There may be diminishing returns from cataloguing all the ways in which the mainstream media have been irresponsible, careless, and even deliberately false in their reporting on the coronavirus in recent weeks. But from time to time, it’s important to have a reminder of just how basic a problem it is.
Early on Monday, the media problem was that CNN’s Jim Sciutto tweeted an unsourced rumor about the Trump administration discussing imposition of a nationwide curfew for “non-essential businesses.” This was categorically denied by the press secretary to Vice President Pence.
New: There are active discussions within the Trump administration to encourage a possible “curfew” across the nation in which non-essential businesses would have to close by a certain time each night. – @CNN reporting
— Jim Sciutto (@jimsciutto) March 16, 2020
This is not correct. https://t.co/Wh458d8TAK
— Katie Miller (@VPPressSec) March 16, 2020
Sciutto’s tweet was particularly ill-timed, as it was misinformation that many Americans would probably take seriously circulating at the same time as anonymous text rumors about a “national quarantine” to be implemented under the Stafford Act. The texted quarantine rumor was false, and the White House had to refute it as well.
— NSC (@WHNSC) March 16, 2020
A senior official on rumors of a nationwide quarantine: “There is an ongoing effort to spread disinformation and cause undue panic. There’s no national quarantine for the United States. It’s important we remain vigilant in ensuring our information is coming from verified sources”
— Bret Baier (@BretBaier) March 16, 2020
Later on Monday, Trump was quoted on another topic incompletely – and therefore misleadingly – by reporters on social media, even when their organizations actually had correct quotations in their published stories. Trump’s words were truncated to leave off the opening clause, which signaled clearly that he was not suggesting state governments would be on their own in the hunt for ventilators and other equipment to treat patients with.
This is a cheat of a quote. Rest of the sentence: "We will be backing you, but try getting it yourselves. Point of sales, much better, much more direct if you can get it yourself." https://t.co/YTpUmPehLH
— Jewish Policy Center (@thejpc) March 16, 2020
This misleading effort can only be called malicious on the part of some in the media.
That it conveys a false picture of Trump, and will become part of an orthodox litany for Trump-haters, cannot be in doubt. (It immediately went viral on Twitter.)
Attempts to refute it with facts won’t dislodge it from the stubbornly retentive heads of the faithful, as witness other sticky themes now being trotted out as if they are givens.
Every effort is being made, for example, to debunk the false tale that Trump “dissolved a pandemic response team” on the National security Council staff. John Bolton, who was the national security adviser at the time the members of the team were reorganized, urged everyone to read an article refuting this tale in the Washington Post.
Reporting that alleges the Trump Administration dissolved NSC offices related to our biodefense are both false and misleading. Listen to those who ran the effort. This is a must-read for everyone who values truth over politics in a time of crisis. https://t.co/2AAsJMqrm0
— John Bolton (@AmbJohnBolton) March 16, 2020
But MSM outlets persist in citing the allegation as proof of Trump’s unserious and irresponsible approach to the virus crisis.
Also on Monday, the New York Times weighed in with an op-ed suggesting Russia is trying to sow chaos in America by talking up false themes on social media.
To quote one of the best lines the sublime Celeste Holm ever got to utter (in All About Eve): “This beats all world’s records for running, standing, and jumping gall!” Sowing chaos in America is, of course, exactly what the mainstream media and their journalists (including the NYT’s Mara Gay, tweet further above; also featured here) are apparently trying to do.
Further to Monday’s media sample, Politico came in with this gem:
Actual truth: "White House sends assistance team to ramp up #coronavirus testing."
The rest is bargain-basement editorializing. https://t.co/gmdCXSyNHx
— J.E. Dyer (@OptimisticCon) March 17, 2020
I rarely use my own tweets in an article, but in this case there’s no point in repeating myself, or even restating the case in more words. The comment says what is needful.
The present article leads with the instance that matters most: an MSM reporter disseminating a claim that materially misleads Americans about something of exceptional importance, like whether the president is contemplating a “national curfew” order.
I’ll conclude with a couple more examples that are of less operational significance, but nevertheless convey information about the – let’s say, the mental condition of the media, which we ought to take to heart.
Late on Monday, CNN came out with this complaint:
Fact check: President Trump made yet another false claim to minimize the severity of the coronavirus crisis, claiming Sunday that the virus is under "control."
Experts say the US does not have the virus even close to contained. https://t.co/0o4lmnihs0
— CNN (@CNN) March 16, 2020
It should be obvious that CNN hasn’t caught Trump in a lie. CNN, rather, is guilty of a semantic bait-and-switch. Trump doesn’t speak of “containing” the coronavirus at all. Whether he should have said it’s “under control” is certainly debatable – but that’s the point. It’s debatable.
There are criteria by which we measure whether something like the spread of a virus is being contained. It’s possible to lie outright about that. Trump didn’t.
There are no objective criteria by which we all agree to regard something as “under control.” Such wording either sounds stupid to us, or sounds appropriate, or sounds about right but perhaps disputable on the edges. I wouldn’t say “under control” myself, as regards the coronavirus, but I’m in no position to say Trump is lying about it, or, as CNN puts it, making a false claim. He’s saying something CNN disagrees with.
“Under control” is about how the humans addressing the problem are handling it, more than it’s about specific measurable outcomes. If analysts comes along eventually and attempt an objective conclusion about how “under control” things were, it won’t be until well after the fact. For the moment, it’s all subjective: not possible to “lie” about, but only to disagree on.
The media, in taking advantage of these ellipses in word and thought to label everything that comes out of the president’s mouth as a falsehood, are doing us a grave disservice. It’s no wonder so many people have simply stopped listening to them. When they are still the loudest and most widely disseminated voices in public dialogue, that’s dangerous in multiple ways.
There’s also, of course, the final example from Monday. It’s another of those “he did it himself before he started lecturing other people on how bad it is” things.
— jon gabriel (@exjon) March 17, 2020
You can’t make the stuff up, but you sure can predict it by now. Why would anyone listen to this any longer?
Few are listening, and that’s the point. It’s probably fewer with each passing day. Although it’s a perilous situation, the soundest advice must be to not accept at face value anything you’re told about the coronavirus situation via at least half of the major media brands.
I pay attention each day to what POTUS, VPOTUS, and their teams are telling us. It’s necessary to at least listen to your state governor, because regardless of how much you agree (or don’t) with him or her politically, you’re probably hearing actionable information about what will happen in your state.
Other than that – well, the less we listen, the less damage the media can do in an already difficult situation. I’ll leave you with this, for your consideration.
Advice for these troubled times. pic.twitter.com/AY6aYAimHy
— James Woods (@RealJamesWoods) March 17, 2020