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The Media Is Not the Problem with COVID-19

Thousands of Americans are dying. And some conservatives are blaming a favorite scapegoat.
April 4, 2020
The Media Is Not the Problem with COVID-19
A TV journalist waits in the press briefing room of the White House March 23, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

As America’s death toll from the coronavirus pandemic skyrockets while Donald Trump continues his displays of aggrieved narcissism, a large segment of conservative opinion—mostly but not entirely pro-Trump or anti-anti-Trump—has turned its attention to a familiar whipping boy: According to a Washington Examiner headline, “No institution has failed the public worse than the news media.”

This charge, needless to say, is not directed at pro-Trump media such as Fox News or The Federalist, but at the mainstream—excuse me, “lamestream”—media. The MSM, we are told, are not only obsessive Trump-haters who carry water for China’s Communist regime; they are also hypocrites who revile Trump and his supporters for downplaying the threat of COVID-19 to the United States even though they themselves spent two months minimizing such concerns and claiming that racist hysteria is the real danger.

There is a very real problem of progressive groupthink and left-wing bias in the mainstream media. It’s an issue I have written about on plenty of occasions over the past three decades, and it has gotten worse in recent years with the rise of clickbait and the simultaneous rise of a cadre of “woke” journalists who consciously embrace social justice activism as part of their work. It’s not hard to think of examples of egregiously mishandled stories related to culture-war issues of race and gender: recall the frenzy last year over the “MAGA kids” filmed supposedly harassing a Native American activist in Washington, D.C. (a claim quickly debunked by fuller video footage) or the initially uncritical reception of Rolling Stone’s 2014 grand guignol tale of fraternity gang rape at the University of Virginia.

But the coverage of the coronavirus pandemic was not one of those cases.

To be sure, there have been specific instances of journalistic bias and herd mentality, such as the rush to pillory Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas for supposedly spreading conspiracy theories about the coronavirus being a China-engineered bioweapon. (In fact, he said that the virus may have escaped from a Wuhan research laboratory—which is now acknowledged as a plausible theory by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.) Conservatives who have criticized the media on this specific point, such as Tim Carney, have a valid case.

But the bigger narrative of politically motivated media malfeasance relies on cherry-picking and, sometimes, outright misrepresentation.

This narrative made one of its first appearances in a March 24 segment of Fox News’s Tucker Carlson Tonight, in which Carlson mocked the mainstream media for supposedly blaming the coronavirus pandemic on Fox News. (He was referring, presumably, to articles targeting the network’s record of denialism and conspiracy theories.) After playing a January 28 clip of his own show in which he had warned that the outbreak could become a global problem, Carlson displayed a series of screenshots that showed various Fox-bashing outlets being dismissive about it. Among those: A January 31 Vox tweet that said, “Is this going to be a deadly pandemic? No” (or rather, a cropped version of a longer tweet, later deleted, promoting a Vox “explainer”), a couple of Washington Post headlines suggesting that the coronavirus isn’t as scary as it’s made out to be, and New York Times and CNN headlines focusing on irrational fear and racism in response to the epidemic.

Some of the same exhibits show up in a March 28 piece in Spectator USA by Stephen L. Miller—not the Trump White House’s Stephen Miller but the erstwhile anti-Trump blogger turned anti-anti-Trump troll. Miller, who blames the media’s obsessive political correctness and anti-Trumpism for “lazy coverage of the early spread of coronavirus,” suggests nefarious motives beyond mere negligence: “President Trump’s order to halt all travel from China on January 31 . . . was met with hollers of xenophobia from the loudest corners of mainstream media. . . . [I]t was the very next day after Trump’s executive order that mainstream media outlets published stories downplaying the threat as merely another xenophobic reaction to foreigners.”

But where exactly are those “hollers of xenophobia”? Miller points to a February 1 Washington Post op-ed titled, “Past epidemics prove fighting coronavirus with travel bans is a mistake”; however, that piece, by Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Jennifer Nuzzo, never mentioned xenophobia and focused entirely on practical objections, such as the fact that travel bans usually come too late to make a difference. Whether that’s correct or not, Nuzzo was hardly “downplaying the threat”: she wrote that “with increasing signs that the new coronavirus epidemic has grown beyond the point of containment, it is time to think about how best to mitigate its impacts.”

