At the White House on Monday, CBS News reporter Weijia Jiang broke a cardinal rule of journalism and played into the Trump administration’s narrative when she made herself the story.
Jiang asked President Donald Trump why comparing virus testing rates with those of other countries matters when hundreds of Americans a day continue to die from Covid-19. Trump told Jiang to “ask China,” an administration talking point aimed at deflecting blame for Trump and company’s inept response to the pandemic.
In reaction, Jiang, who is Chinese-American, asked: “Sir, why are you saying that to me specifically?” Her implication was that Trump played the China card because she was Chinese.
A useful follow-up for Jiang would have been to ask what China has to do with the lack of White House leadership on the pandemic and guidance for reopening the country or with the failure of the administration to stop the spread of the virus even within the West Wing. Or she could have simply let the inanity of Trump’s response speak for itself.
Instead, Jiang chose to make Trump’s response about her, violating a cardinal rule of journalism: The story is not about you. When I was a producer at CNN, executives (and even anchors) insisted, “The news is the star,” not the people putting it on the air.
Jiang’s choice to take umbrage at Trump’s China talking point brings to mind Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, who hears an inquiry about meals as an anti-Semitic slur, “Jew eat?” Trump’s effort to make Covid-19 the “China flu” has undeniably boosted anti-Asian bigotry.
If Jiang wants to report that story, she should. But by finding bigotry in deflection, Jiang played Trump’s game, making the moment about media clashing with the White House, reporters shining the spotlight on themselves – the reason former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said she shunned media briefings – and identity politics, among Trump’s favorite distractions.
Any time the media move the focus off of Trump’s bungled response to a pandemic that has cost thousands of lives, it does the White House a favor. Weijia Jiang helped Trump on Monday by making the story about her.
Muhammad Cohen is a contributor to Forbes Asia and editor at large of Inside Asian Gaming, and wrote Hong Kong On Air, a novel set during the 1997 handover about TV news, love, betrayal, high finance and cheap lingerie.