In coronavirus coverage, a tricky balance between scrutiny and amplification

Remember when the Sunday shows were filled with Democratic presidential candidates, or Republican lawmakers spreading debunked claims about Trump and Ukraine? In recent weeks, as the coronavirus crisis has taken hold and relegated recent huge stories to the realm of distant memory, administration officials—Mike Pence, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, and others—have (often virtually) made the rounds. Yesterday, it was the turn of Peter Gaynor, the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, who appeared on ABC, NBC, and CNN. On the latter network, Jake Tapper tried to pin Gaynor down on the number of protective masks the federal government has acquired and sent out to hospitals. Gaynor wouldn’t even venture an estimate. “You understand though, of course, that the inability of the federal government to give a number in terms of masks alarms people,” Tapper said. “Without a number, it doesn’t fill people with confidence.” Tapper then pressed on other urgent supply issues, to little avail; “Again,” he said, “nobody’s doubting the sincerity of your effort, but the lack of numbers is alarming.” Wrapping up, Tapper wished Gaynor well. “Please let us know if there’s anything we can do to help,” Tapper said. “God bless you, and good luck in this.”

These days, it’s common for interviews with officials to end on a warm note; on NBC yesterday, for instance, Chuck Todd told Gaynor, “We’re all pulling for you.” But that doesn’t mean the preceding interviews haven’t been tough. Increasingly, journalists interacting with public officials must strike a difficult balancing act—between aggressive scrutiny of missteps and misstatements, which is always our job, and the effective communication and amplification of government public-health guidelines, which has rarely, if ever, felt so urgent.

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There’s a lot to scrutinize right now, with the availability and distribution of crucial medical supplies (rightly) at the tip of the iceberg. Trump’s regular press briefings—which, at the very least, can be said to exist—continue to absorb a lot of our attention, and judgment. (Last week’s suggestions that his tone had turned a corner proved, unsurprisingly, to be premature; some observers, including Margaret Sullivan, of the Washington Post, have argued that the briefings are harmful, and that networks should stop carrying them live.) Also, last week, we found out about senatorsincluding, prominently, Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina—dumping stocks prior to the coronavirus market slide. Yesterday, we learned that a first senator, Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, tested positive for the coronavirus—the same day he used the Senate gym and pool. (On Twitter, Paul accused Seung Min Kim, a Post reporter, of making the “false and irresponsible” insinuation that he used the facilities after he received his test result.) Some journalists asked why the Senate gym is still open; others asked how Paul, who says he is asymptomatic, can get tested when many symptomatic Americans can’t. Also yesterday, Senate Democrats blocked the progress of a massive coronavirus stimulus/rescue package, arguing, among other things, that it’s insufficiently pro-worker. This morning, Politico called the situation “a $1.6 trillion game of chicken.” And all this is just in DC. The decisions of governors, mayors, and other officials across America are driving reams of coverage, and scrutiny, too.

At the same time as asking politicians and bureaucrats tough questions, the press must boost certain aspects of their messaging right now—about washing hands, respecting lockdown orders, and so on. The twin imperatives, while unusual, aren’t necessarily contradictory. Nonetheless, there are challenges to navigate here, not least around trust. “We have one shot and we have to have a huge degree of trust that what we’re being told is accurate about the need to sacrifice,” David French, a senior editor at conservative site The Dispatch, told Todd on NBC yesterday. “The government is asking for that trust in a very low-trust time in American history.” The media, needless to say, is not exempt from this dynamic. Calling into question the effectiveness of the administration’s response—while assuring news consumers of the righteousness of much of its medical advice—is a tough needle to thread in a credible way.

Yet thread it we must. The coronavirus is requiring everyone to pull together in a spirit of cooperation, but the state must lead that effort, and the media must keep the state honest. Yesterday, Chris Christie, the former Republican governor of New Jersey, said on ABC News, where he is a contributor, that he’d like reporters to ask fewer questions on equipment-provision failures, and instead look to the future, and what can be done next. Martha Raddatz—who, like Tapper, had just grilled Gaynor, of FEMA, on such failures—pushed back on Christie. “You say it’s water under the bridge, but we’ve got a crisis right now because of that water under the bridge,” she said. “They don’t have enough masks, they don’t have enough ventilators. And we’re getting mixed messages out of the White House all the time.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.