When I tell people that I’m a journalism major, one of the statements I get most often is, “Well, you have to be an honest reporter, you know. We need more of those. No more of this ‘fake news.’”
I laugh along nod, and promise to do my best to find and tell the truth. But such comments are, without a doubt, painful and reeking of misinformation. The media is not perfect—no one ever said it was—but its ultimate goal is to keep the public in the loop so that everyone can make informed decisions about how to live in a society so frequently evolving, so increasingly dangerous and so overwhelmingly complex. The media is, in its own way, a sector of public safety, a primarily noble profession that seeks to disclose fact, even when those facts are difficult to hear or require the asking of uncomfortable questions.
I’ve always been aware of the uncomfortable relationship between President Trump and the media, and such adverse reactions to my chosen field of study have definitely solidified my consciousness of the issue. Yet, being home due to the new quarantine measures has given me extra time to watch press conferences, read articles and truly pay attention to the way that Trump interacts with journalists.
It’s not pretty. In fact, it’s actually quite dangerous.
On March 20, 2020, Peter Alexander, an NBC White House Correspondent and journalist, asked Trump during a COVID-19 press conference, “What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?” The president replied, “I say that you’re a terrible reporter, that’s what I say.” He went on to further attack Alexander, stating, “I think it’s a very nasty question, and I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people.”
What’s interesting about this encounter is how defensive Trump became after receiving a question that did not criticize him in the slightest. Asking for Trump to address the public in a situation which affects their safety and well-being in monumental ways is not out of line. It was actually an opportunity for him to give a statement of reassurance, a call to action, a binding of peace…and, instead, he chose to chastise the person who was creating this intimate moment for him in the first place.
This isn’t the first time that Trump has deflected questions and attacked the press amid the COVID-19 situation. At the April 6 press briefing, Fox News reporter Kristin Fisher asked the president, “When can hospitals expect to receive a quick turnaround on these [COVID-19] test results?” to which he responded, “You should say congratulations, great job, instead of being so horrid in the way you ask a question.” Again, this question was a simple one. It was designed to provide a succinct resolution to an issue that will greatly affect the future of our country. There was absolutely no cause for him to react with disgust and scolding, and as a journalism student, trained to find truth, it makes me take pause and wonder…what could he possibly be trying to hide behind such a consistent act of cockiness and defensiveness? The only rational reasons why Trump would loathe pointed questions is if 1) he doesn’t know or can’t recall the answers to them or 2) he is already hypersensitive to criticism because they knew that he has done things worth criticizing.
The plausibility of the second possibility is hardly arguable. Since January of 2020, when the virus began to make waves worldwide, Trump has been downplaying the severity of the situation. He began spreading misinformation on Jan. 28, when he retweeted a link to a known conspiracy website stating that Johson & Johnson would be creating a vaccine for the coronavirus. At a rally on Feb. 10, he guaranteed that with warmer weather, the virus would be gone by April. On Feb. 23, he claimed that the situation was “very much under control”; that same day, the World Health Organization announced over 78,000 cases of the virus had been officially confirmed in 30 countries. By Feb. 27, he had stated in a meeting that “one day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.” On March 4, he denounced the virus as “very mild.” The lies seemed to hit a new peak on March 6, when Trump (and his administration) falsely claimed that “anyone who wants a [COVID-19] test can get one.” The Infectious Disease Society of America cites that “Access to COVID-19 testing still remains inadequate throughout the United States.”
There is no vaccine. It is April, and stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures are still firmly locked in place. Nothing is under control. 25,949 people have died in the United States—more than in any other country on Earth.
Trump cannot be blamed for the coronavirus. But he can and should be blamed for acting as a vessel for misinformation while shooting down the public’s relationship with the media, therefore deterring them from the truth. His crippling fear of criticism is only reflective of the fact that he does, indeed, recognize that his behaviors and reactions have been irrational. It’s the reason that so few Americans understand the severity of the disease, calling it a “media circus,” allowing racism to seep through the cracks and run rampant despite the global nature of the issue, refusing to follow basic orders and instead continuing to prance around to churches and hang out in parking lots.
The American people need a president who believes in the press, who can answer honest, fair questions and who understands that he is not above the truth.
And the president deserves a press that holds him accountable.
We are not infantile subjects who need to be kept in a calm, drugged line. We are human beings who deserve answers and knowledge and honesty. Our questions have not been too harsh. If anything, they have not been harsh enough. I have faith that the media will continue to ask in the face of accusation and anger. They owe it to us. They owe it to you.