If the coronavirus pandemic becomes for Donald Trump what Hurricane Katrina was for George W. Bush, we might come to look back at last Friday’s press conference as Trump’s “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” moment. The president’s comments to reporters at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta were, as my colleague Adam Rogers has masterfully explained, riddled with bizarre and dangerous falsehoods. One stood out above the rest: Trump’s flatly untrue claim that “anybody that wants a test can get a test.” The president was either lying about or ignorant of the central fact of the US government’s botched response to the disease. That alone could have been front-page news: “Trump Falsely Declares ‘Anybody That Wants’ Can Get a Coronavirus Test.”
Yet here’s how The New York Times, our paper of record, initially covered the claim: It didn’t. The paper’s report on Trump’s press conference didn’t even mention the tests comment at first; later, a reference was added, without explaining that the statement was false. Instead, the article, by a White House reporter, made Trump sound downright presidential, focusing on his effort to project calm. In print, it ran with the headline “‘It Will End’: Trump Urges Nation to Avoid Panicking.”
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A coronavirus pandemic would test the resilience of a number of institutions: hospitals, transit systems, global supply chains. We can add the mainstream media to that list. Objective news reporting is built on two bedrock principles: report the truth, and don’t pick sides. Trump’s unprecedented commitment to saying what is plainly untrue makes it hard to honor both principles at once. This puts news organizations into a terrible bind, especially when many conservatives—and the president himself—are ready to pounce at even the slightest whiff of liberal bias. That has always been true, but the stakes are suddenly higher. The coronavirus response is the first time Trump has been personally in charge of managing a crisis that is likely to cause a large number of American deaths. There’s no way around the fact that this is a political story as well as a public health one. If the mainstream press is ever going to figure out how to provide responsible reporting on Trump’s job performance, now's the time.
The first pitfall to avoid is stenography: uncritically relaying what the president said without giving readers the relevant context. As the media blogger Dan Froomkin wrote over the weekend, an egregious example came after Trump blamed the shortage of tests on a rule adopted by the Obama administration that Trump has since overturned. You’ll be shocked to learn that there was no such rule. That didn’t stop headlines like “Criticized for Coronavirus Response, Trump Points to Obama Administration” (NYT) and “Trump Blames Obama Decision for Coronavirus Test Kit Shortage” (Bloomberg). Each story took several paragraphs to push back on Trump’s claim, and then only mildly. (“Experts on lab testing said they were unaware of any Obama-era rule that would have hindered the administration from authorizing lab-developed tests for the coronavirus in an emergency,” murmured the Bloomberg piece, nearly 500 words in.) Froomkin recommends pulling political reporters off the coronavirus story altogether, since they are the ones most trained to not pick sides.
But the problem won’t be solved just by quarantining political reporters. Even when a New York Times health reporter followed up on Trump’s claim about tests, it was framed as a conflict between the president and his advisers, rather than between truth and falsehood. It took until more than halfway through the health reporter’s story to learn that there may not be enough tests available—and even then it was depicted in terms of he-said, she-said: “Doctors and patients across the nation have painted a much different picture of availability, clamoring for tests they believe are in short supply.”
I’m not trying to beat up on individual journalists, who are working hard under difficult conditions. In fact my point is the opposite: The challenge is institutional, not individual. It requires reporters and editors—especially editors, who write the headlines—to think collectively about applying the norms of objective reporting in a way that doesn’t inadvertently mislead readers. It’s tricky, but it can be done. A New York Times story from earlier this month (cowritten by the same White House reporter I criticized above) stated simply that “by promising a vaccine ‘soon,’ the president almost certainly misled at least some of the public into thinking a solution to the outbreak was just around the corner.” The Washington Post’s Friday story on the CDC press conference made clear that Trump was talking out of his ass. NPR has had its own missteps, but the Saturday episode of its daily news podcast was a model effort: It opened with Trump’s tests claim, followed immediately by one of the hosts saying, “That’s simply not true,” all in the first 15 seconds.
Debunking plainly false statements is only part of the challenge, however. A subtler problem is the tendency to slot stories into familiar structures—and thus create a false sense of order, coherence, and good faith. Over the weekend, the Times published a well-researched article breaking down the timeline of the Trump administration’s response to the crisis. According to that piece, the White House has been involved in “a raging internal debate about how far to go in telling Americans the truth,” while “health experts say the administration has struggled to strike an effective balance between encouraging calm, providing key information and leading an assertive response.”
This sounds like the sort of thing that could happen within a White House during a time of intense crisis. You could imagine Bush or Obama wrestling with the question of whether too much transparency could drive a panic. But is that really what’s going on within Trump’s White House? Consider this very limited sampling of public statements the president has given about the virus, helpfully compiled by the Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi on Twitter:
February 2: “We pretty much shut it down coming in from China.”
February 26: “[Infections are] going very substantially down, not up.”
March 4: “ The Obama administration made a decision on testing and that turned out to be very detrimental to what we’re doing, and we undid that decision a few days ago.”
March 6: “As of right now, and yesterday, anybody that needs a test can get one.”
There’s lack of transparency (or, if you prefer, “struggling to strike an effective balance”), and then there’s outright mendacity. The president is not withholding sensitive information; he is lying, or at least making stuff up, about a matter of life and death. Given his audience on traditional and social media, that makes him the “single most potent force for misinforming the American public,” as the media critic Jay Rosen put it on Twitter. This is an important story in its own right. But referring to Trump’s behavior as a “debate over how far to go in telling Americans the truth” obscures what’s really going on. This can be comforting. The coronavirus is scary. That the leader of the government response consistently spreads disinformation about it is even scarier. But it’s part of the story the media needs to tell.