The Media Today

Abandoning business as usual in coverage of coronavirus relief spending

August 10, 2020

On Friday, President Trump invited members of his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, to attend a press conference there, in apparent violation of the state’s coronavirus guidelines. The makeshift crowd, Politico’s Meridith McGraw writes, wore “pastel-colored polo shirts and golf cleats,” and sounded, at times, “like a sitcom laugh track for the president’s jabs at Democrats and the press.” When a reporter pointed out to Trump that their presence was against New Jersey rules, members jeered; Trump replied that they were staging a “peaceful protest”—“they heard you were coming up and they know the news is fake.” (As CNN’s Laura Coates pointed out afterward, as peaceful protesters in the vicinity of Trump, they were lucky not to get tear-gassed.) Trump said little of note Friday, though he did indicate that he was preparing to take executive action to circumvent Congress on coronavirus relief measures. On Saturday, he held a signing ceremony, again at Bedminster, to formalize those measures. Again, members were invited.

Trump said his executive action would “take care of, pretty much, this entire situation,” meaning the economic destruction wrought by the pandemic. Predictably, this was not true. The measures he signed were partial and of dubious legality. They provoked bipartisan censure—Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, referred to them as “unconstitutional slop,” words later echoed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—and face being challenged in court. Trump said he was acting to “provide an additional or an extra $400 per week in expanded benefits” to unemployed Americans, then noted, in the verbal small print, that the federal government would only contribute three-quarters of that sum; states are expected to pay the rest, and it’s not yet clear that they can or will. The federal government was previously paying $600 per week in extra unemployment benefits, but that provision recently expired. So, too, did a federal moratorium on evictions. On Saturday, Trump said he was signing an executive order to “make sure renters and homeowners can stay in their homes”—but in reality, the order merely directs administration officials to “consider” a further eviction ban.

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Trump also signed off on measures aimed at eliminating interest on student-loan payments and deferring the payment of payroll taxes. The latter policy does not constitute a cut, though Trump added that he would “forgive these taxes and make permanent cuts to the payroll tax” should he win reelection in November. These taxes, of course, fund Social Security and Medicare. Over the weekend, several media-watchers felt that that fact—as well as the questionable legality of Trump’s orders—should consistently have been front and center in coverage. Skepticism of Trump’s moves abounded; still, it wasn’t conveyed with uniform efficiency. Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton shared a screenshot of push notifications from major outlets that mostly fell short of the desired clarity. Yesterday, Bill Grueskin, a professor at Columbia Journalism School (and CJR contributor), highlighted a better headline in the Washington Post—“Trump promises permanent cut to payroll tax funding Social Security and Medicare if he’s reelected”—and noted that it’s “journalistic malpractice not to have a version of this headline on your homepage this morning.”

The picture was similarly mixed on the Sunday shows. There was some sharp questioning about Trump’s moves: on CNN, Dana Bash grilled Larry Kudlow, a White House economic adviser, as he repeatedly stumbled over his figures (“We need a bit of a reality check here,” Bash said); on NBC, Chuck Todd asked Peter Navarro, Trump’s trade adviser, why the president spent the weekend at his golf club, rather than negotiating with Congress. Todd, however, didn’t exactly push back on Navarro’s ridiculous answer that Trump is “the hardest working president in history,” nor on Navarro’s misleading claim that Pelosi was formerly a “strong supporter of the payroll tax cut.” Over on ABC, George Stephanopoulos put a GOP talking point—that the $600 federal unemployment benefit “keeps people from working”—to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, without pointing out recent evidence suggesting that that isn’t the case.

Cydney Hargis, of the progressive watchdog group Media Matters for America, argued yesterday that the Sunday shows were filled with false equivalence—a reference, in this case, to the idea that Democrats and Republicans are equally culpable for the failure of coronavirus relief talks even though Democrats already passed a relief bill and offered to compromise on it, and Republicans came late to the talks and have shown little sign of budging. Media Matters previously accused the network nightly newscasts of failing to adequately contextualize the negotiations. Last week, the media critic Eric Boehlert wrote, in a similar vein, that reporters should stop blaming “gridlock” in “Congress” for the lack of progress. “The Republican Party does not want to govern,” he argued. “The press doesn’t want to highlight that fact, though. Instead, the coverage hides behind a phony Both Sides shield and let’s the GOP off the hook.”

