Americans don’t trust the government, and they don’t trust the media. That trend has been evident for years, but the Trump era has accelerated it.
Now we can see the worst-case scenario that trend could create, playing out in front of our eyes: Confronted with a paralyzing coronavirus pandemic, there’s deep confusion about the steps the country should be taking to respond.
Don’t expect it to get better, says journalism critic Jay Rosen. That’s in large part because the Trump administration uses confusion as one of its primary political tools. Right now, it is employing it to create cover for the president, who wants to argue that he shouldn’t be blamed for a litany of missteps as the virus moved from China to the US and exploded across the country.
“The fight to keep Americans from understanding what happened from December to March is going to be one of the biggest propaganda battles in American history,” he told me recently. “The Republican Party and the Trump campaign and the MAGA coalition are going to have to produce confusion and doubt on a scale that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.”
That conflict is unfolding in plain sight: The point of that weird campaign video Trump rolled out at a White House press conference this week was to recast himself as bold and decisive in the face of the pandemic — as opposed to convincing reports in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other outlets emerging recently that portray him and his administration as dithering and confused, and slow to make crucial decisions like telling the country to start socially distancing.
It’s an extension of the challenge Trump has posed to journalists from the start of his administration, when he ordered his then-press secretary, Sean Spicer, to tell the press that his inauguration had an enormous audience instead of a paltry one. Or, in Trump’s words, delivered to a group of veterans in 2018: “Just remember, what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening.”
Rosen, who teaches journalism at New York University, has been meeting up with me once a year to discuss the challenges the Trump administration poses for the media. This year, instead of a podcast, we chatted via Skype, and I’m presenting edited excerpts of that conversation below.
If you read the story I wrote earlier this week about the media’s struggles to report on the pandemic, you’ll recognize similar themes in this conversation, which was happening while I was reporting that story; I’m grateful to Rosen for the opportunity to shape my thinking.
The Trump-era information gap
There’s a giant gap in the way the American public perceives or has perceived the pandemic. That split is both across political divides and across news consumption divides. Are you surprised in any way to see what we’re seeing today?
We have talked about this sort of gap for several years. But did you imagine that this would manifest in a literal life-and-death crisis like this?
No, I never imagined a crisis like this. I did, like lots of other people, worry about what would happen in a truly serious event, combined with the Trump presidency. But I was thinking a war, a terrorist attack, a natural disaster of epic proportion, something like that.
But something like this, which affects everyone and is invisible and takes both science and imagination to understand — which I think is a very interesting point for us to discuss — I never conceived of something like this.
There have been many failures. I think one of them, for a lot of people — and I include myself here — is a failure of imagination, a failure to see this coming, even though people have literally made books and movies about this for years.
This possibility was talked about a lot. And warnings for the virus began early, and so there was plenty of information that it was going to become important.
But what I meant by imagination is something additional to that, which is: In order to understand what is happening now, in order to be informed, you need not only good information, reliable information, but you need imagination to see what it is.
Imagination buttressed with science ...
Yeah. That’s why [Dr. Anthony] Fauci and others say if it sounds like it’s too much, it’s just enough.
But it’s an incredibly difficult thing to tell people about, because unlike a hurricane or even a war, [the virus] is completely abstract. So that’s one of the challenges that journalists faced.
Right. You can’t see it until you either have it or you’re looking at someone who has it. Even now, one of the things that strikes me — and you see this manifesting on Twitter — is that even now when there are [thousands] of people who have died, because so much of it is happening in a hospital, or in someone’s house or en route to the hospital, that you’re not seeing it.
And while there’s plenty of reporting from inside hospitals ... in terms of visuals, you’re still not seeing it. And so you end up with scenes like people on Twitter saying they’re going to the Elmhurst Hospital in Queens to see if they can see these lines with people.
That’s a whole meme now — go to your hospital and take video of nothing happening so that you can own the libs.
Confusion and doubt as a strategy
Are you tracking the percentage of people who say they are worried [or] not worried, and how that’s evolving over time and what their sources of information are? It seems like it has changed over time, in part because at various times the president has said this is a serious thing, after saying it was not a serious thing.
