After abandoning the daily press briefing for more than a year, the White House decided to conduct daily COVID-19 task force briefings once the pandemic swept through the United States. President Trump has, however, exploited these briefings for political gain and attacked at least eight journalists from NBC, ABC, FOX, CNN, PBS and CBS since the briefings started airing daily on March 16. The briefings sometimes last for more than two hours, and much of the time is spent with President Trump at the podium lodging insults, contradicting himself and his administration’s messaging on the pandemic, and even sharing unsubstantiated medical information. Several major networks, including CNN and MSNBC, have at times chosen not to air the briefings live or in full due to the legitimate concern of accidentally spreading misinformation.
“At a time when Americans desperately need a steady stream of consistent evidence-based information, President Trump has turned the press briefing room into a political circus full of misinformation and self aggrandizement,” said Dokhi Fassihian, Executive Director of Reporters Without Borders USA. “More abhorrent is the vitriol with which the president is treating the journalists who are risking their health to bring Americans information about their government’s response to this public health emergency. Each of these incidents represents a sinister attempt to scapegoat the press with hateful rhetoric designed to distract, deflect, and dodge critically important questions about the administration’s response to COVID-19.”
As part of Tracker 19, an RSF project to evaluate COVID-19's impact on journalism by documenting state censorship, the targeting of journalists, and disinformation related to the pandemic, RSF USA has compiled a list of major incidents in which President Trump has attacked journalists for their work covering his administration’s response to the pandemic.
The below list seeks to highlight noteworthy incidents from the last month and is not exhaustive:
- On March 17, a White House official called COVID-19 the "Kung-Flu" to CBS News reporter Weijia Jiang's face.
- On March 20, after being asked about a message he had for Americans worried about the coronavirus, President Trump attacked NBC News reporter Peter Alexander in a rant in which he said, "I say that you are a terrible reporter. That's what I say."
- On March 25, CBS News reporter Paula Reid asked the president whether his goal to reopen the country by Easter was rooted in personal political interests, and he shot back at her, saying: “I think there are certain people that would like it to do financially poorly because they think that would be very good as far as defeating me at the polls. And I don't know if that is so, but I do think it’s so that there are people in your profession that would like that to happen, I think it's very clear.”
- On March 27, President Trump tweeted about New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman: “She is a third rate reporter who has nothing going. A Fake News ‘journalist’.” This was in response to a tweet by Haberman quoting the president saying “I want them to be appreciative, referring to governors criticizing the administration’s response to COVID-19.
- On March 29, PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor asked President Trump to clarify comments he made about how requests for supplies from governors were overblown and unnecessary, and he responded by accusing Alcindor of being “threatening” and telling her to “be nice.” In addition, CNN reporter Jeremy Diamond asked the president whether he had instructed Vice President Mike Pence not to call governors he felt were unappreciative of federal assistance during the coronavirus crisis, despite video evidence to the contrary. President Trump attacked Diamond, calling him “fake news” and telling him he was “lying.” That same night, President Trump bashed the media on Twitter, saying “The Lamestream Media is the dominant force in trying to get me to keep our country closed as long as possible in the hope that it will be detrimental to my election success.”
- On March 30, President Trump attacked CNN reporter Jim Acosta after he asked him a question about coronavirus testing per capita in the United States, calling his question “snarky.”
- On April 1, PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor attempted to clarify President Trump’s comments on governors requesting medical equipment they don’t actually need. President Trump interrupted her twice, saying “that's a nasty, snarky question.”
- On April 3, CBS News reporter Weijia Jiang asked President Trump about a comment Jared Kushner made regarding a federal stockpile of medical equipment. President Trump attacked her, saying “Why are you asking me? What’s that a gotcha? A gotcha? You use the word ‘our.’ Our — you know what ‘our’ means? The United States of America.” President Trump added that she asked her question in a “very nasty tone.”
- On April 6, President Trump attacked two reporters during the nightly briefing. When Fox News reporter Kristin Fisher asked about the lag in hospitals receiving COVID-19 test results, a visibly frustrated President Trump told her, “You should say, ‘Congratulations, great job’ instead of being so horrid in the way you ask a question.” He also called ABC reporter and White House Correspondents’ Association President Jon Karl a “third-rate reporter” who will “never make it.”
The United States is ranked 48th and 177th respectively out of 180 countries in RSF's 2019 World Press Freedom Index.