The messaging mess among Trump’s top health officials

Death milestones always feel arbitrary and inadequate; when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, they’re also hard to measure. So it is with the latest grim statistic: the US has—or is about to, depending on your source—hit 200,000 confirmed deaths from COVID-19. Time magazine unveiled a black-bordered cover marking the 200,000 figure nearly two weeks ago; as of this morning, the Johns Hopkins dashboard, a trusted source for many news outlets, still listed 199,865 deaths; in any case, we’ve known for a while that the true, if unconfirmed, total count is likely way higher that official estimates allow. (The New York Times was confident enough to report that the 200,000 marker had been surpassed all the way back on August 12.) We clutch at numbers of apparent shared significance, but they’ve already gone by. And the deaths go on.

Amid all the tragedy is a lot of farce. That word could reasonably be applied to almost any aspect of America’s official pandemic response, but it feels especially applicable to the bungled, contradictory, often-dishonest coronavirus messaging coming out of President Trump and his allies, via the news media and the federal health bureaucracy itself. Nearly two weeks ago, we learned, via Bob Woodward’s new book, that Trump knew the virus would be bad back in February, but downplayed it publicly anyway. Since then, a series of stories—which, individually, excited less enraged media coverage than the Woodward revelation—have shown, collectively, that duplicitous messaging remains a central problem today.

ICYMI: Inside the Black Vault

Two days after the Woodward story dropped, Politico’s Dan Diamond was first to report that Trump appointees within the Department of Health and Human Services—including Michael Caputo, a Trump campaign official turned departmental spokesperson, and Paul Alexander, an adviser to Caputo—routinely sought to meddle with weekly scientific reports that are issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and are not typically subject to political review. The meddling, Diamond wrote, had been interpreted by agency officials as an effort “to intimidate the reports’ authors and water down their communications to health professionals,” with the end goal of boosting Trump’s optimistic coronavirus narrative. CDC officials pushed back on the interference, but “increasingly agreed to allow the political officials to review the reports and, in a few cases, compromised on the wording,” Diamond added.

Two days later, things got weird. Caputo went on his Facebook page, started live-streaming, and unleashed a barrage of unhinged claims. He accused CDC officials of “sedition” and of belonging to an anti-Trump “resistance unit” that meets at coffee shops (them again) to discuss how to undermine the president. (“To allow people to die so that you can replace the president [is a] grievous sin. And these people are all going to hell.”) He spoke of a supposed threat from leftist “hit squads” should Trump win the election—“You understand that they’re going to have to kill me, and unfortunately, I think that’s where this is going”—and advised those watching to stock up on ammunition. He also said that he was struggling with his mental health, in part because he has been “waking up every morning and talking about dead Americans.” He insisted that he was planning to stay in his job as HHS spokesperson, but three days later, he announced that he would be taking a leave of absence, citing medical grounds and violent threats against his family. At the same time, Alexander, Caputo’s adviser, quit the department.

That was last Wednesday. The same day, Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, testified before Congress; among other things, he said that even if a COVID vaccine were forthcoming, most Americans wouldn’t have access to it until next year, and that masks are “more guaranteed” than a vaccine to protect against the disease. Soon after, Trump, who thinks a quick vaccine would be good for his election prospects, publicly rebuked Redfield who, Trump said, had likely misunderstood the question he was being asked. Later in the day, a spokesperson for Redfield put out a statement conceding Trump’s point and walking back Redfield’s earlier comment—but the spokesperson then tried to retract that concession. Tweets by Redfield himself sowed further confusion.

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The CDC wasn’t done for the week. On Friday, the agency took two seemingly positive steps. It reversed its advice—issued last month, reportedly by political appointees rather than scientists—that people who have been in close contact with a known COVID carrier needn’t bother getting a test unless they have symptoms. And it added language to its website acknowledging that the virus can be transmitted by small airborne droplets. Outside experts praised both developments as good science—but then, yesterday, the CDC did another U-turn, deleting the new language on droplets. Observers were incredulous. (“HOLY HELL,” Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist, tweeted.) Critics of the CDC’s recent performance smelled fresh political meddling—but an agency scientist told Lena H. Sun, of the Washington Post, that on this occasion, CDC staff “shot our own foot.” A CDC spokesperson said that draft language had been posted “in error.”

Then, later yesterday, things got so weird that they made the Caputo video look routine. Lachlan Markay, of the Daily Beast, reported that William B. Crews, a communications staffer at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also blogs for RedState—a right-wing website where, under the pen name “streiff,” he has routinely disparaged his boss, Dr. Anthony Fauci, as an “attention-grubbing and media-whoring” “mask Nazi,” and spread ludicrous misinformation about the pandemic. (“It is safe to say that the entire Wuhan virus scare was nothing more or less than a massive fraud perpetrated upon the American people by ‘experts,’” Crews/streiff wrote in June. “If there were justice, we’d send [a] few dozen of these fascists to the gallows and gibbet their tarred bodies in chains until they fall apart.”) After Markay brought streiff’s true identity to the attention of NIAID officials, Crews abruptly “retired.”

As the reaction to Woodward’s book showed, Trump’s lies and whiplash hypocrisy are reliable drivers of our fury—but the more recent stories outlined above prove that the government’s COVID messaging crisis goes much farther than the guy at the top. There are many good, honest people working within the federal health system, of course, and the “retirement” of bad apples can help stop the rot; still, it’s clear, too, that once-respected agencies have a glaring credibility problem that will be hard to fix, even if Trump is ousted in November. In the meantime, more Americans will die, however we count their loss.