Yeah. And this coheres with political science findings from long ago, that public opinion does follow what political leaders and party leaders are saying.
The recognition that there’s a reality there, that this thing is happening, it’s real, it’s not a story, it’s not a fake — I think that has grown. But as that has grown, so has the attempt to escape responsibility for that.
And I think this is a really important point that I’ve been trying to make: The fight to keep Americans from understanding what happened from December to March is going to be one of the biggest propaganda battles in American history. Because so much of it is public. We have so many statements from Trump minimizing the danger. So many things are already on the record.
The Republican Party and the Trump campaign and the MAGA coalition are going to have to produce confusion and doubt on a scale that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. And that, of course, is going to be a huge challenge for the press.
But it’s much more than the press: I think the fight to interpret what happened in those first three months as someone else’s fault and to persuade Americans that it wasn’t Trump’s responsibility — when there are so many things on the record, like “giving myself a 10 out of 10” or “this is going to go away, it’ll just magically disappear.” All those things are going to have to be overridden somehow. And that is going to put a huge strain on the information system.
In the pre-Trump era, any politician, let alone the president, who not only said this once but downplayed the virus multiples times — made a whole series of statements that were then not rebutted but actually refuted — that would be the end of the story. Right? It’s all on tape. We know what it is. There’s no doubt about it. There’s no debate.
In the Trump era, sadly, we’ve become used to the idea that Trump can say something on live TV in front of everyone and then is actually able to make it go away, magically. And that there is a significant chunk of the population that either will never hear it or refuse to believe it or doesn’t care.
So you’re describing a fight to come. But it seems like in some ways, this won’t be a fight: Both sides will already be resigned to either believe Trump or not believe Trump. Is there any reason to believe it’s different this time?
I think that’s a little oversimplified.
The Trump base will believe anything that he believes, and there’s already polling data indicating that his core supporters trust Trump as a source of information far more than they trust the news media or any other institution. So for that group, yes.
Then, of course, there’s a large group of Trump doubters, who are also, not coincidentally, more likely to think that the mainstream media can be trusted as a source of information.
But there are people who are in neither of those camps. I wouldn’t call them centrist. I wouldn’t try to characterize their ideology. But they’re not in either one of those camps. And for those people, the key for the Trump campaign is to create confusion, not belief. And that’s what we’re going to see in the months ahead: the massive effort to create doubt and confusion about things that are overwhelmingly clear from the public record.
One side says this. The other side says that. I can’t make up my mind; I’m going to either ignore it or shrug my shoulders.
Yeah, it’s already happening. Like, [New York City Mayor] Bill de Blasio does not have a great record in himself and warning his public. He went to the gym way after it was too dangerous to do that. And so there is some responsibility there, right? Compared to Trump’s responsibility, it’s, you know, small. But it’s real.
That kind of fact is going to interact with on the one hand/on the other hand journalism. And they’re going to try and, of course, blow that up.
Another thing that has already started happening is people keep sending me this graphic. I don’t know who created it, but I’ll send it to you. That is all the headlines from various sources that minimized the virus, that said it’s not going to be that big of a deal — some similar things to what Trump said.
The attempt is to say that it was the “MSM” — a term I don’t use, but they do — it was the mainstream media that misled us.
Why didn’t the media do better?
I did want to ask you about that. Do you think the mainstream media — I’ll use the term — could have done a better job of raising the alarm earlier?
Probably, yes. As with other very big crises, like the 2008 economic crisis, you can go back and you can find reports that gave the appropriate warnings. But the overall tone of the coverage did not accomplish that.
I think the same thing will be true here. There are definitely reports — quite a few — that said this thing is bigger than the political system seems to be acknowledging. And then even before this particular virus arose, the possibility of a global virus like this, having this kind of effect, was very well known and discussed quite a bit.
So there is some responsibility there from the news media. But the news media of course isn’t one organism.
