Dr. Anthony Fauci’s tightrope act
By Jon Allsop
On March 3, Politico’s Sarah Owermohle profiled an unlikely media star for our unlikely times: Dr. Anthony Fauci, the veteran director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauci had demonstrated “an ability to talk frankly yet reassuringly about threats, to explain science, public health, and risk to the public in a way few can match,” Owermohle noted—and yet his visibility, since the coronavirus crisis began, had been subject “to the vagaries of a president who wants to declare the outbreak under control.” When Owermohle interviewed Fauci, rumors were circulating that the White House had moved to curb his public appearances, because his fact-based warnings about the virus were harshing Trump’s vibe. Fauci denied that he had been silenced, but acknowledged the precarity of his position. “You don't want to go to war with a president,” he said. “But you got to walk the fine balance of making sure you continue to tell the truth.” White House officials reportedly saw the interview as an unwelcome distraction.
In the eons since then, we have heard plenty more from Fauci. He’s become a familiar—and grimly comforting—fixture of our transformed information landscape, a capable voice of expertise at a time when such voices are both desperately needed and few and far between. The weekend before last, he appeared on all five of the major Sunday shows, a move known as “the full Ginsburg” (after Monica Lewinsky’s attorney, apparently). Trump himself has referred to Fauci as a “major television star,” which, coming from Trump, is either the greatest of praise or a thinly-veiled expression of jealousy (or both). “If Dr. Fauci has become the explainer-in-chief of the coronavirus epidemic, it is in part because other government scientists have left a vacuum,” Denise Grady, of the New York Times, reported earlier this month. “When reporters call Dr. Fauci, he calls them back.”
Still, the “fine balance” between Trump and the truth is also a fixture these days, and Fauci continues to have to walk it. When Trump dropped a reference to the “Deep State Department” during a press briefing on Friday, Fauci appeared to facepalm, and the internet noticed (Fauci later said a lozenge had lodged in his throat and he was trying to hide the fact from the cameras); during the same briefing, Fauci contradicted Trump’s assertions that an anti-malaria drug could work against the coronavirus. In recent days, Fauci gave a pair of interviews which caught the eye for their candor. In one, with Maureen Dowd of the Times—whose eventual piece was headlined, “Thank God the doctor is in”—he said it was “understandable that people said, ‘What the hell’s the matter with Fauci?’ because I had been walking a fine line.” He added, of Trump, “I say it the way it is, and if he’s gonna get pissed off, he’s gonna get pissed off. Thankfully, he is not. Interestingly.” In the other interview, Jon Cohen, of Science magazine, presented Fauci with a false statement Trump had made about China and the coronavirus’s timeline. “I know, but what do you want me to do? I mean, seriously Jon, let’s get real, what do you want me to do?” Fauci replied. “I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down.”
In other interviews—with Face the Nation on CBS News this past Sunday, for instance—Fauci has played down suggestions of a rift with the president. (“I think there’s this issue of trying to separate the two of us,” he said.) Nonetheless, the Times’s Maggie Haberman wrote yesterday that Trump and his aides are growing tired of Fauci’s public presence. For now, Haberman reported, Trump knows Fauci “is seen as credible with a large section of the public and with journalists, and so he has given the doctor more leeway to contradict him than he has other officials.” Still, in recent days, Fauci has become a less permanent presence at White House briefings, and his absence again yesterday caused many observers—including journalists—to react with alarm. When asked about Fauci’s absence, Trump called him a good man, and said, “He’ll be back up soon.” Trump also used the briefing to suggest that economic activity in the US should restart “very soon—a lot sooner than [the] three or four months that somebody was suggesting.” Reports circulated yesterday that Fauci, along with other government experts, has advised the president against such a gung-ho approach.
Fauci is an experienced hand—he’s 79 years old, and has served in his current role for more than 35 of them. He has walked plenty of public-relations tightropes in the past; he was a visible face of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s while his boss, Ronald Reagan, ignored it, and he claims to have testified before Congress more than anyone else ever. But this pandemic is a new kind of crisis, and Trump—in his media obsession and loathing of shared spotlights—is a new kind of president. For now, the doctor is in. We can only hope that continues.
Below, more on the coronavirus:
- Effects on the press: The White House Correspondents’ Association further restricted access to the briefing room after a member of the press corps reported a suspected case of the coronavirus; as of yesterday, only 14 reporters are allowed in, under an “expanded pool” arrangement. (Fauci told Science that he’d prefer for briefings to be conducted virtually.) Elsewhere, a senior producer at MSNBC wrote an anonymous column for Deadline urging NBC News to completely shut down production at 30 Rock in New York. (An NBC staffer died last week after contracting the virus.) And the crisis continues to hammer news organizations on the business side. Yesterday, the Advocate—a title in Louisiana that acquired the New Orleans Times-Picayune last year, leading to layoffs—said it was “temporarily furloughing” about 40 staffers, with the rest now working four-day weeks. Subscriptions have spiked lately, but ads have dropped off.
