It’s hard to believe anyone in the media still thinks President Trump is capable of treating national tragedies with the gravity they require, but then again, a lot of very true things about the past three four years are hard to believe.
Trump has been commended for occasionally taking on a “somber tone” during times of crisis since he took office, only to betray it with pretty much everything else he’s said and done after effectuating it. The coronavirus, which as of Wednesday has infected over 200,000 people in the United States, is a prime example. One would think “somber” should be the default “tone” for anyone addressing a deadly pandemic, but considering how thoroughly the president has botched the response to the disease, including weeks of dismissing its severity, any whiff that he’s beginning to take it seriously is like catnip for reporters desperate for a narrative shift, or for a sound bite to help insulate their networks against charges of anti-Trump bias.
“During other times of crisis we have seen the president change his tone to a more serious one, but this was something completely different from that,” CBS White House Correspondent Weijia Jiang said Wednesday of Trump’s Tuesday evening press conference, which came a day after he invited the CEO of MyPillow onstage to give remarks to the nation. “He wore on his face the fact that he understands what is ahead for Americans. He understands the numbers, and this was a remarkable way for him to present himself.”
“Last night, he could not have been more blunt”
— CBS News (@CBSNews) April 1, 2020
“Last night he could not have been more blunt,” Jiang continued, after correctly several ways Trump had downplayed the virus for weeks. “His message was that Americans are dying and will continue to die and more people will die if you don’t do their part. I think he’s really taking this with the gravity that he should. We’ll have to see if that somber tone remains.”
There’s something of a “fool me 1 million times, shame on me” thing here for the media. The last time the press commended Trump’s “somber tone” was March 17th, when CNN published a story with a headline of about “Trump’s newfound somber tone on coronavirus.” Since then, the president has relentlessly bashed the media for criticizing him, suggested governors should praise him if they want to receive federal aid, compared the ratings of his evening press conferences to The Bachelor, and, as mentioned, invited an infomercial pillow salesman to speak during a White House press briefing about an infectious disease that is now expected to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans.
A few weeks earlier he backtracked within minutes. On February 26th, a day in which Trump claimed the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. — then at 60 — was “going very substantially down, not up,” NBC News wrote that Trump’s presser was “noteworthy for the unusually somber tone he struck, until he called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., ‘incompetent.'” Such immediate reversals shouldn’t be surprising considering “somber” doesn’t appear to be an emotion Trump can feel, only one he understands he sometimes needs to approximate.
Praising Trump for taking mass death seriously isn’t a new phenomenon. “Somber tone” has long been the go-to phrase for media members wishing to convey that Trump made it through a speech or press conference about a weighty issue without calling a woman a dog, saying something overtly bigoted, preening unctuously about the country’s economic numbers, or any of the other charming hallmarks of his public appearances. Trump “striking a somber tone” essentially means he was able to read prepared remarks in the wake of a tragedy without soiling himself.
And yet, some in the media continually will themselves to believe the president is on the verge of coming around to the reality of what his job requires. The crux of what CBS called a “somber” press conference on Tuesday was the estimated loss of life that will result from the pandemic. The network should have known better — both for all the reasons above and also because just last week Trump was pushing the idea that the nation should return to work by Easter, a reckless suggestion that flew in the face of advice from infectious disease experts and would almost certainly result in a dramatically inflated death toll.
To suggest Trump is taking the pandemic seriously — which includes reporting on his “somber tone” without qualifying it as insincere — is journalistic malpractice and a disservice to the American people. Unfortunately, if the media hasn’t realized by now that Trump’s “somber tone” is just another part of the con, as fleeting as his response to the pandemic has been feckless.