Media Coverage of Trump’s Coronavirus Lies Shouldn’t Overshadow Sound Crisis Reporting

Interview with Neil deMause, journalist and author who formerly served as news editor at the Village Voice, conducted by Scott Harris

During the escalating coronavirus crisis, President Trump, as he has done consistently in the first three years of his presidency, has blamed the media for what he claims is unfair criticism of his administration. In a March 8 tweet, Trump charged that “the fake news media is doing everything possible to make us look bad.” Even in the face of his government’s disastrous failure to secure and distribute critical coronavirus test kits across the nation, the president called the White House’s plan to combat the growing outbreak in the U.S. “perfectly coordinated and fine tuned.”

When NBC News reporter Kristin Welker asked the president at a March 13 press conference if he is to blame for the lag in testing, Trump responded by saying. “No, I don’t take responsibility at all” and falsely blamed the previous Obama administration. Almost on a daily basis, the president has issued false and misleading information about the virus, from assuring Americans that the virus was “very much under control” in late February to maintaining that “anybody that needs a test gets a test.” The self-congratulatory statements were an obvious and crude attempt to minimize the threat COVID-19 posed to the nation in order to bolster Trump’s standing in his re-election campaign.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Neil deMause, an author and journalist who formerly served as news editor at the Village Voice. Here, he takes a critical look at U.S. corporate media coverage of Trump’s handling of the global coronavirus pandemic.

NEIL DEMAUSE: Even when the media is pointing fingers at Trump’s sort of self-clowning on this issue, which they have done. We still ended up spending all our time talking about how’s Trump doing? What’s Trump saying? Oh, Trump said this crazy thing. Is that correct? And you sort of spend a lot of time on this. And honestly what we need right now is information, right? We need good information about what we should be doing about what’s working in other countries, about what the science is saying. And if we end up getting distracted by, you know, sort of the blurting of this guy who doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but happens to be president. You know, we’re wasting an awful lot of attention span that we don’t have to spare.

And I would say it’s not just an issue for elected officials in general, it was just as bad when Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York last week said, “Oh, don’t worry, the virus can only survive for literally a matter of minutes on a surface.” And that just kept being repeated over and over again. So I wish that the media would just steer their attention away. I know it’s their kind of default position to repeat what elected officials are saying. But now more than ever, we need to just be setting that aside. If the alleged elected officials are saying something about policy, that’s fine. If you’re saying something about science, that’s not their game. You just need to be talking to people who understand what they’re talking about.

SCOTT HARRIS: Neil, apart from covering official pronouncements from government officials, what are the other angles of the story that our media should be focusing on when people are looking for practical, daily advice in terms of going to work, their kids going to school, other issues about healthcare if they or their loved ones find themselves sick with a fever. What are the nuts and bolts of things that could be most valuable for the public that our media should be focusing on?

NEIL DEMAUSE: Epidemiologists have been studying these kinds of viruses for decades and centuries. And we do have examples of what has happened before, what happened with SARS, what happened with the flu in 1918. And, the media could be spending more time looking at those and saying, “Okay, here’s what’s similar. Here’s what’s different, here’s what we can expect from that.” And then of course, the other piece is there now, multiple countries – China, Italy, Japan, South Korea – have experience a couple of weeks ahead of the U.S. in terms of the infection curve and more time can be spent talking about what that tells us about what policies work or what to expect, or even just what it’s like. I mean, I wrote another article for FAIR a few days earlier talking about how to understand media coverage.

And one thing I recommended was, Go to foreign sources, right? Because, you know, at the same time that I was reading all this stuff about “Italy’s on lockdown” and you know, “Is it too draconian” and all this sort of very cursory “we read the press release and now we’re going to report on this coverage.” You could go to Italian newspapers, including English language Italian newspapers if you don’t read Italian, that were listing exactly what the rules were about who can go outside, what the conditions are, who you have to prove it to. Can you go for a jog? Lots of stuff that was useful in advance of, you know, the kind of policies that we’re starting to see now and this week in the U.S. So I think there are ways the media, again, could be spending their time better if they didn’t spend so much time, you know, following the public statements of elected officials. Again, you can do it a little bit. But it shouldn’t be the main focus.

Neil deMause is an author and journalist who formerly served as news editor at the Village Voice. See recent FAIR.org article titled, “Media Dutifully Report Trump’s Fiddling as Coronavirus Burns Through World.”

For more of Neil deMause’s writings, visit demause.net.

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