In his 1898 novel, “The War of the Worlds,” H.G. Wells imagined a world changed forever by something like our dread coronavirus. In that familiar story, Martian invaders were close to total domination of the Earth when they were unexpectedly vanquished by the “germs of disease,” famously called by Wells “the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, had put upon this earth.”
In the novel, mankind is saved by germs, but in modern Hollywood science fiction viruses are usually employed to devastate human society, or change it forever. The extent to which COVID-19 will leave a permanent mark on us is yet unknown, but it is safe to declare that generations of future doctoral students will study its impact on everything from handshakes to food supply chains.
Within the sphere of politics, we have already seen short-term impacts to elections and how legislative bodies do their work, but the question of how the psychology of crisis will translate into permanent changes in the relationship between the governed and the government can only be answered with informed guesses. Is the rebellion in Michigan against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stringent stay-at-home orders the first shot in a war against the nanny state or the last gasp of “consent of the governed”? Will the electorate become enamored of receiving “paychecks” from the government for not working, or will it chafe at adding untold trillions to the national debt and demand new austerity measures? Can the political media continue to play the role of a Greek chorus, pretending to speak for the general population and assuming a posture of omniscience despite being mainly aligned with one political party – and being so wrong so often?
It is that last question that consumes me today as I watch yet again the White House press corps savage President Trump. It’s become a daily ritual, and one that I enjoy not because the president is being attacked, but because he so deftly fends off the swarming journalistic pests like Gulliver shaking loose from a dozen Lilliputians who mistakenly thought they had the giant pinned. What I don’t know is how many voters believe the Fake News being used against Gulliver or how they view him when he on occasion loses his cool in response to their poison darts. Hopefully, the average citizen recognizes that swatting at mosquitoes is the appropriate response when traversing across a dangerous swamp. The skeeters, of course, have a different take.
Last week, we witnessed the White House press corps at its fustian worst while trying to pit President Trump against Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of his chief advisers on the pandemic. Like many experienced hands in D.C. before him, Fauci made the mistake of appearing on a Sunday morning talk show with the expectation that the journalist interviewing him was interested in a Socratic dialogue intended to elucidate the truth. No such luck. Jake Tapper, host of CNN’s “State of the Union,” was only interested in playing a grade-school game of gotcha. He wanted to maneuver Dr. Fauci into blaming Trump for the deaths of Americans.
I watched with amusement as Fauci fenced with Tapper in regard to whether or not the president “had gotten started too late” on mitigation efforts against the coronavirus, and was therefore responsible for thousands of deaths. Fauci began his response with a catchphrase that should be used by every guest who appears on Tapper’s show: “You know it isn’t as simple as that, Jake. I’m sorry.” Unfortunately, he proceeded to try to treat Tapper like an adult capable of nuance and rational thought, which led him to make self-evident statements of little probative value, but which Tapper (and his fellow wolfpack journalists) twisted into a condemnation of the president.
“Obviously, could you have done something a little earlier? Would it have had an impact? Obviously,” Fauci stated, but he then shot down Tapper’s attempt to make a comparison between South Korea and the United States when it comes to deaths from the virus.
“It’s a little bit unfair to compare us to South Korea, where they had an outbreak in Daegu and had the capability of immediately attempting shutting it off completely in a way we may not have been able to do in this country,” he said. “I don’t think you could say that we are where we are right now because of one factor. It’s very complicated.”
But Tapper wasn’t buying it. He had an agenda, a roadmap in the form of a New York Times report asserting that Fauci and other officials had “wanted to recommend” social distancing guidelines as far back as the third week of February, but the administration didn’t announce such guidelines until a month later. The implication was that the delay was equivalent to premeditated murder. When Fauci didn’t take the bait, Tapper got more direct: “Do you think lives could have been saved if social distancing, physical distancing, stay-at-home measures had started the third week of February instead of mid-March?”
This was like asking whether an accident could have been avoided if the driver was told in advance to swerve left instead of right. Yeah, thanks, you know-it-all Greek chorus! By now, I’m screaming at the TV and at Tapper’s smug face as he dutifully sets up Fauci for the kill. Please, Doc, just don’t say “obviously” again! But it was inevitable. Fauci just never understood that he was being ambushed.
“You know, Jake, it’s the what-could-have, what-would-have,” Fauci replied. “… It’s very difficult to go back and say that [lives could have been saved]. I mean obviously you could logically say that if you had a process that was ongoing and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives. Obviously, no one is going to deny that. … But what goes into those kinds of decisions — it’s complicated. But you’re right. Obviously, if we had right from the beginning shut everything down, it may have been a little different.”
