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If President Barack Obama had overseen the deaths of 100,000 Americans during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, do you think many Beltway journalists would have given him high marks for his "tone"? Me neither. Yet that’s what unfolded this week in the wake of White House briefing where Trump warned of 100,000-plus coronavirus deaths in the U.S. — journalists marveled at how serious and "somber" he was. It's like the Normalizing Olympics.
Or, to mix metaphors, it's a Moby Dick-like pursuit of a mythical 'presidential' Trump. That pointless search began weeks before Trump was even inaugurated, as Beltway observers calmly predicted that the Oval Office would soon change him and he'd grow into a statesman. Instead, Trump has unraveled in public view for more than three years while the press clings to this fantasy that underneath the narcissist and liar and bully is a man who wants to lead.
Even if Trump unveiled a completely new approach to governance and forever stashed away his usual array of insults, threats, and lies, that's no reason to give him credit. Especially not during a pandemic, when he wasted an entire month dithering about the coronavirus, famously announcing we'd soon have "zero" cases. (The government still hasn't secured enough test kits and respirators for the mounting crisis.)
The media’s Trump failures are all about tiptoeing around the truth and not being honest with news consumers. For instance, the New York Times this week published a lengthy and worthy article about how Trump has regularly lashed out at women in public office during the current crisis, much more so than men. Yet nowhere in the piece were the words "misogyny" or "misogynist" mentioned, because the Times and most of the press refuse to use clarity when analyzing Trump's deformed character. That's why the Times newsroom is not allowed to call Trump a "liar" or a "racists" even though he is both, as well as a textbook misogynist.
It’s that purposefully timid Trump reporting that mars much of the pandemic coverage. Responding to online critiques of the media's performance this week, one Politico editor, Blake Hounshell, responded, "You know, enough of this. It has taken entire teams of journalists to tell this story in all its many facets, and the press is by and large doing it extraordinarily well as the media industry collapses around them." He's right, the press has largely done an "extraordinary" job covering this once-in-a-century emergency. But in terms of the Trump pandemic coverage, that has been almost uniformly lacking, and by far the weakest link of the virus reporting.
Just look at the media rush to shower Trump with hosannas after he supposedly changed his "tone" on the deadly pandemic. "The grim-faced president who appeared in the White House briefing room for more than two hours beside charts showing death projections of hellacious proportions was coming to grips with a reality he had long refused to accept," the New York Times reported with urgency.
Over at CNN, White House correspondent Jim Acosta, following the pandemic briefings, announced Trump now "gets it," stressing, "I have never seen the president like this." Added NBC's Kelly O'Donnell, "The tone and seriousness was different today."
Oh thank goodness. Trump had finally come to terms with the significance of a pandemic that will likely claim 20-plus million U.S. jobs and perhaps 100,000 American lives.
To the surprise of nobody, days after Trump's "serious" briefing, he was back to his usual public antics while ostensibly addressing the national emergency — he bragged about his popularity on Facebook, mocked assembled journalists, tried to create a diversion by turning Wednesday's pandemic briefing into a press conference about a new drug trafficking initiative launched by the Department of Defense, and accused Democrats of launching a “witch hunt” against him. Trump also returned to taunting Democrats on Twitter, specifically a U.S. senator from New York, the epicenter of the deadly outbreak.
All if this is completely predictable, and all of this is why the press should refrain from claiming a mad man like Trump has changed his ways, or embraced a serious, somber “tone.”
Back in 2017, when Trump gave his first address to the nation from Congress (technically it was not a State of the Union since he had just been sworn in), cable news discussions of the address included more than 300 references to the optics of his speech -- including mentions of a “pivot," “presidential,” “reset,” and “tone," according to Media Matters. (Even the White House was reportedly surprised at how fervently the press praised the speech.) Trump, of course, did nothing following the speech to "pivot" towards more "presidential" behavior.
More recently in March, CNN's Dana Bash, after watching one of Trump's erratic pandemic briefings, showered him with praise: "He is being the kind of leader that people need, at least in tone, today, and yesterday, in a tone that people need and want and yearn for in times of crisis and uncertainty." Over subsequent days and weeks though, Trump proceeded to mislead the nation about a possible virus cure, lie about dismantling the White House's pandemic team, accused hospital workers of stealing much-needed surgical masks, and told governors on a conference call that he hadn't heard complaints about a lack of coronavirus tests.
Trump's never going to change. It's the press’ job to accurately describe who is now, and who he'll be for always.