On Tuesday, Nancy Messonnier—director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—called a media briefing. She warned Americans that the spread of the coronavirus known as covid-19 is a matter not of if, but of when. According to Politico, the White House was “livid” with Messonnier and scrambled to establish a reassuring counter narrative. Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, went on CNBC to say the United States had contained the virus; on Twitter, President Trump insisted that all is well, and accused CNN and “MSDNC” (MSNBC) of conspiring to “make the Caronavirus look as bad as possible.” On Wednesday, for the second time in his presidency, Trump held a press conference in the White House briefing room. (The other occasion? A stunt that distracted attention from the Democrats officially taking control of the House.) His aides told the Associated Press that Trump was trying to show that he grasps the “gravity” of the coronavirus. But some of his remarks, including a comparison between the coronavirus and routine winter flu, were misleading and contradictory. Yesterday, at an event to mark Black History Month, Trump again attacked media coverage of the virus, lowballed the number of cases on US soil, and called the rate of infections “almost a miracle.”
At his press conference on Wednesday, Trump designated Vice President Mike Pence as his coronavirus point person. Coverage was quick to question Pence’s public-health credentials; when he was governor of Indiana, he initially refused to distribute needles that could have curbed a severe HIV outbreak. “Mike is going to be in charge, and Mike will report back to me,” Trump said. Then, yesterday, Pence announced that Deborah L. Birx, a scientist and physician who heads government efforts to fight HIV/AIDS, would coordinate the coronavirus response. She would join Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of health and human services, who was charged with leading a coronavirus task force. Reporters became confused about who, exactly, is overseeing what. If Pence’s oversight is in doubt, it does seem that he’ll be controlling the flow of coronavirus information: yesterday, the New York Times reported that federal health officials and experts now have to clear all public statements and appearances with his office.
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If history is any guide, the same discipline will not be expected of Trump’s tweets. As many journalists have noted this week, neither the coronavirus nor Trump’s aversion to the truth is healthy, and the combination of the two could have disastrous consequences. “Since the dawn of the Trump presidency, countless experts have warned that the president’s lack of credibility would imperil the country in the event of an emergency,” CNN’s Brian Stelter wrote on Wednesday. “With the worsening coronavirus outbreak, those fears may be coming true.”
It’s important to note that Trump’s lack of credibility has already imperiled the country during several ongoing and immediate emergencies. The president and his administration have, for instance, consistently worked to undermine government climate scientists. Last year, after Trump erroneously tweeted that an incoming hurricane might hit Alabama, he doctored a government weather map with a Sharpie to “prove” his point; officials who contradicted him risked losing their jobs. Early this year, Trump sparked a dangerous confrontation with Iran based on intelligence about an “imminent attack” that neither lawmakers nor the public were ever shown. In such cases, Trump’s poor record with the truth had—and continues to have—bad real-world consequences. That none has yet blossomed into a full-blown, national-level catastrophe is in spite of Trump’s poisoning of the information well.
This week, the president’s allies in Congress and the news media have accused the press of politicizing the coronavirus story by making it about Trump. It’s true that at times of medical crisis, especially ones marked by a high level of uncertainty, there can be a fine line between appropriate scrutiny and political criticism. But this administration has proved time and again—including this week—that it does not deserve the benefit of the doubt. Questioning the information that it disseminates about the coronavirus isn’t nearly as dangerous as not doing so.
Speaking on CNN yesterday, Maggie Haberman, of the Times, summed up the problem. “Every administration has some official who has said something that isn’t true,” she said, “but the sheer volume of things that are not true that have been said by the president and by some of his aides does not inspire credibility.” Many of the crises Trump has faced have been, in no small part, of his own making. “This one is not, and how you handle that is a moment where you want people to believe that they can trust what you’re saying,” Haberman said. “They have brought this on themselves that people question it.”
Below, more on the coronavirus:
- Another whistleblower: A whistleblower within the federal government has reportedly filed a complaint against the Department of Health and Human Services, alleging that officials who visited sites in California where repatriated Americans were being quarantined did not take adequate safety precautions, and subsequently took commercial flights. We all know how Trump reacts to whistleblowers.
