Wednesday, 21 Oct 2020

As Trump flouts Covid-19 safety protocols, US news outlets balk at close coverage

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) – Major news organisations in the US have become increasingly wary of sending journalists to travel with President Donald Trump to White House events and campaign rallies, as the president and his aides continue to shun safety protocols after an outbreak of the coronavirus within their ranks.

The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post are among the major outlets that have declined to assign reporters to travel with Trump as he returns to the trail this week, saying they do not have assurance that basic precautions will be taken to protect reporters’ health.

Foremost among the flouters is Trump himself, who, despite recently contracting the virus and spending three nights in the hospital, has shown little willingness to change his habits: On Saturday, he said the virus would soon “disappear,” and on the way to a rally in Florida on Monday, he boarded Air Force One – where reporters were seated in the cabin – without wearing a mask.

Safety concerns may also complicate Trump’s tentative NBC town hall Thursday (Oct 15), one of his last remaining chances to make his case before a large national audience.

NBC executives have asked the White House for proof that their employees will not face undue risks at the event, according to two people familiar with discussions.

The White House Correspondents’ Association, which coordinates the pool of reporters who travel with the president to chronicle his movements and utterances, is now scrambling to find journalists willing to staff the president’s events.

It’s an unheard-of phenomenon for a tradition that dates back decades, veteran Washington correspondents say, and it comes with Election Day just three weeks away.

Among the concerns raised by reporters: Many flight attendants and Secret Service agents on Air Force One have not worn masks; White House aides who tested positive for the coronavirus, or were potentially exposed, are returning to work before the end of a two-week quarantine; and the campaign has instituted few restrictions at the raucous rallies that Trump is now pledging to hold on a regular basis until Election Day.

The White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany – who briefed reporters last weekend without wearing a mask, shortly before she tested positive for the virus – said Monday that the Trump campaign would distribute masks but would not require attendees to wear them.

“We will have the same policies that we’ve had in place,” McEnany said on “Fox & Friends,” in an appearance she was forced to make while quarantined for the safety of others.

Journalists say they are being asked to choose between their responsibility to cover major events and ensuring the health of themselves and their families.

News organisations have long insisted that meticulous daily coverage of the nation’s leader is a public service that is important for the historical record.

“Pools are the direct link between the White House and the public without a governmental lens or filter,” said Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary for George W. Bush.

“Regardless of how biased you think the press is or is not, the pool is a direct set of independent eyeballs on the president of the United States.”

It is also typically a coveted assignment. But this week, at least seven major news outlets declined to accept one of the available press seats on Trump’s plane, according to people familiar with internal planning discussions.

Publications including BuzzFeed News, Politico and Hearst Newspapers have declined pool slots in recent days.

“White House reporters had safety concerns and were not comfortable travelling with the president at this time,” Elisabeth Bumiller, the Times’ Washington bureau chief, said in a statement Monday.

The paper’s chief White House correspondent, Peter Baker, recently informed the correspondents’ association of its decision to temporarily forgo pool duties.

The Journal declined to comment. A spokesman for The Post said, “We continue to evaluate our coverage plans.”

A Trump spokesman, Judd Deere, said the White House press office and the correspondents’ association were “in regular discussions to ensure that all those travelling in the protective pool feel safe to do so.”

Some journalists said they had hoped the correspondents’ association would lobby more aggressively on their behalf, urging the group, which negotiates for access and proper working conditions, to do more to protect them.

Zeke Miller, an Associated Press reporter who is president of the association, told members last week that he spoke frequently with White House aides about health and safety concerns.

“While we know no situation is 100 per cent safe in a pandemic, it is our expectation that the pool will not be put in an unduly risky position,” Miller wrote in a memo.

Reporters at the White House, though, were alarmed this weekend to see Trump’s virus adviser, Dr Scott W. Atlas, without a face covering.

And when Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, was approached by journalists Monday on Capitol Hill, he objected when told to keep wearing his face covering.

“I’m not going to talk through a mask,” Meadows said dismissively, before walking away.

Trump is planning a televised town hall this week to replace the cancelled second debate against Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee.

But NBC executives have asked the White House for independent proof of Trump’s condition to ensure it will be safe for him to appear at the Miami event with dozens of NBC crew members and a moderator, likely the Today show host Savannah Guthrie.

While Trump routinely berates NBC’s parent company, Comcast, as biased – calling it “Concast” – there are reasons for the president to appear on the network.

NBC’s affiliates offer access to a broader audience than a network like Fox News, with its partisan fan base.

And because NBC plans to simulcast the town hall on its sibling channels MSNBC and CNBC, Trump would virtually be assured a higher Nielsen rating than Biden’s duelling event on ABC, which is set to air on only one traditional network.

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