From The New Criterion.
April 30, 2020.
It was very far from being the first time that I had nearly suffered a whiplash injury from reading a New York Times headline early in the morning. “Trump Has a Problem as the Coronavirus Threatens the U.S.: His Credibility.” So read the big type at the head of the paper’s big story on the morning after the President had sought to reassure the nation about the likely severity and extent of the pandemic. His credibility? What about the Times’s credibility? Was there no one up or down the editorial chain of command capable of seeing that headline in the context of two-and-a-half years of relentless media attacks on the President over allegations of Russian “collusion” that, as a matter of fact, never happened? Who was The New York Times to question anybody’s credibility, let alone that of someone who had proven, in this not insignificant instance, to have been a lot more credible than it had been? How can all this, less than a year after the disappointment of the Mueller report, be so completely forgotten?
But the world begins anew each morning at 242 West 41st Street, and the denizens of the paper’s plush headquarters there must expect it to do the same at breakfast tables from the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam. Now, according to Annie Kami, Michael Crowley and Maggie Haberman, writing for the Times, it seems that the loss of Mr Trump’s credibility dates only from last September (just at the time, coincidentally, when the media had finally given up on their hopes of Mr Mueller) and the approach of Hurricane Dorian to the East Coast, after its devastation of the Bahamas:
President Trump assumed a take-charge role in response. But he undermined his own effectiveness after it became apparent that before displaying a map in front of the television cameras in the Oval Office, he had altered it with a Sharpie pen to match his inaccurate forecast of where the storm was headed. For years, experts have warned that Mr. Trump has been squandering the credibility he could need in a moment of national emergency, like a terrorist attack or a public health crisis.
No, that’s not quite what the “experts” have been warning, at least not the ones whose opinions have been routinely cited in the same newspaper. I think if there had been such a warning — temperate, wise, full of concern both for the country and for the success of Mr Trump’s presidency — I would have remembered it, if only because it would have been so much at odds with the tone of all the other warnings that have appeared ever since August of 2016 when Jim Rutenberg laid down the new rules for the paper’s relentlessly critical coverage of candidate Trump, as “a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies.” What stock of “credibility” could such a man as that ever have had to squander in the first place?
Only a few days earlier, the Times had given me another head-snapping moment when, its slate wiped clean of the Mueller fiasco as if it had never been, it attempted to recur to the old theme of Russo-centric “meddling” to wreck “the integrity of our elections” by splashing that: “Lawmakers Are Warned That Russia Is Meddling to Re-elect Trump.” Had I slipped through a worm-hole in time and woken up back in 2017? But because the briefing in question, by our impartial and non-partisan intelligence services, had taken place a week before and only now leaked out, there had been time for the Times to refresh the old story with the news that the President had sacked his acting Director of National Intelligence for going first with this delicate intelligence to the congressional committee headed by Adam Schiff and to complain, accordingly of Mr Schiff’s and the Democrats’ “weaponizing” of the report against him. As if they ever would!
This time around, however, there was a new twist to the Russian meddling story. Not only were those perfidious Russkies meddling on Mr Trump’s behalf, they were also meddling on that of none other than Bernie Sanders! With Bernie’s long history of sympathy for (to put it mildly) the old Soviet Union, this report not only freshened up the old, old story but must have given it a renewed credibility, at least among the Democratic establishment that remains almost as hostile to Mr Sanders as it is to Mr Trump. Yet there was nothing new about the “meddling” itself, which still consisted, so far as even our crack spy agencies could tell, of nothing more than Russian trolls posting pro-Trump messages on social media — except that this time they were also said to be posting pro-Bernie messages. If the “integrity of our elections” is so fragile as to be endangered by this kind of “disinformation” — as the media have lately got into the habit of calling anything they don’t agree with — there can be no hope for it in any case. Yet the Times’s credibility in once again sounding the alarm is apparently to be considered still unsquandered — at least in the paper’s own conceit.
Perhaps some sense of the threadbare quality of this shocking revelation contributed to the enthusiasm, and the haste, with which the media pounced on Mr Trump’s attempts to reassure the American people that there was no reason to panic about the Covid-19 virus as a further and presumably final discrediting of his whole presidency. All across the internet amateur meddlers of all nationalities were calling this Mr Trump’s “Katrina moment” while my old friend Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the London Daily Telegraph was already upping the ante to say that “COVID-19 is more likely to be the Chernobyl moment for Donald Trump” than for China. Of course he may be right, but neither he nor any other of the doom-mongers appear to have reflected that such exaggerated fears might be just a little premature You could even say that they’re not very credible.
For the media’s track record of credibility about Mr Trump, as I have frequently noticed in this space, is not of the best — and their own failures of credibility stem from the fact that Mr Trump’s lack of same has all along been axiomatic with them, if only as the corollary of the supposed infallibility of the media’s Trump-narrative which relies on it. They, of course, never mention this, but I would like to believe that most people outside the media bubble have no difficulty in supplying the necessary context of the dud scandals and outrages of the past three years to any further attacks on the President’s credibility — always supposing, which is unlikely, that they are still paying attention to them. After so many repeated efforts by the authors of this latest New York Times article and others like them to create a wave of moral revulsion against the President in order to drive him from office, who that is not already of one mind with them will see this latest such attempt as any different from all the others?
By the following day it was The Washington Post that had gone all-in to politicize the epidemic, when its angle on the biggest news story of the year was so dominated by its potential for political damage to Mr Trump as to leave little or no room for any attention to the virus itself and the millions worldwide who were by then suffering from it. A quick look at a selection of headlines gleaned from the Post’s website on the Friday after the President’s address to the nation on Wednesday turned up the following:
“Trump says he can bring in coronavirus experts quickly. The experts say it is not that simple.”
