Anyone who wants to keep the coronavirus fight nonpartisan can’t be enjoying the daily White House briefings on the outbreak.
Surrounded by health experts, business leaders and military brass, President Trump holds center stage. There’s a lot of essential information about Covid-19, but Trump also uses the hour-plus of free air time to boast about his performance and his television ratings, spar with Democratic governors and criticize his likely opponent in November, Joe Biden.
Trump’s campaign, meanwhile, repurposes footage from the president’s briefings to make positive ads painting Trump as a decisive commander in chief.
“The purpose of these [briefings] should be to provide factual, important information to people in a crisis — information they can trust,” David Lapan, a former Trump spokesperson at the Department of Homeland Security, told The Atlantic. “That gets diluted when they turn these into mini rallies.”
That’s why I disagree with those who say the media should refrain from “politicizing” the battle against the virus.
In a recent editorial, The Jewish Week criticized the president for taking “too long to acknowledge the true scope of the outbreak, seeming to be more concerned with how the crisis would reflect on him than how it would impact a population of over 300 million.” The editorial called for a federal response based on “public health, smart policy and reliance on real experts, not on polls or toadies or the ups and downs of the stock market.”
A reader took us to task for criticizing the president at a time of national and community crisis.
“I humbly request that the paper focus its editorials especially at this time to what the community is in need of most,” he wrote. “And that is not more ways to blame the president. Rather perhaps, words of possible comfort, guidance, perhaps even some pleasure in hearing what some people in our community are doing for each other, would be of greater value.”
Another reader writes this week: “Please encourage your columnists to ‘pass over’ the temptation to use the coronavirus to take cheap shots at politicians.”
First, I couldn’t agree more that we should provide “words of possible comfort, guidance, perhaps even some pleasure.” In the very same issue in which the editorial appeared, we wrote about how Jews were turning to the Internet to sustain their communities. We’ve been reporting on struggling nonprofits and essential fundraising. I wrote about how our communities “will need to pull together, even at a moment when an unseen pathogen is keeping us apart.”
We also launched a daily email update on how the coronavirus is affecting the Jewish community.
But it’s wrong to suspend politics at a time of national crisis, especially when the fate of our communities and its members rest on the decisions being made at all levels of government. We need to hold leaders accountable in good times and even more so in bad. That is the essence of democracy.
That’s not to say that we should treat the crisis merely as an opportunity to undermine our political opponents. That’s the sort of partisanship that Jonathan Tobin criticized in a column in The Jewish Week. “Too many of us think the only solution to everything is political — i.e. defeat President Donald Trump or re-elect him — as part of an apocalyptic battle between adherents of darkness and light,” wrote Tobin.
But too often people who rail against “hyper-partisanship” are essentially saying, “leave my side alone.” This is the dangerous weapon used by demagogues, who themselves exploit crises to forestall criticism. This is Trump, when he takes precious time during the daily media briefings to complain about his treatment by the press. This is Trump’s presidential campaign, when it threatens local TV stations for airing an ad criticizing the president’s actions. As long as Trump himself continues to politicize the crisis, democracy needs its watchdogs.
Accountability is the essence of our form of government. Yes, perhaps the most important role of the media, especially a community newspaper like ours, is to report on the helpers, guide our readers to important resources and provide words of comfort and even pleasure in difficult times. But our communities depend on decisions and actions made by our elected leaders, like providing relief for devastated nonprofits or keeping our friends and neighbors alive. We need consistent, honest and fact-based policies to preserve our health and well-being. Saying so doesn’t make the media “partisan,” unless their targets are conveniently found on only one side of the aisle.
Erik Larsen has a new book, “The Splendid and the Vile,” about Winston Churchill’s leadership in the darkest days of World War II. He notes in an interview that “the book takes you back to a time of an existential threat that was confronted in a very potent way.” How did Churchill pull it off? Not by denying the grim reality, but by asking his listeners to face it and expect to make real sacrifices. Not by giving false hope, but by offering optimism in public institutions and the people whom they serve. Above all, writes Larsen, Churchill had a “knack for making people feel loftier, stronger and, above all, more courageous.”
We need that sort of leadership at this perilous moment. If Trump were to rise to the occasion, we would be the first to say so.