We are in desperate need of sane leadership and clear information, whether it’s from New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo or Dr. Anthony S. Fauci of the National Institutes of Health or other credentialed scientists. These are the people who should appear in live press conferences and whose information we want to disseminate. In short, the less the media spreads punditry and politically driven misinformation, the better.
To that end, former vice president Joe Biden spoke on Monday in the first of what he promises will be regular national briefings. I implore him to do them daily and for the press to cover them, if for no other reason than these are one of the best means of countering disinformation.
In Monday’s remarks, Biden spoke quietly and soberly, a refreshing change from Trump’s bombast. Instead of trying to concoct a racial boogyman (“Chinese virus”), he spoke about social solidarity: “As Americans, we may be physically apart, but we are truly all in this together. And let me say something right up front: When we have stood as one, this nation has never ever been defeated,” he said. “And we’re not going to be defeated now. The pandemic of 1918. The Great Depression. Two world wars. 9/11. We overcame them all.”
He made clear why we are now in the position of resorting almost entirely to social distancing to slow down the spread of the virus:
For too long, the warning signs were ignored. For too long the administration said the threat was “under control,” “contained,” like a “flu.” The president says no one saw this coming. That’s just not true. Our own intelligence officials were warning of the coronavirus threat in January. Just based on public information, I warned that this threat would get worse way back on Jan. 27, and urged the need to put science first, draw on emergency funds to get the response started, and think about invoking disaster powers to respond. Many of us talked about the need to get U.S. scientists on the ground in China to see first-hand what was happening, rather than relying solely on China.My point is not simply that the president was wrong. My point is that the mindset that was slow to recognize the problem and treat it with the seriousness it deserves is still too much a part of how the president is addressing the problem. South Korea detected their first case of coronavirus on the same day that we did. But they had tests and a sophisticated tracing program to stop the spread of the virus, so they didn’t have to put the country on lockdown. We had none of that. So we are left with only the extreme social distancing measures currently in place.
This is critical: Trump, by his deliberate blindness and refusal to act, made our situation worse than it needed to be. He now makes mitigation of the virus even more difficult by refusing to use the full powers of the Defense Production Act. It is important to explain to people why we cannot summarily dispense with social distancing (as Trump is now itching to do). It is all we have.
Biden also did the country a favor by explaining why “in many places, our health-care system teeters on the brink of collapse.” What is missing is a sense of urgency from the federal government and a willingness to grab the reins so as to “coordinate getting medical supplies out to every corner of our country so we don’t have governors competing against one another.” The notion that everything is fine, that masks are on the way and that states can handle the crisis is misleading at best and outright false at worst. If Trump will not act under pressure from mayors and governors, perhaps he will see his opponent outflanking him and start doing something. (“Trump keeps saying that he’s a wartime president; well start to act like one,” Biden said. “We need to get in motion … what should have been set in motion weeks ago.”)
Biden is practically begging Trump to act. He acknowledges that “Donald Trump is not to blame for the coronavirus,” but he explains how he is blowing the response. Here is what we should be doing, he says: Increase capacity of our health-care system (“activate [a] reserve corps of doctors and nurses to beef up the number of responders dealing with this crush of cases”); actually use the Defense Production Act; rely on the experts to guide policy; and “set the right priorities for [our] economic response.” As to the latter, he makes clear that the Republican bill that cuts big checks to big businesses without requirements to keep workers employed is a nonstarter.
Biden, instead of bashing Cuomo, recognizes the bipartisan efforts of “Gov. Mike DeWine in Ohio, Gov. Larry Hogan in Maryland, Gov. Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, Gavin Newsom in California, Jay Inslee in Washington and Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan.” He took particular delight, no doubt, in singling out Cuomo’s briefings as “a lesson in leadership.”
The media should use information gleaned from informed politicians and experts to interrogate the administration. Why has it not listened to the pleas of governors? Why are some White House advisers pushing for a quick end to social distancing when that is all we have left? Why hasn’t Trump directly addressed the situation in New York, where the health-care system is being overwhelmed? Why is the curve not bending, and why is the infection rate escalating?
In sum, the media’s job is not to cover every presidential utterance, let alone cover it live. It is to keep the public informed during one of the worst domestic crises since the 1918 flu. The mainstream media is not the comms team for the president; they are a lifeline for Americans. To paraphrase Biden, they should act like it.