When Trump blows hard, the daily news coverage is way too soft

Originally published on Medium.

Books and op-eds have lately been helping the public more fully grasp just how dysfunctional, deceitful and amoral the Trump White House is. But the daily news stories (unless they are about those books and op-eds)? Not so much.

Consider the formulaic, not particularly enlightening coverage of Trump’s assertion Tuesday (followed by a tweet Wednesday) that his administration had done a great job helping Puerto Rico after it was ravaged by Hurricane Maria.

This was really a Trump doozy, not just outrageously, objectively wrong — even crazy — but redolent of so many of Trump’s most horrible characteristics: racism, lack of empathy, cluelessness and/or mendacity, and narcissism.

And, for good measure, it cast considerable doubt on his placating platitudes about how prepared his administration is for a massive hurricane currently bearing down on the Carolinas.

The New York Times story was a huge missed opportunity, relying on a slightly snarky tone and stenography instead of putting his comments in their appropriate context.

Here’s the lede, by the profoundly talented and extraordinarily accomplished Frances Robles (so I blame her editors):

President Trump patted himself on the back Tuesday for an “incredibly successful” job done in Puerto Rico, where the government estimates that nearly 3,000 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria last year.

The first real pushback, after two more paragraphs of Trump stenography, is a nitpick about Trump’s misleading mention of a ship-based military hospital.

It isn’t until the eighth paragraph that we get, in the form of a quote from a third party, to the point that should have been made explicitly at the top:

“If he thinks the death of 3,000 people is a success, God help us all,” said Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, in a post on Twitter.

And nowhere in the story does it explain how many of the deaths were due to negligence, what precisely that negligence was, or why Trump might have neither cared much about Puerto Rico to begin with or now thinks it was a success.

The Associated Press story was a word salad of uncontextualized stenography, leading up to a “you decide” nut graph:

The administration’s efforts in Puerto Rico received widespread criticism, and he battled with Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. But after visiting the island last September, Trump said that Puerto Ricans were fortunate that the storm did not yield a catastrophe akin to the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast.

At the Washington Post, Felicia Sonmez and John Wagner at least put some needed context in the lede, reporting that “researchers have estimated there were nearly 3,000 excess deaths.”

They further explained:

In a report published last month, George Washington University researchers estimated that the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria had led to 2,975 excess deaths in the six months after the storm. The government of Puerto Rico has embraced the estimate, which the researchers arrived at by comparing the number of deaths after the hurricane to typical death rates and adjusting for a range of variables.

And they noted that an after-action report from FEMA had acknowledged some degree of fault.

But it was nevertheless a pretty listless story.

Let’s be real: To pretty much anyone who has the least idea of what happened in Puerto Rico, or what’s going on in Trump’s head, the only human reaction to what Trump said about Puerto Rico is a double-take.

And here’s where CNN, for a change, really shone. Instead of trying and failing to cram a double-take into the formulaic he-said-she-said incremental newspaper story, CNN’s folks reacted like human beings.

Right after cutting away from Trump’s live remarks, CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin brought on White House correspondent Kaitlin Collins and expressed appropriate incredulity.

Three thousand people died according to this most recent George Washington University study and the administration’s response is still under fire. Where is this incredibly successful even coming from?

Collins replied:

That’s the question a lot of people are going to have after hearing the President’s comments there…. [T]he President looking back at Puerto Rico saying that it was an unsung success, that it was very successful, talking about the praise they received after that hurricane hit for the administration’s response. Which frankly, Brooke, just isn’t the case here. It’s actually been widely criticized because, of course, at first the death toll was in the dozens, and then it was raised to roughly 3,000 people who died there in Puerto Rico.

Half an hour later, CNN’s Jake Tapper drilled down in a conversation with CNN political commentators Angela Rye and Amanda Carpenter that hit all the right notes. Enjoy and learn:

Tapper: Obviously, when it comes to this pending storm, we’re all hoping for the best and hoping the Trump administration does everything it can do.

But the president saying that Puerto Rico was an unsung success, when the latest official government death toll from the government of Puerto Rico—and let’s remember these are American citizens—that’s a U.S. territory—is 2,975 dead. That is an unsung success.

Rye: No, it’s an unsung inaccuracy…. [N]ot to mention the number of people and families who had to relocate completely off the island, not to mention the fact that their economy is now on life support, and electricity is not all the way functioning, it’s far from a success.

And the fact that Donald Trump today would spend more time singing his own praises, rather than really leaning into a conversation with people in leadership there to figure out how they can really overcome and really have a success story for this particular storm, I think is very telling.

Tapper: Do you think, Amanda, that there are — President Trump doesn’t have the people around him who tell him, hey, by the way, don’t say that about Puerto Rico, it’s not a success, and they just upgraded the death toll to 2,975, that’s not a success, it’s embarrassing?

Carpenter: Perhaps, but I also think there’s probably people in the White House that have given up on trying to message the president.

I mean, look at his performance when he actually went to Puerto Rico. He is throwing out paper towels like he’s Santa Claus giving out goodies.

And I think this is part of the warped approach that he has towards disasters. He views it as an opportunity to hand out money and goodies for which people should be grateful to him. And he doesn’t understand the devastation and the fears.

And, honestly, if he thinks Puerto Rico is a success, I’m a little nervous. That makes me more nervous about Florence coming in.”

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