Donald Trump couldn’t have made it clearer on Monday that he has no idea what is going on, nor any idea how to get out of this mess.
“I haven’t heard about testing in weeks,” Trump told governors, one of whom had just complained to him about the lack of testing. “I haven’t heard about testing being a problem.”
The lack of testing is the nation’s second-most urgent current problem, behind the inexcusable lack of equipment to protect responders and treat patients. Despite some progress over the last few days (not weeks) test kits have been and remain in short supply almost everywhere, making it impossible for public-health officials to fully assess the extent of the crisis.
But even more than that, looking forward, the lack of testing – the lack of even a plan for testing – is the single biggest obstacle to a return to normalcy.
If you missed it, please please read my March 27 article on the consensus among public-health experts that the only way we’ll know when it’s safe to come out again is if the government initiates widespread, quick-turnaround, publicly-reported testing for the coronavirus – not just of the sick or scared, but of cross sections of every community.
In short, we need to know where it’s safe, not just where it’s dangerous.
The New York Times, exhibiting incredibly poor judgement, on Monday evening chose to make it sound like the lack of testing is simply a matter of opinion. The lead headline on its home page first claimed “Despite Pushback, Trump Suggests Testing Is No Longer an Issue,” before morphing into the just-as-bad “Trump Suggests Lack of Testing Is No Longer a Problem. Governors Disagree.”
That’s the headline that also appeared the article by Jonathan Martin, Maggie Haberman and Mike Baker. It may have been the worst example of lobotomized, false-equivalence stenography I’ve seen since the crisis started.
Media critics and public-health experts alike responded with alarm on social media. The defining tweet ended up being the one from Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves – especially after it elicited a smug and defensive (and now majorly ratio’d) tweet from the article’s lead author:
you’re picking the wrong fight, move along
— Jonathan Martin (@jmartNYT) March 31, 2020
No more benefit of the doubt
Nothing Trump says should be accepted on face value – and especially not when legions of people dealing with reality are so quickly able to disprove him.
But what concerns me even more than this particular Times article – and mind you, I blame the editors, particularly Dean Baquet, more than any individual reporter – is the way corporate media political journalists are still, as a whole, working under assumptions that apply to normal presidents, but not to Trump.
For example, too many elite reporters still act as if his decision-making can be rationally explained.
They still twist themselves into journalistic pretzels trying to explain how Trump arrived at some conclusion, when the cumulative evidence is overwhelming that — beyond some sort of autonomic response to the basest political calculations — his behavior is unpredictable, irrational, and highly dependent on whoever whispered into his ear (or who he was watching on Fox News) most recently.
Consider a trio of articles that appeared in the Tuesday editions of the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times, attempting to explain Trump’s abrupt reversal on his pledge to re-open much of the country by Easter Sunday.
The Washington Post headline claimed that “Both public health and politics played a role in Trump’s coronavirus decision.”
Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey and Yasmeen Abutaleb wrote that, on the one hand, “Trump and his advisers pointed to factors ranging from grim computer models showing millions of potential deaths to the unsettling sight of body bags lined up outside a Queens hospital.”
On the other hand, Trump campaign officials had “briefed the president in recent days… arguing that a spike in deaths could be even more politically damaging in November than the current economic downturn.”
The authors acknowledged that “[a]n undercurrent of political calculation has coursed through much of Trump’s decision-making on the coronavirus.”
But they still gave credence – at least enough to put it in their story – to the view from allies that “he has been increasingly driven by the responsibility as the commander in chief to protect the lives of Americans, after coming to understand just how deadly the pandemic is likely to be.”
Ridiculously enough, they quote Sen. Lindsey Graham saying Trump “flipped when he heard that 2.2 million could die if he did nothing.” But Trump was familiar with that particular study and number more than two weeks ago.
The biggest problem with the story, as Cornell history professor Lawrence Glickman angrily tweeted, is that it “normalizes Trump by downplaying his narcissism and calling it ‘politics.’”
