About News

COVID-19: The past is the past, but we still need to know everything about it.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama.

Never more than Monday have I worried that Donald Trump spends too much time trying to defend his past actions and not enough on forging a plan to eradicate the coronavirus and return the country to normal.

While crucial decisions remain – about massive testing, about massive contact tracing – Trump spent Monday’s press briefing deflecting and lambasting reporters’ questions. He reached a new level of defensiveness with a jaw dropping, tax funded, musically enhanced propaganda video. The whole thing was enough to cause CNN’s chyron writer to go bonkers.

But really, can we blame Trump for this? He is responding to two recent, eviscerating pieces of in-depth reporting on how Trump ignored multiple warnings about the dangers posed by the virus, one on April 4 by The Washington Post and the other on Saturday by The New York Times. So, where’s the logic in criticizing Trump for too much looking backward when the press is looking in that direction, too? CNN’s Brian Stelter, chief media correspondent and host of the excellent Reliable Sources show, tweeted Monday night: “Every minute Trump spends talking about the past, he’s not talking about the present or future. He’s not talking about the pathway out of this.” That correct sentiment was met with some support but mostly with pot-and-kettle accusations from thread commenters.

But looking backward is exactly what the news media need to do. For many reasons:

  • This pandemic is the top story of a generation. It is essential to know as much about how it happened as possible, and as soon as possible.
  • Today’s reporting is the foundation of the vital historical analysis to come.
  • The president is trying to permanently rewrite events. That can’t happen.
  • Stories such as these can bring pressure to bear – from the public, from other elected leaders, from administrative advisers – to address failings and respond differently going forward.
  • The idea that such retrospection can wait for resolution is wrong. The insiders who can tell the story have clear recollections now. They may have motive to get the story out now – if not to bring change then perhaps to clear their names. Plus, telltale documents and emails are available now, rather than hidden as they someday will be.
  • There’s an election in November. Voters need to know everything possible about the performance and fitness of their president in a catastrophe, because this one isn’t the last one.

The media can walk and chew gum at the same time. They can, and must, dissect the past, paint the present and explore all paths for the future. It remains to be seen whether anyone can make the president do the same.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.

About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch shares these articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.