President Donald Trump lies as a matter of habit, but in the midst of the pandemic his lies can kill. He touted a malaria drug as a coronavirus cure, and a fearful couple ingested a fish tank cleaner bearing a similar name; one of them is dead.
Now Trump is asserting that “real people” should join in his call to “open up our country” by Easter and “get back to work ASAP,” in patent disregard of the public health risks of returning to “normal” in the midst of a pandemic.
Given that the words of the President of the United States present a very real risk to the lives of many Americans, particularly in “red” states chock full of Trump supporters, what can be done? The only answer is relentlessly and rapidly administering doses of the truth.
This isn’t a censorship issue, given that Trump disseminates his falsehoods almost entirely through privately owned media enterprises, including social networks and television channels, that are not subject to the mandates of the First Amendment.
At a time of national emergency, the media not only has the ability, but also the ethical obligation to serve as a source of accurate information (and guidance) to people whose personal conduct will directly and materially impact their own fates, as well as those of many others they come into contact with as the virus spreads across the nation and the world.
There has been a great deal of debate about whether Trump’s daily press conferences should be carried live. Trump employs the events as proxies for his now impermissible rallies, and has taken full propaganda advantage of television networks’ live broadcasts of the lengthy event. Indeed, Trump apparently delayed the start of last Sunday’s conference so that it would begin during the time slot of the highly watched 60 Minutes program.
There are many good arguments against unexpurgated broadcasts of Trump’s events. Yet even if such broadcasts are limited, it will not be practicable to prevent the public from hearing, indeed hearing over and over, what Trump is saying, including his most dangerously false and dangerous statements. Simply put, Trump has too many outlets for his mendacity to prevent it from infecting the nation, particularly the regions and audiences containing the largest proportion of people most vulnerable to believing his lies.
The danger of the status quo is evinced by Trump’s most recent crackpot scheme, set forth in a public letter addressed to the nation’s governors. Trump “envisions” that “expanded testing capabilities” will “quickly enable” the federal government to “categorize” counties throughout the nation “as high-risk, medium risk, or low-risk.” Yet, as experts, including those who advise Trump, have recognized, the nation is not remotely close to the level of comprehensive testing, quarantining and surveillance of infected persons that could potentially lead to such a reliable “categorization.” To the contrary, infection rates are rapidly growing in various parts of the country, and records of COVID infections and even deaths are unreliable, making it impossible to have confidence as to whether any area, let alone every county in the nation, is “low risk.”
But, even if the scheme Trump “envisions” is never implemented, his words will inevitably encourage many of the president’s most fervent, and likely otherwise uninformed, followers to discount the danger posed by the epidemic, and thus place themselves and others at greater risk.
Since the infection that is Trump’s lies cannot reasonably be avoided, the focus must be upon providing necessary remedies, in the form of the actual facts. As the experience of the last several years demonstrates, the nation’s news media finds it difficult to effectively counter the disinformation that has long emanated from the president. But at this time in the nation’s history, offering a consistent stream of accurate information regarding the public health peril facing the nation in response to Trump’s lies is not only proper, it is urgently required.
In the face of the mendacity emanating from the White House, the challenge, and the obligation, for the press, and equally for social media enterprises, is to squarely and repeatedly–indeed, relentlessly–respond to the dissemination of falsehoods with clear presentations of the truth. And the way to do this is, at least as a conceptual matter, simple: The media must become relentless carriers of scientific and epidemiological facts, in a format that people can understand, and act upon.
Furthermore, there is, in fact, ample reason to believe that that the public is not only willing, but indeed eager to receive reliable, factual information about the pandemic, when it is on offer—even if the facts are far from heartening, and when they are accompanied with directions that put heavy burdens on the nation.
A signal piece of evidence of the nation’s willingness to accept facts in place of mendacity is the popularity of the daily briefings of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. In contrast to the lie-ridden Trump events, Cuomo’s presentations are factual, telling the truth about the nature of the challenge facing New York, and the full scope of the danger, and also providing concrete directions on what people can and must do, and not do, to protect themselves and others.
As Cuomo’s presentations demonstrate, harping, and being pedantic, actually works in grave circumstances like this. Following Cuomo’s model, offering explanations of the do’s and don’ts of social distancing, including how to shop in stores safely, what to do as you walk down the street, and how to wash your hands when you return home should become the regular diet of television programming.
By the same token, when Trump, and any other government representative, lie about or misstate the facts, it is not only permissible, but essential that every media outlet provide immediate and unambiguous correctives to their audiences. Trump’s suggestions, for example, that “real people” are questioning his own CDC’s guidelines and judgments must be answered with the words of scientists who explain, in terrifying, but accurate, detail, just how communicable the COVID-19 virus is, and thus how easy it is to be infected, including by non-symptomatic people.
Responding to the infection of lies emanating from the White House with facts can have an impact. For example, on Thursday, Dr. Deborah Birx, of Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force, denied that hospitals facing a deluge of coronavirus cases have a critical shortage of ventilators, and claimed there is “no situation” meriting a concern that patients in need will be left without life-saving care. Her claim was patently false, and journalists immediately reported as much, including by citing the accounts of health-care providers in New York City who are contending with war-like conditions.
Additionally, the press reported that the White House was dragging its feet on a deal with General Motors and a medical device firm to manufacture ventilators. On Friday, Trump, who as recently as Thursday night had joined Birx in denying the existence of a ventilator shortage, finally invoked the Defense Production Act to direct GM to produce ventilators. While Trump’s action may well be too little too late, it is nonetheless clear that he was shamed by the widespread reporting of the truth into taking that action.
Thus, while there is currently no cure for COVID-19, the infection of lies coming from the leader of the nation is a danger those charged with informing the nation can counter with truth, thereby potentially saving lives.