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The policies and tactics of Congressional Democrats, of course, merit scrutiny. Still, it’s true that the Democratic and Republican parties are not equal contributors to Congressional inaction—on coronavirus relief as during crises past—and the use of passive, impersonal terms like “gridlock” has undoubtedly tended to obscure that asymmetry. Right now, the stakes could hardly be higher—not just with regard to unemployment benefits, but around all manner of other issues, from expanding testing capacity to protecting the integrity of the election, that Democrats are keen to legislate and Republicans have thus far blocked. Across the media, much coverage has communicated the urgency of the present moment. But coverage of Congressional horse-trading sometimes slips back into tired old frames that feel divorced from the real world. Such frames can, in turn, condition us to write off radical policy prescriptions as unrealistic or not in the spirit of bipartisanship when, now more than ever, they deserve to be taken seriously.

The victims of the pandemic and the attendant economic crisis should always be at the front of our minds and our coverage. Late last week, the Labor Department released employment figures for the month of July. They showed that the economy “added” 1.8 million jobs across the month—a much lower figure than in June, and one which leaves nearly 13 million more people out of work than was the case in February. As many outlets noted, this hardly constitutes good news—and yet, as CNN’s Oliver Darcy pointed out on Friday, many of the same outlets summarized the figures in headlines that emphasized the jobs gain and left out the bleak context, a mistake that risked misleading floating readers as to the overall performance of the economy.

As Darcy notes, these small pieces of framing matter immensely. In a broader sense, the typical, kneejerk, up-and-down rhythms of political and economic coverage are not serving us well right now. The coronavirus story doesn’t have much of an upside, and Trump can’t conjure one with the stroke of a pen.

Below, more on the coronavirus:

  • “Potemkin village”: Philip Rucker, Yasmeen Abutaleb, Josh Dawsey, and Robert Costa, of the Post, look behind the scenes at the Trump administration’s failure to control the summer surge of COVID-19, and prioritization of messaging over public-health strategy. “The president has been focused first and foremost on his reelection chances and reacting to the daily or hourly news cycle as opposed to making long-term strategy,” they report. A senior official said, “Everyone is busy trying to create a Potemkin village for him every day. You’re not supposed to see this behavior in liberal democracies.”
  • More dire business news: Amid the ongoing economic fallout from the pandemic, the Evening Standard, a free newspaper in London that is highly dependent on advertising revenue, said on Friday that it will lay off 69 employees—the equivalent of 40 percent of its newsroom staff. Meanwhile, in the US, G/O Media moved to lay off 15 staffers in its video department. (Lauren Harris is tracking the pandemic’s effects on the media business in her weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project, a joint initiative from CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. You can subscribe here.)
  • “How did I catch the coronavirus?”: Carolyn Kormann, a staff writer at the New Yorker, developed symptoms of COVID-19 in April—despite having had only minimal contact with other people for more than two weeks, which is thought to be the upper limit of the disease’s incubation period. (She has since recovered.) “Let my story be a parable,” Kormann writes, in an essay about her experience. “Even if you wear a mask, wash your hands frequently, and social-distance, as you must, you might still contract this disease. Call it an atmospheric threat.”
  • Overseas, I: Głos Polski, a Polish-language weekly in Canada, recently published an article that blamed “organized Jewry” for the pandemic alongside other anti-Semitic smears, National Post reports. B’nai B’rith Canada, a group dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism in the country, has since filed a police complaint against Głos Polski.
  • Overseas, II: Last week, Les Echos, a newspaper in Senegal, reported that a religious leader had been hospitalized with COVID-19. Subsequently, a group of assailants showed up at the paper’s offices, threatened the author of the article, and damaged computer equipment. Over the weekend, Senegalese authorities charged six people with looting and criminal conspiracy in connection with the attack. AFP has more.

Other notable stories:

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Update: This post has been updated to clarify Bill Grueskin’s job title.

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.