The Media Today

The Trump administration’s terrible record on coronavirus data

July 17, 2020

Recently, the Trump administration told hospitals to stop sharing data on covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Instead, hospitals were to share information with a private company contracted by the Department of Human and Health Services. The company, TeleTracking Technologies, won its HHS contract in a noncompetitive process in April; around the same time, the department also contracted Palantir, the data-mining company founded by Peter Thiel, an early ally of Trump, to take on other data-collection functions from the CDC. The administration’s order, which took effect on Wednesday, seems a blow to transparency: the CDC published the patient data it collected from hospitals, but the TeleTracking database is private. Researchers and reporters who use the data are worried that vital information is being withheld for the sake of politics.

Administration officials insist that bypassing the CDC is an efficiency measure, and that adequate data will remain available to the public. In an interview with Greta Van Susteren, of Gray TV, on Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence said that “the American people can anticipate full transparency.” The same day, however, journalists noticed that the CDC’s website had taken down data on hospital capacity that it had previously shared. Online, experts reacted with dismay. “I had hoped it was a glitch, but no,” Charles Ornstein, a healthcare reporter and editor at ProPublica, tweeted. Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, of Harvard, added that “epidemiologists are pulling our hair out!” HHS blamed the CDC for unilaterally removing the data; Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign aide who is now an HHS spokesperson, accused the CDC of “a fit of pique,” and said that department officials had since ordered that the data be restored. Yesterday, the CDC restored existing hospitalization data and added Tuesday’s figures; it also appended a note saying that the data will never again be updated.

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The way the CDC collects and shares data is inefficient, to be sure, and not always reliable. As Ornstein reported in April, the CDC was initially slow to share hospitalization data at all. In May, the agency said that it had been combining data on tests for active covid infections and data on tests for antibodies into a single figure—which bolstered a misleading impression that Trump was on top of testing. As I wrote last week, the New York Times went to court to force the CDC to release data on the racial disparities in covid transmission; even then, the information provided was substantially incomplete.

Trump officials have insisted—albeit without wishing to be named, for the most part—that taking hospitalization data away from the CDC is not censorship, but rather a good-faith effort at streamlining. “They’re suffering because of their lack of credibility,” an unnamed Republican told Politico, of the administration. “The problem is they had a chance to tell this story—which is not necessarily a bad story—but they didn’t do it.” Perhaps unwittingly, the unnamed Republican hit the key point—hospitalization data may be made public someday, and the new system for collecting it from hospitals may work better than the CDC’s, but for now, the press has no reason to believe either of those things. When it comes to pledges of transparency, the Trump administration has proved time and again that it doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt—on the coronavirus or anything else. In the past few weeks, Trump has said repeatedly that testing is bad because it shows positive cases; unnamed White House officials have dumped opposition research on Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; and Republicans have insisted that the devastating spread of the virus is mere media scaremongering.

A month ago, Pence said as much in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, and declared that the US is “winning” against the pandemic. The op-ed—which was headlined “There Isn’t a Coronavirus ‘Second Wave’ ”—was correct only insofar as we haven’t cleared the first wave yet. Yesterday, as the daily confirmed-case count hit a record high of seventy-seven thousand, Pence’s op-ed came in for some fresh scrutiny. On CNN, Jake Tapper returned to it, while displaying a graph of rapidly rising infections. “Does it look like ‘winning’ to you?” Tapper asked. “The only way one could regard this as winning is if one were the coronavirus.”

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In recent weeks, Trump supporters have pointed out that the proliferation of cases hasn’t been accompanied by a spike in deaths. That was always a disingenuous argument, given that covid-19 takes time to kill its victims. Now the death count is on the rise again. “America’s deadly summer coronavirus surge is undeniable,” Alexis C. Madrigal, of The Atlantic, wrote Wednesday. “And it was predictable this whole time by looking honestly at the data.” The Trump administration struggles with honesty. Judging by Trump’s conduct and the latest mess at the CDC, it would prefer that people don’t have access to the truth at all.

