David Zurawik: Trump is turning coronavirus crisis into a messaging war where perception, Fox News matter more than people, science

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President Donald Trump is trying to turn the greatest medical crisis of our lives into a messaging war. Forget science; focus on media and perception. That’s where Trump’s emphasis has clearly moved this week, even as the nation engages in a monumental debate about saving lives vs. restarting the economy, perhaps as soon as Easter.

But this is one war the president might lose at the hands of the very weapons he used to get elected: social media and cable TV. How would that be for irony?

Monday night, CBS, NBC, CNN and MSNBC all cut away from a White House briefing on the virus. The bully pulpit didn’t seem so bully as MSNBC and CNN offered live interviews and taped comments from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and an array of medical experts. The White House issued an angry statement in response Monday night calling the decision by the cable channels to leave the president’s session “disgraceful.”

On Tuesday, Trump fired back at the lack of coverage by headlining a noon-hour, live, virtual town hall from the Rose Garden on Fox News with Bill Hemmer and Harris Faulkner as hosts. It was vintage Fox-Trump propaganda with the president trying to rewrite history to explain how brilliant he has been and how “unfair” mainstream media are in their coverage of him. Not all media, mind you. Trump went out of his way to say what a “fantastic person” Faulkner is.

Trump rewarded Fox for its unchallenged airtime and safe questions with a scoop: He said during the town hall that he wanted to see America back to work by Easter. It was the president’s way of showing he could make headlines. And those who play his game will gain, while those who resist will get pain.

First in line for pain during the Fox broadcast was Cuomo, who had been going out of his way to get along with Trump during the crisis. That changed Tuesday morning, though, when the New York governor criticized the Trump administration for sending him only 400 ventilators when he had requested 20,000.

“FEMA says, ‘We’re sending 400 ventilators.’ Really? What am I going to do with 400 ventilators when I need 30,000?” Cuomo said.

Trump attacked Cuomo directly, claiming that Cuomo had a chance to buy 16,000 ventilators in 2015 and turned it down to establish “death panels and lotteries instead.” According to The Daily Beast, Trump’s source for that claim was an article from The Gateway Pundit, an inflammatory right-wing publication known for its promotion of conspiracy theories.

That’s straight from the Trump handbook of using dodgy data to smear his opponents. This is where Trump is now directing his energy instead of focusing on how to best save lives.

The good media news as Trump tries to drag the national coronavirus conversation into his gutter of personal attacks is that social media and cable TV are providing powerful platforms for voices of science, reason and facts.

Case in point: the sobering Twitter thread that Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the John Hopkins Center for Health Security, published Monday night in response to Trump’s mounting advocacy for lifting stay-at-home restrictions as soon as possible after a 15-day shutdown ends next week.

“Anyone advising the end of social distancing now, needs to fully understand what the country will look like if we do that,” Dr. Inglesby wrote. “COVID would spread widely, rapidly, terribly, could kill potentially millions in the yr ahead with huge social and economic impact across the country.”

Dr. Inglesby’s voice was amplified by thousands on social media.

A parade of scientists, medical doctors and public health officials have appeared on cable channels MSNBC and CNN this week with similar warnings.

Unfortunately, instead of a unified, governmental and scientific war on the virus, as Cuomo and others have been calling for, Trump is trying to lead us back into open warfare with each other.

A divided nation might be good for him and his allies, but not for us at this deadly moment in our nation’s life, especially for the most vulnerable among us.



David Zurawik is the Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.


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