It isn’t easy to find any bright spots amid our ongoing slide into failed-state status, but here’s one: Far more Americans trust the news media than trust President Trump to tell them the truth about our coronavirus crisis.

A new poll from NPR, PBS News Hour and Marist finds that only 37 percent of Americans have a good deal of trust in the information Trump tells them about coronavirus. By contrast, 60 percent have little to no trust.

Meanwhile, the poll also finds that 50 percent have a good deal of trust in the news media’s information about the disease, versus 47 percent who lack trust. That’s not ideal, to be sure, but it’s good that far more trust the media than trust Trump.

I’d like to suggest that a great deal is at stake here. Our national response to a crisis with extraordinarily far-reaching destructive potential is more or less under the control of a megalomaniac who, with the eager backing of his media allies, vastly prioritizes protecting his reelection chances over protecting the country.

Some important new reporting helps underscore these stakes. The Post reports that Trump propagandists like Sean Hannity have stampeded in herd-like fashion from initially attacking the media for supposedly hyping coronavirus to claiming its dire nature actually displays Trump’s heroism.

Such attacks on the media have been central to the broader project of protecting Trump’s reelection chances at all costs. First Trump and his propagandists falsely accused the media of exaggerating the threat to protect his initial instinct to downplay it himself, all to avoid rattling the markets, to buoy his reelection hopes.

Then, when it became obvious the crisis was very serious indeed, Trump attacked the media to falsely discredit its aggressive reporting on his failure to respond to it competently and with urgency. And now, Trump’s propagandists are supplanting that accurate reporting with their own narrative — one in which the very same crisis they previously downplayed now showcases Trump’s decisive and “bold” leadership.

New details show Trump is unfit

Meanwhile, another report, from the New York Times, ferrets out alarming new behind-the-scenes details that underscore just how unfit Trump is to the task at hand. It shows that Trump’s refusal to accept the seriousness of coronavirus, and his failure to lay down clear chains of command and elaborate a real long-term plan, created a situation in which officials scrambled to address the crisis almost behind his back.

Trump’s approach also led to counterproductive infighting. The Times reports that after Trump put Vice President Pence in charge of the response, Trump’s continued fealty to the advice of son-in-law Jared Kushner — who also initially downplayed the crisis — resulted in Kushner taking on an outsize role that bumped up against Pence’s, despite Kushner’s lack of relevant knowledge and experience.

Americans take coronavirus seriously, despite Trump

In this context, it’s somewhat heartening that the new NPR poll finds that 44 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s handling of the crisis, while 49 percent disapprove of it. While 85 percent of Republicans approve, crucially, only 40 percent of independents do, while 50 percent disapprove.

Trump may think he can sugarcoat coronavirus, but media critic Erik Wemple says it is time for the government to speak with one clear voice about public health. (The Washington Post)

One bit of bad news: 46 percent of Americans say the federal government is doing enough to combat coronavirus, which is obviously not the case, while 44 percent say it is not.

However, 70 percent are concerned that coronavirus will spread to their communities, a massive swing from 44 percent last month, in spite Trump’s efforts to downplay it, which, amazingly, were still continuing in recent days.

Meanwhile, only 37 percent of Americans trust what Trump tells them about coronavirus, while 60 percent do not, and among independents, that’s an even worse 35 percent to 62 percent. Among women it’s a staggering 31 percent to 66 percent. When you contrast that with the 50 percent of Americans who do trust the media on coronavirus, that’s also somewhat encouraging.

Such findings are supported by a recent Quinnipiac poll, which found that Americans hold Trump’s handling of coronavirus in low regard, while only smallish minorities ascribe to Trump qualities like honesty and leadership.

Grim new realities

All this comes as we are confronting very grim new realities. The White House appears to have been jolted by new research out of Britain demonstrating that if the government and individuals do nothing to combat coronavirus’s spread, up to 2.2 million Americans could die.

Conversely, that research also shows that doing what is necessary to seriously curtail such numbers will require sustained, drastic disruptions — and with them, a potentially severe economic downturn.

All this means that in addition to the threat it poses to the country, coronavirus also poses an existential threat to Trump’s presidency. This Trump-protection project will only grow more urgent — which will require more efforts to discredit aggressive media reporting on his handling of the crisis, and on his inevitable hailing of the success of his mitigation efforts.

Trump and his propagandists have absolute faith in the power of their magical lies to discredit the news media and to substitute their own version of reality for the one the media is reporting. And Trump has kept up the attacks on the press for precisely this purpose.

But, if we are to get through this with minimal damage, and if the government’s failures are to be met with any semblance of accountability, institutions like the media will have to hold strong in the face of Trump’s efforts to destroy public faith in them.

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