March 9, 2020

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The virus, the president and the news

There is assuredly a disconnect in this country between the media and President Donald Trump (and that includes many of those who work with and support Trump). Trump’s repeated claims of “fake news” and “enemy of the people” now include criticism of how the media is covering the coronavirus story.

On Sunday morning, Trump tweeted:

“We have a perfectly coordinated and fine tuned plan at the White House for our attack on CoronaVirus. We moved VERY early to close borders to certain areas, which was a Godsend. V.P. is doing a great job. The Fake News Media is doing everything possible to make us look bad. Sad!”

The coronavirus story is not easy because so much of it remains unknown — including who has it, who might get it next and the best plans to combat it.

“The scope of this story, frankly, is hard to get your arms around,” CNN’s Brian Stelter said on his Sunday “Reliable Sources” show. “That is a challenge for newsrooms like this one and many others. Right now, we need clear-eyed, no-nonsense news coverage during this crisis.”

The coverage, frankly, has been clear-eyed and no-nonsense. In a word, it has been responsible. But responsible coverage doesn’t mean the president cannot and should not be questioned. And there has been plenty of that, which is probably why the president reacted so angrily on Twitter.

The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker, Yasmeen Abutaleb and Lena H. Sun talked to 16 current and former administration officials, state health officials and outside experts to write, “Squandered Time: How the Trump Administration Lost Control of the Coronavirus Crisis.” They wrote, “At the White House, Trump and many of his aides were initially skeptical of just how serious the coronavirus threat was, while the president often seemed uninterested as long as the virus was abroad.”

Also critical of the Trump administration was Politico’s Dan Diamond, who wrote, “Trump’s Mismanagement Helped Fuel Coronavirus Crisis.” Diamond wrote, “For six weeks behind the scenes, and now increasingly in public, Trump has undermined his administration’s own efforts to fight the coronavirus outbreak — resisting attempts to plan for worst-case scenarios, overturning a public-health plan upon request from political allies and repeating only the warnings that he chose to hear.”

And The New York Times’ Michael D. Shear, Sheri Fink and Noah Weiland had a story titled, “Inside Trump Administration, Debate Raged Over What to Tell Public.” The story paints an administration in confusion, led by a president whose initial plan merely seemed to be hoping the whole thing went away. Perhaps it was that criticism that led Trump to another angry tweet Sunday: “The New York Times is an embarrassment to journalism. They were a dead paper before I went into politics, and they will be a dead paper after I leave, which will be in 5 years. Fake News is the Enemy of the people!”

Yet, it’s critical for the media to continue exploring all angles of this story, including but certainly not limited to the administration’s handling of this crisis.

“What we need to do in this moment is prioritize accurate information from experts over misinformation from politicians,” Stelter said.

No comment

Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health Anthony Fauci and White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

For those who don’t know how it works, the Sunday morning news shows often put out requests for someone to speak on behalf of the White House, and then the White House usually determines who will speak to the various shows. On Sunday’s “This Week” on ABC, the choice was Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson.

The result was this awkward exchange between Carson and “This Week” host George Stephanopoulos.

Carson said the Trump administration would have a plan in place to deal with the passengers of the Grand Princess cruise ship, on which 20 have tested positive for the coronavirus, by the time it docks in Oakland, California, today. Actually, what Carson said was the plan would be in place “within 72 hours.” When Stephanopoulos told him that the ship was docking today, Carson said the plan would be in place by then.

But Carson said he didn’t want “to preview the plan” on the show. When Stephanopoulos asked him why, he said, “I think it needs to all come from a solitary source, we shouldn’t have 16 people saying what the plan is, particularly when it hasn’t been fully formulated.”

Then Stephanopoulos said, “OK, well you’re the president’s representative this morning.”

The problem with this? Stephanopoulos was doing the responsible thing, asking for credible information that could be shared with the public. The president and his representatives cannot criticize the media for putting out misinformation and then not provide the right information when asked. What’s the point of having Carson go on if the information is going to come from a “solitary source” and he is not that source?

