In the seemingly insatiable desire to normalize an entirely abnormal president, many mainstream media outlets, following President Trump’s coronavirus briefing on Tuesday, felt compelled to fawn over his “change in tone.” (He still insisted the virus would disappear and repeated a batch of falsehoods for which he has previously been fact-checked. ) You would think they might have focused on a far more newsworthy statement from Trump.
Asked about Ghislaine Maxwell, the alleged enabler of Jeffrey Epstein who stands accused of helping him set up a child sex ring, Trump answered: “I just wish her well, frankly. I’ve met her numerous times over the years especially since I lived in Palm Beach, and I guess they lived in Palm Beach. But I wish her well, whatever it is.”
There is something very peculiar when a White House press corps does not react upon hearing that, and when a fleet of mainstream media reporters and editors does not think it worthy of immediate emphasis. The president of the United States admitted to meeting “numerous times” with an alleged co-conspirator in a child sex ring, and no one asks: How many times? Did you see any underage girls around? If so, did you think it peculiar? Did you ever discuss the girls with Maxwell or Epstein?
Moreover, does Trump’s habitual defense of alleged sexual offenders extend so far as to Maxwell and Epstein? Not a word about their victims, but he wishes the alleged predator “well”?
“Fox News Sunday’s” Chris Wallace received widespread praise for conducting an effective interview of the president. Part of the exaggerated reaction to an interviewer simply doing his job stems from the rarity of interviewers who listen intently to catch him in the act of saying false or ludicrous things and the ubiquitous fear of challenging the president in ways that would make him angry or upset. That in part explains the immediate coverage of Trump’s Tuesday appearance.
Hours after the news conference, some mention of the comment began to pop up in mainstream coverage but did not displace the widespread “change of tone” take. (Ironically, some Republican lawmakers began to express outrage before some outlets focused on the comment.) One could scan the headlines of many outlets or the cable news ticker and still be in the dark as to his bizarre remarks. The telling moment for the media will come when reporters have a chance at the next briefing to follow up on his remark. (They might also ask about the Russian bounties, a topic not raised on Tuesday, and the White House memo on excluding undocumented immigrants from the census, a position most experts deem blatantly unconstitutional.)
Certainly, mainstream media outlets consider the allegations against Maxwell to be serious and horrifying. They covered the crimes of Epstein, an abuser of young girls. If so, why give so little attention to the president’s bizarre comments about someone allegedly involved in heinous crimes? It is almost as if they were so dead-set on the “changed tone” line that they did not bother to listen to what he said on an unrelated topic — or they are so prepared for some bizarre excuse from Trump for his comments that they shy away from even raising the issue. And if Trump is “just saying things” — weird and inhuman things — this certainly should revive concerns that he is seriously “off." (The focus on “tone” is itself a poor media crutch for covering a president whose tone changes have a half-life of a few hours and who continues to spew misinformation in the same appearance his tone is said to improve.)
Even worse in this case, Trump is infamous for expressing sympathy for those under prosecution, an unsubtle way of suggesting he might take care of them (as he did with longtime confidant Roger Stone) if they do not cooperate with authorities. It is far from clear this is what is going on with Maxwell, but to not even ask the question seems to be an act of journalistic negligence.
The media’s failure to interject in real time is one reason the Lincoln Project Never Trumpers have been so successful with their quick turnaround ads. They seem to do what the media will not: speedily highlight for the public Trump’s bizarre comments and behavior. It shouldn’t take a political ad-making outfit to call attention to the Trump lunacy of the day; an attentive mainstream media should be cataloguing and challenging his deviations from truth and normal behavior.
It is bad enough that we have a president who seems incapable of expressing empathy for the victims of sex crimes; we should at least have mainstream reporting to hold him accountable in real time and substantial analysis in short order. Doing anything less fails to inform and educate the public about just how aberrant this president truly is.