Trump is playing the media with his 'grave' and 'grim' new tone. For some absurd reason, it seems to be working

Trump is playing the media with his 'grave' and 'grim' new tone. For some absurd reason, it seems to be working
President Donald J. Trump speaks with reporters on the South Lawn driveway of the White House Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019, prior to boarding Marine One to begin his trip to Cincinnati. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)

Donald Trump continues to play the media and the media continues to be willing to be played. Every time he puts on his serious face and admits what he denied for so long about the seriousness of the novel coronavirus, he gets another round of headlines that help him erase months of disastrous denial of the scale of what we face.


Tuesday’s press briefing was more of the same. It was an event that veteran Trump fact-checker Daniel Dale described as having “featured a dishonest overall narrative—a Trump effort to cast himself as the leader who stood strong against the faction that downplayed the severity of the virus,” in addition to “a barrage of specific false claims” that drew the coverage he was looking for from reporter after reporter.

“Trump sounding different today. Scale of death appears to have changed his tone, at least,” The New York Times’ Eric Lipton tweeted. According to CNN’s John Harwood, it was “the most effective job of communicating President Trump has done during this crisis.” From ABC News’ Karen Travers: “The tone at this White House coronavirus task force briefing feels different than all prior COVID-19 briefings: grave, sober, grim, realistic.” And so on.

The New York Times also offered a full-length example of the form. Though the article acknowledges many of the times Trump downplayed the crisis, the sentence reporter Peter Baker chose to tweet was from the Trump-has-changed genre: “The grim-faced president who appeared in the White House briefing room for more than two hours on Tuesday evening beside charts showing death projections of hellacious proportions was coming to grips with a reality he had long refused to accept.”

Also, we learn, it was “the starkest such effort he has made to prepare the country for the expected wave of disease and death.” The starkest such effort, or a belated attempt to memory-hole his weeks of active denial? Baker acknowledges the weeks of denial, but is credulous—in true Times political coverage style—about the reason for it. Trump is worried about reelection. He’s moving the goalposts to redefine his failure as a success. And when talking about his made-for-the-media tone shift as a real thing, it’s not enough to point to evidence of the ways Trump led us to this disastrous point. Reporters have to be willing to go further. This White House is carefully constructing the latest big lie and coverage of it has to show it for what it is, or the media is failing us more badly than it did in 2016.

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