America has a new sweetheart, and it’s a 79-year-old infectious disease doctor. His likeness has been put on food and merchandise, and there’s a petition to make him the Sexiest Man Alive. Dr. Anthony Fauci has quickly become the bipartisan source Americans trust for information regarding the coronavirus pandemic.
Because he embodies two values no longer held by the mainstream media — credibility and trustworthiness. Though ratings are high and online clicks increased by 50% in March, Americans are skeptical of the news media. A recent Gallup Poll shows that 55% of Americans disapprove of the way the media have handled the coronavirus coverage — that’s a higher disapproval rating than Congress, which is saying a lot.
And the public’s response to the coronavirus pandemic reveals its distrust. Americans were slow to adopt social distancing and work from home recommendations partly as a result of a sensationalized press. For years, local media have tried to juice ratings by teasing segments for the 11 p.m. news, like: “X product might kill your child!” That alarmist headline would then be debunked a few days later.
But also, consider the top stories in the past year and a half — #MeToo, Covington Kids, Russian Collusion and Impeachment. The coverage was both sensational and partisan. If you don’t like President Donald Trump, then you’re appalled Brett Kavanaugh is a Supreme Court justice, CNN settled with Nick Sandman, Robert Mueller’s report did not find collusion with Russia and Trump is still president. If you do like Trump, you believe that the mainstream media is out to get Trump and anyone associated with him, and it’s been a witch hunt since day one.
When every major news story is presented as hair on fire/“we’ll never recover”/shock and awe, the public loses the ability to discern what actually matters. And that’s where the public started with coronavirus coverage. Turns out coronavirus actually matters, and in life-changing ways. But that reality had to be pieced together by the public from a sensational and partisan press.
Enter the White House daily press briefings with the Coronavirus Task Force as a welcome relief to those who want to cut through the noise. It’s an opportunity for Americans to hear straight from the people in charge and an opportunity for the press to push back, ask the tough questions and hold the Trump administration accountable. In other words, some good old-fashioned journalism.
And yet even these have become sensationalized and partisan thanks to the media in attendance. Case in point is CNN’s Jim Acosta, who routinely faces off against Trump every time he’s called on. Constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley tweeted during Saturday’s press conference: “Jim Acosta’s interruption of Dr. (Deborah) Birx is an example of how CNN’s echo-journalism model is destroying the media’s credibility. Every question from Acosta is an effort to score points rather than elicit information. It is a press pandemic that continues to rage without relief.”
Some cable networks have also decided not to air the entirety of the press briefings. Both MSNBC and CNN have cut away at various points, and CNN only airs briefings when Fauci or Birx are speaking to avoid giving Trump access to their audience. Their defense is that Trump turned the coverage into a political rally of sorts and therefore does not deserve airtime.
There is valid criticism of Trump’s style and handling of the coronavirus pandemic, but it would serve the public to watch him and then the journalists who challenge him. In a time when people fear for their health and the health of their family, the free press owes us this connection void of sensationalism and partisanship.
During past crises, the media have toned down the rhetoric and reported the facts, but the hyperpolarized environment that’s grown up in the last few years has only caused greater tension as we struggle to handle a pandemic.
It’s why Dr. Fauci is our source of accurate reporting and hope. Because just as COVID-19 doesn’t care about for whom you voted, neither does America’s doctor.