When Trump Lies: Women at the Forefront of Uncovering the Truth in Pandemic America

I think it’s fair to say that the past few months have been pretty rocky for the human race. In the span of roughly half a year, the novel coronavirus snaked its way through populations around the world, making easy work of infecting millions globally and claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. The world as we knew it ceased to exist – we now live in a new order dictated by six feet separations, mandatory medical masks, and an unprecedented, almost worldwide quarantine.

In this time of uncertainty, fear, and incomprehensible paralysis, it’s natural to turn to a leader for answers and guidance. In America, President Donald Trump committed himself to hosting daily coronavirus task force briefings, originally intended to provide a glimpse into what his administration was doing in terms of fending off the virus and protecting millions of Americans from a previously unknown illness that threatens to collapse the American health system. It wasn’t long before President Trump’s briefings turned vicious and derailed, with Trump using them as another opportunity to pursue his anti-media crusade and advance his never-ending misinformation campaign. 

Between baseless insults and ignorance, it appears Trump has hurled repeated abuse at the reporters on the frontlines during live coverage of the briefs. Though Trump prefers to play dirty when it comes to his interactions with the media (or, as he prefers to call it, the “Lamestream media”), the reporters responsible for covering these briefs have maintained an admirable grace in the face of adversity and hostility on the part of the President. Trump’s retaliations are not discriminatory – he bashes almost any reporter that dares to probe his questionable statements or policies - but the conduct of female reporters during these tumultuous briefings has left an incredible impression on me, and deserves to be recognized and commended.

Paula Reid is a widely respected CBS news correspondent and has led her network’s coverage on some of the most pressing stories over the past few years, including Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 election, civil rights infractions in Ferguson and Baltimore, and was one of the only reporters on the ground during the deadly white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. She recently made headlines because of her repeated clashes with Trump during the Covid-19 briefings, the fiercest of which was sparked by her probing Trump on his administration’s delayed reaction to a crisis that they were made aware of long before the first mediation measures were put in place. 

After the President aired a propaganda-esque video compiling everything his administration has done to flatten the curve, Reid began by asking the President what his administration did to prepare for the onslaught of the virus during the month of February, a time at which the White House had been made aware of the crisis that loomed yet didn’t take much decisive action. Trump, visibly flustered, responded not to the question, but instead took a shot at Reid, saying “You’re so disgraceful. It’s so disgraceful the way you say that.” He then attempted to discredit Reid, calling her a “fake”, and ranted at her for her poor reporting and her network’s lack of credibility. 

Reid barely flinched. Ever the professional, she stared, unblinking at the President, and repeated her question over the chorus of “Excuse mes” and “Listens” coming from the podium. She pointed out holes in the video’s timeline of the virus response, highlighted the negligence on behalf of the administration even after several health officials had warned of the impending crisis, and relentlessly tried to steer the President towards a coherent answer to a question that most definitely warrants an answer. She fought for something that Americans deserve: the accountability of the government. She was courageous to press on one of Trump’s sore spots if it meant exposing the President’s unsubstantiated insistence that his administration delivered a flawless response to a virus that is in fact wreaking havoc on American livelihoods across the country. 

Weijia Jiang is another reporter that has made headlines for her unwavering attempts to lift the curtain on the blunders and misdirected actions taken by the administration throughout the pandemic. Jiang was born in Xiamen, China, and emigrated to the United States when she was 2. She reports for CBS, where she has covered massive stories, like the 2016 presidential campaign and elections, the Brett Kavanaugh nomination and confirmation processes, and the historic summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump in 2018. 

During a briefing held on May 12, 2020, Jiang questioned Trump on why he was touting America’s position as the country having conducted the most tests in the world as if it were some enviable milestone in the fight against the virus, asking: “Why is this a global competition to you if every day Americans are still losing their lives?” Trump responded with an immediate deflection, saying “…maybe that’s a question you should ask China. Don’t ask me, ask China that question, ok?” before hurriedly calling on another reporter. Jiang refused to accept the answer, and continued: “Sir, why are you saying that to me, specifically?” Trump brushed off Jiang’s question, claiming he would have responded the same to any reporter that had asked him “a nasty question”. He then cut the briefing entirely, turning his back on the podium and the reporters still waiting with questions in the White House rose garden as he made his unceremonious exit.

Jiang’s protest couldn’t be more crucial, given the surge of hate and bigotry Asian Americans have been subjected to since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak. Asian Americans have faced racist comments and attacks from their fellow patriots, rooted in unfounded hatred based on racist assumptions. Most of these incidents are underreported, which is incredibly alarming given the weight they carry in terms of racial strife and race-based hate. Jiang, in a move of notable bravery and importance, drew attention directly to this ongoing conflict and exposed the severity with which it takes grip even in the “Leader of the Free World”. In one swift sentence, Jiang was able to bring light to an ugly topic that has otherwise been overlooked and normalized in pandemic America.

