OPINION | The blather and the bile

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LOCAL news, what’s left of it, has been great. Hard, sad stories, uplifting tales, appeals to community, Blitz spirit.

I work on a local paper and couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve done.

On the other hand, though: The big national news media, a purveyor of blather and bile in the best of times, have spent the last month wearing a caul of rotten blubber. But, you say, things have been horrid. Historically horrid. The news from overtaxed hospitals is miserable; the economic toll is harrowing. True. But an occasional piece of good news would be nice. A little sliver of chocolate to go with the cold, lumpy gruel. Instead, we get stories like this from Business Insider:

“Americans are driving less because of the coronavirus. That’s hurting red-light camera revenue.”

Boo and/or hoo.

At least the story didn’t blame Trump, but everyone knows that’s his fault too, right? We know that if President Obama had heard reports in December that someone in Wuhan had a hacking cough, he would have stood up, a steely glint in his eyes, pushed a button, rushed toward a secret panel in the Oval Office as it opened to reveal a fireman’s pole, and slid down to the Batcave to personally make a vaccine. He was just that good.

Instead, we have President Trump, who, if you believe the chattering class, decided that mass death was a crackerjack reelection strategy, threw himself into the exquisitely lubricated machinery of the public-health establishment to prevent the CDC from doing anything, time-traveled to exhaust the supplies not replenished by the previous administration, and used Jedi mind tricks to get Democratic officials to encourage people to go to public festivals.

If he’d acted more swiftly, would the coverage have been different? If he’d acted contrary to the WHO’s dismissal of the possibility of human-to-human transmission, perhaps a CNN interview might have gone like this:

“Dr. Torgenson, any views on the president’s refusal to accept the WHO statement?”

“Yes. It’s troubling. The president is not a scientist. He is a climate denier. He has no expertise — ”

“Let me stop you right there, because climate has nothing to do with this. Is it safe to say that the president is erring on the side of caution to prevent mass fatalities in a rapidly unfolding situation whose details are obscured by an authoritarian regime?”

Can you imagine that? Sure! I mean, if you can enjoy a Pixar movie with talking cars, you can imagine a CNN host taking the side of the administration. Now let’s say Trump shut down travel to and from China in early January and CNN presents the following colloquy:

“Jack, I have to ask, why have some opposed a tough line with China? Was it because we assume racism and xenophobia in anyone on the right, or something else?”

“Well, Chris, yes, we do flatter ourselves by relying on unexamined preconceptions we’ve held since college. But I think there’s something more at work. I think a lot of us have an unconscious deference to China because we realize it’s a big media market, and our employers are invested in maintaining good ties, even if it means turning a blind eye to the obvious egregious offenses of the government.”

“Absolutely, Jack. I remember when we did a story about Chinese treatment of the Muslim population, but it was a few seconds in a piece about American Islamophobia. We really do hate ourselves, don’t we?”

“I’d say that’s fair. There’s also grudging admiration for China, because they build trains, and we love trains. Well, we love the idea of trains, for the people. It’s a bit ironic that we congratulate ourselves for being anti-authoritarian, and we get watery knees at the thought of a leader who can make the trains run on time.”

“Exactly. I’m quietly chastened just thinking about it. But let me ask, why a travel ban just on China and not Europe? Is it, as some say, because the latter is full of white people?”

“I thought the same thing, since I see the world entirely through the prisms of skin color and eye shape, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed it could be a brief pause to let Europe, and Americans abroad, adjust to the new reality before the inevitable ban.”

“Never thought of that! Thanks, Jack.”

It makes you sad to consider it, no? If only the president had acted sooner, with decisive strokes — shut down everything in early January, nationalized industry, assumed Il Duce powers — surely the press would be effusive with praise, tinged with a bit of embarrassment.

“You’re right, Mr. President, China did need confronting, and we’re glad you opened our eyes to the importance of bringing some elements of critical manufacturing back home. We thought you just hated China because they screwed up a batch of your branded ties ten years ago. Well, turns out we’re not the smartest guys in the room, but gosh, going forward we won’t huff the sweet perfume of our own hindquarter emissions, and we’ll examine things with a new perspective based in a holistic appreciation of the inevitable failings, and triumphs, of human systems.”

Yes, you can bet it would’ve been just like that.

Even if the press had praised Trump because he did everything they wanted on the timetable they’d invented, well, six months later you’d have seen stories like this:

“Trump’s early shutdown may have saved some lives, but nationwide, traffic-camera revenue is still down, leading cities to cut funds for programs helping the most vulnerable.”

“R.” evil, “D.” good. As the man said: And that’s the way it is.

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