Political Propaganda and the Coronavirus Will Get You!
“Everyone settle down. Welcome back to Propaganda and the Death of Media 101 in case you’re in the wrong class, and its, um, March 9, 2024. Now we were discussing the role of propaganda and the media in the re-election of Donald Trump, by tying his leadership to a global pandemic. Propaganda in these cases seeks to diminish people’s view of a leader’s competence. The ultimate goal is to influence you to vote him out. The name influenza even comes from the Italian word for “influence.”
“OK, class, let’s start by contrasting the media-induced panic of 2020 with 2009 under Obama. The first cases of the swine flu, H1N1, appeared in April 2009. By the time Obama finally declared a national emergency that fall, the CDC reported 50 million Americans, one in six people, had been infected and 10,000 Americans had died.
In the early months of the disease, Obama had no Secretary of Health and Human Services or appointees in any of the Department’s 19 key posts. No Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, no Surgeon General, no CDC Director. The gap at CDC was particularly important, as in the early days of the crisis only they could test for the virus; states weren’t allowed until later. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, not a medical doctor, lead the federal effort. Sound familiar?
The first real H1N1 cases appeared in Mexico, though Mexicans were never forbidden to enter the U.S. Though CDC recommended against travel there, the primary danger cited was kidnapping for ransom. Some 66 percent of Americans, supported by the media, thought the president was protecting them even as 4,000 Americans died before a vaccine was distributed.
The emergency proclamation it took Obama seven months to declare was issued by Trump within 30 days of the current virus being found abroad. He announced a temporary suspension of entry into the U.S. of foreign nationals who pose a risk for the transmission of the coronavirus (CNN criticized “the travel ban could stigmatize countries and ethnicities.”) And yes, Trump encouraged everyone to wash their hands.
Anybody here remember the media freaking out over Obama’s initial response, which was to suggest everyone wash their hands? Anyone find evidence of national panic throughout the crisis? No. Why did the media cover essentially an identical story so very differently for two presidents?
Now let’s turn to the timing in 2020. The crisis came when the media decided it was time for a crisis. Though the virus dominated headlines in Asia since mid-January, American media relegated the story to the business news. In late February the main “Trump” story was Russiagate II, the faux revelation Russians were meddling again in the election. The lackluster Democratic debate at the end of February invoked Putin many times. The virus barely came up.
Then the NYT sent up the Bat Signal for the new crisis the day after the debate, an article titled “Let’s Call It Trumpvirus” (subtlety is not required for propaganda.) An effort was born overnight to blame Trump for the virus, and essentially declare his chances of reelection done. The critical change had little to do with the virus itself, simply with the decision by the media to elevate the story from the business section to the front page. Only a handful of Americans had died, and about half the known U.S. cases arrived as evacuees from Japan (should we have left them there?) Of course the numbers quickly went up, but that’s why we say “going viral” for your Instagram blowups.
You’ll see in your textbooks another example which shows how propaganda works, the reporting of initial problems with the CDC coronavirus test kits. One typical headline claimed “The U.S. Badly Bungled Coronavirus Testing.” But the problems were old news almost as the stories were written. Within a week nearly a million tests would available.
The follow-on stories screamed about Trump cutting funding to the CDC, most of which was actually only proposed. Then the stories were merged — Trump cut CDC funding and thus not enough kits were available. Not only were both pieces largely untrue individually, the fusion of the two was grossly false. The media treated developments as raw material to mock Trump, like late night comedians trolling the news for monologue fodder.
The problem with the testing kits was a technical one involving chemical reagents and factory contamination. CDC is a massive institution. Who if anyone there made any “bungled” decisions? Would they have really made a better decision with different funding? This is how the media acts when they seek to fix the blame, not the problem.
The propaganda surrounding how the government initially handled the coronavirus was also obvious in the false “who is in charge” question the media asked. The vice president was given the role heading up the task force. This is the kind of thing VPs do, bring gravitas, make sure a whole of government approach has the bureaucratic firepower it needs, and so on. The propaganda instead hyper-focused on Mike Pence’s “disbelief in science.”
For “proof” the stories settled on Pence supposedly creating an HIV epidemic while governor of Indiana. The reality was different. Pence took office opposed to needle exchanges. When dirty needles shared among opioid users in rural Scott County were linked to 71 cases of HIV transmission, Pence responded to the new information (sad to see people die, but 71 deaths is all it was and many would have died from their drugs soon enough) by changing his policy and authorizing needle exchange in Scott and four other counties. The reality seems much closer to seeing an ideological stance changed by science than the opposite.
Meanwhile, the media largely ignored those Pence chose for his taskforce. One was Dr. Deborah Birx, a career medical professional nominated by Obama in 2014 as the U.S. global AIDS coordinator. She also served as head of the global HIV/AIDS division at CDC, was an immunology researcher at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and an Army colonel. You want to inspire confidence you profile Dr. Birx; you want to sow discord you misrepresent Mike Pence’s decisions years ago.
There are many more examples. Here are just a few.
You report on the elimination of Obama’s pandemic czar but leave out that the position was just a coordination job on the National Security Council with no real power. It sounds scary (one outlet called it sabotage) to see that job go, but in fact the coordination duties within NSC were reassigned to others, including Dr. Birx.
You focus on every coronavirus case as proof efforts are failing while ignoring providing perspective by reminding 12,000 people died, with over 13 million infected, from the regular influenza (the one with the vaccine) just between October 2019 and February 2020.
You cover the virus as you did Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Everyone was gonna die there until they didn’t. You follow the now-standard Trump propaganda template: say he won’t do enough, then say what he does isn’t being done fast enough, wrongly predict everything will collapse (with Katrina references), then move on to the next thing.
You report store closings, but not their reopenings. By March 1 Starbucks reopened 85 percent of its stores in China. Apple, over 50 percent. You emphasize how many Chinese factories were idled in February, not report on reopenings in March, such as Apple partner Foxconn coming back to full capacity.
You ignore the drop off in cases inside China. Only a few days after the first cases appeared in the U.S., new ones inside China dropped to 200. Viruses follow a bell curve. Case counts first rise quickly, the virus claims the “easy” deaths among the elderly, and then environmental factors (viruses must live inside a host; they have limited life outside on surfaces`, typically less as temperatures climb. This is one reason you can’t catch HIV from a toilet seat) and public health measures kick in. Treatments emerge and the virus fades. You can explain where things are in what looks like a 10–12 week cycle or you can ignore it to stoke fear of the unknown. Articles which claimed at the earliest stages of the virus that our “very way of life is threatened,” or asked “When is it going to end?” as it just started, were good examples.
How HIV/AIDS went from a public health crisis in America to a manageable problem shows how the bell curve works. As the virus became known, panic took hold. Then, albeit always-too-slowly, the virus’ transmission became understood, testing protocols developed, preventive medicines became available, and treatment regimes now exist which ensure long lives in remission. Knowns displaced unknowns. There is an established path out even for a virus far more deadly than corona.
“OK, class. There’s more on the economic reporting but it’s more of the same. And to set the record straight, New York City rats never developed the ability to eat the coronavirus as a food source, and the vaccine eventually developed was not cultured from Keith Richards’ blood. That’s it for today guys.”
“Hey professor, is this gonna be on the test?”
“No, but it may still influence an election.”
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.