It’s Time for the Press to Play by the Rules Too

Outside the New York Times building in Manhattan, N.Y. (Gary Hershorn/Reuters)
Absurd charges of racism and praise for China’s government destroy public faith in journalists, just when the nation needs that trust the most.

In our national war against this virus, public trust is perhaps our greatest weapon. Without it, we can’t hope to succeed in the extraordinary common effort required to control the virus’s spread, protect our most vulnerable neighbors, and reopen the economy. The media have a critical role to play in fostering this trust, and never have we counted on them more to shoot straight and deliver focused, accurate information from the front lines.

Yet in the midst of the greatest test of their mettle in a generation, the New York Times devoted a Sunday front-page article to the absurd claim that criticizing China’s role in this catastrophe amounts to “scapegoating” that is motivated by bigoted “xenophobia.” The piece is an example of the axe-grinding ideology pretending to be news that has become commonplace when our country can least afford it.

It’s a stone-cold fact that the Chinese government repeatedly misled the world about the origin and nature of the virus. Their deceit is entirely consistent with how the Chinese Communist Party has mangled the truth about public-health calamities in the past, including prior outbreaks, and as far back as the state-induced famines of Chairman Mao, which killed millions of China’s own citizens.

But according to the Times, Americans are being manipulated into considering those realities, all part of a cynical strategy to “divert attention” from domestic politics. For proof, the Times showed poll results that nearly 80 percent of Americans fault the Chinese government for dishonesty and negligence in handling the crisis.

How did people get that idea? From “attack ads,” the Times says, that “rely heavily on images of people of Asian descent.” Yet the only such depiction they cite was of the former U.S. ambassador to China, who was shown meeting with their leadership, the same image the Times itself published when it happened. And how should an issue ad address China without using any photos of leaders from China? With mannequins, perhaps?

If the public-opinion numbers about China’s role in the crisis are right, then by the paper’s own lights, Americans aren’t only enthusiastic racists; they are too gullible to think for themselves. Isn’t it more likely that ordinary people in a free society have arrived at those conclusions on the merits, and elected officials are properly heeding the public demand that we hold the Chinese government to account?

Americans would also be right to wonder why more journalists aren’t pursuing a story about China that appears to tick every box in an investigative reporter’s dream assignment. Here we have an ultra-secretive police state that won’t even let its own citizens use Facebook. They put ethnic minorities in concentration camps. The first doctors who sounded the alarm about the virus were forced to recant at gunpoint. Gee, do you think maybe all that is worth a closer look?

Yet the very day after American news media were kicked out of the country, March 18, the Times published an article based entirely on what Chinese officials told them, with the headline “China Hits a Coronavirus Milestone: No New Local Infections.” If Times reporters were not skeptical of that howler, readers sure were. You’d need a welding mask to read the comments on social media beneath the article.

Plenty of other outlets have followed suit and parroted China’s bunk. NPR touted China’s claim that “a majority of cases originated abroad.” Bloomberg declared that “China’s virus cases reach zero.” NBC ran a piece entitled “As U.S. struggles, China asserts itself as global leader.”

That’s what raises the broader problem that makes this more than just a quibble about the posturing of Times journalists. When the public reads news accounts that bestow ridiculous praise on the Chinese government, or that imply readers are dupes for doubting that regime’s ham-fisted propaganda, they are highly likely to discount or reject anything else those publications report about the pandemic.

They won’t believe what those outlets report about the need for masks or ventilators. They may reject what’s said about the importance of vaccines or distancing. And when a call to action is given, one that requires us all to work in unison, many will instead recall the divisive insults they read in print that took them for fools.

There will be many opportunities and column inches aplenty for the press to air political grievances between now and Election Day — and the Times editorial page is welcome to root for whomever it pleases.

But on this topic and in this time, the press is squandering the very truth-telling authority it depends on by using its coverage as a way to score cheap shots.

America needs the fourth estate at its very best right now. That means unwavering objectivity. It means taking a pause on the usual sniping and sneering. It’s time to get our head in the ballgame and start playing like we are all on the same team.


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