Susan J. Demas: What Trump vs. Whitmer food fight stories get wrong

‘Both sides’ coverage during a pandemic isn’t just annoying. It’s dangerous.

March 27, 2020 12:37 pm

A popup store in D.C. | Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Partisan food fight stories are amazingly easy to write.

“X slams Y!” in the headline, followed by a pithy lede (preferably with a cliché sports or pop culture reference). Then comes the snarky quote by X, the angry response from Y, a little background info and maybe a too-cute-by-half pundit comment. And voilà! You’re done.

That took all of 15 minutes and I’m sure your editor is thrilled with the quick #content.

Conservatively speaking, I have probably written at least 500 of these stories — the “both sides do it” special — during my almost 20 years in political journalism. (Most of them were assigned, yes). I can write about poll crosstabs, budget process minutiae and debates in my sleep (and almost have, because the hours are long).

But the easiest stories to write, by far, are GOP-Democrat bloodsport stories. They are also almost always the least informative. And that’s why we don’t do much of that at the Michigan Advance — and we certainly don’t run conflict stories without thoroughly explaining the issues at hand (which makes them longer and not nearly as fun).

Why? Because otherwise, it’s misleading for readers. And especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s irresponsible and yes, dangerous.

In Michigan, we have had 60 people die of COVID-19 and almost 3,000 people contract the disease, as of Thursday afternoon. The United States has more cases than any other country and almost 1,200 deaths. And we are still in the beginning stages of the crisis.

The bone-chilling reality — succinctly laid out by Greg Sargent in the Washington Post — is that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has repeatedly pleaded with President Donald Trump and his administration for life-saving medical equipment. We need 400,000 new N95 masks a day for at least the next few weeks and at least 5,000 ventilators, Sargent reports.

The most recent federal shipment of masks, gowns, face shields and gloves was “barely enough to cover one shift at that hospital,” Whitmer said Monday. “Not even a whole day’s worth of shifts. One shift.”

It’s not just Whitmer clamoring for help. All 16 members of Michigan’s congressional delegation — Democrats, Republicans and an independent — signed a letter to Vice President Mike Pence, as the Advance first reported Thursday. The letter says that while Michigan has taken “decisive action” to fight COVID-19, “your assistance and engagement are urgently needed.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that the White House was going to announce a venture between General Motors and Ventec Life Systems to produce 80,000 ventilators. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) balked at the $1 billion price tag and thought they’d have an expensive surplus of ventilators. This happened even as the U.S. Senate just passed a $2 trillion COVID-19 spending bill.

Trump still has yet to fully invoke the Defense Production Act to order companies to prioritize government orders — in this case, for medical equipment. He said at a press conference Thursday he’s been told it’s not necessary, likely by corporations who don’t want to be told what they can charge.

While all this is going on, Trump is disgustingly lashing out at Whitmer and other governors on TV and Twitter. He declared that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo didn’t really need 30,000 or 40,000 ventilators. Morgues are filling up and doctors are being forced to wear trash bags for protection. But Trump — a born-and-bred New Yorker — couldn’t appear to care less about what’s happening on the ground there.

As for Whitmer, Trump told Sean Hannity on Fox News Thursday night: “She’s not stepping up. All she does is sit there and blame the federal government. She doesn’t get it done. And we send her a lot. … She is a new governor and it’s not been pleasant.”

Again, Trump is dead wrong on the facts. And it gets worse. The Associated Press reports that Trump is keeping tabs on what governors criticize the federal response and which ones don’t. The implications of that are devastating. (Can you imagine the response if Barack Obama told red state governors in so-called Real America to kneel down and beg him for help during a medical or natural disaster?)

It’s hard to conjure up a more ghoulish situation than governors having to flatter the president to get help during a severe crisis in hopes that he doles out a few masks or gowns so a few more lives can be spared.

This is mad king territory. This is 25th amendment territory.

So let me ask you: If you see a “Whitmer slams Trump” headline, do you get any of that? (I’m sorry, but yes, that is all most people read). Or does it just seem like your run-of-the-mill, boy, politicians sure are terrible, spoiled children, kinda story?

We can do better.

I know it’s easy and tempting to keep writing the Trump vs. Whitmer story right now. The fight is real. But headlines like the one above — or even worse, ones that repeat Trump’s lies, like asserting that Whitmer “isn’t stepping up” — just don’t give an accurate read on the dire situation.

In this case, both sides aren’t equal — not even close. That’s true a lot of the time, but this isn’t an abstract argument on monetary policy during the 15th debate of the year.

People’s lives are at stake. Whitmer has done her best in this situation to make decisions based on the advice of health experts for the good of Michiganders, whether you agree with everything she’s done or not. Without decisive action like the stay at home order she instituted this week, experts believe Michigan was looking at a 460,000 death toll in a state of 10 million.

How do we even begin to get our heads around that kind of carnage?

Trump hasn’t even attempted to be an honest broker. He’s lied, abdicated responsibility, tossed out conspiracy theories and ignored experts from the start until now. As a result, thousands of people in Michigan are likely going to suffer. Without life-saving equipment like ventilators, many will die.

I know reporters are tired. I know many of us are doing the best we can. But as journalists, we have an obligation to stick to the facts and tell the truth. If that means that one political party comes off looking badly because of its actions, that’s literally not our problem. Partisans can scream about bias all they want. That doesn’t change reality.

That’s what we owe our readers. This is no time to fail them.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 22-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.