A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter.
Every hour, there’s another closure or another infection or another death. Every day, there’s a growing global death toll. In the United States the coronavirus resembles a drumbeat in the distance: If you’re distracted, you may not hear it. Or maybe just once in a while. But if you listen carefully, and you can hear it very clearly and ominously.
“Fears of a global pandemic are growing,” as CNN.com’s live updates page notes: “While the World Health Organization has yet to declare the coronavirus a pandemic, as there is limited evidence of sustained transmission among people who have not recently traveled to China or had close contact with someone who recently traveled to China, other authorities have been less circumspect. Speaking Wednesday, German Health Minister Jens Spahn said ‘the coronavirus outbreak in China has become a global pandemic.’”
Trump is misinforming
I hesitate to even print the United States president’s words here, because they’re so at odds with what health experts are saying. But the president’s statements to Sean Hannity are significant because millions of people were watching live.
In a phoner with Hannity on Wednesday night, Trump reacted to the World Health Organization’s data-driven assessment of the global death rate for the novel coronavirus — 3.4% — by saying “I think the 3.4% is really a false number.”
“Now, this is just my hunch,” Trump said, which should have spurred Hannity to interrupt, but he didn’t, so Trump continued, “based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this, because a lot of people will have this, and it’s very mild – they’ll get better very rapidly, they don’t even see a doctor, they don’t even call a doctor – you never hear about those people, so you can’t put them down in the category of the overall population, in terms of this corona flu, and/or virus. So you just can’t do that.”
Trump continued by discarding his own administration’s advice to stay home if you’re feeling sick: “If we have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better, just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work, some of them go to work, but they get better, and then when you do have a death, like you’ve had in the state of Washington, like you had one in California, I believe you had one in New York.” No deaths have been reported in New York.
“You know,” Trump said, “all of a sudden it seems like 3 or 4%, which is a very high number, as opposed to a fraction of 1%. But again, they don’t know about the easy cases because the easy cases don’t go to the hospital. They don’t report to doctors or the hospital in many cases. So I think that that number is very high. I think the number, personally, I would say the number is way under 1%.” Hannity televised Trump’s irresponsible “hunch” to the world…
Ignorance on display
Trump went on to reiterate his ignorance about the seasonal flu. He made remarks to this effect last week, but I’m surprised he’s still saying it, since his aides surely cautioned him not to admit that he didn’t know about the fatal nature of the flu. “With the regular flu, we average from 27,000 to 77,000 deaths a year. Who would think that? I never knew that until six or eight weeks ago,” Trump told Hannity…
>> Also on Wednesday: “Trump falsely claimed that Obama administration slowed down diagnostic testing, experts say…”
>> Big picture from the NYT: “He has dealt with the coronavirus, the first external crisis of his administration, by repeating a string of falsehoods rather than delivering reassurance…”
“Coronavirus tests Trump’s credibility gap”
That’s the headline on John Harwood’s latest for CNN. He quoted historian Max Skidmore, author of “Presidents, Pandemics and Politics,” who said Trump’s aversion to facts and expertise make him “totally incompetent” for the coronavirus challenge…
“We need truth” and “we need testing”
Chris Hayes on MSNBC Wednesday night: “We need truth. We need the facts. We need testing. And we need them now. We needed them a week ago. And Donald Trump should take the next month off and golf, while someone else handles it.”
Pence’s press briefings
VP Mike Pence continues to take the lead — and his Wednesday briefing was back on camera, one day after the White House forbid audio and video of a briefing. As the Q&A ended, Brian Karem asked “Can the uninsured get tested?” but Pence walked away…
Advice for newsrooms
Poynter’s Al Tompkins has these tips for covering coronavirus:
– Limit adjectives like “deadly” since “for most people the virus is not deadly” and “by now people know this is a serious issue. Stick to the cold hard facts…”
– Choose images carefully: “Yesterday I just flew on a packed Tampa to Detroit flight. One person wore a mask. I thought to myself that if we journalists chose an image from that flight, and the image showed that one person close up in a mask, how out of context would that image be?”
– Frame stories with context: “People want to know ‘what to do.’ And even if you have written and reported the recommendations a hundred times already, keep doing it.” Repetition is a good thing!
– “Get creative” with storytelling. “The public is starting to freak out. Don’t add to it with screaming clickbait headlines and scary generic images.”
Last fall brought an explosion of impeachment-related newsletters and podcasts. Now there’s a rush of virus-related ones. NiemanLab’s Hanaa’ Tameez calls them “pop-up news products.” CNN’s new podcast comes from Dr. Sanjay Gupta…
Special reports on cable and broadcast
Gupta and Anderson Cooper will host a CNN global town hall, “Coronavirus – Facts and Fears,” Thursday at 10pm ET…
Brian Lowry writes: Representing the kind of service journalism I frankly wish the broadcast networks would do more of, ABC’s “20/20” will seek to separate fact from fiction regarding coronavirus with “Outbreak: What You Need to Know,” a two-hour live special on Friday…
Looking for Secretary Azar? Check Fox
Oliver Darcy emails: HHS Secretary Alex Azar wasn’t at the coronavirus briefing with the VP on Wednesday afternoon. And Azar hasn’t been on any of the cable news or broadcast networks this week. So where is he? Check Fox. On Monday he appeared on Laura Ingraham’s show. And on Tuesday Azar appeared on Lou Dobbs’ Fox Biz show on Tuesday, even though Dobbs has a small audience. I’m told that other networks have asked Azar to appear on their air this week, but they haven’t had any luck securing him for an interview.
It should be noted that Azar did do the Sunday TV rounds last weekend, joining “This Week” and “Face the Nation,” in addition to “Fox News Sunday.” But as the nation faces a growing public health crisis it’s worth asking: Why is the HHS secretary finding time for Fox opinion shows, while simultaneously avoiding other networks?