Truth and consequences

The best feature of the weekend was “CBS Sunday Morning’s” look back at the 1918 flu pandemic that killed 675,000 Americans and 50-100 million people worldwide. No one is suggesting the coronavirus will turn into that, but there are similarities to early reporting and the spread of the virus.

Why was it known as the Spanish flu? Because Spain allowed the press to report on it, unlike the United States.

Before the flu outbreak, President Woodrow Wilson had pushed the Sedition Act through Congress. It made it a crime to say or publish anything that could hurt the war effort. That led newspapers to kill stories that quoted health experts who said a huge war bond parade in Philadelphia should be canceled. The parade went on and, within 48 hours, the flu had spread rapidly through the city.

The death toll from the flu in Philadelphia was about 14,500.

In an especially pertinent question about today’s coronavirus, CBS News’ Martha Teichner asked, “What are the consequences if the truth isn’t told?”

Tulane University professor John Barry, who has written extensively about the 1918 flu, said, “I think more people will die, yeah. Clearly that was the case in 1918. People can deal with the truth. It’s the unknown that’s much scarier.”

It’s water under the bridge to Watters

Rudy Giuliani. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

During an appearance on Fox News’ “Watters’ World” over the weekend, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani claimed that Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden is showing “obvious signs of dementia.”

“If you consider that what he’s displaying gets worse, what’s he going to be like three years from now?” Giuliani added. “If he doesn’t know what state he’s in, he can’t figure out who his wife is, and if he thinks 150 million people — which is half the population roughly of America — got killed, then what’s he going to be like two years from now when that illness gets worse?”

Certainly, Giuliani attacking Biden was no surprise, but what was disappointing was host Jesse Watters letting Giuliani make such a serious claim without pushing back. A claim like that cannot go unchecked, but Watters played right along. Fox News likes to believe it is fair, but it’s moments like these that damage its credibility. And it’s moments like these that ruin any argument Fox News has that it is misunderstood or unfairly treated by its critics. Watters dropped the ball, plain and simple. Fox News can’t defend it.

A strange defense

Bill Maher. (Photo by Casey Curry/Invision/AP)

Chris Matthews said so many inappropriate things over the years that it’s a wonder he didn’t lose his job before resigning from MSNBC last week. It’s true that Matthews did a lot of good work over the years but, while we shouldn’t forget the solid job he did, that good work doesn’t forgive his poor behavior and comments toward women.

Yet many are still coming to his defense. Jonathan Capehart wrote a glowing tribute to Matthews in The Washington Post.

And, in a truly bizarre defense of Matthews, HBO’s Bill Maher not only defended him, but mocked Laura Bassett, the journalist who wrote the GQ article that accused Matthews of inappropriate comments.

On his “Real Time” show, Maher admitted Matthews’ comments were “creepy.” But after Bassett said she originally didn’t name Matthews by name out of fear of retribution, Maher said, “Thank you, Rosa Parks. I mean, (expletive)! I guess my question is: Do you wonder how Democrats lose?”

Regarding Bassett saying that Matthews made comments about her appearance, Maher said, “Is she a compliment-victim or a compliment-survivor?”

At this point, Maher’s whole schtick has grown lame and old. Still, it’s surprising HBO is OK with this commentary. It’s one thing to have a conversation about #MeToo behavior, it’s another to mock someone for coming forward after being treated the way Bassett was. Maher not only wasn’t funny (is he ever?), but his remarks were tasteless and tone-deaf.

Media tidbits

  • Pete Buttigieg will sit down with the “Today” show this morning for his first live interview since ending his campaign and endorsing Joe Biden. After that, he will appear on “Morning Joe.”
  • The Los Angeles Times has started a coronavirus newsletter.
  • Fox News Channel’s Harris Faulkner will host “Outnumbered Overtime: Coronavirus Outbreak” today at 1 p.m. Eastern. Dr. Oz will be the special guest.
  • Last week, the Tampa Bay Times wrote a blockbuster story about an armored truck company that took dangerous safety shortcuts, resulting in numerous accidents, injuries and deaths. It was a terrific piece. So how much does it cost a newspaper to do such a story? Times executive editor Mark Katches writes how the story came together and shares the price tag.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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