On Tuesday, during a visit to a face-mask factory in Phoenix, President Trump told reporters that he was planning to wind down his coronavirus task force. “We’ve flattened the curve and countless American lives have been saved,” he said. “Our country is now in the next stage of the battle—a very safe, phased, and gradual reopening.” In many quarters, including the mainstream media, his comment was met with concern, since COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, remains widespread. On Wednesday, Trump tweeted that the task force will continue “indefinitely.” Headlines described that as a “reversal,” but Trump still plans to refocus the task force’s work around reopening the economy. Trump may not be disbanding the task force, but he appears to be sidelining it; as the Washington Post’s Toluse Olorunnipa wrote yesterday, the group is meeting less often, and its public-facing role has been “curtailed.”
It’s not just the task force: in recent days, Trump has sought to play down the pandemic and his administration’s botched response to it. On Wednesday, he mused that “by doing all this testing we make ourselves look bad,” because more testing leads to a higher number of confirmed cases. The same day, he invited medical professionals to the Oval Office for a photo op; one of them, Sophia Thomas, the president of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, said that the supply of personal protective equipment remains “sporadic.” Trump contradicted her. “I’ve heard the opposite,” he said, folding his arms across his chest. Yesterday, Trump met with Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, and praised him for moving to reopen his state’s economy, even though the Trump administration’s own guidelines suggest that Abbott is moving too fast. Also yesterday, the Associated Press reported that the White House nixed reopening guidelines prepared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A statement released by the White House called the drafted CDC plans “overly specific.” “Guidance in rural Tennessee shouldn’t be the same guidance for urban New York City,” it read.
As Olorunnipa reports, the aim of the White House, along with Trump-allied Republican governors, is to control information about the virus in order to spin a new, optimistic narrative. Troublesome statistics have been brushed off or suppressed. Inconveniently candid messengers—such as Dr. Anthony Fauci—have been blocked from sharing their views, including with Democratic-led Congressional committees. “If the message were to go out with complete objectivity, it would be disastrous for Trump,” Max Skidmore, a political scientist who has written a book on presidential responses to pandemics, told Olorunnipa. Instead, Trump is “simply trying to divert attention.”
So far, Trump’s attempts to divert the media’s attention have not been especially successful—the reality-based press continues to scrutinize the perverse logic of the reopening push. This week, we’ve seen some sharp coverage. HuffPost’s Arthur Delaney compared the politicians who are prioritizing the economy over public health to Lord Business, the villain of The Lego Movie. For McSweeney’s, Carlos Greaves drew a different cinematic comparison (“Sure, the velociraptors are still on the loose, but that’s no reason not to reopen Jurassic Park”). The editorial board of the New York Times cast Trump’s sidelining of the task force as his “mission accomplished” moment, a reference to George W. Bush’s premature triumphalism in Iraq. In a blog post that was shared widely, including on MSNBC, Jay Rosen, a media academic at New York University, wrote that Trump’s plan “is to have no plan, to let daily deaths between one and three thousand become a normal thing, and then to create massive confusion about who is responsible.”
Rosen argues that the no-plan plan relies on the manufacture of chaos. The press, he says, “won’t be able to ‘expose’ the plot because it will all happen in stark daylight. The facts will be known, and simultaneously they will be inconceivable.” As I wrote last year, with reference to coverage of Trump’s impeachment, the press sometimes struggles to adequately communicate horrors that are happening in plain sight—a reflection, perhaps, of a belief that the most damning facts are those for which we have to dig.
This time, the press has mostly stayed focused on the health crisis, in spite of Trump’s attempts to steer us off course. But we’ll also have to resist the urge to reach narrative resolution. This story is about a threat that’s still largely unknown; the virus won’t go away just because politicians decide it’s time to reopen the economy. As lockdown measures ease up—in America and across the world—we shouldn’t assume they won’t need to return. Whatever Trump might say, we’re not in “the next stage of the battle.”
Below, more on the coronavirus:
- Bad job news: Yesterday, the Labor Department reported that 3.17 million more unemployment claims were filed last week. Today, at 8.30am, jobless figures will be released for the month of April; they’re expected to include the clearest employment picture yet. As Neil Irwin writes, for the Times, the April numbers will be hard to cover, because “for such numbers, there are no words”; as Jason Farkas writes for CNN, what millions of workers have lost is “so much more than a job and so much deeper than a statistic.” News outlets are likely to draw comparisons with the Great Depression. Poynter’s Al Tompkins warns that they should be careful when doing so—because many of those affected may return to full-time work once lockdown measures are lifted.
