The Media Today

Resisting Trump’s claims that everything is fine

May 8, 2020

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.

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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.

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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:

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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.