As Trump Flouts Safety Protocols, News Outlets Balk at Close Coverage

Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Meadows, Mark R (1959- ) News and News Media Newspapers Presidential Election of 2020 Television United States Politics and Government
Newspapers and networks are wary of exposing their staff members to the president and his aides, saying they do not have assurance that basic precautions will be taken to protect reporters’ health.

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 Mr. 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.

Major news organizations have become increasingly wary of sending journalists to travel with President 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.

At least three White House correspondents have tested positive for the coronavirus in the past two weeks, including a Times reporter who had traveled on Air Force One, Michael D. Shear.

Foremost among the flouters is Mr. 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.

The White House Correspondents’ Association, which coordinates the so-called 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.

Safety concerns may also complicate Mr. Trump’s tentative NBC town hall on Thursday, 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 press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany — who briefed reporters last weekend without wearing a mask, shortly before she tested positive for the virus — said on 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,” Ms. McEnany said on “Fox & Friends,” in an appearance she was forced to make while quarantined for the safety of others.

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 Mr. Trump is now pledging to hold on a regular basis until Election Day.

“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.”

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

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

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

Mr. Trump is planning a televised town hall this week to replace the canceled second debate against Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic presidential nominee. But NBC executives have asked the White House for independent proof of Mr. 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.

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, Mr. Trump would virtually be assured a higher Nielsen rating than Mr. Biden’s dueling event on ABC, which is set to air on only one traditional network.
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