In the midst of a global crisis, President Donald Trump continues to engage in one of his favorite petty pastimes: attacking the media.
“Coming together is much harder when we have dishonest journalists.”
“I think it is a nasty question.”
“That’s CNN, fake news.”
Trump has started doing regular briefings on the coronavirus, after weeks of insisting that it was not a big deal and would go away by April.
He’s misrepresented and overpromised on tools to help people with the crisis. He falsely claimed that the Food and Drug Administration had “approved” chloroquine, an anti-malaria drug, to treat coronavirus patients, and it would be available “almost immediately.” And he has exaggerated the availability of tests for people.
Trump has also regularly berated journalists and cast doubt on the credibility of their work. As recently as Monday, he took a gratuitous swipe at the media. He noted that many of the seats in the White House press briefing room were empty and asked Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, about the “angry media” who usually fill the seats.
“We have a lot of very angry media all around this room and they want one of these seats, but because of social distancing, we are keeping them empty and they are keeping them empty. Will there ever be a time when all of those really angry, angry people — who don’t like me much to start off with, but now they really don’t like me — will there ever be a time when these seats are full, like full to the brim like it used to be?” he asked Birx.
A few hours later, he referred to The New York Times as “Fake News!” in a tweet.
Trump has long fostered distrust of journalists and mainstream outlets, attacking reporters at his rallies and playing up the idea that the media are out to get him ― all while putting out his own misinformation. But during a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, what he’s doing is even more dangerous, as millions of his followers will be encouraged to discount the basic and life-saving scientific facts represented in the press.
“It is horrifying now that we are facing a highly contagious disease that is frightening and confusing. To watch Dr. [Anthony] Fauci and Dr. Birx have to come to podium to correct — again and again — the misinformation from the mouth of a president is awful. It’s painful to watch because the consequences are huge,” said Lori Dorfman, director of the Berkeley Media Studies Group, who studies media portrayals of public health issues.
Media skepticism obviously didn’t start with Trump. People on both the left and the right have long questioned ― and often with good cause ― the biases, motivations and accuracy of the industry. But Trump has made bashing the media and reports he doesn’t like a mainstay of his political and governing strategy, with the common refrain of calling it all “fake news.”
And he has gone after the media for trying to “inflame” the threat of the coronavirus.
That refusal to believe what’s in the media could, however, have deadly consequences for the coronavirus pandemic.
A new poll from CBS/YouGov finds that 72% of Democrats trust the national media to deliver accurate information about the coronavirus, whereas 87% of Republicans don’t. The same percentage of Republicans do, however, trust social media and other online sources for accurate information, compared to just 28% of Democrats.
It’s easy to go on social media and find posts that are skeptical about the threat of the coronavirus ― many reflecting the sentiments Trump himself has expressed. Some think it’s a liberal hoax to take down Trump or falsely argue that it’s nothing more dangerous than the regular flu ― a claim that Trump himself has made. Many think it’s simply a media hoax that shouldn’t be trusted ― a belief that Trump has done little to suppress.
When leaders communicate in a crisis, they need to present the information in a way that is clear, consistent, unemotional and credible, according to Frank Sesno, a former CNN journalist who is now director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University.
“So to present information in a divisive way … or to attack messengers so that people doubt what they are seeing ― this is a damaging thing. And while the president may feel that he is taking a shot at the media and the media deserve it ― and fair enough, some of them may ― what he’s really doing is he’s further reinforcing his own role as a divisive person who criticizes and attacks. Now is not the time to criticize and attack,” said Sesno.
The coronavirus is hitting everyone, regardless of political ideology. The New York Times recently ran a story about Heaven and Mark Frilot, a conservative couple in a conservative Louisiana town, whose Facebook feed was often filled with people making light of the coronavirus and social distancing, echoing language used by Trump and his allies ― the same sorts of jokes posted above. That skepticism vanished, however, when Heaven revealed that Mark was critically ill from the disease.
“We kept kind of joking about it, like, ‘Oh, this is crazy! This is not going to affect us, why is everyone so wigged out about it?’ And then it did,” said Cheryl Pitfield, a close friend of Heaven’s who is a Trump supporter and believed that the media was overhyping the disease.
Since Trump made his inaccurate claims about chloroquine, there have been at least three instances worldwide of people self-medicating and getting sick. In Nigeria, two people were sent to the hospital after overdosing on the medication. In Arizona, a man died after he and his wife ― who needed critical care ― took chloroquine phosphate, which is used to clean aquariums.
“I saw it sitting on the back shelf and thought, ‘Hey, isn’t that the stuff they’re talking about on TV?’” the man’s wife said, adding, “We were afraid of getting sick.”
Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has tried to walk back Trump’s claims about the drug, saying it was “anecdotal” and still needed to be tested in a clinical trial to make sure it was “truly safe and truly effective.”
After long denying that the coronavirus was a big deal, some pundits thought Trump was finally beginning to take it seriously with his daily briefings, declaring a state of emergency and canceling campaign events.
But on Tuesday, Trump said he’d like to have the economy back “open” by Easter, even though public health experts warn such an end to social distancing could cost people their lives.
“I just think it would be a beautiful timeline,” Trump said.