- A pair of important stories: For the Times, Natasha Singer and Choe Sang-Hun report that countries around the world are ramping up digital-surveillance measures to track the spread of the virus—a trend that could have long-term implications for privacy. Also for the Times, Sabrina Tavernise and Richard A. Oppel, Jr., write that Asian-Americans are being “spit on, yelled at, and attacked” as the virus spreads. The surge in bigotry is similar to that faced by American Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11, except this time, “President Trump is using language that Asian-Americans say is inciting racist attacks.” (As CJR’s Amanda Darrach reported recently, some news coverage has also been complicit in the spread of racist tropes.)
- A freelancer’s dilemma: For CJR, Leah Sottile explores the dilemmas freelance journalists face as the virus erases other stories. “Should we put our personal ambitions aside and join the ranks of journalists, already sleepless and overworked, who are sacrificing themselves to bring truth in a time of crisis?” Sottile asks. “What’s the size of the risk? Could a journalist, trying to be brave, contract a virus we don’t fully understand for the benefit of an outlet that isn’t going to pay a dime toward health insurance?”
- Slow-motion disaster: For Slate, Tom Scocca writes that the coronavirus crisis isn’t Trump’s Katrina—“It’s stupid, slow-motion 9/11.” Massive disasters, Scocca argues, unfold “slightly more slowly than the news can properly perceive. The news looks for self-contained events, which begin and end and fit into a newscast or a front-page story. But the worst kind of devastation is often too big to process.”
- International concern: Bel Trew, Middle East correspondent for The Independent, writes that some repressive states are exploiting the coronavirus to clamp down on journalism; “Egypt has withdrawn press accreditation and detained human rights workers over their coverage,” Trew reports. “Thailand has taken similar measures.” Elsewhere, Iran, which has been hit hard by the virus, has blocked news outlets from covering the full extent of the problem, and Cambodia has arrested at least 17 people for spreading “fake news.” And residents of Kashmir are having a hard time staying informed about the virus due to restrictions on the internet imposed by the Indian state.
- In brief: Following the example of newspapers in Argentina, Mexico, and elsewhere, titles in Brazil published identical front pages yesterday, splashing the message, “Together, we’ll defeat the virus.” In the UK (which is now on lockdown), the Daily Mail chided residents for fleeing to countryside beauty spots—shortly after publishing a travel supplement highlighting “bargain” hotel prices in “brilliant boltholes” far from London. (Politico’s Jack Blanchard spotted the contradiction; the “brilliant boltholes” article has since been taken down.) And this week’s edition of the New Yorker was produced entirely remotely—the first time that’s happened in the magazine’s 95-year history.
Other notable stories:
- For CJR, Eva Holland assesses the ubiquity of the polar bear as a signifier in climate coverage. “The polar bear has become the mascot for a planetary crisis,” Holland writes. “With its crucial habitat, Arctic sea ice, in inexorable and well-documented retreat, it seems a useful—and, to those who haven’t seen one maul anything, adorable—symbol for an otherwise abstract warming process.” But bears “couldn’t tell the whole story.”
- Earlier this month, Hachette scrapped plans to publish Woody Allen’s memoir after a backlash from readers, employees, and Ronan Farrow, Allen’s estranged son who has worked with Hachette. Yesterday, the book was suddenly released by a different publisher: Arcade, an imprint of Skyhorse. Arcade’s editor said her company “prefers to give voice to a respected artist, rather than bow to those determined to silence him.”
- Yesterday, a federal appeals court affirmed a lower-court ruling holding that Trump can’t block Twitter users he doesn’t like, because his @realDonaldTrump account is a public forum and thus protected by the First Amendment. The initial ruling came after the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University sued the president in 2017. In March 2018, I attended a hearing in the case, and wrote about it for CJR.
- The New York Times Company is buying Audm, a subscription audio app for longform journalism; its founders, Ryan Wegner and Christian Brink, are staying on. Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton noted on Twitter that while the deal makes sense, he wonders “how other publishers will feel about their content now flowing into a Times-owned platform.”
- Two weeks ago, Shafiqul Islam Kajol, a journalist in Bangladesh, went missing one day after he was named in a defamation complaint filed by a government lawmaker. Amnesty International has since obtained footage appearing to show unidentified men tampering with Kajol’s motorbike immediately prior to his disappearance. He remains missing.
- And for The Atlantic, Natan Last reveals the “hidden bigotry” of crosswords. “That crossword mainstays such as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal are largely written, edited, fact-checked, and test-solved by older white men,” Last writes, “dictates what makes it into the 15x15 grid and what’s kept out.”