Taking a breath at the eye of a storm
By Jon Allsop
Around the world, versions of the same question are being debated all at once: now what? In recent weeks, multiple countries and jurisdictions have taken steps to ease the lockdown measures they imposed to stop the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. France begins a process of déconfinement today, having set the date nearly a month ago. In the UK, some manual laborers are expected to report back to work this week; they only found out about that last night, when Boris Johnson, the prime minister, addressed the nation on TV with a “first sketch of a roadmap” to reopening, which also includes expanded outdoor-exercise rights. Britain’s opinionated press is divided on whether the easing goes too far or not far enough, but many outlets seem to agree that Johnson’s strategy is a confused mess. (Metro: “IT’S ALL GREEK TO US, BORIS.”) Last week, some right-wing papers reported that Johnson would loosen more restrictions than he ultimately did—a result, apparently, of a briefing war between different government factions. Unnamed senior officials accused sections of the press of trying to bounce Johnson into a fuller reopening, because the lockdown is hurting newspaper sales. Emily Bell, of the Tow Center, summed up the furor: “Anonymous sources say that anonymous sources are manipulating the news media says the news media.”
In the US, we’re seeing mixed messages of a different nature: President Trump has been increasingly aggressive in pushing for a broad reopening, but at the same time, the virus has infiltrated the inner sanctum of his administration. (Britain already went through a similar episode; it ended with Johnson in the ICU.) In the middle of last week, a valet to the president tested positive for COVID-19; on Friday, Trump confirmed that Katie Miller, the press secretary to Vice President Mike Pence (and partner of top Trump aide Stephen Miller), tested positive, too. As a result, senior administration figures—including the leaders of the CDC and the FDA—have entered quarantine. Yesterday, we learned that Pence is isolating as well. Over the weekend, Politico’s influential Playbook newsletter pointed out the dissonance between the White House’s reopening push and its own current public-health crisis—“Is anyone really safe?,” its authors asked—and Kevin Hassett, an economic adviser to Trump, admitted, on CBS, that he finds it “scary to go to work” right now. All this, as CNN’s John King noted yesterday, is a “messaging disaster” for Trump.
If the worldwide reopening wave feels like a turning point in the coronavirus era, stories like Britain’s confusion and the arrival of the virus in the West Wing remind us that it is not. As I wrote on Friday, we all must resist the journalistic urge for narrative advance at this time—the pandemic isn’t a linear story; its rhythms are much choppier than that. Still, now is as good a time as any to try and step back on the coronavirus story—to zoom out from the messy specifics of transmission data and individual countries’ reopening debates, and ask a bigger-picture question: what will the reopened world look like? And what should it look like?
Some journalists have already made an effort to do that. As early as March, Ed Yong, of The Atlantic, imagined various ways the pandemic might end; he outlined possible outcomes including mass economic destruction, a surge of new stigmas, and renewed isolationism, but also improved practices around hygiene, employment, disaster preparedness, and more. Last month, Donald G. McNeil, Jr., of the New York Times, took a similarly deep look at the dynamics that will shape the medium-term future, including a new class divide that’s taking shape around the idea of immunity. Yesterday, Matt Thompson wrote, also for The Atlantic, that even the hardest questions we’re asking ourselves right now feel too small. “The virus, as it spreads, is also spreading awareness of the deep and long-standing brokenness in our society,” he wrote. “I find myself hoping that we might strive for something greater than survival.”
In a similar vein, journalists should take a minute, if they can, to reflect on their own work, and how it has evolved since this crisis began. As I wrote in mid-March, as Western nations started to lock down, almost everything about the world we knew changed overnight. Many journalists have, on the whole, adapted remarkably to the new normal. We’ve seen a deluge of astonishing work—channeling energy, invention, and sacrifice—even as the pandemic has upended our personal lives and accelerated the rot of our creaking industry. But life at the eye of a storm—especially a storm that never seems to end—inevitably dims broader perspective. To the extent possible, we should try, from time to time, to assess what our coverage to date might end up looking like when it’s viewed as the first draft of this tortured history. Why did we fail to see this coming? When it came, did we focus fully enough on the social iniquities it exposed? Did we obsess over data points that turned out to be pretty meaningless? Did we grapple, really, with the centrality of the testing debacle? What we still don’t know about this virus is staggering—and that means we can’t yet know all that we could be doing better in covering it. Still, asking such questions of ourselves now—before we get to the scalding clarity of hindsight—might help us correct some courses, and pursue others with renewed vigor.
In a story that was published yesterday, Gina Kolata, of the Times, looked at plagues past, and how they concluded. Often, she wrote, pandemics end socially before they end medically; “An end can occur not because a disease has been vanquished but because people grow tired of panic mode and learn to live with a disease.” This time, as Kolata notes, the social ending has begun even though there is no medical ending yet in sight. It is our job, now, to interrogate that process—to ask who it benefits and who it harms, and to try and tether it to some kind of scientific reality. The more clarity we can bring to that task, the better.
The coming weeks and months will likely be a mess; an unsatisfying patchwork of advances and retreats. Already, some countries that reopened parts of their economies—South Korea, for example—have seen renewed transmission of the virus; in the UK last night, Johnson made it clear that his reopening policies are highly conditional, and could be reversed at short notice if a tighter lockdown looks necessary to prevent a second wave of infections. For now, those of us trying to make sense of all this are bobbing, storm-lashed, between waves. We will be for some time. Every now and then, we should remember to wipe the water out of our eyes.
