For Trump, cameras leave no room for social distancing

White House briefings offer picture of what not to do

Practice what I preach, not what I do.

That’s the only takeaway message one can glean from what have now become daily televised briefings by President Trump from the White House on the coronavirus crisis.

Yesterday’s briefing brought the most somber assessment yet of the toll the coronavirus will take in the US. Officials now say the best-case scenario for COVID-19 would be 100,000 to 240,000 US deaths. It came only days after Trump backed off his talk of packed church services for Easter Sunday and said stringent social distancing guidelines must be continued at least through April.

But the daily White House briefings have been anything but a model of that new form of distant interaction that the world has quickly become familiar with. The podium has been packed at times with various officials standing almost shoulder to shoulder, and at almost all of them Vice President Mike Pence is a close presence near Trump.

For his part, the president generally hovers nearby when anyone else is at the mic.

For a guy whose first introduction to many Americans was as the host of a reality television show, TV cameras and visual optics have always been a preoccupation. And he seems determined not to let a global pandemic get in the way.

Even the estimable Tony Fauci, the National Institutes of Health leader whose science-based assessments often act as an antidote to Trump’s rambling, sometimes fact-free offerings, finds himself at the lectern with the president standing much closer than guidelines would recommend.

Dr. Anthony Fauci speaking at a White House coronavirus briefing with President Trump standing nearby.

In the span of a couple of weeks, Trump has gone from fretting about the blow the crisis is taking to his standing as the president presiding over a roaring economy and stock market to crowing about the TV ratings his briefings are garnering.

On Sunday, he tweeted:

“Because the ‘Ratings’ of my News Conferences etc. are so high, ‘Bachelor finale, Monday Night Football type numbers’ according to the @nytimes, the Lamestream Media is going CRAZY. ‘Trump is reaching too many people, we must stop him.’ said one lunatic. See you at 5:00 P.M.!”

Today’s Washington Post reports that some outlets, including the Post, the New York Times, and CNBC have stopped having reporters regularly attend the briefings because they say they often don’t generate important news and are therefore not worth subjecting reporters to the risks of being in close quarters with so many people.

“Nowadays, it seems they make little news,” Times executive editor Dean Baquet told the Post. “We, of course, reserve the right to show them live [via Web streaming] if we believe they will actually make news. But that hasn’t happened in quite some time.”

The Post story did acknowledge the irony of press outlets shunning the briefings after complaining for months about the lack of White House press conferences.

But the story, by Post media reporter Paul Farhl, went on to say, “Trump’s near-daily briefings have been widely criticized for the amount of disinformation he has provided about federal efforts to combat the coronavirus outbreak,” with critics saying “he has turned the briefings into quasi-campaign rallies in service of his reelection effort.”

It’s hardly the only way Charlie Baker stands in stark contrast to the president, but the governor’s daily State House briefings have been noteworthy for their lack of campaign-like grandstanding and for the extreme social distancing that Baker and top aides showcase.

Gov. Charlie Baker, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, left, Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders and the media practicing social distancing during a March 31 press conference providing an update on coronavirus at the State House’s Gardner Auditorium. (Pool photo by Matthew J. Lee/Boston Globe)

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito regularly stands far to Baker’s right, and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, who is helming his coronavirus response team, usually is far off to his left. Only Rupert Dubler, the sign language interpreter, is anywhere near Baker, and that presumably is so that he and the governor are both in the camera shot for the briefings, which the governor’s office is livestreaming.

The updates have been moved from the regular press briefing room to cavernous Gardner Auditorium, which allows the handful of reporters on hand and those joining Baker to make announcements to stay at a very far remove from each other.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

At Monday’s briefing, Baker made clear just how seriously he’s taking the social distancing imperative.

“I’ve been closer to this guy than I’ve been to anybody outside my wife for the past couple of weeks,” he said, gesturing to Dubler.