For all the focus on the need to “flatten the curve” of new COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, there’s another curve that needs dealing with: the one President Donald Trump’s being graded on. Trump has been president for more than 1,200 days, but too many journalists are still treating him like a political neophyte by refusing to hold him to the standards of past presidents.
And that's particularly dangerous given his deep disregard for the truth. In January, Trump said the virus causing COVID-19 was “totally under control” and that he wasn’t worried about the possibility of a pandemic. The virus was not “totally under control,” and it did become a pandemic. In February, he claimed that the U.S. had “shut it down” and that he believed the virus would “miraculously” go away in April. Obviously, the virus had not been stopped, nor was there an April miracle. In March, he said that every person returning to the U.S. from abroad was being tested for the virus. This was not true. In April, Trump exaggerated the effect of his January 30 order to restrict some travel from China, falsely claiming that he “closed the border.”
Anybody who even casually follows current events must be well aware that an inordinate number of the things Trump says just don’t comport with reality. He’s a well-documented liar. He can’t even be trusted to tell the truth about the weather. Even so, journalists can’t stop extending him the unearned benefit of the doubt in his statements and actions, presenting them without correction or packaging the nonsensical to appear logical.
During the COVID-19 pandemic especially, outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC News, and ABC News have parroted Trump’s lies on things ranging from his absurd insistence that the administration’s failure to ensure access to tests is actually the fault of his predecessor to his claim that his political opponents were exaggerating the threat posed by the virus.
By continuing to grade Trump on a curve, media organizations are abdicating their role as society’s Fourth Estate.
During the Obama era, mainstream media frequently adopted the right-wing scandal du jour, buying into stories built on out-of-context quotes and conspiracy theories. When Trump makes absurd claims about eliminating the national debt in eight years or is allowed to describe his vision for health care in broad strokes that don’t match the reality of the plans he’s supported, journalists often give him a pass as though he can’t be expected to understand the specifics of policy.
His outbursts on social media have become baked into mainstream news organizations’ low expectations for him and are barely mentioned anymore. As CNN’s Oliver Darcy noted:
Mainstream media have also adopted the role of editors of the “Trump Presidency” reality TV show, cobbling together incoherent bits of nonsense and rearranging them until they make some kind of sense. Politicians’ misstatements are often treated as scandals, but Trump seems to get the exact opposite treatment. What may very well be purposeful lies are often treated by the media as honest mistakes built upon noble intentions. While that’s true of many outlets, The New York Times has seemed especially prone to adding flowery language to cover up for Trump’s lies and mistakes.
For instance, when Trump traveled to the Centers for Disease Control in early March and falsely claimed that anybody who wanted a test could get one -- and said passengers aboard a coronavirus-infected cruise ship should remain there so as not to increase the “numbers” of people with COVID-19 in the U.S. -- a New York Times article said the president struggled “to find the balance between public reassurance and Panglossian dismissiveness.” The flaw with this kind of reporting is that it talks of Trump’s motivations as if they’re fact. Journalists and audiences aren’t in a position to make assumptions about why he does things, and it’s unclear why such a line would run in a reported news piece.
When Trump made an absurd comment about bringing light “inside the body, either through the skin or some other way” and the possibility of injecting disinfectant into peoples’ lungs, the Times presented this information at face value, originally noting that this was dangerous “in the view of some experts” rather than simply stating that it’s clearly dangerous. Though later versions of the story more clearly illustrated the public health risk posed by Trump’s comments, which he would later claim were sarcastic, the original piece highlighted the press’s timidity when it comes to pointing out that something Trump said was dangerous, ill-informed, or just flat-out wrong. Trump versus “some experts” is a framing that’s allowed journalists to offload the responsibility of providing their audiences with facts and to instead just funnel Trump’s line of argument to people totally unfiltered.
Why are journalists so timid when it comes to holding this administration accountable?
Is this about access, about trying to build a conservative audience, or is it just a disagreement about the role journalists are supposed to play? After the 2016 election, Fire & Fury author Michael Wolff said that journalists should be “stenographers,” simply relaying Trump’s words to their audiences as spoken. To follow that philosophy is to believe that a journalist’s job is to share information, not to find the truth.
When David Muir of ABC News landed a rare interview with Trump last week, he had an opportunity to ask tough questions, to refuse to let him sidestep in his answers, and to correct any misinformation the president tried to push. Unlike during the press briefings and gaggles he likes to hold next to an idling Marine One, Trump wouldn’t have been able to cut Muir off or throw over to a friendly outlet for a softball question if he didn’t like the direction. This was a golden opportunity, but Muir dropped the ball. Trump repeated his categorically false assertion that the Obama administration left him with “broken tests” for the coronavirus, and he repeated his claim that people traveling to the U.S. from China “went through quarantine, they went through tests, they went through everything.” Neither claim met with pushback from Muir.
Perhaps Trump’s interviews with mainstream outlets will ramp up as Election Day nears, but thus far these opportunities have been few and far between. While Trump regularly grants interviews to conservative outlets, the last time he granted a one-on-one on-camera interview to a national TV outlet was in June 2019. So why would ABC News have given him such a pass during this rare situation?
In the lead-up to the May 5 Trump interview, it’s possible that ABC News took into account the administration’s history of retaliating against journalists and news organizations that paint it in an unflattering-yet-accurate light. Just last week, after a Voice of America reporter highlighted that the vice president’s wife, Karen Pence, had lied about Mike Pence not being aware of the Mayo Clinic’s policy on wearing masks, Pence’s office banned the reporter from traveling with the vice president. In January, when a National Public Radio journalist said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went on a tirade after she asked him about Ukraine, the State Department denied that journalist a seat on an upcoming trip with Pompeo. In February 2019, the White House banned four journalists from attending an event with Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un after two reporters called out questions at a previous event, including one about his former attorney Michael Cohen. In November 2018, Trump threatened to revoke the White House credentials of reporters who didn’t “treat the White House with respect.”
Perhaps Trump’s unprecedented attacks on the media have worked by neutering the press’s ability to hold the administration accountable for fear of reprisal. On the other hand, it could just as easily be that news organizations believe they need to pander to conservatives at the expense of honest reporting.
In December 2017, nonprofit journalism think tank the Poynter Institute held an ethics summit titled “The Press and the President: Trust and the Media in a New Era” where Poynter ethics experts grappled with the reality that Democrats trust the press far more than Republicans do. Unfortunately, some of the suggestions put forward included things like urging journalists to “reach out across the partisan divide and try to bridge trust” and to outright target Republican news consumers with their coverage. One would think that a far more ethical answer would be to simply focus on reporting the news “impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved,” as New York Times founder Adolph S. Ochs called for.
Instead, these ethics experts suggested that maybe journalists should favor Republicans a bit to win over their trust. The problem with this approach is that once you start worrying about how an audience will react to the news, and putting that priority above the news itself, it takes away from a reporter’s integrity and paves the way for a world in which those in power have no one left to hold them accountable.