- Support for local news: According to a new survey from Gallup and the Knight Foundation, 65 percent of Americans support the idea of the federal government steering relief funds to local news organizations—though most see this as a lesser priority than other types of relief. Elsewhere, Slate’s Jordan Weissmann reports on an innovative financial move at the LA Times, where staff have agreed to a pay-cut measure under which they’ll retain some salary, but also become eligible for state and federal assistance. If state regulators approve the plan, the paper will save a significant amount of money, but most staffers won’t have to sacrifice much income.
- A lesser focus on climate change: According to the Media and Climate Change Observatory at the University of Colorado Boulder, global media coverage of the climate crisis has plummeted in frequency since the start of 2020. American newspapers did more climate coverage in April than they did in March—due, in part, to CJR and The Nation’s Covering Climate Now initiative—but April’s figures were still down sharply on January’s. “Attention paid to coronavirus and Trump without mention of climate change [is] considered to primarily drive this continued overall decrease,” MeCCO concludes.
- Pushed out of Egypt: For CJR, Ruth Michaelson—who was expelled from Egypt, which she covered for The Guardian, after reporting that the country’s official coronavirus case count was likely an understatement—recounts her ordeal. “The spread of COVID-19 has become a political issue around the world,” Michaelson writes. “But in undemocratic countries, amidst a desire to control information as much as the disease, scientists, doctors, and journalists are frequent targets.”
- A “polite request”: In late April, David Spiegelhalter, a statistician in the UK, wrote for The Guardian that comparing coronavirus death rates internationally is tricky, because of discrepancies in the way different countries collect data. This week, as Britain’s recorded death toll became the highest in Europe, Boris Johnson, the prime minister, played down that statistic, citing Spiegelhalter’s work. Afterward, Spiegelhalter wrote, on Twitter, that Johnson and other officials were citing his article out of context, and asked them not to.
- In memoriam: Gerald Slater, a former executive at PBS, has died after contracting the coronavirus. He was 86. Starting with the Senate Watergate hearings, in 1974, Slater played a leading role in expanding public television’s coverage of public affairs, the Post reports. Sam Holt, who worked for Slater at PBS, called him “a bona fide pioneer.”
Other notable stories:
- The politicization of justice is back in the headlines: yesterday, Trump’s Justice Department dropped charges against Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser who twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his communication with a Russian diplomat in 2016. Critics accused William Barr, the attorney general, of seeking to undo the Mueller probe, from which the Flynn charges stemmed. In an interview with Catherine Herridge, of CBS, Barr shot back that “partisan feelings are so strong that people have lost any sense of justice.” Asked what he thought history might say about his Flynn decision, Barr said, “History is written by the winner. So it largely depends on who’s writing the history.”
- After rejecting offers from Fox’s Chris Wallace and CNN’s Don Lemon, Tara Reade—the former Senate staffer who alleges that Joe Biden sexually assaulted her—sat for an interview with Megyn Kelly, who is not affiliated with any network. Rich McHugh, a former NBC producer who has covered Reade’s allegation for Business Insider, produced the interview, which will be broadcast on Kelly’s Instagram page. Kelly told the Daily Beast that Reade asked her to do the interview, not the other way around. Ben Smith, the media columnist at the Times, views that as “a statement about how alienated Reade (and many of those who believe her) are from traditional media.”
- Last year, five women journalists—Roma Torre, Amanda Farinacci, Vivian Lee, Jeanine Ramirez, and Kristen Shaughnessy—sued their employer, NY1, alleging gender- and age-based discrimination. Diana Falzone reports, for VICE, that all five journalists now claim they’ve faced workplace retaliation since filing their complaint. (NY1 denies this.)
- The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has argued that the city of Memphis, Tennessee, is violating the First Amendment rights of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a local nonprofit news site, by excluding the site from its media contact list. An RCFP attorney made the claim during a court case involving police surveillance. A police officer has admitted using a fake Facebook profile to follow MLK50’s publisher.
- Yesterday, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a former journalist, was named prime minister of Iraq. Kadhimi—who lived in exile in the United Kingdom, then returned to Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein, in 2003—cofounded the Iraqi Media Network, edited an Iraqi magazine, and was an editor and columnist for Al-Monitor, a US-based site that covers the Middle East.
- Ann-Kathrin Stracke, a journalist with the German public broadcaster WDR, has filed a legal complaint accusing Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former president of France, of sexual harassment. Stracke alleges that Giscard d’Estaing touched her inappropriately during an interview in 2018. A camera operator who was present confirmed her account.
- And for CNN, Andrew Kaczynski and Em Steck found multiple clips of Kayleigh McEnany, the new White House press secretary, harshly criticizing Trump during his first presidential campaign, which McEnany covered as a pundit on CNN and Fox Business. In 2015, she called comments that Trump made about Mexican immigrants “racist.”