As many have pointed out, since about 4 p.m. on August 12, the media coverage of Charlottesville has been much more about President Trump’s statements than about James Fields, Heather Heyer, an auto ramming, a riot, a white supremacist rally, or a statue of Robert E. Lee.
Talking heads, Capitol Hill pontificators, CEOs, and ordinary folks on Facebook have criticized the president’s Saturday remarks as inadequate at best and an oblique expression of complicity with the Ku Klux Klan at worst. For one erstwhile supporter they necessitated a clean break with the president. Julius Krein explained to Slate that he was forced to revise his views of Trump by “the simple and obvious fact that somebody died, and it was obvious that there was some neo-Nazi psychopath who killed that person. To not state the obvious, to fail to ‘tell it like it is,’ I thought was pathetic.”
It’s easy to see why Krein would think that President Trump was expected to address one simple and obvious fact—that a neo-nazi murdered someone in Charlottesville—because Krein, like virtually everybody, acquired his information about the president’s statement from the media. For example, the report about the events of August 12 on NPR’s website indicates, with respect to Trump’s statement, that the “obvious” facts about Charlottesville were exactly those mentioned by Krein, and it even notes that although President Trump approached the microphone about an hour after the car ramming, his remarks somehow overlooked both the ramming and its victims. Sure sounds like the president flunked a no-brainer, or was up to something odd.
Unfortunately for the president’s critics, what was obvious to them whenever this completed narrative reached them could not have been obvious to President Trump when he began to speak at 3:35 p.m.. Why? Because at that moment it was not obvious to anybody. The hospital where the victims of the car ramming were being treated announced that one person was dead and 19 were wounded at 3:53, more than 10 minutes after the president finished his remarks.
It is true that the mayor of Charlottesville had tweeted information about an unspecified death at 3:16, but the tweet did not link the fatality to the car ramming or to any specific cause. So when Trump was preparing his statement, and while he gave it, he did not know the “obvious fact” that Krein and so many others now insist he ought to have addressed, that a person had been killed. And he also did not know that her killer was a neo-nazi psychopath, because the driver’s identity was not announced by the police until 9:46 pm.
In fact, when President Trump addressed the cameras on the afternoon of August 12, he was not there to share with the nation his views of a terrorist attack, as many with 20/20 hindsight suppose. He was there to offer reflections on a disturbing riot which had been going on in Charlottesville since about 11:00 a.m., and about which he had already commented in a tweet at 1:19 p.m., when the simple and obvious fact that now summarizes Charlottesville to everybody was as unobvious as it could possibly be, because it hadn’t happened, and nobody imagined that it would (except possibly James Fields). From about 11:30 a.m. to 1:42 p.m. (when the ramming occurred) the obvious fact of Charlottesville was an ongoing riot, and this continued to be the case at 3:35 p.m. when the car ramming, its effects, and its causes were still subjects of unconfirmed report and speculation.
The president did not choose the time of his statement because it was opportune with respect to the status of the events in Charlottesville, but because a media appearance about a different matter was already scheduled for that hour. If his schedule had been free, then within about 20 minutes of 3:35 he likely would have learned part of what is now so crystal clear to Krein and others, and his eventual statement would probably have been very different. But at 3:35 he could not craft a statement around an event, the facts of which were not yet established and confirmed, much less obvious to everybody.
We have heard a lot of hyperventilating about the president’s “moral leadership” from Monday morning quarterbacks who have never played the game at the president’s level and who in this case didn’t even watch a complete broadcast of it. If the media story on which they rely had been only about Charlottesville itself, it would not have been egregiously misinformative to start reports with the most critical events. A woman was killed by a neo-nazi at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville: that tells the public the most important thing that happened in Charlottesville on August 12. But in a story about the president’s statement—and that was and remains the actual banner story in the media coverage—it is nothing if not malicious negligence to omit all information about how the facts became available and what was known at the specific time the president made his statement. This fake news smear is a moral disgrace to journalism. Talk about unfitness for a job.
As for the many wise and decent Americans who have consumed this tainted product and condemned President Trump’s comments about Charlottesville as tantamount to racism—no doubt they share the general condemnation of lynching, and deem it a sin with whose perpetrators they have nothing in common. But they should reflect that assembling a lynch mob needed more than race hatred, and sometimes not even that. Hasty and lawless indignation hasn’t disappeared from our midst, and many of the president’s righteous accusers seem even proud to flaunt it.