A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
The coronavirus is a stress test. In the same way that doctors put patients on treadmills to test their hearts… and in the same way that regulators put banks through simulations to test their balance sheets… this disaster is a stress test for American democracy, for countries around the world, for the global economy, for hospitals, for supply chains, for media companies.
It is also a stress test for our families. Our neighborhoods. And for each of us individually. For kids; for young adults; for spouses; for people who live alone. We are all experiencing it. Some people are thriving, while others are floundering. Unfortunately the person at the very top is floundering.
Counting the dead
As the death toll has worsened, President Trump’s behavior has worsened. I thinkhis statements and rants and tweets are newsworthy no matter what, but should be reported in context, and right now the death toll is crucial context.
As the US death toll approached 50,000, Trump mused about disinfectants.
50,000 dead, and he claimed he was just pranking the media.
51,000 dead, and he attacked CNN’s owner AT&T.
52,000 dead, and he tweeted about a professional wrestler.
53,000 dead, and he touted his ratings.
54,000 dead, and he went on a misspelled rant about “Noble Prizes.”
Nearly 55,000 dead, and he retweeted a far-right commentator who suggested “lunatics” on the left might be inflating the mortality rates “in an attempt to steal the election.”
Incapable of empathy?
The Washington Post’s Philip Bump and Ashley Parker analyzed three weeks’ worth of WH briefings and found that the president spent little time talking about the actual victims of Covid-19 and lots of time portraying himself as a victim. They wrote: “The president has offered little in the way of accurate medical information or empathy for coronavirus victims, instead focusing on attacking his enemies and lauding himself and his allies.” I appreciated this piece because it’s important to try to see what’s missing…
The American family
On Sunday’s “Reliable Sources” telecast I said this: When a grandparent is not well, the entire family feels it. The entire family shares the pain. Thousands of families are going through that right now — and the American family is experiencing it too.When a leader is not well, everyone feels it.
Others are bringing up this same concern, and some are going a lot further than I did:
— Carl Bernstein on CNN: “The question for the press, and all Americans, and the senators, and congressmen that needs to be raised is: Are we at the mercy of a delusional, unstable president?”
— Actor Bryan Cranston on Twitter: “I’ve stopped worrying about the president’s sanity. He’s not sane. And the realization of his illness doesn’t fill me with anger, but with profound sadness. What I now worry about is the sanity of anyone who can still support this deeply troubled man to lead our country.”
— So what’s the counterargument? Well most of the pro-Trump arguments I came across this weekend weren’t about Trump at all — they were about evil Democrats and “enemy of the people” journalists. Those are deflections, not defenses.
The ‘villains’ of this era
“We’re running out of words to describe this era,” Jake Tapper said on Sunday’s “SOTU.” He said “Republicans in Congress and in the Trump administration know that not only is the President failing to rise to this moment to, for example, get the nation on a path to widespread testing, the president’s now making open ponderings about treatments that experts worry could actually harm people.”
They know it — so what are they doing about it? “Republican leaders need to acknowledge the reality of the situation. They need to intervene,” Tapper said. “They need to convince President Trump to defer to the experts and focus on the needs of not his ego but the sick and the dying and the people trying to care for them.” He concluded: “There is going to be a history of this era written and those who are pretending this irresponsibility is not happening, they will be remembered as villains.”
Re-centering the story
I’m all in favor of less top-down, Trumpian coverage and more bottom-up coverage. Here are two strong examples:
Page One of Monday’s NYT has a story about big businesses getting small-business bailout $$$ on one side and a heart-wrenching Sabrina Tavernise story about unemployment on the other side. Tavernise depicts the “quiet catastrophe” for working-class people in Las Vegas. Read the story here.
Monday’s WaPo front page is equally powerful. It has a lead story about “Mixed signals on virus orders” and a Stephanie McCrummen story titled “Day-to-day, line-to-line,” about life in the South Bronx. “This is kind of how I imagined the End Times to be,” one resident said. “That’s what it feels like.” Another: “We just have to hold on.” Read the story…
“In time, we will all be okay, together.”
It’s critical that we cover both the economic toll and the emotional toll of this disaster. On Sunday’s “Reliable,” I followed up on my “it’s okay not to be okay” commentary and shared some responses from viewers.
— Joe wrote: “I always thought I was built for this. But it has been a rude awakening. A spiraling feeling of loss and no control.”
— Brad: “It’s ok to feel sad for our kids and scared for our parents.”
— Tracy: “It’s okay to be sad, afraid, and angry all at the same time.”
— Scott: “I am not ok. I am so worried about losing my house.”
— Leslie: “I lost my job last week. I feel like part of my identity has been taken away.”
— Dave: “It is okay to not be okay, because no one is okay. That is the one thing we all have in common right now. No one is okay.”
— Jennifer: “I’m not okay. I’m quite frankly pissed off. I’m just plain angry. This world has been turned upside down and inside out.”
Yes it has. So I closed with Jennifer’s final comments in her email to me: “No, we’re not okay, but I know in time, we will all be okay, together.”
We will pass this stress test. Better days are ahead… I just don’t know exactly when.