Blood on Their Hands
Where lies the legal, ethical, and moral obligations for our politicians, and our press, to place truth above agenda during a time of crisis?
One of the best known lines from the US Supreme Court comes from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ ruling in Schenck v. United States regarding the right to free speech: The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.
The key word being “falsely.” You are well protected should you yell fire in a theatre that’s on fire. It’s the act of doing it falsely, as in libel, fraud, or perjury, that is often constitutionally unprotected.
So if our theatre is “the people,” and our fire “the pandemic,” then shouting “it’s all fine” is the falsity, the fraud. Where lies the legal, ethical, and moral obligations for our politicians, and our press, to place truth above agenda during a time of crisis?
New Year’s Eve, 2019: The AP reports China is investigating an “outbreak of respiratory illness in the central city of Wuhan.” January 21, 2020, the US welcomed its first confirmed case of the coronavirus.
The next day, President Trump, talking to CNBC’s Joe Kernen, offered his first comments about the coronavirus. Kernen asked, “Are there worries about a pandemic at this point?” The president responded,“No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”
And for even that brief moment, while our hopes echoed his hopes, others already knew it wasn’t to be.
January 30, during a speech in Michigan, President Trump said, “We have it very well under control. We have very little problem in this country at this moment—five. And those people are all recuperating successfully.” That same day the World Health Organization (WHO) declared coronavirus to be a “public-health emergency of international concern,” announcing 7,818 confirmed cases around the world.
One might forgive a bit of downplaying, seeing it as a sign this administration didn’t want to invoke panic—if that were it. But sadly, that wasn’t it. Not by a long shot.
February 10, in a succession of speeches, Trump claimed warm spring weather could kill the virus, saying, “Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.”
February 23, President Trump pronounced the situation “very much under control,” adding, “We had 12, at one point. And now they’ve gotten very much better. Many of them are fully recovered.” Conversely, WHO announced the virus was now in 30 countries, with 78,811 confirmed cases, a more than fivefold increase over the previous three weeks.
And on February 28, at a campaign rally in North Charleston, SC, President Trump told his base: "The Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. One of my people came up to me and said, 'Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia.' That did not work out too well. They could not do it. They tried the impeachment hoax.... And this is their new hoax.”
Knowing not only what we all know, but being privileged to so much more, on February 28, President Trump told his base coronavirus is a Democratic hoax.
This is the definition of falsely yelling fire in a theatre.
He knew better, and rather than protect those people who believe in him, he told them it’s a hoax.
And he is not alone. As destructive as he is, so too are a band of sycophants willing to play the charade regardless of the lives they cost.
March 9, FOX’s Trish Regan claimed, “This (the coronavirus) is yet another attempt to impeach the president,” adding Democrats and the “liberal media” were using the coronavirus to “destroy the president.”
March 13, Sean Hannity was on air suggesting that living in Chicago is more dangerous than the coronavirus, “Put it in perspective: 26 people were shot in Chicago alone over the weekend. I doubt you heard about it. You notice there's no widespread hysteria about violence in Chicago…. By the way, Democratic-run cities, we see a lot of that.”
March 15. Devin Nunes tells Fox’s Maria Bartiromo, “…one of the things you can do, if you're healthy, you and your family, it's a great time to just go out, go to a local restaurant, likely you can get in, get in easily.…” On the same day Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, appeared on all major Sunday talk shows, calling on people to stay home as much as possible.
On March 16, health departments in the US reported the largest number of coronavirus-related deaths on any one day since the onset of the outbreak.
And some people will roll their eyes, dismissing all of this. But that’s wrong.
Polling has clarified our self-care practices vis-a-vis coronavirus is split along party lines. As long as anyone thinks this coronavirus is “under control,” or “a Democratic hoax,” or created by North Korea to hurt America (Jerry Fallwell, Jr.), or cured by Alex Jones’ toothpaste or Jim Bakker’s silver elixirs, we all pay the price of a President who falsely yelled “hoax” into the theatre, while the pandemic raged on.
And when this is over, they who knew better should be called to account.
Stefani Deoul is a television producer and author of the award-winning YA mystery series Sid Rubin Silicon Alley Adventures, with On a LARP and Zero Sum Game. Her third in the series, Say Her Name, came out in December 2019.