It’s a dumb thing to say at a time when Donald Trump needs to bolster confidence in his own administration’s messaging, but it’s not quite what his critics want to make out of it. Earlier today on Fox & Friends, the president tried side-stepping harsh criticism of China and its disinformation campaign during the coronavirus pandemic. Trump used the opportunity to blast US media coverage for its own misinformation and spin. “The New York Times is a totally dishonest newspaper,” Trump complained, “Washington Post — same thing.”
As for countries being dishonest, Trump says he’s been calling out China all along for its role in releasing the Wuhan Flu.”They do it and we do it,” Trump replies when Brian Kilmeade presses him on the point, “we call them different things. And you know I make statements that are very strong against China, including the Chinese virus,” at which point Trump says China cried uncle:
KILMEADE: But Mr. President, you know China has already done this.
TRUMP: They do it and we do it, and we call them different things. And you know, I make statements that are very strong against China including the Chinese virus which has been going on for a long time. I mean, I wouldn’t say they were thrilled with that statement, where they said our soldiers did it. They said our soldiers did it. I said, you mean the Chinese virus?
KILMEADE: That’s what I’m talking about.
TRUMP: And all of a sudden they say, let’s talk, let’s talk nice. Yeah, sure — hey, every country does it, but they build it up into something — We, we handle that and they probably handle it, but countries do that. But when I read things in the Washington Post, I mean I can tell you stories that they write that are just the opposite. They will do anything they can to hurt this presidency and yet here we are with the best numbers we’ve ever had. I don’t even understand it when you can get such fake news from so many. New York Times is a totally dishonest paper, they’re dishonest people. Washington Post, same thing. I’m trying to figure out for three and a half years who is more dishonest, who is more corrupt — the Washington Post or the New York Times. When I figure it out, I’ll let you know.
Actually, every country doesn’t do it to the extent China did and is still doing. All countries use public messaging to emphasize the need for their policies, which is what Trump is aiming at here, but China actively lied about the outbreak from its very beginning, and appears to still be lying to this day. Trump wants to keep cooperating with China on other points, so he’d prefer to take his potshots at targets that don’t have the same diplomatic, economic, and military consequences as China does, and thus Trump is trying — clumsily — to change the subject to domestic sources of “fake news” instead.
Kilmeade, for one, wasn’t buying it this morning, to his credit. China’s dishonesty and corruption matters a hell of a lot more in this crisis than domestic media bias. With that said, though, the rest of the national media seems to want to hold two entirely contradictory positions at the same time:
These things cannot be true at the same time:
1) The US's response was worse than China's.
2) The US should have been able to know China was lying and therefore reacted faster.
You have to pick one.
— RBe (@RBPundit) March 30, 2020
The New York Times’ Max Fisher decides to go with Door Number One, which Guy Benson dismisses:
This ain’t it https://t.co/YOT3JahMfK
— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) March 30, 2020
Perhaps Fisher should have read his own newspaper. The New York Times has a lengthy analysis from Steven Lee Myers explaining why China’s reports have been unreliable all along, although this tends to make it more of a systemic failure rather than an outright, top-down campaign to muzzle the truth:
The alarm system was ready. Scarred by the SARS epidemic that erupted in 2002, China had created an infectious disease reporting system that officials said was world-class: fast, thorough and, just as important, immune from meddling.
Hospitals could input patients’ details into a computer and instantly notify government health authorities in Beijing, where officers are trained to spot and smother contagious outbreaks before they spread.
It didn’t work.
After doctors in Wuhan began treating clusters of patients stricken with a mysterious pneumonia in December, the reporting was supposed to have been automatic. Instead, hospitals deferred to local health officials who, over a political aversion to sharing bad news, withheld information about cases from the national reporting system — keeping Beijing in the dark and delaying the response.
The central health authorities first learned about the outbreak not from the reporting system but after unknown whistle-blowers leaked two internal documents online.
Myers wants to blame “local officials” for feeding Beijing only the news they wanted to hear. However, this leaves out Beijing’s response when they did hear from the whistleblowers — they ordered them silenced and suppressed their findings. The local officials that get the blame in this narrative undoubtedly knew what party leaders in the capital wanted to hear … and the consequences for saying anything else.
The Diplomat’s Scott Romaniuk and Tobias Burgers reminded readers on Thursday of that deliberate suppression, emphasis mine:
But on the other end of the scale, COVID-19 whistleblower Li Wenliang garnered global attention after being reproached by various authorities for his role in the spread of “false rumors.” Li, who was forced by law enforcement authorities to sign a document promising not to continue his actions, died as a result of the disease he had warned people about. Li was not the only one; many other doctors and medical experts in Wuhan were reprimanded for their role in spreading information about the new coronavirus before it had been politically approved. Chinese officials originally dismissed the idea of COVID-19 case clusters and instead elected to acknowledge the existence of several infections. The central authorities received part of the blame for the cover-up from Wuhan mayor, Zhou Xianwang, who attested to the need for Beijing to approve data prior to any dissemination.
The Chinese authorities’ initial response to the news of what was happening within the country’s borders is indicative of a concern — turning to fear — that China’s economic performance would sustain a serious impact, perhaps even jeopardizing Xi Jinping’s leadership directly. Xi’s position is one that provides protection but also puts him in the crosshairs. As the supreme leader of the People’s Republic, Xi is ultimately responsible for events of this nature and their impacts on the state, though his vulnerability in this regard is tempered by his removal of term limits. Concomitantly, Xi will always be able to blame lower ranking members of the CCP for poor performances, including Wuhan’s mayor, Hubei Province Governor and Deputy Party Committee Secretary Wang Xiaodong, and chief epidemiologist for China’s CDC, Wu Zunyou.
Efforts to downplay the novel virus and its potential implications, including the difficult-to-contain damage to the regime’s political image, collided with concern, anxiety, and fear about the ramifications for public health and the possible spread of the virus to other regions of China and beyond. Failure to contain yet another new disease held the potential to seriously undermine China’s efforts to under Xi to achieve growth continuity and rise to great power status. China’s development, stability, and geopolitical interests and objective-seeking have coalesced to generate the increasing need to sustain its previous gains. As economic growth is the cornerstone to China’s strength as a country, both militarily and politically, data falsification and statistical fraud will likely remain constant features of all levels of governance within the country.
This wasn’t a case of “a system built to protect medical expertise and infection reports from political tampering succumbed to tampering,” as Myers argues. It’s a a case of how a totalitarian system works to suppress anything that could reflect poorly on its leadership. It’s a scenario that played out in Chernobyl, too.
This makes Fisher’s claim that China has “the only known success at subduing a full-blown epidemic” absolutely ludicrous. We don’t know that they have subdued the epidemic yet, for one thing, because we can’t rely on their own reporting. What we do know is that China amplified the pandemic and made it much worse than it had to be by lying about it and covering it up, and then conducting a propaganda campaign both internally and externally to shift the blame to Europe and the US.
That goes waaaaaaay beyond what “every country” does, and way beyond the media bias about which Trump complains here. And China has to be held accountable for it, too.