In the 2016 election the media gave more than $2 billion of free publicity to Donald Trump. It was voyeurism of his biting-off-the-heads-of-chickens campaign style. The nation had never seen anything like it, and it was, regrettably, newsworthy.
But without that gift, Trump would not have won the election. Remember, he lost the popular vote by almost three million votes and won the electoral college by a mere 79,000 votes in three states. Without that gift of massive free coverage from the media he would not have even come close.
The media is hazarding an equally ominous gift to Trump in this election cycle by letting him control the narrative on the coronavirus debacle. His daily press conferences are not to inform the public, but to propagandize, to dominate the national discussion and to ensure that only stories praising him are allowed in the public discourse.
If this continues, the media will hand the 2020 election to Trump, just as surely as it did in 2016.
Let’s be clear about Trump’s culpability in the scale of the catastrophe.
In 2018, he disbanded the team inside the National Security Council that was specifically tasked with handling pandemics.
He dismissed the pandemic “war gaming” exercises that were provided to him in extended hand-over briefings from the Obama administration.
He ignored the warnings from his own intelligence community in January that a pandemic was coming and that the government needed to take immediate action.
In February, he shipped 18 tons of medical supplies to China—masks, gowns, gloves, respirators, and more—while downplaying the threat here. Remember, Trump publicly asked China for help with his 2020 election. This was likely his down payment on that help.
He declined to take proven tests from the World Health Organization while his own Center for Disease Control issued a flawed test, costing the country weeks of delay in coming to terms with the crisis. In fact, because of the lack of comprehensive testing, we still don’t know how bad it actually is.
Early on, Trump politicized the problem, claiming at his campaign rallies that the virus was “another Democrat hoax,” an attempt by his detractors to gain through mass hysteria what could not be achieved through impeachment.
Between January and early March, he repeatedly dismissed factual, science-based concerns, claiming. “It’s contained,” “There are only 15 infected individuals and it will be down to almost zero in a few weeks,” and, reaching for the religious, “It will disappear, like a miracle.”
He has failed to muster a national effort to address the crisis, instead, allowing states to be played off against each other and leaving a hop-scotch pattern of solutions from one state to the next. It’s like using a fishing net with 2 inch holes to try to catch mosquitoes.
He denigrates the nation’s governors who are the ones actually dealing with the immediacy of the pandemic.
He has repeatedly lied about the availability and timing of tests, masks, ventilators, and other supplies essential to fighting the virus. I’ll inject a personal anecdote here.
Last week, I delivered masks to a hospital in Northern California. The emergency room nurse who received them, in thanking me, said that they believe the actual number of contaminations are five times what are being reported. I asked why.
She said that if a person comes into the hospital with clear coronavirus symptoms—fever, sore throat, coughing, etc.—but is not physically debilitated, they send them home. I asked why. She said because they have no tests to verify that the person is infected.
They are sending hundreds of suspected carriers back into their communities without any protections at all because they don’t have tests. She said it was the same for all hospitals in the state. Back to our story.
Trump has refused to invoke the National Defense Production Act that would allow the federal government to direct corporations to produce essential supplies on behalf of national need. Think ventilators, masks, gowns, tests, ICU beds, etc. The result is that front-line defenders are going into battle without appropriate equipment.
He has vigorously deflected blame whenever any questions have been raised about his responsibility. It’s the fault of China, the Obama administration, the media, the nation’s governors, General Motors, hospitals, nurses who are hoarding, anybody but himself. He stated at a press event in early March, “I don’t accept any responsibility at all.” And that says it all.
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Because of Trump’s staggering—and continuing—failure of leadership, the U.S. will face the largest number of preventable deaths, by far, that has ever been inflicted on the country, in any theater of national action. Numbers as high as 2.2 million deaths are being floated by responsible epidemiologists.
To put that into perspective, 620,000 died in the Civil War. World War I claimed the lives of 117,000 American soldiers. World War II took 417,000. Trump’s infliction of otherwise preventable deaths because of his failure of leadership may very well exceed the deaths of all of those national cataclysms combined.
To put it into another perspective, China has four times the number of people as does the U.S. and, arguably, a much less sophisticated public health system. But at the time of this writing, they’ve had only half the number of reported cases: 81,000 vs. 162,000 for the U.S. The reason? Once the virus was discovered, China adopted mature, aggressive, comprehensive, science-based measures to control its spread. No talk about it being a hoax by political opponents. No fantasies that it would disappear, like a miracle. No lies about the number of masks or tests or ventilators that would be delivered in a few weeks.
