Not since I was stuck in a hospital in February 2016 during the runup to Super Tuesday have I had CNN on all the time. Usually I don’t watch CNN. Being “self-quarantined” in a national crisis — a real one — I watch it. There is much on CNN that is intelligent and relevant, which is why I watch and listen. But there is much also that is inflammatory and biased.
Much of the problem is the playing-up of panic. All reporters are trained to play up stories, to sharpen them, to bring out the conflict and emotion. I was a newspaper reporter years ago, and I know that to some degree they have to do this. Each person in the chain of news reporting is a kind of salesman. The reporters are trying to “make a sale” to their immediate editors, and they, in turn, are trying to sell their stories to the top editors, and the top editors are trying to grab and hold the attention of the public. But when you’re in a genuine crisis, you already have the attention of the public. In that situation, you should think about the social effect of your story. If you are reporting on an irrational panic — a nation of morons out to buy up all the toilet paper — you should report it in a way that doesn’t prompt hoi polloi to clean out all the canned chili and frozen pot pies. For media people, this sort of restraint goes against what they are.
Some are worse than others. On March 12 I watched CNN host Don Lemon browbeat commentator John Kasich, the former governor of Ohio. Kasich, a moderate Republican, ran against Trump in 2016 for the presidential nomination. He’s the antithesis of a Trump lackey. Kasich was on CNN just after President Trump addressed the nation about COVID-19 and announced the travel restrictions from Europe. Kasich was there to comment. His comment was that finally, after underplaying the epidemic, Trump had set the right tone.
When you’re in a genuine crisis, you already have the attention of the public. In that situation, you should think about the social effect of your story.
Lemon didn’t argue with Trump’s tone, but he brushed Kasich’s comment aside. What Lemon wanted to talk about, and Kasich to talk about, was that one of Trump’s statements about the travel restrictions had had to be corrected. The president, Lemon said, was giving “mixed messages”; he was confusing the people. To Kasich, however, having to correct an error was a minor thing. The correction had been made within the hour. The important thing was that Trump was taking the medical experts seriously and acting seriously.
“I think he set a serious tone; that's what I wanted out for him for a long time, and I think we got it,” Kasich said.
To Lemon, the important thing was to remind viewers that Trump had been wrong for two months. When Kasich insisted on talking about what Trump had just said, Lemon said, “You’re deflecting.”
I thought, “No. You’re deflecting.”
Sometimes this question can be reasonable, but it is also a question that requires no thought.
I understand the ethic of media people trying to extract truth from politicians who posture and lie — and Trump is no innocent in that regard. But Lemon was being unreasonable. Yes, in hindsight, Trump had been slow to respond to the epidemic. It’s all right to mention that, but the story is, the news is, he’s engaged now. It’s important to criticize the powerful when they fall short, but it’s just as important to credit them when they are on the mark. Public praise emboldens a leader to do more of the things that are praised, and it encourages others to cooperate and support him. Here was a case when Trump had improved, and dramatically so. The media needed to praise him for that — and Lemon kicked him. As the old song went, “Kick him when he’s up, kick him when he’s down!”
One of the most common kicks is Why Didn’t You Do This Before? I watched a press conference at which Trump announced some measures on the coronavirus. The reporters wanted to know: why didn’t you do this before? Sometimes this question can be reasonable, but it is also a question that requires no thought. Whatever a leader does, he can be asked why he didn’t do it yesterday. If you hear reporters at press conferences asking that question enough times, it reminds you of barking dogs.
On the news today was a story, which some group in the government reported months ago, that the federal government wasn’t ready for an epidemic. The “they knew and they did nothing” story is another that is entirely predictable. Every time a bridge falls into the Mississippi, or some such, we learn that some engineer warned months before that the bridge was bad. This happens again and again, and people wonder, “What’s the matter with our stupid leaders?” Fine; there’s plenty wrong. But governments are made up of individuals, some of them diligent and some of them drones, all working under bureaucrats who hoard information and jockey for power. And on top of this heap is one man with a limited brain whose demonstrable skill was that he could manipulate millions of Americans into voting for him. Should he take warnings from the nobodies on the bottom more seriously? Sure — but how would that work, exactly?
As the old song went, “Kick him when he’s up, kick him when he’s down!”
And then there is the question of magnitude. I live in an earthquake zone. Every once in a while, we get media stories telling us to be ready for The Big One. These stories have some good effects — I see public buildings reinforced with steel and concrete pillars under freeway bridges sheathed with steel, etc. I have screwed my bookcases into the wall, bought earthquake insurance and a few other things. I am ready for an ordinary earthquake, but am I really ready for The Big One? Not really. Nobody is. And if we get one, and all the old brick apartment houses collapse, and other houses are knocked off their foundations, I’m sure some smartypants will say, “You were warned.” And he will be right: we were.
Smartypants reporters ask, “Why did you (Trump) get tested if you told the American people not to get tested unless they had symptoms?” The same thing came up regarding professional athletes: “Why should they get tested when others can’t?” (Trump’s answer: “That’s life.”)
I am ready for an ordinary earthquake, but am I really ready for The Big One? Not really. Nobody is.
Many of the questions the reporters are throwing at the president are obviously put to them by other people. When reporters demand to know how many surgical masks will be available, and by what day and who will get them first, they are channeling their hometown politicians and hospital administrators — and also their hometown editors. (I can just hear an editor, yammering in the reporter’s ear: “Dammit, what are we paying you for? Pin the weasel down! Get specifics!”) But having all these media people hectoring, beseeching, imploring the Leader for definite, detailed, bankable results is acting as if the people were children waiting to be saved.
We’re not that. At least I hope so. Former Liberty editor Tim Virkkala writes in his blog, “We must not become a cargo cult, praying for the lordly President to bring us all the goodies of a mysterious, magical civilization.”
As I write, CNN is still on. Much of the time the news people are talking to doctors and public health officials. The news people ask good questions. They mostly get good answers, and they treat the interviewees with decorum and respect. But that is not how they treat the president or anyone, such as Kasich, who defends even one of his speeches. The CNN people really do go out of their way not to say anything good about Donald Trump, no matter what he does.