We need a press people can trust and a president who respects it
COVID-19 first appeared a little over three months ago and its spread has been vicious. The virus has a stranglehold on the American health system, the economy and our way of life. In a matter of a few weeks, we have gone from washing our hands to social distancing and now statewide quarantines.
For most Americans, at a time of national crisis, there are two reliable sources for getting the facts and the information necessary to survive that crisis: the president and the press. But it’s no secret that over the last few years, divisions in our nation have increased to the point where attacks against the free press have led to a loss of trust at a time we need our media institutions to be listened to the most. The nation now faces an entirely new threat that requires a united front.
But a united front against this virus has not been easy to forge. Even with 60 percent of Americans approving of the president’s coronavirus response, we are just at the beginning of grappling with the harsh realities that COVID-19 has in store for us and already we are seeing polarization among Americans regarding who they trust to provide accurate information on this virus. Unfortunately, it’s not the press.
And there is a reason for that. Almost daily President Trump clashes with a member of the press. His repeatedly assailing the press for asking “nasty questions”, or peddling “fake news,” or claiming they are “the enemy of the people” has exacerbated not just the strain between the press and the president, but the public as well. The casualty from all of this, of course, has been the diminished trust the American people have in the press at a time when we need to trust them the most. For many Americans, the president has confirmed the media as a partisan extension of the nation’s political parties and therefore is fair game.
The way people get their news is a major factor in how they see this crisis. So, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that how stories on the origin, impact and response to COVID-19 are reported matters. Some news stations were particularly egregious in its early reporting of the virus, following the words of the president who insisted “we have it very well under control.”
Clearly, the telling of facts remains central to the virus narrative. What we knew about COVID-19 two months or even two weeks ago is radically different from our reality today.
Americans across our nation are tuning into their favorite news stations to receive news on the coronavirus, as well as information on how best to protect themselves and their families. They are always factoring in or filtering out what they hear and read. It quickly becomes a deadly problem when they don’t trust the information they’re receiving. If our elderly, for example, do not trust the recommendations anchors and health professionals provide throughout daily programming, there is a higher likelihood of them being unnecessarily exposed to the virus, falling ill, and even dying.
We all need to focus on the singular goal of beating this pandemic — and restoring trust in our media institutions is an essential part of that — not sowing more confusion, doubt and anger. Critical to that now is not rehashing the mistakes of the early coverage of the virus, but rather making certain the people are getting the right story.
Yes, the media got things wrong; and yes, much of our news comes filtered for our comfort through our preferred partisan lens. Before COVID-19, this was something we all lamented but grew comfortable with, nonetheless. Now, we realize how that negative echo chamber has blurred the lines between what is an opinion and what is actually reporting to the point that the credibility of the Fourth Estate is repeatedly and unjustifiably undermined by the president and politicians, and even by some members of the media itself. It must stop.
We depend on the news for accurate, up-to-date information for protecting against COVID-19 — and this information can be a matter of life or death. Now, with more than 2,400 dead and 143,000 confirmed cases, sowing doubt in a time of constant uncertainty is the last thing our country needs. What we do need, however, is strength, transparency, and unity. If we’re going to reach that united front, we’re going to need a press the people can trust (no matter who they are watching or reading) and a president who respects it.
Michael Steele is the founder of The Steele Group, Inc., which is a strategic communication and political relationship firm with an emphasis on crisis management and networking. He is the former Republican National Committee chairman and former lieutenant governor of Maryland.
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