Or, for another perspective, fewer than 3,000 people died in the 911 tragedy. If the lowest estimate of expected deaths is realized (100,000) that would be more than 30 TIMES the number of deaths in 911. If the highest number occurs (2,200,000), it would be 700 TIMES the number who died in 911. Yet, Trump doesn’t accept any responsibility at all. His performance has been “excellent.”
Or, for a final perspective, the economic costs for Trump’s failure will almost certainly include another Great Depression. That will entail the loss of multiple trillions of dollars of GDP, the loss of tens of millions of jobs, and the destruction of multiple trillions of dollars of wealth. The extent of the destruction is literally inconceivable.
So, what about the role of the media in all of this.
Trump’s gambit is to dodge, diminish, dismiss, deny, defer, deflect, denigrate, divide, anything but take responsibility for his own staggering failure. He is working assiduously to try to create the narrative that not only does he have “no responsibility” for the catastrophe, but, in fact, he has been exemplary in how he has handled things. He's done a “spectacular job.” It is a psychotic, profoundly dangerous disjuncture with reality, but Trump is pushing it relentlessly and too much of the media is laundering it, shamelessly.
At the same time, he is ruthlessly trying to suppress any questions that challenge his deceitful, self-laudatory portrayal. He has gone after many mainstream reporters and their news organizations for asking entirely appropriate, indeed, essential questions about the state of the crisis and his role in the debacle. These include public attacks on Jonathan Karl of ABC, Yamiche Alcindor of The News Hour, Peter Alexander of NBC, Jim Acosta of CNN, and others.
If the media allow this whitewash and intimidation to occur, it will effectively hand the 2020 presidential election to Trump, for instead of his being the single most important point of failure in the catastrophe, he will emerge as the nation’s savior, responsible for holding the carnage to “only” 200,000 deaths. As he said on Monday, "That would be a pretty good job."
Instead, the mainstream media outlets should stop televising the daily press briefings, except as they deal with facts issued by medical and public health professionals. Trump is using the briefings as mini-campaign rallies where he is free to disseminate his trademark falsehoods, fantasies, and venom. They are little more than state-staged propaganda events—Nuremberg rallies—and the media should not place its resources in the president’s hands to lie to the American people.
Additionally, the media must precede and postcede any comments from Trump in any venue with facts that correct his lies and provide proper context for his actions and culpability in the crisis.
For example, when the president claims that “nobody could have seen it coming,” "in fact, last year, the president disbanded the group at the National Security Council that was tasked with dealing with pandemics. And in January, he dismissed urgent warnings from his own intelligence community about an imminent viral contagion.”
When the president claims to be on top of the situation, media should report, “In fact, in January, the president said the virus only involved 15 people and would be down to zero in a week or two. Today, verified cases exceed 160,000. In February, as contagion spread uncontrolled throughout the country, the president claimed that it would soon disappear, ‘like a miracle.’”
Or, in discussing the shortage of medical supplies for first-line responders, “In January, the president shipped 18 tons of medical supplies to China. And for months he has offered conflicting accounts of the status of supply chains and availability of personal protective equipment.”
Already, this will be the greatest cataclysm ever inflicted on the nation. It will likely cause hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of deaths. It will destroy trillions of dollars of income and accumulated wealth. It will bankrupt the government, causing extensive, permanent reductions in the safety net, including spending on Social Security and Medicare. It will pre-empt for a generation any hopes of progressive reform of the failed neoliberal order.
If the models of China, or South Korea, or Singapore, or Japan are considered, it will all have been preventable, had there been mature, responsible leadership.
Instead, we have an ignorant, arrogant, insecure, impetuous, selfish, narcissistic child at the helm. What if this had been a nuclear confrontation, a Cuban Missile Crisis, or worse? It’s too risky to even fathom.
The media has a unique, and critical role to play at this place, and at this time. Trump has converted Republican representatives and senators into a cartoon cabal of trained seals, clapping and barking at his every demented utterance. He has destroyed the rule of law, staffing the Justice department with sycophantic toadies using its powers to persecute his enemies. He’s similarly debauched the integrity and competence of the intelligence community and State Department.
In many tragic ways our institutions have failed to deter Trump’s relentless destruction of order, civility, law, and responsibility. The media is the last institution in the country—the last line of defense—before we are reduced to a dictatorship.
The media doesn’t need to choose sides in the story. It need only courageously do its job in reporting the facts of Trump’s critical role in allowing the pandemic to spread. There is no other single person in the nation so centrally culpable in its devastation and they need to say that over, and over, and over, and over again. To do otherwise will be to hand Trump another election victory. The nation will not survive.