Thank heavens for Twitter. That cannot be said often. Reading Twitter warriors attacking people and ideas was one of those prepandemic triggers for anxiety and depression about the poverty of discourse in society in general.
Right now, mind you, Twitter is a useful safety valve. On Sunday, the hashtag #BoycottTrumpPressConferences was popular. Vast numbers of people take the view that those long, meandering press conferences are confusing and irritating, and that Trump is using them as campaign events rather than to offer information, comfort, assurance and leadership. He goes on for more than an hour, usually, attacking reporters and other politicians. 0He blusters, he rambles and later he boasts about the ratings. Even a house cat can see the pressers amount to 90 minutes of narcissism.
Are they campaign rallies disguised as press conferences? Well, duh. Should CNN and other channels boycott them? Absolutely not. It is the choice of the viewer to mute, ignore, turn off or turn away.
Every elected politician sees televised, crisis-era press conferences as campaign events. It’s an election year in the United States and, of course, Trump is campaigning, in his addled way. His vitriol is a bromide to his base.
In this neck of the woods, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is leading a minority government and using daily press events to polish his image and solidify his standing as leader. He’s just not as overt or craven as Trump. Ontario Premier Doug Ford, for some time renowned as a cantankerous blunderer, is presenting himself to the TV cameras as capable and in control. With a brazenness that would be comical in another time, he condemns price gouging with the vigour of a lefty student. Previously, his single idea about everything was, “Let the market decide.” Now that’s marketing.
It is naive and dewy-eyed to think otherwise. The trick to selling a politician, as every one of them knows, is make sure they look utterly at home at being in charge. In the case of Trudeau, he is literally at home, as the theatre of his press conferences shows him emerging from his house to speak to the news media. These are rare opportunities to win over voters.
Just as every election campaign is about persuasion, every crisis is about that too. Just as there is a message in every campaign photo-op, either forthright or subliminal, there is a message in every emergency-period press conference. Television helps those who are on a quixotic quest, inviting voters to accompany them on the journey. Both Trudeau and Ford are asking the public and voters to join them in getting through this crisis together, to get to a better place.
No surprise, ratings are up for all TV news programs. In Canada CBC’s The National has had a surge in viewers; on some nights the number is double that of a few weeks ago. The leading newscast, CTV National News, has seen jumps of about 25 per cent on certain nights. Often topping all of them, though, is the local CTV evening news in Toronto, which can have as many as 1.75 million viewers. That makes you wonder about CBC’s decision, apparently reversed, to temporarily halt local news broadcasts.
There are not more people watching news on TV just because they are stuck at home. People are looking for leadership and reassurance. Trudeau will say: “It’s okay to feel anxious or stressed. And it’s okay to have tough days. But you need to know that you’re not alone.” He means it, but he also means to have you vote for him and his government when the time comes.
According to some reports, Trump wanted his daily news conference during this crisis to be moved into, or at least closer to, prime time. He bragged on Twitter that ratings for his press conferences rivalled those for The Bachelor finale. Even Brit Hume of Fox News took to Twitter to reply with, “Why bother to tweet about this, of all things?”
Some Americans are revolted by the misinformation that is part of these meandering Trump press conferences. But they remind the millions who are not in his base that Trump is utterly unsuited to deal with this crisis, either intellectually or instinctually.
The calls on the news media to boycott them are a throwback to 2016 and the hand-wringing about coverage “normalizing” Trump. It’s rather late in the day for that. Just as it is rather too late to realize that politicians are always campaigning and that television news enables them. Rant on Twitter all you like. But even as we look for optimism, we need to keep a sliver of mistrust and not social distance ourselves from realism.
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