Below, more on the coronavirus:
- A dereliction of duty?: For CNN, Joe Lockhart, who served as press secretary to President Bill Clinton, asks why newspaper editorial boards aren’t screaming “Trump has to go,” given his “gross mishandling” of the pandemic and litany of other scandals. Press-watchers Lockhart interviewed speculated that the futility of such a demand and the fear of backlash from Trump fans could be among the reasons editorial boards are holding back. Lockhart finds such logic inadequate. (ICYMI, Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, spoke with Lockhart last year on our podcast, The Kicker.)
- Conspiracies: Over the weekend, the Trump-backing One America News Network ran a segment claiming that the Clintons, George Soros, Bill Gates, and others are part of a “globalist conspiracy” to establish “sweeping population control” under the cover of the pandemic. (Two “prominent journalists” at OAN told CNN that they felt “embarrassed” by the segment.) Elsewhere, a conspiracy “documentary” called Plandemic, which makes similarly unhinged claims, has gone viral on social media. For the Times, Davey Alba profiles its star, Dr. Judy Mikovits, a “discredited scientist” turned “darling of far-right publications like the Epoch Times and the Gateway Pundit.” Mentions of Mikovits on social media and TV “have spiked to as high as 14,000 a day,” Alba reports.
- The animal fact checker: CJR’s Savannah Jacobson profiles Natasha Daly, a journalist at National Geographic who has carved a niche debunking heartwarming—yet false—viral stories about the return of nature during the pandemic. Daly sees a hidden danger in such stories. “Conservationists say that, actually, we’ve changed ecosystems on earth to the point where they can’t recover without our assistance and help,” she says. “So to have that sort of mindset that we just need to do nothing, it almost undermines the really real and important work that conservationists do.”
- No obit: An analysis by The City and Columbia Journalism Investigations found that fewer than 5 percent of New Yorkers killed by COVID-19 have been memorialized in an obituary or death notice; the victims who have been publicized have skewed male, younger, and wealthier, and ethnic groups that have been disproportionately hurt by the virus have been under-represented among those memorialized. The City is now inviting tributes to victims, to be submitted here.
- Murdoch points: For The Guardian, Kevin Rudd, the former prime minister of Australia, makes the case that Rupert Murdoch’s media empire is working to bolster claims that China’s recklessness is responsible for the spread of the coronavirus, as ballast for Trump’s reelection bid. The situation reminds Rudd of the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, when “the Murdoch media were leading the pack across the anglosphere as the unrelenting cheerleaders for war—and vilifying those, like me, who opposed it.”
- Lockdown anger, international edition: Protesters demanding an immediate end to lockdown measures have committed acts of violence against journalists—in Germany. Lisa Hänel writes, for Deutsche Welle, that reporters and camera crews covering demonstrations have repeatedly been attacked. On May 1, in Berlin, a team making a satirical show for the broadcaster ZDF was set upon by about 15 hooded people wielding “metal bars and cudgels.” Some crew members reported “severe” injuries.
- In brief: After Britain’s Daily Mail organized a shipment of protective equipment from China, The Economist reflects that the pandemic is reviving “an ancient form of journalism”: the “newspaper stunt.” Also in the UK, ITV shared a photo from Twitter that appeared to show people flouting lockdown rules in a London park, but was actually an old image that had been posted as a joke. And since lockdown began, a newspaper carrier in France has been leaving handwritten notes on customers’ papers. Under one headline, “How to open the borders?,” the carrier scribbled, “By not closing them.”
Other notable stories:
- On CJR’s podcast, The Kicker, Pope spoke with Giancarlo Fiorella, of the open-source investigative website Bellingcat, about the wild story of former green beret Jordan Goudreau and the botched recent attempt to invade Venezuela and overthrow its president, Nicolás Maduro. The AP reported elements of the plot ahead of time. “Why, after it’s been revealed in the international press, would you then do it?” Fiorella asked.
- On Friday, the National Labor Relations Board rejected a series of anti-union arguments from management at Hearst Magazines, and ordered the company to hold a union election, New York’s Sarah Jones reports. The verdict was “a total loss for Hearst,” she writes, “made doubly resonant by the fact that conservatives currently control the NLRB.”
- Rosie O’Donnell told Marlow Stern, of the Daily Beast, that she visited Michael Cohen, Trump’s former fixer, in prison, and has been helping him with a tell-all book about Trump that he’s been working on. According to O’Donnell, Cohen hopes to publish the book before the November election. She told Stern that “it’s pretty spicy.”
- Ron Harrist, a long-serving reporter and editor for the Associated Press in Mississippi, has died. He was 77. The AP’s Jeff Amy writes, in an obituary, that Harrist “covered Elvis Presley, black separatists, white supremacists, and college football legends,” and that his “talent for logistics proved to be critical in the 2005 aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.”
- And after a flushing sound was heard during the live broadcast of a Supreme Court hearing last week, Slate’s Ashley Feinberg set out to investigate where it came from. She concluded that Justice Stephen Breyer was the “likely flusher.” (ICYMI, I wrote for CJR last week about the unexpected joy of the SCOTUS live feed.)