“Coronavirus pushes Trump to rely on experts he has long maligned”
“Pence seizes control of coronavirus response amid criticism of his qualifications
“U.S. workers without protective gear assisted coronavirus evacuees, HHS whistleblower says”
“The Trump administration’s mixed messages are sowing coronavirus confusion”
The last of these heads an unsigned editorial under the rubric of “The Post's View” — though such a label can hardly be necessary given that it is also the view of nine out of ten of the paper’s roster of opinion columnists and cartoonists. For example:
Catherine Rampell: “With coronavirus, Trump’s lies and his reassurances backfire”
Jennifer Rubin: “Trump’s news conference will likely intensify panic over coronavirus”
Jennifer Rubin part deux: “Trump has no clue what to do in a disaster”
Jennifer Rubin part trois: “It’s the incompetence that may bring Trump down”
Max Boot: Coronavirus lays bare all the pathologies of the Trump administration
Alexandra Petri: No matter what happens with the coronavirus, I’m sure Trump has it under control
Greg Sargent: “New coronavirus revelations make Trump’s ‘deep state’ rage look worse”
In addition, we find David Ignatius helpfully advising: “How Trump can avoid being his own worst enemy on coronavirus,” though without much hope that he will avoid it, while Greg Sargent, part deux, offers up the most spectacular irony-failure of them all, opining that “Trump just pushed one of his worst conspiracy theories yet” — which “theory” turns out to be that his enemies in the media “are ‘weaponizing’ the outbreak against him.” Now what, I wonder, could have given him that idea?
They were certainly weaponizing his entirely predictable response to the media’s premature criticisms. Later that same day, the Post’s Anne Gearan, Seung Min Kim and Erica Werner falsely reported that at a rally in South Carolina the President had said that the “coronavirus is the Democrats’ ‘new hoax,’ likening it to the Russia investigation and the impeachment inquiry.” Only someone so credulous as to have swallowed whole the media’s line on Mr Trump could possibly believe anything so preposterous, let alone report it and expect to be believed as the Post reporters apparently did. So also did the Politico reporters Nancy Cook and Matthew Choi (“Then Trump called the coronavirus ‘their new hoax’”) and the charge was taken up uncritically by the confraternity of Trump-haters across the world, including his would-be Democratic rival Joe Biden (“Biden blasts Trump for calling coronavirus a ‘hoax’” headlined Politico). Mr Biden, always a contender in the pot-and-kettle stakes, added: “"Some of the stuff he says is so bizarre that you can laugh at it.” I’d like to think that he was making a little joke there at his own expense, but I doubt that his limited stock of irony, like that of the media, is quite up to it.
Of course the “hoax” referred to by the President was not the virus itself but the rush by the Democrats and the media to politicize (or “weaponize”) it against himself. The New York Times report on the South Carolina speech, by Peter Baker and Annie Karni again, also suggested that that the “hoax” was the virus and not the politicization, but more ambiguously, by writing that Mr Trump had “denounced Democrats, describing the concerns they have expressed about the virus as ‘their new hoax’ after the Russia investigation and then impeachment.” Their “concerns” had not been about the virus, however, nearly so much as they had been about Mr Trump’s capability of dealing with it, an essential fact that the Times reporters leave out. The next day the paper’s editorialists were deploring that “a coming general election has politicized what should be a clear public health priority.” Nothing to do with them, you see. It was the general election that did it.
Here and there an honorable leftie, like Will Saletan of Slate took to Twitter to try to correct this media topos, writing that Mr Trump “was saying the hoax is that he’s handled it badly. Not the virus itself.” But then he had to defend his Trump-hating bona fides on Twitter against an inundation of followers writing that he did too say that the virus was the hoax, or as good as. And anyway, as Mr Saletan readily acknowledged, he is “a liar, a terrible president, and a terrible human being.” If that’s true, why do people like Will Saletan feel they have to keep saying it? Why does the Post jump on any pretext to announce further black marks against the President on the mere expectation of his failure to deal competently with the crisis? Wouldn’t waiting until he actually does fail and then criticizing him for it add to the paper’s credibility and forestall dismissal by Trump supporters who can hardly be gainsaid for complaining that they never have a good word to say for him anyway?
The answer, I’m afraid, is that the editors and reporters at the Post, as elsewhere in the media, know that nothing they can say against Mr Trump, no matter how far-fetched, will damage their credibility with the Trump-haters who, however many of them there be, are now virtually their only audience — just as anything they might say suggesting tolerance, forbearance or generosity of spirit towards the elected president could only alienate that audience. One supposes that the Post is left with few regrets for the absence of former subscribers whose Trump-hatred is somewhat less than obsessive, but it’s hard to see how even the remaining sufferers from Trump Derangement Syndrome don’t weary of such terminal monotony. They can’t all have the energy of Jennifer Rubin, who writes the same column in slightly different words every day of her life, if not oftener.
The threat from the corona virus may indeed be much greater than Mr Trump believes, but it is the credibility of the media in saying so, so soon, that has been lost — as much if not more than his own. They have assumed not only their right but their power to “cancel” those they dislike or disagree with — a right and a power which must both be immeasurably strengthened by their standing in immovable opposition to the unique awfulness of that “terrible human being” in the White House — and yet all their attempts to cancel him have so far failed. Or, as they see it perhaps, he has been canceled again and again but he won’t stay canceled. He’s like one of those cunningly crafted movie monsters who can’t be killed by any method known to science — at least not until someone accidentally stumbles on the silver bullet that will guarantee the inevitable happy ending. Increasingly frustrated by the continual deferral of that happy ending, they rush at every new prospective weapon as soon as it appears on the horizon because their narrative tells them that sooner or later one of them must do the trick. Those of us who don’t share their touchingly undiminished faith in the narrative aren’t holding our breath.