On the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Jim Rutenberg wrote his media column in The New York Times noting, “disinformation was for dictatorships” . . .
That was odd, just a deeply weird assertion to kick off a presidency. But it got darker quickly. Not even a month later President Trump launched his now familiar attack on the media as “fake news” and “the enemy of the American People!”
Later that summer he famously posted this video on Twitter:
As Edison Lanza, the Special Rapporteur for freedom of expression in the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, and I noted in 2018, there was strategy to this, an effort to sow doubts about media reporting on the Trump presidency.
I have wondered why Trump’s lying to the public and attacks on the free press (which are intertwined) have not lost him more support than he has. Maybe it’s the intangibility of assaults on democracy, or the polarized moment: ‘Sure, his lying may be bad for democracy. But where’s the harm to me? Where is the damage to the economy? Politics is contact sport, so man-up and live with it.’ Some supporters and seemingly all Republican Senators, save perhaps Mitt Romney, may like the other goodies (a right-wing Court, a humming economy, reinforcement of fears of immigrants and people of color, etc.) enough to outweigh the damage to democracy.
But perhaps the viral disinformation of the Trump administration has met its match in the real virus of COVID-19. The debacle of the government’s top infectious disease expert and CDC doctors gently disagreeing with the president puts Trump’s truth deficit in the spotlight.
Trump’s appearance on Hannity underlined exactly how warped he is, as he gave blatantly false or misleading information:
In a moment of national or global health crisis, few things are as critical as truth and access to accurate information. How do I make decisions about travel, work, childcare, social activities, concerts, and so forth if I cannot trust the information the government provides? Where do I get tested and how? At the very least, everyone should be able to expect that the government is trying in good faith to get it right. Everyone should be able to expect that the statements of our leaders are rooted in the best interests of the nation, of individuals, of public health and welfare. (This is also noteworthy: In a parallel reflecting the dangers of an information-resistant approach to public health, Chinese censorship, as Citizen Lab has found, played an early negative role as the disease spread.)
As Josh Marshall notes, his readers are reporting to him real-world anecdotes of the impact of Trump’s statements, especially as reported by Fox News. “One,” he writes, “is elderly relatives resisting basic social distancing precautions because they’re hearing on Fox News that a lot of Coronavirus is just hype for politically interested reasons.” That is a real public health threat — people not abiding by CDC guidance because of the president’s, as Marshall puts it delicately, “nonchalance” and politicization. Or as a member of Congress put it:
Unfortunately, because of the Trump administration’s history (or policy) of lying, anything its officials say may lack credibility among many Americans, even where that information is demonstrably true. Meanwhile, the government’s disarray and disinformation have arguably had a real impact on the economy, or at least that portion of it that follows the stock indexes closely. And its disinformation about its disinformation — its covering up or spinning of the President’s lies — will only make matters worse.
Containing a possible pandemic is difficult even in circumstances of good governance. But the effort to be truthful with people shouldn’t be hard at all, even when government medical and scientific teams can only report uncertainty. Voters need to be treated as adults, not children, and we need to know balances of risks to go about our daily lives. Official disinformation concerning all matters of governance is bad for democratic norms and human rights such as freedom of information and the right to truth. Government disinformation about public health is itself a public health risk. And they are connected. The president’s longtime assault on reporting is, as they say, coming home to roost.
Trump should, in my view, reinforce medical advice and refer all technical questions to the CDC and WHO. He should reinforce the authority of public health officials.
The media have a critical role here. Many have had a hard time writing about Trump’s lying. They don’t want to be seen as political, or even having an opinion.
Now is the time, as it has been for four long years, for the media to get this right. I would urge outlets not to amplify the lies and disinformation of public figures but to use George Lakoff’s truth sandwich to emphasize exactly what the public needs to know about this health crisis. Then call out Trump for the false or misleading claims. And then reinforce the truth.
This isn’t a situation where we need to worry about how to arbitrate between truth and fiction. Follow CDC and WHO guidance. Those should be the central arbiters of truth at a moment like this.
And then, as it’s clear how important it is do this in the context of public health, apply it to the public good more generally. By all means, report Trump’s lies; voters have a right to know exactly how manipulative the president is in times of crisis and normalcy. But do it with a recognition of the responsibility owed to the public, for their health, for their pocketbooks, for their democracy.