I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I think there are probably two different reasons that the media, broadly, was not more alarmist about this. One is a sincere desire not to be alarmist — in general, and specifically over a health crisis. If you’re telling people this is going to be terrible, and you quote people who are stocking up on food, you can have a run on markets.
I think it would be part of the reason that you didn’t see kind of a “Time out, nothing else matters. Pay attention to this.” That would be one reason.
But another way to look at it would be if the president and the White House [were] hair on fire about this, there is no doubt there would be media coverage of the same type. So that’s a factor as well.
There’s a lot of resistance to reporting on something that is a possibility.
But the other thing is that for many journalists, this reporting involved going to health experts — often the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] or the WHO [World Health Organization], or people like that — and saying, “What should we think about this?” and then reporting what they say.
And it seems like that would pose a real challenge if you are a good reporter, and you go to what is supposedly a nonpartisan institution staffed with experts, and they’re saying this is our view — that it’d be very hard for you to run against that.
I agree with that. Journalism scholars say that news reporters are dependent on “authorized knowers.” This would be a very good example of that. When the authorized knowers aren’t making a big deal of something, it’s extremely difficult for journalists to do that.
“News” is a fundamental problem for the news
What do you make of the Ben Thompson argument that this is why Twitter was particularly valuable? Because you had all sorts of experts on Twitter — sometimes they weren’t sanctioned by the CDC, sometimes they were smart people in Silicon Valley — and they’ve had insight and we should have listened to them more than the CDC or the WHO at various points?
Well, if the question is the availability of information that warned us that this was coming — yes, that information was available. And you could find it in part by doing your own research. That’s true.
But the problem is not really the availability of good information that turned out to be right and important. It’s the combination of good information and public attention.
Which is kind of the job of the media. To contextualize that information and to put it out.
Yes, and to order things. This is one of the problems we have with our news system. The news tends to be, to use a colloquial expression, “one damn thing after another.” And what it’s not that good at — even though people say that front pages do this — it’s not that good at helping us organize stories in order of priority.
Like telling us what’s most important to worry about. And next most important, and maybe third or fourth. And keeping those priorities both stable, in the sense that they don’t change day to day, but also be able to evolve as big events evolve. We don’t really have anything like that. And so it tends to be one damn thing after another.
If you just think about producing today’s news, then a sense of hierarchy, a sense of relative importance, disappears from the flow of content. This is a big problem with our news system. It’s not the fault of any one journalist or any one news organization. It’s a problem with relying on news for our knowledge.
But there are hierarchies. There’s the top of the newscast. If you know how to interpret the New York Times, you know that the story on the far right is the most important even though it may be under a smaller headline than the rest of the page. That is part of the job of media, right? Packaging that and ordering it?
Yes. But that tends to be a little bit different than what I said. That’s “here’s the most important new thing that happened today.”
But some things are not new, but they are the most important thing. So some things are persistent and still the most important thing today. And when you have things like that, where actually the news of the day doesn’t change the fact that you should be worried about X, Y, and Z first — that’s where the system breaks down.
Does this get better?
I want to come back to the original idea here that I had when I was talking to you, which was: Is there anything we can do about a partisan divide and a news source divide that is now literally a life-and-death situation? Is there any practical solution to this problem today in 2020?
Well, as the reality of the virus grows and everyday life is affected and people have extremely practical questions like, “What do I do? How do I protect my family?” the news at the local level becomes extremely important because people need to know where to go, what to do.
So it’s possible that local news providers will experience kind of a rebirth of both use and trust from the many questions and crises that arise from this situation.
And a relationship with a local news provider is basic to how people develop trust in journalism and in the news media as an institution. And so if people’s connection to local news providers is strengthened by this — which does happen sometimes in civic emergencies, like hurricanes, for example — that could change things a little bit.
I don’t think it’s going to change opinion at the level of Fox versus NBC and Trump versus Jonathan Karl. It doesn’t touch that. But reestablishing trust and utility with local publics could help journalism quite a lot.
That would be great. And it would be great if we have local news outlets that are still around to perform that function.
Well, this is part of the problem. Those newsrooms are themselves impoverished. And so it makes it extremely difficult.