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Showboating with 100,000 dead

On May 27, the American coronavirus death toll rose to six figures: 100,000 lives lost. That’s a very sad number, made sadder when we ponder that the virus prevents loved ones from saying goodbye in person and makes any funeral an extremely small event.

America’s largest national newspapers have all made dramatic front pages out of the number. The New York Times came first on Sunday, filling its entire front page and three more pages with names of the victims. USA Today followed on Wednesday with an entire front page in black and white and photos of the dead. The Washington Post waited until we reached the horrible number but still printed some stories on the front page.

In The Post, Marc Fisher brought the usual emotional language to the milestone. It “slipped by like so many other days in this dark spring, one more spin of the Earth, one more headline in a numbing cascade of grim news.” It’s hardly slipping by. They’ve made sure of that.

CNN promoted each and every one of these performative pages, which strongly enhanced the notion that this isn’t just a number. It is a political strategy. Each of these newspapers and CNN haven’t just reported on President Donald Trump; they’ve cast him as a dangerous man who should have been removed from office long before he had a chance to campaign for reelection.

It’s the same strategy callously projected by Politico writer (and CNN analyst) Ryan Lizza, who asked White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany: “We’re about to cross the 100,000 dead American milestone. … on Election Day, what does the White House view as the number of dead Americans where you can say that you successfully defeated this pandemic? Is there a number?”

He didn’t ask just once. He kept repeating it. The implied message: The White House should be too embarrassed to ever claim victory, to ever claim that it did something right; that the situation could have been worse; and that it listened to the experts and took action.

You can’t merely grieve for the 100,000 in a vague way. This has to be trotted out as talking points, as Public Rationale No. 1 for removing Trump from office in November.

Lizza’s reporter girlfriend, New York Magazine Washington correspondent Olivia Nuzzi, tried this tactic first, in a more baldly political way. A month ago, she asked Trump, “If an American president loses more Americans over the course of six weeks than died in the entirety of the Vietnam War, does he deserve to be reelected?”

CNN loves this line of attack questioning from this Sonny and Cher of smears. In April, Brian Stelter interviewed Nuzzi and Lizza as they sat in front of their fireplace. Stelter, referring to Nuzzi’s question to Trump, merely asked her, “Why did you think it was important to ask?” Apparently, it’s important to always imply to the public that Trump’s incompetence killed tens of thousands of people. (Rep. Adam Schiff was even more blunt, suggesting a successful impeachment effort would have saved many lives.)

Lizza’s response to Stelter looks even phonier now than it did then. He complained that right-wingers think these questions are “all somehow showboating, or not real journalism” and added with a straight face, “that’s just wrong and has never been the case since I’ve been covering the White House.” That’s a lie. He then added to that lie with further showboating.

We can all lament this death toll, but some are clearly beating their breasts in the most opportunistic way imaginable. Doing so doesn’t honor the victims. It merely exploits them.

Tim Graham is director of media analysis at the Media Research Center and executive editor of the blog NewsBusters.org.

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