“Obviously” times three! This could not be good. What is obvious to you and me is absolutely mind-blowing to the Jake Tappers of the world, who seize on every shred of common sense as the first sign of a coverup in plain sight. Then Fauci gave Tapper and the rest of the partisan press just what it needed when he made the vague and obviously true statement that “there was a lot of pushback about shutting things down back then.”
It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. After all, it was obvious, but within hours, the rest of the mainstream media was quoting Fauci as if he had pointed the finger at Donald Trump and said, “It’s all his fault! Trump was the one who pushed back! He made me do it!” Of course, that’s nonsense. Everybody except perhaps Sen. Tom Cotton was pushing back against the doomsday scenario of shutting down the economy at that time. Most of us probably never even envisioned it as a realistic possibility. Only the self-absorbed Greek chorus with its 20-20 hindsight could manage to condemn Trump with such skimpy evidence.
But condemn they did! The narrative was quickly shaped and shopped around that Fauci was blaming the president for thousands of deaths. Even the once conservative Drudge Report informed its millions of readers that “Fauci downloads on Trump,” which is hip headline lingo for criticizing his boss.
Only it never happened. In his interview with Tapper, Fauci had not one harsh word to say about the president. Trump knew it. I knew it. Fauci knew it. But the press apparently didn’t know it, and the phony story spread for 24 hours that the Good Doctor had pushed back against the president when he was really pushing back against the misleading questions. Even a lot of the conservative media like Breitbart and Gateway Pundit were quick to adopt the Fake News narrative that Fauci had been disloyal to Trump. What interview were they watching? Please, folks, get the facts straight before you make accusations.
The following day, at the April 13 coronavirus task force briefing, Fauci and the president got to set the record straight. It didn’t take long. Following his first response to a question, Fauci said he needed to clarify something he said the previous day in response to a hypothetical question:
“Hypothetical questions sometimes can get you into some difficulty, because it’s what ‘would have’ or ‘could have’ [happened]. The nature of the hypothetical question was, ‘If in fact we had mitigated earlier, could lives have been saved?’ And the answer to my question was … ‘Yes.’ I mean obviously. If mitigation helps — I’ve been up here many times telling you mitigation works — so if mitigation works and you … initiate it earlier, you will probably have saved more lives. If you initiate it later, you probably would have lost more lives. You initiate it at a certain time. That was taken as a way that maybe something was at fault here.”
Fauci then explicitly explained that before there even was a task force, he and the other medical professionals had talked about “the pros and the cons, and effectiveness or not, of strong mitigation.” The “pushback,” in other words, was the normal give-and-take of professionals having a serious discussion about real-life consequences of real hard decisions. It had nothing to do with President Trump.
“The first and only time that Dr. [Deborah] Birx and I went in and formally made a recommendation to the president to actually have a … shutdown in the sense of … strong mitigation … the president listened to the recommendation and went to the mitigation.”
This firm and clear statement that the press had gotten the story wrong wasn’t good enough for some of the reporters present. Paula Reid of CBS even tried to shift the narrative against Fauci himself by casting him as a toady of Trump. “Are you doing this voluntarily?” she asked without the slightest hint of shame.
The poison look that Fauci gave her was the perfect summation of how an informed citizenry feels about the misinforming media. “Are you kidding?” he might have asked. “Did you really just ask me that insulting question?”
Par for the course. Only usually it is President Trump who is being insulted by the masters of the universe in the journalism racket. But as the Washington press corps gets bolder, they seem willing to go after nearly anybody, even on occasion a Democrat! Or maybe they had to seek easier targets since Trump punches back.
It is my hope that one of the changes we may see happen as a result of the current pandemic is that the American public will stop relying on the media to interpret events for them, or to pass judgment on our behalf. It was easy for reporters to turn President Trump into a dangerous buffoon when they controlled the narrative, but as soon as Trump decided to hold daily press conferences about how his administration was responding to the virus crisis, it gave Americans a chance to judge for themselves the character and competence of their commander in chief. They also have a chance to judge for themselves how closely the media narrative hews to reality or — as I think — diverges into pure fantasy.
With any luck, we can break the stranglehold of the know-it-all media mafia on the flow of information into the homes of most Americans. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that the Trump-hating media will redouble its efforts to alienate Trump from everyday Americans by painting him as an out-of-touch madman. I wish I knew which way the matter will be resolved, but like the narrator of “War of the Worlds,” I too must confess “the stress and danger of the time have left an abiding sense of doubt and insecurity in my mind.”
How much of that doubt and insecurity is a function of the virus, and how much of it was created by the Greek chorus of media negativity, is one of those questions that will have to wait to be answered by future scholars.