The Media Today

Dr. Anthony Fauci’s tightrope act

March 24, 2020

On March 3, Politico’s Sarah Owermohle profiled an unlikely media star for our unlikely times: Dr. Anthony Fauci, the veteran director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauci had demonstrated “an ability to talk frankly yet reassuringly about threats, to explain science, public health, and risk to the public in a way few can match,” Owermohle noted—and yet his visibility, since the coronavirus crisis began, had been subject “to the vagaries of a president who wants to declare the outbreak under control.” When Owermohle interviewed Fauci, rumors were circulating that the White House had moved to curb his public appearances, because his fact-based warnings about the virus were harshing Trump’s vibe. Fauci denied that he had been silenced, but acknowledged the precarity of his position. “You don’t want to go to war with a president,” he said. “But you got to walk the fine balance of making sure you continue to tell the truth.” White House officials reportedly saw the interview as an unwelcome distraction.

In the eons since then, we have heard plenty more from Fauci. He’s become a familiar—and grimly comforting—fixture of our transformed information landscape, a capable voice of expertise at a time when such voices are both desperately needed and few and far between. The weekend before last, he appeared on all five of the major Sunday shows, a move known as “the full Ginsburg” (after Monica Lewinsky’s attorney, apparently). Trump himself has referred to Fauci as a “major television star,” which, coming from Trump, is either the greatest of praise or a thinly-veiled expression of jealousy (or both). “If Dr. Fauci has become the explainer-in-chief of the coronavirus epidemic, it is in part because other government scientists have left a vacuum,” Denise Grady, of the New York Times, reported earlier this month. “When reporters call Dr. Fauci, he calls them back.”

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Still, the “fine balance” between Trump and the truth is also a fixture these days, and Fauci continues to have to walk it. When Trump dropped a reference to the “Deep State Department” during a press briefing on Friday, Fauci appeared to facepalm, and the internet noticed (Fauci later said a lozenge had lodged in his throat and he was trying to hide the fact from the cameras); during the same briefing, Fauci contradicted Trump’s assertions that an anti-malaria drug could work against the coronavirus. In recent days, Fauci gave a pair of interviews which caught the eye for their candor. In one, with Maureen Dowd of the Timeswhose eventual piece was headlined, “Thank God the doctor is in”—he said it was “understandable that people said, ‘What the hell’s the matter with Fauci?’ because I had been walking a fine line.” He added, of Trump, “I say it the way it is, and if he’s gonna get pissed off, he’s gonna get pissed off. Thankfully, he is not. Interestingly.” In the other interview, Jon Cohen, of Science magazine, presented Fauci with a false statement Trump had made about China and the coronavirus’s timeline. “I know, but what do you want me to do? I mean, seriously Jon, let’s get real, what do you want me to do?” Fauci replied. “I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down.”

In other interviews—with Face the Nation on CBS News this past Sunday, for instance—Fauci has played down suggestions of a rift with the president. (“I think there’s this issue of trying to separate the two of us,” he said.) Nonetheless, the Times’s Maggie Haberman wrote yesterday that Trump and his aides are growing tired of Fauci’s public presence. For now, Haberman reported, Trump knows Fauci “is seen as credible with a large section of the public and with journalists, and so he has given the doctor more leeway to contradict him than he has other officials.” Still, in recent days, Fauci has become a less permanent presence at White House briefings, and his absence again yesterday caused many observers—including journalists—to react with alarm. When asked about Fauci’s absence, Trump called him a good man, and said, “He’ll be back up soon.” Trump also used the briefing to suggest that economic activity in the US should restart “very soon—a lot sooner than [the] three or four months that somebody was suggesting.” Reports circulated yesterday that Fauci, along with other government experts, has advised the president against such a gung-ho approach.

Fauci is an experienced hand—he’s 79 years old, and has served in his current role for more than 35 of them. He has walked plenty of public-relations tightropes in the past; he was a visible face of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s while his boss, Ronald Reagan, ignored it, and he claims to have testified before Congress more than anyone else ever. But this pandemic is a new kind of crisis, and Trump—in his media obsession and loathing of shared spotlights—is a new kind of president. For now, the doctor is in. We can only hope that continues.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.