I previously criticized former Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair Howard Dean for his view of unprotected speech under the first amendment. He is now taking a different tack than government censorship. He has announced that he will boycott MSNBC until it yields to his demand to stop airing President Donald Trump’s daily briefing. He is calling on other commentators to join his boycott. Dean has curiously not pledged to boycott the other networks, which are also carrying the briefings. The reason is simple: it is news. Moreover, the public in a pandemic has been watching the briefings even though some of us object to some of President Trump’s comments, particularly his attacks on political and media figures. Yet, Dean is only the latest liberal figure or group to try to censor the briefings to prevent public access.
Recently, the liberal group “Free Press” petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to curtail direct airing of the briefings or imposed disclaimers to protect the public from false information. The frivolous “emergency” filing was rejected by the FCC. Free Press co-CEO Jessica González seemed entirely oblivious to the assault on free speech and its implications for government censorship: “Today’s decision shows that when the Republican ideologues sitting in the majority at the FCC are asked to provide guidance and protect people against medical misinformation aired on broadcast outlets, they don’t take that request seriously.” It is free speech, not the request, that was taken seriously in this case.
Free Press is not alone. Many Trump critics have called for networks to stop airing the briefings even though many viewers want to watch them for the updates on key data. They insist that Trump is using the briefings for political purposes and spreading false information or evading responsibility. However, polls show that more Americans approve than disapprove of Trump’s handling of the crisis. Indeed, the country remains about where it was with Trump, though his favorable ratings have climbed. We remain effectively split down the middle along party lines (with independents generally more critical than supportive of Trump). In other words, those who did not want to hear from Trump before the outbreak do not want to hear from him now. Conversely, those who support him want to hear him on a daily basis.
The problem is that many in the public are equally leery of the media as a source for news. A recent poll showed the media being given the lowest levels of trust by the public. Indeed, only the media is given more negative than positive marks.
Nevertheless, Dean has threatened that he will not go on until MSNBC cuts off President Trump at the briefings:
“I just told MSNBC I wasn’t going on their shows as long as they were broadcasting trump’s [sic] press conference. I won’t make much difference if it’s just me but if 50 of you did it it would make a difference.”
Last week, CNN anchor Don Lemon seemed to suggest that the need to cut off Trump was that he is succeeding with the public:
“It is all a plot. It is all orchestrated. And if you can’t see it, I don’t know what you’re looking at. It’s obvious, it’s transparent to me. This has become — those press briefings have become his new ‘Apprentice.’ They’ve become his new rallies. And he treats the press and the media as if he’s talking to the people at his rallies. It’s the same thing. It’s no different except the audience isn’t there.”
Dean’s threat comes across as both pedantic and frankly a tad pathetic. Faced with a refusal of the networks not to air clearly newsworthy briefings (or the public to stop watching them), Dean leaves the impression of stomping out in an over-dramatized fit.
The media has done a good job in hitting Trump for false or misleading statements. I have been tweeting daily and have taken exception to both statements from Trump and from the media on different occasions. With the media at an all-time low in trust, the solution is not to force the public to rely more on its editorial judgment on what to sure with viewers. The fact is that there has been biased reporting as well as brilliant reporting. The public wants as much direct data and information as possible. I have watched every briefing and, while I have criticized some of Trump’s comments, they have consistently made news and offered new information.
Finally, if Dean was trying to make a point, he might not be quite so selective. It is like saying that he will protest fast food by refusing to eat only at Burger King. Dean is an able advocate for Democratic values and he should put aside this drama — and stop conditioning his commentary on networks denying access to viewers to these briefings during a pandemic.