Denial and Blame at The New York Times

By Tim Graham | April 8, 2020 | 4:24am EDT
(Photo by Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo by Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images)

The late journalism professor Ted J. Smith III wrote many years ago in The American Enterprise magazine that the press is often guilty of an "omnidirectional" bias.

They will criticize their targets for taking one course of action, which in no way stops them from later criticizing their targets for doing the opposite. Their targets are usually conservatives or Republicans.

This means that during the novel coronavirus pandemic, the press is seeking to punish anyone conservative or Republican for downplaying the coronavirus threat as well as anyone suggesting the virus was being exploited by the media as the latest cudgel against President Donald Trump.

The New York Times is writing articles with headlines such as "Before Virus Outbreak, a Cascade of Warnings Went Unheeded" and "Alarm, Denial, Blame: The Pro-Trump Media's Coronavirus Distortion."

But what did the anti-Trump New York Times publish before March? Did it downplay or distort the threat? The president imposed travel restrictions on China in January, and on Feb. 5, the opinion section of the paper featured an article headlined "Who Says It's Not Safe to Travel to China?: The coronavirus travel ban is unjust and doesn't work anyway."

On Feb. 10, The Times ran a story headlined "Health Experts Worry Trump May Overreact to Epidemic." The online headline was "Some Experts Worry as a Germ-Phobic Trump Confronts a Growing Epidemic: When President Barack Obama contended with an Ebola outbreak, Mr. Trump demanded measures like canceling flights, forcing quarantines and even denying the return of American medical workers."

White House correspondent Michael Crowley warned Trump has a "lifelong obsession with personal hygiene" and an "extreme revulsion to germs" that in 2014 led him to be overwrought in his response to Ebola. "Many health experts called Mr. Trump's responses extreme," Crowley wrote. "Former Obama administration officials said his commentary stoked alarmism in the news media and spread fear among the public."

Crowley seasoned the usual criticism of Trump with a quote from Ronald Klain, the political operative with zero medical credentials whom President Barack Obama put in charge of the Ebola crisis: "Our government is staffed with the best experts, scientists and medical leaders in the world. But Trump's instincts — anti-science, anti-expert, isolationist and xenophobic — risk that he will eschew that advice at critical points."

The only real surprise in this usual festival of disdain is that The Times put Klain on the record instead of buttering its bread with the usual anonymous "health experts" among "senior government officials."

On Feb. 18, The Times ran an article headlined "In Europe, Fear Spreads Faster Than the Coronavirus Itself: About 40 cases have been confirmed in Europe, but people and places associated with the illness face stigmatization." The three writers chronicled how fear was outpacing facts.

They worried about the business of a pub in the south of England that a man infected with the coronavirus had visited, writing: "An employee confirmed by phone that the restaurant had been inundated with calls about the coronavirus. In an effort to dispel rumor, the staff posted a statement on Facebook: 'You are not in any risk by coming into the pub.'"

Almost every media outlet has published or broadcast news stories about the pandemic that could look embarrassing in the clarity of hindsight. But The New York Times and The Washington Post and their television repeaters are going to pretend relentlessly that only the conservatives ever downplayed the virus and only the conservatives can be accused of "costing lives" with their cavalier opinions.

But all of that is "fake news."

(Tim Graham is director of media analysis at the Media Research Center and executive editor of the blog

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