Media Can't Keep Politics Out of Coronavirus Coverage

Media Can't Keep Politics Out of Coronavirus Coverage
Don Campbell/The Herald-Palladium via AP
Media Can't Keep Politics Out of Coronavirus Coverage
Don Campbell/The Herald-Palladium via AP
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Last week, CNN media critic Brian Stelter struck an ominous chord regarding the spreading coronavirus. “Since the dawn of the Trump presidency, countless experts have warned that the president's lack of credibility would imperil the country in the event of an emergency,” he wrote. “With the worsening coronavirus outbreak, those fears may be coming true. … And the president has been blaming the media for this predicament, reverting to the same tactics that he has employed ever since taking office.”

Even if the Trump administration wasn’t uniquely combative and chaotic, it’s the media’s job to press any administration about preparedness in the face of something as frightening as a lethal pandemic. And leaders undermining trust in media institutions for no specific reason at a time when we need to rely on them for potentially lifesaving information is not helpful, to put it mildly. “Low Ratings Fake News MSDNC (Comcast) & @CNN are doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus look as bad as possible, including panicking markets,” is just one of the things Trump has tweeted recently.

Normally, such intemperate attacks during a crisis would be discrediting. However, the media have also made their own behavior the issue during the last four years, and their coronavirus coverage shows why: A large portion of the media can’t help themselves from making every story about politics.

Some of it is just inappropriately intemperate commentary from opinion columnists. Recent New York Times columns by Gail Collins and Maureen Dowd were headlined “Let’s Call It Trumpvirus: If you’re feeling awful, you know who to blame” and “Trump Makes Us Ill: Going viral is not a good thing this time,” respectively. Suffice it to say, calling a disease that originated in China and spread throughout the world because of China’s grossly irresponsible behavior “Trumpvirus” is hardly fair.

Although George W. Bush fielded skeptical questions from the White House press corps about U.S. preparedness from Avian flu – and Democrats still complain about the speed of the Reagan administration’s response to AIDS, Trump’s predecessors in the White House simply were not immediately blamed from the very outset of public health crises. This doesn’t mean they performed flawlessly. A damning article by Ari Schulman in the journal The New Atlantis in 2015 showed in alarming detail how the Obama administration actively misled the public about the threat posed by the Ebola virus outbreak the year before.

Despite what the Centers for Disease Control told the public in 2014, there is compelling evidence transmission of Ebola was airborne via coughs and sneezes and the virus could be spread by people months after they were no longer symptomatic. Such misinformation was driven primarily by a desire for public reassurance, and this led to questionable public policy decisions regarding the threat. Yet, major newspapers never referred to the disease as “Obola.”

Naked hostility to Trump is so pronounced it has actually impaired some journalists’ ability to impart necessary information to the American people. “Remember this moment: Trump, in South Carolina, just called the coronavirus a ‘hoax,’" the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank tweeted last week. He followed that up with a column that repeated the claim. Watching Trump’s rally in context, it was pretty clear that he wasn’t saying the disease itself was a hoax – he was talking about the news coverage that somehow tried to blame him for it. Milbank would later update his column to note that “Trump said Saturday the ‘hoax’ referred to Democrats’ pinning blame for the virus” – but his misleading tweet is still up.

Speaking of misleading tweets, on Thursday NPR’s Yamiche Alcindor tweeted out this quote from Vice President Mike Pence: "The greatest concern is testing. I am pleased to report we have 2500 kits available that we will distribute. We approved a process that will allow testing at state and university laboratories." She then repeated the number for emphasis “2500.” This tweet, which was liked over 22,000 times, spread like wildfire mostly because of the panic that set in over the mistaken belief that we only had enough coronavirus tests to cover the population of Ashland, Neb.

An hour later, after getting an earful about her tweet, Alcindor tweeted out some important context. Each one of these coronavirus kits can test 500 people, covering 1.25 million Americans. Perhaps that’s not enough, but for a disease that at the time had infected fewer than 100 Americans, it was on the right scale. And it’s far less panic-inducing than the mistaken belief only 2,500 people can be tested. Yet, Alcindor did not delete her tweet, and days later you can find thousands of people reciting the misleading 2,500 figure on social media as if it’s gospel.

Next, the New York Times reported that Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, “told associates that the White House had instructed him not to say anything else without clearance.” The report led Joe Biden to later claim that the White House was “muzzling” the doctor during an interview with ABC’s “This Week.” Confronted with this anonymously sourced claim at a press conference, Fauci issued an unequivocal denial. “I have never been muzzled, ever, and I have been doing this since the administration of Ronald Reagan,” he said. “I am not being muzzled by this administration.”

During a Democratic Party presidential debate, Biden also boasted that he was responsible for saving “millions of lives,” a dubious claim attracted no media scrutiny.

The press show no similar restraint after GOP Sen. Tom Cotton took credit for his early call to quarantine anybody coming from China’s Wuhan region while pointing out that Wuhan contains a laboratory that studies dangerous pathogens and that this laboratory can’t be ruled out as the source of the virus. According to the Washington Post, Cotton was guilty of fanning “the embers of a coronavirus theory that has been repeatedly debunked by experts.”

But the Post excoriated Cotton for something he never asserted, namely, that the virus was a bioweapon engineered and deliberately released by the Chinese. This is not what Cotton said, and experts quoted by the Post to “debunk” Cotton even acknowledged as much.

The suspicion that partisanship colors news coverage is hard to escape. Vice President Pence, whom Trump tapped to head the coronavirus response, has been steady and responsible since the beginning of the outbreak. Yet, during a recent appearance on “Meet the Press,” host Chuck Todd thought it important to confront Pence about the politics of the issue. In Todd’s telling, GOP claims that Democrats were “weaponizing” the virus to attack Trump were wholly unfounded. “Well, I will tell you, there’s been a lot of irresponsible rhetoric among Democrats and commentators on the left,” Pence said.   

“Who is this? Name some names, sir. Because it just feels like gaslighting. Please name some names. We are all big. We’re all big people here. Name some names,” Todd retorted. This wasn’t as difficult a task as Todd seemed to think it was. Pence responded by citing the Gail Collins column calling it “Trumpvirus.” The vice president could have pointed out, but didn’t, how Elizabeth Warren tried to prop up her foundering presidential campaign when she proposed taking “every dime that the president is now taking to spend on his racist wall at the southern border and divert it to the coronavirus.”

Instead, Pence brought the conversation around to where it belongs. “The American people can be confident that we’re going to continue to work this issue,” he said. “We’re going to work with leaders with both parties in Congress to make sure not only our federal agencies have all the resources they need but our state and local governments, health care providers, have the resources and the support to provide the care that every American would want. Remember, Chuck, this is about the lives of the American people.”

Mark Hemingway is a writer in Alexandria, Va. You can follow him on twitter @heminator.

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