It’s true that the media often make mistakes; they are, after all, made up of human beings. Media conventions can be subverted, facts can be misunderstood or misreported, sources can mislead, reporters can succumb to confirmation bias, and editors can fail to see the big picture. For the most part, though, these outlets are trying their best to inform the public.
Trumpist media outlets, by contrast, have created a bubble of unreality where nothing but the most effusive praise of Trump is acceptable, where anyone who disagrees with or criticizes the president is part of a grand conspiracy to destroy him, and where the only facts that exist are those that reflect well on the president. Many conservatives don’t distrust the mainstream media because they are biased; they distrust the media because the media do not tell them what they want to hear, and their own outlets have trained them to believe that the truth can only be exactly what they want to hear.
Nor can mainstream media bias explain why many Trumpist media outlets, supposedly so much more committed to the truth than their mainstream counterparts, consciously endangered their audience by disregarding and dismissing public-health warnings. Fox News told its audience that the coronavirus was a minor problem their heroic leader was quickly resolving, while quietly having its staff follow the very precautions its hosts were ridiculing on air. The mainstream press didn’t force Fox News to do that.
The coronavirus pandemic provides a rigorous case study in the priorities of most of the conservative press: Faced with a choice between informing their own audiences about dire threats to public health and propping up a Republican president, they chose the latter, because informing the public is not their job. The job of outlets like Fox News is to ensure that the conservative masses believe that their leader is infallible, even if it causes them tremendous personal harm.
As cases began flooding into hospitals and medical facilities all over the country, the president shifted his tone, finally recognizing the reality of the pandemic and the economic catastrophe that threatens both the health and livelihoods of millions of Americans. On Tuesday, Trump declared that “this is a pandemic,” and that “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” Having denied that the coronavirus was a major issue for months, the president sought to recast himself as an oracle, and conservative media followed suit, shifting their tone from downplaying the severity of the pandemic to praising the heroic efforts of the president to address it.
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Predictably, Trump drew praise from some cable-news personalities for doing a passable job of portraying a president on television, even as the administration’s failures continued to exacerbate the personal and economic toll of the pandemic. This is somewhat understandable; Americans want to believe that their leaders are competent, engaged, and concerned about their well-being. Recognizing that the presidency is occupied by an incompetent narcissist whose major life accomplishment is parlaying an inherited fortune into reality-show celebrity is rather less comforting, but it is the world we live in.