One of the many ways the public is ill-served by the White House chokehold on information about the coronavirus crisis is that it gives way too big a role to the White House press corps, which sees most everything through a political lens — and a warped political lens, at that.
To get at the truth about this public-health threat, news organizations need to route around the White House. It is flatly insane that someone as uninformed, intellectually incurious and science-intolerant as Mike Pence is playing point man here.
But news organizations also need to take political reporters — and perhaps even more importantly, political editors — entirely out of the loop on this story. It's too damned important to be covered as a two-sided battle over who's winning the narrative.
(Read Alex Pareene in the New Republic, on how "A Virus Is Not a Messaging Problem.")
The epic irresponsibility of letting the political staff anywhere near this story was on full display in the coverage — particularly by the New York Times — of Donald Trump's wildly dishonest attempt on Wednesday to blame Barack Obama for his own administration's continued failure to make widespread testing for the virus available to the public.
The Times story moved through a credulous headline, a credulous subhead and two long stenographic paragraphs before even giving readers a hint that Trump had no idea what he was talking about.
The main headline: "Criticized for Coronavirus Response, Trump Points to Obama Administration." The subhead: "The president said a 'very detrimental' decision adopted under his predecessor initially hampered the ability to enact widespread testing for the virus."
(The subhead was changed, sometime after I first tweeted about it, and others picked up on it, to "But health experts and former Obama officials said they were unaware of any policy or rule changes that would have affected the F.D.A.'s response.")
The first two paragraphs:
President Trump sought on Wednesday to deflect criticism of his administration's response to the coronavirus onto his predecessor, complaining that a federal agency decision under President Barack Obama had made it harder to quickly enact widespread testing for the virus.
"The Obama administration made a decision on testing that turned out to be very detrimental to what we're doing, and we undid that decision a few days ago so that the testing can take place in a much more accurate and rapid fashion," Mr. Trump said. "That was a decision we disagreed with. I don't think we would have made it, but for some reason it was made. But we've undone that decision."
Only then did the Times start — very gently — to explain some salient facts, including that:
It was not entirely clear what he was referring to. Health experts and veterans of the government during Mr. Obama's presidency said they were unaware of any policy or rule changes during the last administration that would have affected the way the Food and Drug Administration approved tests during the current crisis. Moreover, if there were, Mr. Trump did not explain why his administration did not change the rules during its first three years in office.
The Times story had two bylines: Peter Baker, the paper's star White House correspondent and lead practitioner of stenography and both-sides-ism, and Sheila Kaplan, an experienced health reporter on the Food and Drug Administration beat, who I suspect wrote the factual parts.
Baker's fingerprints on this story were crystal clear — he recently declared in an "understanding the Times" feature that he doesn't think it's his job to decide who's right and who's wrong. I am not making this up. Here's what he said:
For me, it's easier to stay out of the fray if I never make up my mind, even in the privacy of the kitchen or the voting booth, that one candidate is better than another, that one side is right and the other wrong.
As it happens, Baker is not alone among political journalists, and certainly not alone at the Times, where executive editor Dean Baquet recently reiterated his aversion to "taking sides" — even when one side is the truth and the other side is a lie.
For political journalists to refuse to even decide who's right and who's wrong is ridiculous, particularly at a time of such extraordinary asymmetry in terms of the two political parties' relationships to reality. Political journalists should not only use their experience and judgment to decide who's right and wrong, they should be shouting it from the rooftops.
But when it comes to covering science, refusing to decide who's right and who's wrong is not just ridiculous, it's anathema. It is anti-scientific – it is the exact opposite of science.
People who think that way shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a story with major public-health implications.
Bloomberg News' Jennifer Jacobs and Robert Langreth also totally muffed Wednesday's story, giving readers no reason to doubt Trump's comments until their fifth paragraph.
To the best of my knowledge, the Washington Post, the Associated Press and Reuters simply ignored Trump's comments entirely — because when Trump makes something up, it's apparently just not even worth mentioning anymore, or it's too complicated, or something.
CNN shows the way
Having said all that, I should note that it is in fact possible for political reporters to cover these stories better — even well.
Indeed, CNN's coverage of this story, as it happened, was exemplary – best practices.
Now, I bow to no one in my despair over cable news' addiction to fake political drama, its inane punditry and its willingness to be used as a megaphone for liars.
But when they actually do straight political reporting, they can be pretty great — especially if the reporters allow themselves to channel their common sense. It doesn't take an Anderson-Cooper-in-a-hurricane moment for that to happen, just an honest, fact-based human response to being told a bunch of garbage by a politician.
Erin Burnett's top story at 7 p.m. ET was "Trump under fire for his handling of the coronavirus epidemic, blames Obama. And now an aide to a Republican senator says Trump's claim is false." (Here's a video clip; here's the transcript)
It's worth reading at length. Burnett reviewed the coronavirus death count then said:
BURNETT: It is serious and yet President Trump continues to have people question his credibility when it comes to his response.
Here's something he said today. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Obama administration made a decision on testing that turned out to be very detrimental to what we're doing and we undo that decision few days ago, so that the testing can take place in a much more accurate and rapid fashion.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: The problem with all of that is it's not true, from everything we understand. An aide to Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander tells CNN that the Obama administration never made a change to rules regarding testing.
