How the Partisan Media Are Harming America's Pandemic Response

In the face of the country's dire health crisis, our country's political leaders are recognizing the importance of instilling confidence in governmental leadership, putting aside partisan differences. 

But the mainstream media are viewing this crisis not as a reason to do likewise, but rather to ramp up vitriolic second-guessing of President Trump.  While designed to harm him, the constant sowing of doubt in fact harms all of us. 

To be sure, astute historians recognize that in times of overwhelming danger, the instilling of confidence both by and in political leaders can be decisive.  They correctly point out that newly inaugurated Franklin Delano Roosevelt's words strengthened our nation's backbone: "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." 

Likewise, in an excellent new book, The Splendid and the Vile, author Erik Larson recounts how Winston Churchill's relentless exhortation to fight the Nazis galvanized British society, without which Britain's seemingly inevitable surrender would have transformed Western history. 

But in each of these cases, the media echoed and praised political leadership, thereby rendering it effective.  Would history have been the same in either case if a negative onslaught by a monolithic media establishment had harshly criticized and thereby weakened the unifying words of the leadership?  The answer is obvious. 

Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and went so far as to arrest those who too strongly opposed the war effort against the rebel South.  President Woodrow Wilson pushed the passage of the Espionage Acts of 1917 and 1918 for the same purpose during World War I.  We do not here endorse these questionable legal responses — only the stiff-backed attitudes animating them.  In the face of existential threats to society, we must hang together or hang separately, as Ben Franklin so sagely intoned. 

While President Trump in late January of this year was presciently blocking all travel from Wuhan, China, the House's impeachment of the president was being tried in the Senate, with neither body seeming to pay any significant attention to the looming crisis.  Likely Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden criticized the president's action as "xenophobic."  Has the New York Times, the Washington Post, or major television networks praised Trump for his bold action, a type of quarantine that saved our country from overwhelming early disease propagation?  Of course not.  Was Biden criticized by any of these same outlets?  We know the answer. 

To be sure, in an unprecedented crisis, there were bureaucratic missteps and fumbling in making and supplying masks and test kits in the early days of response.  But the mistakes to a great degree were not critical, precisely because the president had bought time by the travel restrictions, which slowed the domestic spread of the virus.  So the media harped on noncritical miscues while ignoring effective presidential leadership.    

At the same time, the president correctly called COVID-19 the "Chinese virus," holding China accountable for its irresponsible dishonesty causing the pandemic.  The media quickly responded in unison that the president was being "racist" for identifying the place of origin of this virus, partially to counter suggestions by China that America had concocted this contagion.

All of this journalistic drivel could be excused if the media eventually got on board.  Gail Collins of the New York Times revealed the vituperative soul of that prestigious paper by writing a column irresponsibly called "The Trump Virus," encouraging his electoral defeat because of a disease not of the president's making, one exacerbated by the Chinese manufacturing monopolies that the president had years before begun remedying.  The Times' Jennifer Rubin then gleefully wrote a piece proclaiming that more Republicans would die than Democrats.

Those initial responses, to be sure, predated widespread recognition of the pandemic's seriousness.  But in its recent March 22 Sunday edition, rather than backing off, this partisan paper doubled down.      

The front-page "news" headline carped: "Trump Is Faced with Crisis Too Big for Big Talk."  To erode public confidence in the president's words, Jennifer Senior wrote an op-ed, "Call Trump's Press Conferences Propaganda."   Ms. Senior's thesis was that any statements designed to give Americans hope were the false, empty words of a demagogue.  Maureen Dowd's column above it was to the same effect, contrasting Trump's supposed "'me' crisis" with a true '"we' crisis."  That the president would have a different rhetorical role from that of a sober public health official like Dr. Anthony Fauci was lost on the bitter Dowd.  She praised Governors Cuomo of New York and Newsom of California, ignoring that both of these leaders had thanked President Trump for his generous help to their states.  Her column was, in a word, counterproductive. 

Here is the most reasonable take on the Times' clueless partisan rhetoric.  Maureen Dowd wrote a '"me' crisis" column on a '"we' crisis."  Jennifer Senior wrote a "propaganda" piece against the national effort.  The "big talk" of the front-page article indeed is not helpful in a "big crisis."  In short, the Times is accusing President Trump of the very sins it is committing.    

The Founding Fathers had hoped a free and unfettered press would remedy the toxic "factionalism" endemic to democracy.  Unfortunately, today, a monolithic mainstream media establishment has exacerbated rather than remedied this factionalism.  This crisis shows how harmful our dishonest partisan media can be.   

A postmortem on the pandemic will show that the mainstream media were our country's most shameful crisis actors.  We only hope their negativity does not cause an unraveling of our country's otherwise unified fight. 

John O'Connor, Postgate: How the Washington Post Betrayed Deep Throat, Covered Up Watergate, and Began Today's Partisan Advocacy Journalism.  He served as an assistant U.S. attorney in Northern California from 1974 to 1979, representing the United States in both criminal and civil cases.

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