At Press Watch, Dan Froomkin runs down the list of big media responses to Wednesday's baffling Donald Trump presser about the emerging COVID-19 pandemic.
The problem, as Froomkin sees it: The press continues to cover up Trump's "terrifying incoherence" even now. They’re doing so even though Trump's obvious incoherence may be zero point zero hours away from killing people.
That Trump has nothing to say, even on this, is news, but reporters are by widespread media convention largely restrained from saying so. I don't quite agree with Froomkin that the press is "covering up" for Trump; it might be more accurate to say they are covering up for their own outlets, and for stylistic conventions which have at this point utterly failed them. The edicts of journalism insist on content "neutrality" to such an extent that reporters scrub vital public information from their stories if that vital public information might be considered "partisan."
There's not much that would raise shouts of "partisan" quite like the press writing down on paper what the rest of us watched on our own television screens, though: The sitting president seems unable to convey a coherent, accurate-to-the-facts summary of what the current danger even is, much less mount a response. It is partisan to believe your own eyes and ears.
America is now in yet another patch of familiar but unpleasant territory: A national emergency that requires the government to, at the very least, not be Incredibly Damn Stupid in its response. This is largely the only requirement of the White House at this juncture, or would be had the White House not previously cut from government the group of people devoted to handling new disease outbreaks to begin with.
Instead, let's look at what actually happened, when you strip out all of the indecipherables.
Donald Trump announced that Mike Pence would now be in charge of coordinating the national response to COVID-19. All fine and good, but we got next to no information about what that would entail. (As of today it seems to consist of a new firewall between the public and new information about the virus, requiring all new government interviews about the pandemic be cleared through Mike Pence's office.) Trump talked for a good long time, giving out false information and claiming that a vaccine would be coming "very soon"—a statement contradicted by other speakers who noted that there would be no available vaccine for at least 18 months.
No other information was conveyed. If anything, it was the last moments of the appearance that were most telling. As Trump was preparing to leave the room, he pointed a finger at Pence. "Wish him good luck," Trump said about Pence's new role leading the nation's response to a potential human health catastrophe. As Trump fielded a shouted question about whether he still had "confidence" in Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Azar himself quickly slid behind the now-vacant podium to very awkwardly say that the press was misunderstanding Trump. "I think you're not getting the point here of this," he admonished reporters. "I'm still chairman of the task force." Mike Pence, said Azar, was just there to give him "the biggest stick one could have in government" for helping him.
If it looked like members of Trump's coronavirus "task force" couldn't even get themselves out the briefing room door before contradicting each other, you may be right: Multiple media sources quickly confirmed that Azar was "blindsided" by Trump's announcement that Mike Pence was now supposedly in charge. Well, there’s a confidence builder.
"Top news organizations," says Froomkin in his piece, "rather than accurately representing Trump's alarming behavior, made it sound like nothing untoward happened at all." This is true. The point of Donald Trump's press conference was to stabilize the markets and calm public fears by showing that Donald Trump and his team were thoroughly in charge of things while presenting absolutely no evidence for it. The press has done him a small favor in that regard: If more of the public had actually watched Trump's presser, rather than merely read about it the next morning, the stock market might have fallen twice as far.
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