September 16, 2020


Remind me again, what was the premise of the short-lived hysteria over Bob Woodward’s book? That Donald Trump, in early February, knew that the virus could kill and was spread through the air?

This was universal knowledge. In the two weeks before Messrs. Trump and Woodward spoke, more than 550 published and broadcast news reports in the Factiva database likened the Chinese viral outbreak to the deadly 1918 flu pandemic. On Jan. 28, a week before they spoke and on the same day Mr. Trump received a White House security briefing on the virus, this column drew the 1918 analogy. It also highlighted an issue that would plague the world for months. Because of the inability of China and other countries to count mild or nonsymptomatic infections, we were operating on data that considerably overestimated the virus’s deadliness.

So if he can’t be accused of withholding knowledge from the American people, can he be accused of causing harm by not emphasizing these facts in February and early March, before the virus reached most of America? As he told Mr. Woodward, he played down the risk because he didn’t want to cause panic.

To believe its own Devil theory of this episode, the press has to forget everything it knows about the pandemic story, including basic chronology, as well as forget that 55% of America doesn’t trust what Donald Trump says anyway.

It has to remove the Woodward quotes from history and context, blast them into some empty corner of outer space, and invite its audience to invent a new narrative around them.

On Earth, every pandemic plan treats panic as a comorbidity. Both need to be managed. Mr. Trump, we’ll find, was sloppily following the advice of his staff: He could do as much harm as good with anything he said, so say little except to assure the public that the government is on top of things. . . .

As fate would have it, Feb. 13, a week after the widely cited Woodward-Trump conversation, saw a rally in Queens, a video of which is still available on New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Twitter feed. It involved most of the city’s leaders. They urged against panic, suggesting that racism was the only reason for not shopping in Chinatown.

Mayor de Blasio and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo would continue in this vein till the third week of March. From the 17th to the 22nd, they engaged in a public spat over whether to introduce emergency measures.

Or take Angela Merkel, whose response has been widely lauded. Until March 11, she warned against overreaction. On that day, she switched tactics and told Germans that they might all be infected.

William Barr has one theory of press behavior. In a media interview last week, the attorney general suggested that the press was a “collection of liars.” I am tempted to reach for psychology—hysteria, groupthink—but we must not underestimate simple commercial incentive. An untold story of our time is the symbiosis of Mr. Trump and, especially, CNN and MSNBC. Editorial meetings took place, I guarantee it, in which the only discussion concerned how to play the Woodward tidbits for the highest shock value. This works fine for Mr. Trump too. He wants the universe revolving around him. He can run not on his record (good, bad or so-so) but against the media’s palpable, absurd lies.

They do give him a lot to work with.

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