Below, more on the coronavirus:

  • A previous mess: In July, the Trump administration ordered hospitals to stop reporting key coronavirus data to the CDC, which had been gathering the information and making it public, and instead hand it to a private contractor of HHS—a move that, as I wrote at the time, sparked widespread fears about transparency. Since then, the new reporting system has been dogged by further controversy. Last month, Dr. Deborah Birx, a senior administration health official, intimated that the CDC would resume collecting the data, but Caputo subsequently seemed to contradict her. Later, administration officials threatened to name and shameand even withhold Medicare and Medicaid funding from—hospitals that don’t comply with their new system’s reporting requirements.
  • Keeping our focus: For Storybench, a project of the journalism school at Northeastern University, Rahul Bhargava analyzed the preponderance of COVID news stories in the US over time, and found that “since its peak in March, media coverage mentioning coronavirus has tapered off while cases continue to rise—a troubling trend.” In late May, following the police killing of George Floyd, media-wide COVID coverage dropped by ten percent; barring a couple of peaks, it has declined further since then.
  • The impact on the news business: The pandemic has hammered advertising revenues, and media companies continue to make sharp cuts. Last week, Meredith Corporation cut 130 jobs across its local news group, and a further fifty positions across its national magazine group. According to Poynter, last week also saw at least twenty-three layoffs at newspapers owned by Lee Enterprises; yesterday, another Lee paper, the Tulsa World, laid off ten staffers. Recently, CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism’s joint Journalism Crisis Project launched a new tool tracking newsroom cutbacks amid the pandemic. You can explore it here, and you can subscribe to Lauren Harris’s weekly Journalism Crisis Project newsletter here.
  • Yesterday’s context: For CJR, Nicholas Hirshon, Amber Roessner, and Kristin Gustafson explore how journalists are using historical research to illuminate their work, including on the pandemic and its attendant economic downturn. “In the spring, when the coronavirus upended American life, newspapers in Charlotte, Cleveland, New York, and Santa Cruz turned to archival sources—including their own back issues—to describe how their cities coped with the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918,” they write.

Other notable stories: 

  • On Friday, following two days in repose on the portico of the Supreme Court, the body of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on Friday, will lie in state at the US Capitol; she will become the first woman and the first associate justice of the Court to be afforded that distinction. Yesterday, Trump said he would wait until Friday or Saturday to nominate Ginsburg’s replacement, out of “respect”—then claimed that her dying wish (that Trump not nominate a new justice before the election) was faked. (It wasn’t.) Kevin Roose, a tech columnist at the Times, notes that while such conspiracy theories typically bubble up to Trump via right-wing media, he appears to have invented this one himself.
  • In recent months, journalists including the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin have made the case that Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump, the 2016 election, and Russia failed the public in key respects. In a new book, Andrew Weissmann, who worked on the probe (and now appears on MSNBC), agrees. Mueller’s report, Weissman writes, failed to articulate clear conclusions, and thus “left the playing field open” for Trump and his allies to spin its findings. Weissmann discussed the book with The Atlantic’s George Packer.
  • The Nation’s Ken Klippenstein reports that—as well as snatching people off the streets and compiling intel reports on journalists—federal officials handling the recent unrest in Portland, Oregon, also intercepted protesters’ phone communications. The Department of Homeland Security “has not yet come clean to the public about the full extent of its intelligence operations in Portland,” Klippenstein writes. (The Nation is also out today with a redesign of its print magazine, including a new logo. You can check it out here.)
  • Meg James and Daniel Hernandez, of the LA Times, took a deep look at a summer of “turmoil and scandals” inside their own newsroom, for an article the paper assigned in a bid to be “transparent” with readers. They spoke with more than 50 current and former staffers, and found that “managerial missteps and ethical lapses have contributed to anxiety and distrust.” (VICE previously published a deep dive on problems at the paper.)
  • Swaya new podcast focused on “power and influence” that is hosted by Kara Swisher and produced by the opinion section of the New York Times—debuted yesterday. New episodes will drop every Monday and Thursday, and will feature Swisher’s interviews with leaders from the worlds of politics, business, culture, and more. For the first episode, Swisher spoke with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; you can listen here.
  • Recently, the government of Australia moved to force Facebook and Google to pay news outlets for their content; in response, Facebook threatened simply to block Australian users’ access to news. The situation, Hal Crawford writes for Nieman Lab, could spell the end for digital-only publishers that rely on Facebook traffic, leaving traditional outlets in the country (many of which are owned by Rupert Murdoch) as “the relative winners.”
  • Last month, Nataliya Lyubneuskaya, a reporter with the independent Belarusian outlet Nasha Niva, was covering protests that followed a disputed election in the country when law enforcement shot her with a rubber bullet. Lyubneuskaya spent thirty-eight days in hospital and is demanding a criminal inquiry. The government hasn’t yet opened one—but has moved to fine Nasha Niva over the way it handled its staffer’s injury. Meduza has more.
  • In other press-freedom news, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president, filed a criminal complaint against four staffers at a right-wing newspaper in Greece after it ran the headline “Fuck off, Mr. Erdoğan.” Elsewhere, Algeria banned M6, a French TV channel, after it broadcast a documentary on protests in the country. And police in Singapore are going after the news site New Naratif (which E. Tammy Kim recently profiled for CJR).
  • And the stock prices of banks including Deutsche Bank and HSBC fell yesterday—one day after the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, BuzzFeed, and media partners around the world revealed that such institutions routinely move payments that they themselves consider to be suspicious. ICIJ’s Will Fitzgibbon has more.

ICYMI: Tech journalism’s ‘on background’ scourge

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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.