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Yamiche Alcindor, a correspondent at PBS NewsHour and a widely respected and celebrated journalist, also plays a pivotal role in dissecting Trump’s misinformation during the pandemic press briefings. In one of the most stunning demonstrations of Trump’s tendency to contradict himself, Alcindor asked the President about his claims that areas like New York that are calling for tens of thousands of ventilators were excessive and how this could affect the filling of these orders. As soon as Alcindor brought up Trump’s quote regarding what he viewed as unnecessary calls for ventilators and other life support equipment, the President tried to cut her off, repeating “I didn’t say that”. Alcindor then told the president that she was quoting him directly from his Fox interview, where the president says “I don’t believe [New York and other states calling for more ventilators] need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators.” The President then began to berate what he viewed as Alcindor’s negativity, asking why she wouldn't be “a little more positive.” He also claimed that because she was asking a pointed question, aimed at holding his administration accountable for sufficient resource supply to areas in need, she lacks credibility as a reporter. He concluded by saying “nobody trusts the media anymore.” 

Alcindor continues to try to interject with her question as the President reprimands her, telling her, “a fine journalist” in Trump’s words, to “be nice.” “Don’t be threatening,” he instructs her as she tries to redirect the President back to answering a question that was meant to reassure millions of Americans that when cities, like New York, hit their apex, hospitals won’t be terrifyingly overwhelmed and patients won’t be left to die because of lack of access to ventilators.

Alcindor has been one of the most polarizing journalistic figures in recent weeks, with some viewers accusing her of being “negative”, “disrespectful to the President”, and asking “adversarial” questions that are unproductive in this time of crisis. These complaints were echoed by Trump himself when responding to Alcindor. As polarizing as she may be, Alcindor has the full support of her network; NewsHour’s executive producer, Sarah Just, said Alcindor “…is doing exactly what is expected of a free press in our democracy: posing timely, pertinent questions to those in power on behalf of the American people.” Alcindor also defended her conduct, telling NBC talk show host Seth Meyers: “When I cover [the White House COVID-19 press briefings] I try to add as much context and fact-checking as possible.” She also discussed her interactions with Trump specifically, explaining that “covering Trump, you have to have context, you have to tell people: here’s what the facts are. Here’s when he’s right and wrong.” 

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When you look at the incredible amount of misinformation espoused by the President (according to the Washington Post, the President has made 18,000 “false or misleading claims” as of April 3, 2020), it’s not difficult to understand why reporters like Alcindor ask targeted, sharp-edged questions. We are in the midst of an unprecedented global crisis, and concrete answers rooted in science and fact are invaluable to the public. Some answers could mean life or death for some people. Take, for example, a study conducted by disease modelers at Columbia University concluded that if preventative measures had been enacted just a week earlier, 36,000 American lives could have been spared. Trump called this study a “political hit job”. Keep in mind, Trump severely downplayed the seriousness of the virus from the start, repeating the mantra: “…we have it totally under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

These falsehoods, coming not just from Trump but from almost the entirety of his administration may, according to this study, may have cost roughly 36,000 Americans their lives.

These questions coming from these reporters are threatening. They’re threatening because Trump is afraid of them. He wants the people asking them to “be nice” because he’s terrified of what may come if he is to acknowledge possible mistakes his administration has made in the process of buckling down and flattening the curve.

This story is so much bigger than a few verbal spars played out in a pressroom if we can understand the gravity of the President’s hostile and aggressive behavior towards the media. It’s imperative we remember the media’s role in this situation: these journalists are asking the people who are responsible for leading the charge against Covid-19 questions the American public deserves to have answered. These reporters’ job is to obtain information that would be useful to not just Americans, but for people around the world. In the context of a global pandemic caused by a novel virus that spreads rapidly, information is an incredibly valuable commodity. Fact-based information becomes even more valuable when the information being espoused by what is supposed to be the government most emblematic of democracy and civil liberty is tainted with lies and partisan-motivated misinformation. It’s sobering to consider all that would be left in the dark if these reporters weren’t on the frontline, uncovering crucial information that may save lives.

The fearlessness and dedication of these women can and should be viewed as a win for a media that has been under siege since Trump took office four years ago. Though Trump may try to twist the truth to fit his favor, America will not accept lies and deceit. It’s within our right to receive untainted, fact-based news. The education of the American public using science and fact during this health crisis is and always has been nonnegotiable, and these women know it well. Misinformation cannot be tolerated when millions of lives are at stake around the world. This problem is bigger than politics, ego, and reputation. There’s no room for saving face. These reporters have led the charge in holding the government accountable and keeping us all up-to-date on something that is very real and petrifying, and that should be acknowledged and celebrated. 

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25

Photos: Her Campus Media