Press conferences are a staple part of the political cycle. In allowing politicians to make their
arguments, they also provide a space for journalist scrutiny to take place. A speech is given,
questions follow and hopefully, the audience turns off the press conference feeling better informed.
Usually, everyone’s a winner. Politicians want to deliver their message to voters, journalists want to hold them accountable and voters want to feel knowledgeable about their political system.
Over time, however, their role has completely altered. Daily press conferences that one would
expect throughout an election campaign have become a rarity. Neither Jeremy Corbyn or Boris
Johnson in 2019 opened themselves up to mass journalistic scrutiny. Press conferences were also
made for a more homogenous media: the clue is in the name – press conference. A greater plurality of journalistic voices are now available to hold politicians accountable and seek out information.
Their significance in America has been transformed. This was partially due to the initial uncertainty as to who had won the Presidential election. Neither Donald Trump or Joe Biden were declaring defeat, such was the large volume of mail-in ballots, early voting and high turnout. 2020 therefore marked the first Presidential election in two decades where the winner wasn’t immediately obvious the morning after voting.
In this vacuum, conspiracy theories are as rife as ever. Indeed, they came directly from the
Commander-in-Chief, the man who, until January 20th next year, remains President of the United
States. Donald Trump has refused to accept defeat and concede and has stated continued allegations of voter fraud, which have no basis in reality. In a briefing given by White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, those accusations were repeated.
McEnany stated that that the Republicans want “every legal vote to be counted, and every illegal
vote to be discarded”. This accusation of illegality in voting caused Fox News, a conservative
network, to cut away from the briefing. The host Neil Cavuto justified this by stating McEnany was
“charging the other side as welcoming fraud and welcoming illegal voting. Unless she has more
details to back that up, I can’t in good countenance continue to show you this”.
For a news organisation to divert away from a press conference is far from unprecedented. When
Trump stated the Democrats were committing “fraud” and wanted to “steal” the election, many
networks fact-checked his statements rather than letting the audience hear them live. MSNBC, ABC,CBS, CNBC and NBC all cut away from his speech, which mirrored their actions in March when Trump contradicted his health officials on coronavirus.
While the role of Big Tech and the online world in politics has received much attention, the actions of television networks in regulating the speeches of politicians haven’t been provided with the same scrutiny. It’s been made clear that Twitter has repeatedly flagged Trump’s tweeting as
‘potentially misleading’, while Facebook and TikTok have blocked hashtags about the election being stolen.
What networks do, and don’t, show audiences is impactful and important. I can’t help but wonder whether it is the role of television networks to cut away from speeches because of misleading information. Although it’s a cynical cliche to say that all politicians lie, everyone in public office conveys facts in a certain manner that backs up the assertions they are trying to argue. Should their speeches not receive attention then? I don’t believe so. It is the role of news outlets to cover the information making news. Clearly politics, and an election, would form a key part of that.
However, news networks should never be propaganda channels for one party or set of world views. This is where the scrutiny comes in. After a briefing, the politician or spokesperson usually opens the floor to questions from journalists. Paid to ensure they follow the news, they are able to ask the questions and pick holes in arguments. Again, the viewer is left more informed.
Sometimes, a statement will be read with no time or space given to questions. It is for the news
anchor and political correspondents afterwards to analyse the speech, give an overview of the
remarks and point out any factual inaccuracies there.
In my mind, this is a better form of journalistic accountability than preventing viewers from watching the speech. Donald Trump is still the President of the United States. It is important individuals across the States and the world are aware of his actions and motivations, for this transparency allows for judgment and scrutiny.
Indeed, this is why many news organisations have Reality Check segments. They are directly built
on questioning claims from politicians and organisations to see whether they stand up to accuracy.
Surely this is the best of both worlds. A citizen has the ability to hear the speech in full with some
journalistic accountability afterwards. They are thus able to appreciate any remarks within a new
context where the inaccuracies are located.
Cutting away from political speeches because of an inaccuracy does set a dangerous precedent.
Will news organisations ever cover a politician’s speech again? To decide in the middle of a
speech not to cover it and move the viewer’s attention away makes politics more inaccessible for many viewers. Claims of all politicians lying and one grand conspiracy will only be
fuelled, even if that is not the intention of such organisations.
What is the answer?
Despite being 24/7, networks cannot cover every piece of news. They have to be selective, seeing what is gathering headlines and driving discussion. When it comes to politics, however, time must be allocated to hear the actions, visions and plans of those who seek to govern us. This is regardless of any fallacies, inaccuracies or blatant lies within their remarks.
A failure to cover political speeches is a failure for openness and transparency. A failure to scrutinise such speeches, however, is a failure of journalism itself.