Below, more on the Trump administration and the coronavirus:

  • Editorial standards, I: On Wednesday, Peter Navarro, Trump’s trade adviser, published an op-ed in USA Today in which he slammed Fauci’s handling of the pandemic. Despite having circulated anonymous anti-Fauci talking points days earlier, the White House censured Navarro for the op-ed; when asked, Trump said Navarro shouldn’t have written it. USA Today was criticized for running the piece, since it contained misleading claims. Bill Sternberg, the editorial page editor, has since added a note to the op-ed, which remains online, saying that it did not meet the paper’s “fact-checking standards.”
  • Editorial standards, II: Yesterday, the Journal’s editorial board wrote that the sniping between Navarro and Fauci “amplifies a perception of dysfunction that is politically damaging.” As Jonathan V. Last writes, for The Bulwark, the editorial was more concerned with perception and messaging than Trump’s handling of the pandemic. “What reality do the Wall Street Journal editors live in?” Last asks. “Nothing in this piece—not one single line—addresses the reality of the world as it exists.”
  • Editorial standards, III: In late June, William Barr, the attorney general, told NPR’s Steve Inskeep that mail-in voting—which is more important than ever thanks to the pandemic—is susceptible to massive fraud. There’s no evidence for this, but NPR broadcast Barr’s claim anyway. Kelly McBride, NPR’s public editor, says that was a mistake. “While some would argue that when a powerful government offers an outrageous point, listeners should get to hear it,” she wrote yesterday, “this interview made it too easy for those listeners to come away with an incomplete understanding, or even believing that Barr’s widely debunked statement is a credible concern.”
  • More bad news for journalism: The pandemic continues to hammer the news business. Yesterday, Vox Media laid off seventy-two staffers, the majority of whom were already on furlough. The company blamed lost advertising revenue for the cuts. CNBC’s Alex Sherman, who first got wind of impending layoffs earlier this week, has more.

Other notable stories:

  • For CJR’s magazine on the election, Amanda Darrach spoke with Kevin Arceneaux, of Temple University, about voters who crave chaos. “They’re the kind of folks who are bouncing around on the internet, searching for their identity and feeling excluded,” he says. Also for the magazine, we’ve collected images that show how the pandemic and the protests have reshaped journalists’ work.
  • A tell-all memoir by Mary Trump, the president’s niece, came out on Tuesday. She has since given interviews to Good Morning America, NPR, and MSNBC, among others, and, according to Simon & Schuster, the book’s publisher, nearly a million copies were sold through publication day—a company record. Laura Marsh, literary editor at the New Republic, argues that while the book’s success will “subsidize other, worthy books,” it’s still “a depressing stand in for most of book culture under Trump.” For CJR, Akintunde Ahmad, Lauren Harris, and Savannah Jacobson calculated how Trump has benefited the publishing industry.
  • Katherine Bell, the editor in chief of Quartz, argues that business journalism has helped perpetuate systemic inequality and needs to become more progressive. “Capitalism is not a natural system,” Bell writes. “If we want a better, more inclusive economy, we need a new, more demanding form of business and economic journalism, one that questions the assumptions our organizations, industries, and economies are built on.”
  • Earlier this month, Laura Wagner and Maxwell Strachan, of Vice, raised questions about the conduct of Arash Markazi, a sports columnist at the LA Times; Markazi, they wrote, appeared to plagiarize a press release, failed to disclose potential conflicts of interest, and praised various brands on social media. Staffers at the paper subsequently wrote management to complain about Markazi. He has since been placed on paid leave.
  • Maria Bustillos, CJR’s public editor for MSNBC, writes that the network has “the memory of a goldfish” and often fails to put news in its proper historical context. Bustillos points out that Nicolle Wallace—an MSNBC anchor who recently railed against Trump’s “corruption” in commuting Roger Stone’s sentence—served as communications director to George W. Bush, who corrupted “a number of the most sacred presidential powers.” For more on MSNBC, you can read our piece from the magazine on its ideological identity crises.
  • Dexter Filkins, of The New Yorker, reports that some of the same people who targeted Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist who was killed by Saudi officials in 2018, appear now to be targeting Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who investigated Al Qaeda in the run-up to 9/11. Soufan knew Khashoggi, and helped hold a memorial for him in Washington, DC.
  • Yesterday, a court in Turkey convicted Deniz Yücel—a reporter with Die Welt, a German newspaper—of “propagandizing” on behalf of terrorist groups. Yücel, who was arrested in 2017 and detained for a year, is currently in Germany, and so was tried in absentia. The court also said that Yücel should face a fresh criminal probe for “insulting Turkey.”
  • Last weekend, Andrzej Duda, Poland’s far-right-backed president, was narrowly reelected. Now Civic Platform, the main opposition party, is challenging the result in the country’s Supreme Court. Amid numerous complaints of fraud, Civic Platform says that state TV improperly boosted Duda’s candidacy, when it should have remained impartial.
  • And Chris Dickey, a longtime foreign correspondent and Paris-based editor for the Daily Beast, has died. He was sixty-eight. Noah Shachtman, editor in chief of the Beast, called Dickey “a mentor, a friend, a comrade-in-arms, and just about the best guy on the planet to meet in a cafe.” Barbie Latza Nadeau has a full obituary.

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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.