Questions without answers in Trump’s COVID diagnosis

At 7:30 yesterday evening, a pre-taped message from President Trump was played at the Al Smith (virtual) charity dinner. “The end of the pandemic is in sight,” he said, “and next year will be one of the greatest years in the history of our country.” By the time the tape rolled, White House officials knew that Hope Hicks, a senior adviser to the president, had tested positive for COVID-19. It was only after 8pm, when Jennifer Jacobs, a White House reporter for Bloomberg, reported the news, that the administration made it public. In the 9pm hour, Trump called into Fox; after some blathering about the debate and Joe Biden, Sean Hannity asked about Hicks’s diagnosis. Trump replied that he and his wife, Melania, had just been tested. “Whether we quarantine or whether we have it, I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.” What happened was that Trump, a few hours later, tweeted that he and Melania had both tested positive. In a tweet of her own, Melania said that they were both “feeling good.”

Cable news—typically sleepy in the early-morning hours—kicked into overdrive. We heard reporting on Trump’s announcement and recent movements—he visited New Jersey yesterday afternoon for a fundraiser, even though aides reportedly already knew of Hicks’s positive test, and she’d been in close proximity to the president—but the tone of the coverage was mostly speculative. What is Trump’s risk factor? Did Hicks infect Trump or vice versa? How will he work and campaign from isolation? What are the national-security implications? What happens if Trump needs to step back and Mike Pence has to replace him temporarily as president? What if Pence has to replace Trump on the Republican ticket? What if Joe Biden was exposed at this week’s debate? Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, was at the White House this week—what if she was exposed to the virus, and if so, what would that mean for her already-tight confirmation timetable in the Senate? 

Related: Speculation abounds as Boris Johnson enters the ICU

CNN and MSNBC brought on medical experts, who didn’t have much to add beyond common sense and further questions. The internet lit up with Trump-COVID stories; by 5am, the New York Times had already posted seven articles atop its homepage. In one of them, Maggie Haberman and Peter Baker suggested that “the symbolism of an infected American president could rattle allies,” and that Trump’s positive test “could prove devastating to his political fortunes given his months of playing down the enormity of the pandemic.”

What Trump’s diagnosis means for his election prospects is, of course, already a hot topic of conversation in political media—even though the answer, at this point, depends on a tangle of unknown variables. Some pundits imagined that a personal brush with COVID might awaken Trump—and, by extension, his base—to the severity of the disease. That felt credulous; given what we know of Trump, it seems more likely—especially if his symptoms turn out not to be serious—that he might use his experience to bolster his “See, it’s not so bad!” message, which has the potential to become a misinformation nightmare. For now, we simply don’t know how Trump’s diagnosis will play out. Whatever his condition, the press should resist the temptation to paint him as a COVID everyman. Trump’s experience will be his own—and unlike most Americans, he’ll have access to the highest level of medical care.

Not that journalists should expect clear, honest information about Trump’s condition from the administration. This White House has never been reliable; it was a reporter, not an official, after all, who broke the Hicks news. It shouldn’t be a surprise if, as we learn more about Trump’s condition, the details come from journalists and their unnamed sources, rather than official statements or Kayleigh McEnany, the press secretary, who hasn’t worn a mask at briefings, even after Hicks tested positive.

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For now, let’s wait for that reporting. As I wrote in April, after Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, was hospitalized with COVID, the urge to speculate is understandable when journalists are unable to trust those in power. But anxiously throwing out possible scenarios isn’t helpful. There’s plenty to be said about Trump’s diagnosis that we know for sure: that he knowingly played down the threat of the virus for months; that he repeatedly blocked public-health measures; that Trump and those in his orbit have much better access to testing than most Americans; that more than 200,000 Americans have died in part because of government inaction; that the administration has not done enough to help those whose livelihoods the virus has destroyed; that escaping these dire straits is central to an election that Trump has threatened openly and repeatedly to subvert. Most people with COVID don’t get a national news cycle dedicated to their plight. Many of those who die from the disease won’t be publicly remembered at all.

