Press coverage of the administration’s inaction in this crisis speaks volumes about their interpretation of intent and miscalculation of harm. It’s not semantics. It’s life and death.
Lu Hanessian, MSc
As this national disaster unfolds, the media continues to explain the threat and the stakes to a country in need of hard truths.
Ninety seven percent of the country got the message to stay home, and heeded it. Self-isolation and national lockdown, formerly Twilight Zone notions, became our new surreal safety zone.
But, we’re at a dangerous moment in the trajectory of the virus — and our country.
Just as Americans enter a second month of quarantine, more than 30 states plan their ‘re-opening’ — against the advice of medical and public health experts. And, according to an NPR/Mariast poll, against 65% of people who oppose returning to work without testing.
The way the press reports in a crisis is critical to public health. Now more than ever, the way the press reports about the president in this crisis has become a high-stakes matter of life and death.
It’s not editorializing when lives are at stake.
It took years for reporters and anchors to unequivocally call out the president’s lies. He counted on the media to tell his story — the way he wanted them to tell it.
The press has responded to his distractions by covering them as news. A 24/7 news and distraction cycle.
And he knows that the general media will cover the story as he frames it, a false choice between two non-existent options.
He did it with travel bans.
He did it with caravans.
He did it with Charlottesville.
He is doing it now with the worst health crisis to hit this country in a century.
Stay home and risk livelihoods? Or go back to work and risk lives? That’s a false dichotomy that diverts attention away from the lack of national testing and what’s behind it.
When it comes to urgent stories, the press is quick to respond, and hit the gas pedal. But, the media, in general, has been riding the brakes with the president.
Consider that time the president of the United States stood before the nation, and “suggested” the possibility that bleach and light might just be effective treatments inside the body. Lysol immediately tried to set the record straight.
His in-house experts heard him. They should have stood up right then and there to clarify. To prevent harm. To avert hundreds of 911 calls to state officials. Across multiple outlets, reporters told us that the president “suggested”, “promoted”, and “mused” about disinfectant:
The New York Times tweeted: “Trump theorized — dangerously, in the view of some experts”….
But, the danger lingers. Not just because of the latest statement, but because of a pattern of covering this president. Once the media hears it, they have a responsibility to reframe it.
It’s not intuition. It’s impulse.
What if his shock statements are not ‘off-the-cuff’, ‘intuitive’ or ‘instinctual’, as has been posited by many reporters and political analysts? What if they’re all impulse? Emotional, ego-driven, defensive, politically self-serving impulse.
Like the way he responded to NBC news correspondent Peter Alexander during a late March press briefing.
Alexander asks, “What do you say to Americans who are scared right now?”
The president’s response: “I say you’re a terrible reporter.”
Alexander stares for a second, and gently nods his head, as the president continues to berate him.
What Alexander did not say in a follow-up: “Americans may say that’s a terrible thing for a president to say under these circumstances.”
On that day, five weeks ago, only 200 Americans had lost their lives to the virus. Just 14,000 were sick.
It’s not confusion. It’s control.
Creating doubt is the goal. It’s how he controls the narrative.
Doubt is his shrewd political tool. Casting doubt on a lethal virus in January. Casting doubt on death tolls. On the need for testing. On voter fraud. On who is to blame for lethal (this administration’s) inaction.
When the media repeats false and diversionary statements, it fogs the lens for those who may not be paying close attention. It creates unreasonable doubt.
CBS anchor Leslie Stahl said the president once told her why he calls the press ‘fake news’ and the ‘enemy of the people’: to discredit journalists and their reporting so nobody will believe them.
ABC chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl says it’s “ a deeply troubling, deeply dangerous place to be where there isn’t a shared agreement and sense of some basic facts, especially now where reliable information, and believing you have reliable information, can literally be a matter of life and death.”
A matter of life and death.
These are the stakes now. They require new rules of reporting.
It’s not just about inaction. It’s about intention.
Life and death stakes in mind, does repeating his lies in headlines and reporting perpetuate and reinforce them?
Do reporters avoid more probative questions about inaction because they don’t want to suggest that the president might willingly — or willfully — be allowing, even causing, the suffering and deaths of countless Americans?
In their explosive New York Times story, reporters write “The question loomed over the president and his aides after weeks of stalling and inaction: What were they going to do?”
Well, we know what they did. And what they didn’t do.
We are living it. Thousands are dying because of it. Tens of thousands more will die as a result of their inaction.
It’s not incompetence. It’s cruelty.
At this point, the theme of incompetence should be considered a false and dangerous narrative. As long as they wonder if the president lacks “competence”, the media can tell the story of this crisis through a relatively forgiving lens.
He’s not a villain — he’s just vain.
He’s not hiding the real number of deaths — he’s just a number-fudger.
Remember the inauguration crowds? Ratings? Tax returns?
See how that works?
If the press changed this frame — incompetence — and focused on the deadly outcome of inaction, another layer of the story would reveal itself.
In other words, all the provable lies, re-written histories, empty promises of tests, and “theories” of toxic treatments floated in the daily exercise with press, the bottom line is: people are needlessly dying and will continue to die.
They know. Is that why FEMA ordered 100,000 more body bags as the president minimized the 60,000 death toll?
In reporting on this national catastrophe through the lens of the president’s “refusal” to listen to intelligence agents whose warnings he “ignored”, his “lack of interest” in reading classified briefings, how he “played down” the threat, the media continues to paint a distorted presidential portrait.
A portrait of a commander-in-chief who just thinks he’s smarter than the experts. Whose ‘style’ is to counterpunch. Who merely lacks curiosity and resists learning. Who doesn’t read. Who is impatient. Who prefers to watch TV and tweet. After all, you know, he was a reality TV show host, so...
We are far beyond such generosities.
65,000 deaths ago, the government made a choice.
Timelines don’t lie. Not only did the president and his staff know the virus was coming, that Americans would die in unconscionable numbers, but we now know he was warned so frequently and alarmingly that there was only one organized rational, responsible, and preventative response*.
*Deploy the DPA to produce protective medical gear and equipment for all health care workers. Mandate a federal quarantine. Quickly pass legislation to financially support Americans who would be forced out of work for at period of time. Do this early, in January, to prevent the virus from spreading and avoid needless casualties. Tell the truth to the American people and keep them apprised. Full stop.
The president did none of this. In fact, he prevented it.
Why? Why deploy the Defense Production Act to force meat plants to open and workers back to work in a pandemic, but not to produce all the necessary equipment to protect health care workers, and not to produce millions of testing kits to determine who has and had the virus?
Why meat and not masks?
Why meat and not tests?
The media is unwittingly normalizing this nightmare by approaching this president like none of this should have been done early to prevent the deaths of countless people.
Early as in 2018, when the president fired the entired U.S. pandemic response team. Early as in last fall when classified intel warning lights were blinking red. Early as in January when the very first coronavirus cases were confirmed in the country.
If the goal of deliberate misinformation is to destroy trust and divide people, then the goal of cruelty is to stoke fear and erode empathy so people tolerate it.
We must not tolerate any of it. Not anymore.
The horrific fallout for America, during a raging pandemic that has broken its heart and all but crushed its spirit, is that the truth we desperately need is not the version we are getting.
The press must embolden itself in holding the president accountable in real time, without fear of retribution, without apology, and with the health and survival of the country as the goal of its pursuit.