It’s also the case, though, that Trump recognizes it’s more useful to have people talking about China’s culpability or the WHO’s failures than his own. As when he (briefly) seized upon referring to the virus as the “Chinese virus” — an effort that overlapped with rhetoric that surfaced in conservative media — Trump understands that the years-long pattern of giving his allies something else to point to (see: Obama, Barack) creates political space for himself.
This tactic also takes advantage of how the media works. News organizations can’t simply ignore the president’s announcement this week that his administration would restrict funding to an international health organization in the middle of a pandemic, meaning that Trump is able to nudge the public conversation about the pandemic in a useful direction, however slightly. (Those who’d suggest the media should ignore Trump on such issues are asking that the media prioritize curtailing perceived political advantages over informing the public, which seems outside the bounds of our mandate.)
Has Trump’s announcement effectively shifted the conversation? It’s hard to evaluate. Google search data offers some sense: there are more searches in the United States at the moment for “World Health Organization” than for “coronavirus testing,” the limitations with which Trump has been eager to avoid discussing.
It’s worth noting that this effort to spend more time talking about China’s role in the virus and about the WHO isn’t just something that’s manifested in Trump’s public comments. On Fox News and Fox Business, two networks Trump watches with regularity, more of the discussion has focused on those subjects than on testing. On CNN and MSNBC, the opposite is true.
(The data above only include mentions of testing or China which occurred in tandem with mentions of “virus” or “coronavirus.”)
There’s an obvious overlap between support for Trump and reliance on Fox News. The chicken-egg question gets blurry: Do Trump supporters watch Fox, pushing it to be more sympathetic to the president or do Fox watchers see sympathetic coverage and become more supportive of Trump? Is it all a function of party, with Republicans being both more supportive of Trump and more likely to watch Fox?
The end result is clear. Fox News viewers have a more positive view of Trump’s handling of the pandemic than Republicans overall and than the average American by a wide margin. Pew Research Center data shows that an effort to make Trump’s response seem effective — the specific motivation for redirecting attention to the WHO and China — was more successful with those whose primary source of election news was Fox News. Nearly two-thirds identified his response as “excellent” in March. What’s more, Fox News viewers saw Trump has having gotten the risks of the virus “about right,” while CNN and MSNBC viewers mostly said he didn’t take the risks seriously enough.
While Fox News and Fox Business were more likely to discuss China and the WHO over the past three weeks, it wasn’t the case that every show did so evenly. Analysis of Internet Archive closed-captioning data conducted by GDELT shows that Fox Business host Lou Dobbs — a close ally and supporter of Trump’s — made up at least 10 percent of all of the mentions of the WHO and China among the top 500 shows on cable news. Only one non-Fox-brand show was in the top five for either of those subjects: “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer” on CNN.
That show was also among the five that talked the most about coronavirus testing. None of the top five shows to discuss that subject was a program that aired on Fox or Fox Business.
The trouble with Trump’s redirection strategy is that it has proved difficult to find a target which can stick around for very long. He’s blamed a number of other people and organizations for specific failings in addressing the pandemic; he at one point suggested that the fault lay with congressional Democrats for impeaching him. (It doesn’t.) His reelection campaign seems to be betting that China is the winning strategy, working to blame China for the pandemic as it ties former vice president Joe Biden to the county, however sloppily.
As long as we’re talking about that, we’re not talking about what Trump did or didn’t do. Unless, of course, we write lengthy and graph-filled posts that talk about both.