There is an arc to wartime reporting, a professor once told me.
And while it is not a science — no two wars are the same — there are certain components we can rely on.
The first dispatches tend to be positive. They are, more or less, generally trusting of our commanders in chief. “U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts,” The New York Times proclaimed in September 2002.
The piece spurred something of an apology from the standard-bearing paper months later, as the Bush administration narrative became more cloudy.
After the “honeymoon” phase comes an emerging skepticism, as reporters detail the human cost, the casualties, the mangled limbs and lives.
The third phase, if a conflict lasts that long, is outright distrust of the administration, followed closely by open condemnation.
The war in Vietnam is “mired in stalemate,” Walter Cronkite told his CBS Evening News audience in 1968, an unspoken signal to President Lyndon Johnson and, indeed, traditional media outlets that the first phase was long since past.
In 2020, the American media hardly bears any resemblance to Vietnam-era media or the media that covered President Bush’s tortuous and tortured conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan. Indeed, if the media was once a single beam of light, it is now refracted through a prism, bent and separated into many hues.
But this alone can’t explain why President Trump, facing his own self-proclaimed “war” against COVID-19 — one that is projected to kill more Americans by the end of April than the Vietnam War ever did — never enjoyed that cozy first phase.
Some of Trump’s more forgiving supporters are likely to blame a more caustic or partisan media for this fact.
Perhaps it is because, according to The Washington Post, Trump has now made more than 16,000 false or misleading claims in office. Or perhaps it is because the world and its reporters covered this virus’ wildfire spread even as the Trump administration did not. Perhaps it is because no precedent ever seems to apply to this New York braggart.
Or, perhaps, this is why: As The Associated Press reported Sunday, the Trump administration “squandered” two months in its response to the novel coronavirus. Squandered is a generous characterization. These details capture the criminal incompetence of an administration that either willfully or recklessly mismanaged this crisis.
From The AP:
A review of federal purchasing contracts by The Associated Press shows federal agencies largely waited until mid-March to begin placing bulk orders of N95 respirator masks, mechanical ventilators and other equipment needed by front-line health care workers.
By that time, hospitals in several states were treating thousands of infected patients without adequate equipment and were pleading for shipments from the Strategic National Stockpile. That federal cache of supplies was created more than 20 years ago to help bridge gaps in the medical and pharmaceutical supply chains during a national emergency.
Now, three months into the crisis, that stockpile is nearly drained just as the numbers of patients needing critical care is surging. Some state and local officials report receiving broken ventilators and decade-old dry-rotted masks.
“We basically wasted two months,” Kathleen Sebelius, health and human services secretary during the Obama administration, told the AP.
When an AP reporter attempted to question the president on his administration’s lead-footed response, Trump, predictably, grew agitated and walked away from the podium after offering this nonsensical reply.
“FEMA, the military, what they’ve done is a miracle,” the president said, according to the AP. “What they’ve done is a miracle in getting all of this stuff. What they have done for states is incredible.”
Donald Trump did not create the novel coronavirus. But with more than 363,000 Americans infected today, with almost 16,000 Americans dead, with the American healthcare system swamped by a virus that his administration scoffed at for months, that his administration utterly failed to prepare and plan for, the coronavirus belongs to him now.
“Trump failed,” The Atlantic’s David Frum wrote two days ago. “He is failing. He will continue to fail. And Americans are paying for his failures.”
Life is very often a partisan thing. But death has a habit of sorting out spin from substance.
There is a temptation to believe that Trump and his allies would flee COVID-19 news as the election approaches, that he will recognize his administration’s greatest failure.
But if past is prologue, that’s not what will happen at all. He will instead promote a warped narrative, a historical fantasy in which Donald Trump saved this country from the coronavirus pandemic. It is the responsibility of every reporter, every pundit, every person in this country not to let this go unchallenged.
The administration’s reasoning for its bungling hardly matters, although Trump and his inner circle likely had political motivations for downplaying the pandemic, which the president suggested would be an afterthought long before now.
On Wednesday, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimated a staggering 60,000 Americans will die by the end of August, and that number represents a marked decrease from earlier projections.
All of this, of course, cannot be blamed on the president. Of course, Americans were always going to die.
But for a president who once predicted zero American casualties in this, his defining moment, who once fired a national pandemic response team gathered to map just these scenarios, who’s failed at every step to recognize the crisis before him until it was far too late, many of these deaths will be on his hands.
Trump has already lost this war.
And the media, far advanced in its wartime arc by now, knows it.
It remains to be seen whether the American people do.