- Taking stock: Trump has sought to downplay coronavirus fears in large part because he worries that a declining stock market could cost him reelection. (His reassurances haven’t worked: the Dow is having its worst week since the financial crisis, in 2008.) As Neil Irwin writes for the Times, Trump is “experiencing the downside of having spent the last three years personalizing much of what happens in the markets and the economy.”
- Booster shots: Trump’s supporters in the right-wing mediasphere have accused mainstream outlets of hyping the coronavirus to hurt Trump. Rush Limbaugh and others have characterized virus fears as a deep-state plot against the president. (Among their “evidence”? The fact that Messonnier is the sister of Rod Rosenstein, who, as deputy attorney general, oversaw much of the Mueller probe.) Fox News hosts including Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham have also attacked media coverage of the virus.
- Normalizing incoherence?: Dan Froomkin, of Press Watch, writes that Trump’s press conference on Wednesday consisted of “rambling, often incoherent, self-centered, stream-of-consciousness ad-libbing.” Yet subsequent coverage in major news organizations, including the Times and the Post, made it sound coherent—which, Froomkin argues, is a problem.
- Undercovers: Amid growing concerns about the coronavirus, Trump spent 45 minutes yesterday meeting actors from FBI Lovebirds: Undercovers, a low-budget right-wing play about the deep state. The Daily Beast’s Will Sommer and Asawin Suebsaeng have more.
Other notable stories:
- Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, argues that recent coverage of Bernie Sanders proves the political press has learned nothing from 2016. “Once again, the echo chamber of the political reporting class is forcing it to miss a story as it materializes around them,” Pope writes. “So embedded are they in the status quo, and so determined to defend it, that they are treating the rise of Sanders as a personal affront.” In other election news, the Arizona Republic said this week that it won’t endorse any candidate this year, because readers “tell us our endorsements alienate them and blur the way they read our news stories,” and “don’t see the sharp line we draw between our news and opinion content.” The Dallas Morning News recently reached a similar decision.
- Yesterday, the Chicago Tribune ousted its editor-in-chief, Bruce Dold, and managing editor, Peter Kendall, both of whom were 30-year veterans of the paper; Colin McMahon, a senior executive at Tribune Publishing, the paper’s owner, will replace Dold. The company has seen upheaval since Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund, became its largest shareholder. A spokesperson says Alden didn’t make the decision to oust Dold and Kendall—but staffers told CNN that they fear McMahon will help Alden make cuts.
- Across America, small local newspapers continue to close. In Oklahoma, the Morris News, which started publishing in 1910, was shuttered by its owner, Barry Thompson. He still hopes to find a buyer. In North Dakota, the Walhalla Mountaineer, which was founded in 1896, is also going out of business. Its owner tried to find a buyer, and failed.
- For CJR’s “Year of Fear” series—dispatches from towns where local news has retrenched—Jason Togyer reports from McKeesport, Pennsylvania, which lost its paper, the Daily News, in 2015. Togyer runs a community website and has tried to fill the gap. “We were offering a fraction of the Daily News’ content,” he writes, “but it was better than nothing.”
- On Wednesday, a federal appeals court ruled that privately-owned platforms such as Facebook and YouTube aren’t bound by the First Amendment, and thus have the right to censor content. The ruling defeated a lawsuit filed by PragerU, a conservative group that accused YouTube of discriminating against its videos. The Wall Street Journal has more.
- For CJR’s series on freelancing, Sarah Kim reflects on the risks and rewards of freelancing with a disability. “As a freelancer, I can better control how much of my disability is shown, or whether it is shown at all,” Kim writes, but “that freedom also comes with grave liabilities.” And Laura Neumann reports that ethical dilemmas around stories are often harder for freelancers to resolve than for staff reporters.
- This week, police in Canada arrested Melissa Cox, a filmmaker who was documenting an Indigenous community’s efforts to stop a pipeline from being built on its land. According to Reporters Without Borders, the arrest was part of a broader crackdown on journalists covering the protests. Cox could face charges.
- And Lindsay Crouse, an editor in the Times’s opinion section, found out that her ex is now dating Lady Gaga, and obsessively followed coverage of the relationship. “I knew everything about his new relationship status, within hours of when it was disclosed,” Crouse writes. “This is the natural, if absurd, arc of my generation’s entire adult life.”