Below, more on Trump and the coronavirus:

  • Driving Misinformation: Researchers at Cornell University analyzed thirty-eight million English-language articles about the coronavirus and found that Trump has been the “single largest driver of misinformation” about the pandemic. Mentions of Trump have made up nearly forty percent of the “misinformation conversation” around COVID. Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Noah Weiland, of the Times, have a write-up.
  • A deleted tweet: Yesterday, the Washington Post tweeted out the headline of an opinion article by Eugene Robinson: “Imagine what it will be like to never have to think about Trump again.” The Post subsequently deleted the tweet, on the grounds that Trump’s diagnosis had rendered it “tasteless.” Robinson’s article now has the headline: “Vote for Biden and get Trump out of your head.”
  • Ok: Since the pandemic began, we’ve grown used to covering R0—a measure reflecting how many people each COVID carrier will infect on average—but Zeynep Tufekci, of The Atlantic, argues that a different measure may be more useful: k, which shows “whether a virus spreads in a steady manner or in big bursts, whereby one person infects many, all at once.” Averages “aren’t always useful for understanding the distribution of a phenomenon, especially if it has widely varying behavior,” Tufekci explains. “If Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, walks into a bar with 100 regular people in it, the average wealth in that bar suddenly exceeds $1 billion.”
  • A story that shouldn’t get lost: Prior to Trump’s diagnosis, the New York Times Magazine published an excellent story, by Jim Rutenberg, situating Trump’s threat to subvert the election in a longer tradition of Republican voter suppression. “The movement to convince the country that voter fraud is a present danger to democracy has itself become a present danger to democracy,” he writes. “It has melded fully into the president’s re-election campaign.”


Other notable stories:

  • The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer has details on the circumstances of Kimberly Guilfoyle’s exit from Fox News. As HuffPost previously reported, Fox forced Guilfoyle out in 2018, amid allegations of inappropriate behavior; Mayer now reports that Guilfoyle frequently subjected a former assistant to “degrading, abusive, and sexually inappropriate behavior,” then attempted to buy her silence. Fox later paid the assistant a settlement of more than $4 million, Mayer reports. (Fox declined to comment to Mayer; Guilfoyle, who is now finance chair for the Trump campaign, denies wrongdoing.)
  • Every year, an extreme anti-abortion group in South Bend, Indiana, takes out a two-page newspaper ad to mark the anniversary of Roe v. Wade; the ad refers to the ruling as “barbaric” and a “raw exercise of judicial power.” In 2006, Coney Barrett, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee—who was then a law professor at Notre Dame—signed on to the ad. The Guardian’s Stephanie Kirchgaessner, who dug up the document, calls it “the most striking evidence to have emerged to date of Barrett’s personal opposition to Roe v. Wade.”
  • Earlier this year, with the coronavirus and the police killing of George Floyd leading the news cycle, CNN and Fox News saw viewership spikes but MSNBC did not. According to the Wall Street Journal, the numbers indicate that MSNBC’s ratings are, more than its competitors, largely driven by politics. Cesar Conde, the chair of the NBCUniversal News Group, wants to change that, by drawing “a brighter line between daytime news coverage and evening opinion analysis.” (ICYMI, Adam Piore explored MSNBC’s identity crisis for CJR’s magazine.)
  • For CJR, Danny Funt reports on the iffy journalistic standards of the current “golden age of documentaries.” Desperate for access, “filmmakers are increasingly willing to surrender their editorial independence,” Funt writes. “It is common to give subjects incentives that would be scandalous in any other news medium: paying for access, clearing quotes and clips, giving a subject’s business partners a producing credit.”
  • This week, the state of California passed a bill granting newspapers more time to comply with a state law clamping down on businesses’ reliance on contract labor. Newspaper bosses warned that having to reclassify their carriers as employees would constitute an unbearable cost; the new legislation gives newsrooms the right to continue contracting carriers through 2022. (In 2018, I investigated carriers’ working conditions for CJR.)
  • Yesterday, as fighting continued in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region disputed by Azerbaijan and Armenia, two French journalists working for Le Monde were seriously injured in an Azeri shelling attack, Reuters reports; France is repatriating the journalists, who have not been named. According to the Associated Press, two unnamed Armenian journalists—a cameraman with Armenia TV and a reporter with Armenian 24News—were also hurt.
  • Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, has given his first interview since he was poisoned in August. (He was discharged from a hospital in Germany last week.) Navalny told Der Spiegel, a German newsmagazine, that he believes that Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, ordered the poisoning. The Kremlin has denied involvement.
  • The Independent, a British newspaper, is launching a dedicated Spanish-language website, becoming the first British news company to do so. The site will primarily be oriented toward Spanish speakers in the US, a growth market for The Independent. InPublishing has more details.
  • And David Greene will step down as host of NPR’s Morning Edition at the end of the year. He plans to focus on other projects and, one hopes, sleep in. He wrote, in a note to colleagues, that “being part of the Morning Edition family has been a lesson in collaboration and collegiality you find nowhere else in the business.”

ICYMI: Can we make Facebook and Google “democratic utilities?”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.