “perfect,” portraying himself as blameless in relation to the mass death and financial devastation that are underway. He has a number of times touted “cures” for COVID-19 that are unproven or harmful. He continually attempts to shift blame for his shortcomings to people in China, immigrants, Democrats, governors and previous staffers he has fired.
Experts and journalists have repeatedly documented how Trump’s self-aggrandizing rants are filled with inaccuracies. But there is no regular, programmed response on which the public can rely.
Refusing to air Trump’s updates in the midst of a global crisis is not a responsible option. But especially without a regular, effective response, many Americans are simply left to accept Trump’s version of things without an effective fact-check or rebuttal. The virtual silence of Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presumptive nominee, has left a painful vacuum where a balancing opinion has been desperately needed.
The public must now demand that any news organization carrying a Trump briefing must follow it with independent counter-balancing comment. The “equal time” slot should be filled with experts and commentators, doctors, epidemiologists, climatologists and others with the professional ability to evaluate how the administration has performed, and what Trump has just said about it.
Though they may now be dropping, public ratings for Trump’s performance through this pandemic have been surprisingly stable. Part of the reason for this is surely the lack of regular critiques coming from the opposition party or its apparent presidential candidate; without contextualization or pushback against Trump’s daily briefings, many members of the public apparently see little reason to doubt Trump’s word.
No commander-in-chief should be spared from scrutiny in the midst of such a crisis. Trump needs to be seen regularly by the American people, up front and personal, so we can all remain fully aware of who and what we’re dealing with. But the public should rest assured that he’ll be followed by reliable experts who know what they’re talking about and can provide a realistic counter-balance to what has just been said.
In keeping with our nation’s long-standing tradition of providing a balanced response to a partisan point of view, the networks that provide this free airtime to Trump’s campaign events (currently posing as crisis briefings) have a vital obligation to give equal time to those who can correct and counter-balance what he says — immediately after he says it.