Journalist Bob Woodward quotes President Trump saying about the coronavirus, “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic.” The media and Democrats predictably pounced, asserting that the president misled the country.
But given the lack of scientific knowledge about the coronavirus in the early days of the pandemic and that much of the country was already panicking, a case can be made that tamping down fears was reasonable and appropriate.
To be clear, I am not trying to justify everything Trump says, or said, or the way he said it. The man is a stranger to nuance. But there are reasons for trying to assuage public fears and keep people from foolishly overreacting when an apparent threat is emerging.
Counterbalancing the media. To begin with, if Trump was trying to “play it down,” he was only serving as a counterbalance to the media, many of whom were fanning the panic flames.
Recall the old media trope “if it bleeds it leads.” As TV Tropes explains, “The more lurid the story, the better its chances of being the ratings leader.” That’s truer than ever in the clickbait jungle of social media.
When predictions are made, the media often take the most tragic scenario and make it their main focus, dismissing or downplaying less-cataclysmic possibilities. The public is often left with the impression that an unlikely, worst-case scenario is the most likely result.
Last March the media widely hyped the worst-case coronavirus death predictions, especially the UK’s Imperial College-London’s prediction of 2.2 million U.S. deaths. We are nearing 200,000 deaths, a terrible toll to be sure, but still less than one-tenth of the College’s original prediction.
Within a couple of weeks, the College drastically reduced its now-discredited estimate, which, of course, received little media attention. But the damage was done.
Trump wasn’t the only one. Second, others were also trying to calm fears. When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo held a press conference on March 2, he said, “[T]he general risk remains low in New York. We are diligently managing this situation.” Was he trying to calm fears?
The Democrats’ go-to health expert (and the brother of former Obama White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel), Dr. Zeke Emanuel, weighed in on January 30, urging people to “take a very big breath, slow down, and stop panicking and being hysterical.” Was he trying to calm fears?
Ron Klain, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s former chief of staff, tweeted in February, “We don’t have a COVID-19 epidemic in the US but we are starting to see a fear epidemic.” Was he trying to calm fears?
While the coronavirus was and is a national emergency, and people need to be concerned and extremely careful, the last thing any leader wants is a panic on his or her hands. Democrats Emanuel and Klain were trying to calm fears. But when Trump does it it’s apparently a dereliction of duty.
Panic was setting in. Third, even as some were trying to calm fears, people were panicking.
Remember how hard it was to buy toilet paper, even though the coronavirus apparently has little impact on the bowels? People started hoarding toilet paper, paper towels and other paper products. They emptied the grocery stores of flour and yeast and in some cases meat.
And the stock market collapsed (though it fairly quickly recovered).
But speaking of panic, after trying to reassure New Yorkers on March 2, Cuomo went into his own full-blown panic. By March 24 Cuomo whined to the press, “What am I going to do with 400 ventilators when I need 30,000? You pick the 26,000 people who are going to die because you [the federal government] only sent 400 ventilators.”
Only it turns out New York didn’t need anywhere near 30,000 ventilators. By April 13, a much calmer Cuomo announced, “We are fine, so to speak, from an equipment point of view right now if the number doesn’t go up.” A week or so later, he and a few other governors were offering to lend their ventilators to other states.
As I wrote last April in “The coming fire sale of Covid-19 ventilators,” panic-stricken reactions like Cuomo’s pushed Congress to approve billions of dollars to manufacture ventilators — 187,000, according to the president’s estimate at the time.
And sure enough, the U.S. now has a huge stockpile of idle ventilators — 95,713 of them.
So, Trump tried to calm the public during a pandemic and sound an optimistic note that the country is slowly returning to normal — and the media consider that a bad thing.
Yes, the public wants and deserves the truth, but they want it mixed with a dose of hope.