Now, at times like these, it is imperative that the president be explicit, specific and accurate. One could use the word honest.
Kaitlan Collins is live outside the White House. So Kaitlan, now the president made that claim which isn't true, and the White House is not even explaining what the president meant or why he said this tonight?
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: No. We reached out to them multiple times as we were looking into this trying to figure out what rule it is, what decision it was that the president was talking about. When we finally went back to them and said there was no Obama-era decision about this, they have not given us any kind of a statement yet about why it is that the president made this claim. And then, of course, he later relied on the vice president and the CDC commissioner to try to really back him up on what exactly he was saying when reporters asked him for clarification.
But yes, we are being told tonight that there was no change like this made. Now, during the Obama administration, they did propose a rule that would essentially give the Food and Drug Administration more oversight over this diagnostic testing that's happening at labs. But, Erin, we are told by a Republican senator's office and a lab association that that rule was never finalized. It never happened.
And therefore, what the president said today, saying he undid this Obama decision, just simply is not true. So this did not happen. This is not the reason for these hampered efforts of this testing that you've seen nationwide with local officials raising concerns about their ability to test people. It's really become a focal point in the administration's response to coronavirus.
And Erin, it really comes under increasing scrutiny tonight because this comes at a time when the Trump administration and this White House is really trying to put their best foot forward here, trying to say, hey, yes, we are adequately prepared to handle this. Because they've been facing some criticism from critics and Democrats alike over their handling of it so far.
And it just comes at a time when now the president is putting false information out there trying to say it's the Obama administration for the reason why they have been hampered in those efforts, when that just simply is not the case.
Similarly, on the CNN website, the story by Elizabeth Cohen and John Bonifield was headlined: "Trump falsely claimed that Obama administration slowed down diagnostic testing, experts say."
The credibility crisis is deepening
Another important lesson from Wednesday is that while some of the public-health officials that Trump and Pence occasionally allow to speak have serious cred — Anthony Fauci chief among them — others do not.
Trump's attempt to blame Obama came during remarks after a White House meeting with airline executives. When Trump was asked to explain what "Obama-era rule" he was talking about, he deferred to Pence, who then punted to Robert Redfield, the Trump-appointed head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But Redfield had it all wrong. Here's what he said:
So, in the past, we used to be able to have laboratories that could develop what we call "laboratory developed tests" and then be able to apply them for clinical purposes. And in the previous administration, that became regulated so that, now, for someone to do that, they had to formally file with the FDA.
And what the president's decision did was allow that regulatory relief now and that those university labs and those other labs in this country now can be fully engaged in developing laboratory diagnostics for the clinical arena so the men and women in this nation can get access to — and the doctors — to get to know the extent of HIV in the patients that they're caring for. It's, really, very important. It's what's changed the availability of testing overnight.
Trump, overjoyed, chimed in again:
This was a very big move. And it was a — it was something that we had to do and we did it very quickly. And now we have tremendous flexibility. Many, many more sites. Many, many more people. And you couldn't have had that under the Obama rule, and we ended that rule very quickly.
There was no such rule and no such move.
So reporters need to make sure they don't invest Redfield with the credibility that the CDC has historically had. Indeed, as Laurie Garrett, one of the nation's pre-eminent journalists covering epidemics, wrote when Redfield was first appointed, Trump picked him for his "hardcore, right-wing credentials." Among his career highlights, according to Garrett:
Redfield's early engagement with the AIDS epidemic in the US in the 1980s and 90s was controversial. As an Army major at Walter Reed Medical Institute, he designed policies for controlling the disease within the US military that involved placing infected personnel in quarantine and investigating their pasts to identify and track possible sexual partners. Soldiers were routinely discharged and left to die of AIDS, humiliated and jobless, often abandoned by their families.
In the 1980s Redfield worked closely with W. Shepherd Smith, Jr. and his Christian organization, Americans for a Sound AIDS/HIV Policy, or ASAP. The group maintained that AIDS was "God's judgment" against homosexuals, spread in an America weakened by single-parent households and loss of family values.
Redfield wrote the introduction to a 1990 book, "Christians in the Age of AIDS," co-written by Smith, in which he denounced distribution of sterile needles to drug users and condoms to sexually active adults, and described anti-discrimination programs as the efforts of "false prophets."
There's much more.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that Trump was just repeating what he'd heard from Redfield. I'm sure it sounded pretty good to him.
Similarly, when Trump discussed his "hunches" and prognostications with Sean Hannity on Fox News Wednesday night, he obviously wasn't sharing his own insights. He was just parroting things he'd heard from someone else, either on Fox or in the White House.
Let's be real: Neither Trump and Pence have the intellectual curiosity or wherewithal to reach conclusions about coronavirus that are genuinely newsworthy.
So when they say something flatly incorrect or mendacious, the press corps should call them out.
But when they're just talking smack, maybe the best thing to do would be to ignore them — and rely instead on sources who actually know what they're talking about and reporters who know enough about health and science and reality to discern what's true and what's not.