Something momentous happened late last week, a brief pinprick of clarity piercing through the haze: President Donald Trump finally showed Americans the truth about the coronavirus.
Not with his words, of course. According to researchers at Cornell, Trump has been the single largest driver of misinformation about the pandemic. Public health experts had hoped that the president’s own infection might prompt him to become more truthful. Instead, since his release from the hospital Monday, Trump has become even bolder in his distortions, declaring that the virus is nothing to be afraid of. On Tuesday both Facebook and Twitter blocked posts in which Trump falsely claimed that the seasonal flu is deadlier than the coronavirus.
But the president’s actions tell a more honest tale and suggest a way for the media to convey even to Trump’s loyalists the threat the virus poses: When he became the patient, Trump took it seriously. He did not react like a man who’d only gotten the flu. To convey the true danger, the media should focus on how Trump acts with regard to his own battle against the virus, rather than amplifying the things he says about how the rest of us should think of it.
The timeline unspooled like a medical thriller. The president announced he’d tested positive just before 1 a.m. Friday. Only 16 hours later, with his fever spiking and his blood oxygen levels dropping, Trump was taken by helicopter to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
The president’s doctors did not mess around with any of the miracle cures that Trump had long touted. Instead of hydroxychloroquine, ultraviolet light therapy or bleach, they turned to treatments whose efficacy had a basis in science. They put him on an experimental antibody treatment that has been shown in a clinical trial to alleviate symptoms in some patients; it is unavailable to most Americans. Over the weekend, Trump was prescribed two more drugs, including a steroid that is usually administered to patients with severe cases of COVID-19.
“We’re in a bit of uncharted territory when it comes to a patient that received the therapies he has so early in the course,” Dr. Sean Conley, the president’s physician, said Monday.
Behind Conley stood a phalanx of doctors attending to Trump. The scene was grave: The president of the United States had acquired a deadly infection, and an army had assembled to confront the enemy. Those doctors were responding with everything they had, with shock and awe, as if it were a full-blown emergency — because, guess what, it was.
I don’t begrudge Trump his world-class medical care; the leader of the United States deserves it. But if the president’s COVID-19 deserves to be taken seriously, requiring a team of the world’s best doctors and a pharmacy full of drugs, how can he tell the rest of us to treat it as if it’s no big deal?
But there’s more at stake here than hypocrisy. We in the media often focus on what Trump says about the virus instead of how he has sought to combat it personally. For instance, while Trump does not often wear a mask himself, he has been irritated when others who are close to him don’t, and he has bristled when people get too close to him. (Then again, he has also asked people to remove their masks when addressing him; consistency is not his strong suit.)
The media also take for granted that the public will be able to see through his lies to see these facts. That COVID-19 is actually pretty dangerous may seem like an obvious point, considering that more than 210,000 Americans have been killed by the disease, and hundreds more are dying each day.
But many Americans do not accept this danger, mainly because Trump has managed to steamroll obvious reality since the very beginning of the pandemic. In his wake, rumors and conspiracy theories have sprouted like wildflowers. Now, behind in the polls and with a widening outbreak on his staff, Trump is embarking on his most damaging disinformation campaign yet: The virus is nothing, and America is back.
No one should believe this claptrap, but millions will. The Cornell researchers — a team led by Sarah Evanega, director of the Cornell Alliance for Science — analyzed 38 million English-language articles published this year between Jan. 1 and May 26. They found numerous subjects of misinformation about the virus, from miracle cures to conspiracy theories about Bill Gates and Dr. Anthony Fauci and 5G cellular technology’s supposed links to the disease.
The researchers found that while “grass-roots sources” like anti-vaccination groups did make an impact, “they contributed far less to the overall volume of misinformation than more powerful actors, in particular the U.S. president.”
Why is the president such a powerful source of mendacity? It isn’t simply that he says a lot of things that aren’t true; it’s that everything the president says is amplified by the media. Some of these mentions might be as part of an effort to correct the president; the vast majority are not. The researchers found that “a great deal of misinformation is going out to the public uncorrected.”
You might argue that the way to mitigate this problem is for reporters to challenge the president’s falsehoods, and perhaps to cover him a lot less, too. But I’m not sure either is the answer. Studies have shown fact-checking to be of mixed effectiveness against misinformation. And as long as Trump is the president, not covering him isn’t really an option — especially now, in the midst of a heated campaign and a pandemic in which he has played a starring role.
To me, the president’s medical treatment last week makes a point that undoes months of propaganda: COVID-19 is clearly a very bad disease. It can take you from to hobnobbing with high-dollar donors one day to requiring supplemental oxygen the next.
Trump says we shouldn’t let COVID-19 dominate us. That’s easy to say; it’s just as easy to prove untrue. The facts of Trump’s experience with the virus — how rapidly it spread through those closest to him, how thoroughly it undermined his campaign messages and sidelined his campaign travel, and how quickly it sickened him to the point of requiring intensive medical care — are the greatest weapon against his misinformation about it. Even the president of the United States has been dominated by the virus.