Then, they discuss his “clash with Democratic governors, especially when he has felt they were insuffficiently appreciative,” as if this is some kind of normal political dispute, rather than a president threatening in a fit of childish pique to let Americans die. /3 pic.twitter.com/nzqq1kISmL
— Lawrence Glickman (@LarryGlickman) March 31, 2020
It was, in short, a bunch of spin. Media critic Eric Boehlert tweeted:
Trump contradicts himself (daily), press next day quotes anonymous aides who offer up feel-good explanations
stop trying to normalize https://t.co/j2EZeOt7YV
— Eric Boehlert (@EricBoehlert) March 31, 2020
The New York Times’s dynamic duo of Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman also explained that Trump’s decision came as the result of his exposure to “two sets of numbers” – death estimates and polling data.
Yes, sure, they wrote that “Trump’s abrupt change of heart reflected a volatile president who has veered from one message to another” and that he “often whipsaws back and forth as aides compete for his ear and offer conflicting advice.”
Nevertheless, they dutifully reported:
Those two realities — the dire threat to the country and the caution of the American public — proved decisive at a critical juncture in the response to the pandemic, his advisers said.
Washington Post opinion columnist Greg Sargent noted drily:
It's just weird how the media is widely portraying Trump's shift on social distancing as a massive surrender to facts, data and science — without quite conveying how deeply crazy it is that he only capitulated to those things when he absolutely had to.https://t.co/WfW5BLW6kk pic.twitter.com/hNuekVlf7D
— Greg Sargent (@ThePlumLineGS) March 31, 2020
Noah Bierman and Chris Megerian of the Los Angeles Times did a much better job of putting Trump’s latest reversal in its proper context.
They astutely observed that Trump’s “meandering, frequently testy, near-daily news briefings” have “provided a real-time look at Trump’s decision-making process — the vacillating, the wishful thinking, the degree to which he’s influenced by whoever talked to him last or whatever he last saw on cable TV — that has long been reflected in the daily chaos of his presidency but never tested as when so many American lives were at stake.”
So, you know, you can judge for yourself.
Their kicker was essentially a debunking of the Washington Post and New York Times articles:
By Monday, Trump was quoting worst-case scenarios, suggesting 2.2 million Americans could die if people returned to work and school too early. Some of the projections were published weeks ago, influencing the initial decision on March 16 to recommend strict social distancing.
But Trump acted as if the model was new, only revealed to him on Sunday…
“I used to say, a lot of people said, ‘Could you just have kept [normal life] going? Like the flu, like a bad case of the flu, a really bad case?’” he said Monday on “Fox & Friends.” “And the answer came in yesterday … 2.2 million people could have died.”
Trump said he is relying on the experts. But while Fauci has warned that the coronavirus runs on its own schedule, Trump couldn’t resist setting a new deadline.
“We think by June 1, a lot of great things will be happening,” he said.
A CNN analysis by Stephen Collinson also earned some ribbing on social media, from outspoken broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien and New York Times opinion columnist Jamelle Bouie:
“there are signs he doesn’t fully understand….”.
There are not ‘signs’. There is clear overt evidence, on display daily. In press briefings, that are bizarre and riddled with lies and inaccuracies.
It is interesting to me to normalize what is not normal. https://t.co/kI2zpNhjYk
— Soledad O'Brien (@soledadobrien) March 31, 2020
This isn't a bad news analysis but it is still very weird to read reporters write around the fact that Trump is an adult toddler with no understanding of the world around him. https://t.co/6oO2Luf5Oy
— b-boy bouiebaisse (@jbouie) March 31, 2020
It’s long past time reporters stopped quoting Trump’s outrageous falsehoods and giving them equal standing to the truth.
And it’s long past time reporters stopped trying so hard to explain Trump’s thinking, and instead explained that it is inexplicable.