Even more bizarre, however, is Miller’s assertion that other pieces published in the Post, such as a February 1 health section article with the cutesy title, “Get a grippe, America: The flu is a much bigger threat than coronavirus, for now” and the January 31 online column, “How our brains make coronavirus seem scarier than it is” were somehow part of “a full court press against the president’s order.” Granted, those items—also featured in Carlson’s Fox News segment—aged very badly; but neither of them so much as alluded to travel bans or bigotry. We are apparently supposed to believe that these pieces were cleverly crafted to make Trump’s travel restrictions look paranoid. Not to crumple anyone’s tinfoil hat, but it seems far more likely that those articles reflected what some experts believed at a time when experts from a variety of disciplines were still trying to get a handle on a rapidly developing story. Miller is a hack, but there are far more thoughtful writers beating this drum—making the case that there was a coordinated strategy among news outlets to minimize the pandemic in order to bash Trump for the China travel ban, or that the shift in the media’s coverage of the coronavirus was at least in part a reaction to Trump’s no-big-deal attitude.

(The flurry of “worry about the flu!” pieces at the end of January was at least partly traceable to a January 24 Kaiser Health News article, reprinted in USA Today and cited in Axios, The Hill, and Business Insider, which quoted Vanderbilt University Medical Center professor William Schaffner as saying that the coronavirus would be “a blip on the horizon” compared to the regular flu.)

Or take that Washington Examiner piece with the headline proclaiming that the news media have failed the American public worse than any other institution. The author, Becket Adams, constructs a bizarre chronology in which the media spent weeks no-big-dealing the coronavirus threat (it’s still that deleted Vox tweet and a couple of other recycled items) and then “changed tacks” to assail Trump and other Republicans as racist for using terms like “Chinese coronavirus” which the same outlets had used earlier. The nomenclature debate is complicated; these terms had faded from mainstream usage after early February when the World Health Organization gave the disease its official name, COVID-19, and were very suddenly adopted by Trump and his supporters in mid-March as blatant culture-war bait. Adams’s account suggests that the press focused on allegations of racism instead of the unfolding public health emergency. But in fact, for some three weeks before the emergence of the “Chinese virus/Wuhan virus” meme—roughly February 23 to March 15, a period mysteriously missing from Adams’s timeline—major news outlets had relentlessly pounded Trump over his feckless response to the pandemic.

Others have been circulating a collage of headlines—including the Washington Post’s “get a grippe”—that supposedly shows the media treating the coronavirus as a minor issue. But while the visual is seemingly impressive, a close look shows that it’s not particularly representative of the mainstream media. The sources include websites of local news stations, the right-of-center Canadian daily National Post, the geopolitical-affairs journal The National Interest, and the Norway-based business and markets news site CCN Markets. And not all the articles on this wall of shame actually minimize the coronavirus threat: “You’re Likely to Get the Coronavirus” (from The Atlantic, February 24) correctly states that most people who get it will not be severely affected, but also points out that this very fact contributes to making the spread of the virus very difficult to control.

What’s most notable, however, is what’s missing from all the media critiques. The omissions include things like this depressingly prophetic Washington Post headline from January 30: “The next pandemic is coming. We’re not prepared for it.” The article, by former U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Tom Frieden, argued that whether or not the coronavirus turns out to be that pandemic, our lack of preparedness is dangerous. By then, the Post had already run several op-eds and an editorial (on January 27) warning about the threat of a coronavirus outbreak in the United States and calling for action. You could compile a collage out of those headlines, too: “China’s coronavirus containment may fail. We must do more than wait and hope.” “It’s time for a ‘no regrets’ approach to coronavirus.” And so on.

But maybe the Post shifted gears after Trump’s executive order restricting travel from China and began to minimize the issue? Hardly. Even the paper’s February 5 editorial that advised against “limits on travel and trade” also stressed “the immense practical needs of coping with the new coronavirus if it becomes a global pandemic.” On February 4, a Post op-ed by former Obama administration official Jeremy Konyndyk called for “gearing up worst-case preparedness” and warned that “an outbreak with Wuhan’s level of transmission and severity would badly strain hospitals and clinics.” On February 6, the paper ran an opinion piece titled, “Warning: Chinese authoritarianism is hazardous to your health.” On February 10, the Post published an interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci, who discussed the possibility of a global pandemic and defended the travel restrictions. And on February 12, Post columnist Dana Milbank laid into Trump for scorning expert opinion and peddling his own “alternative facts”—for instance, that the coronavirus would soon be miraculously gone. Milbank quoted grim predictions from several experts and called for a “Manhattan Project” to tackle the epidemic.

What about other publications? Vox took a lot of heat for the January 31 tweet promising no deadly pandemic. (For the record, the January 29 article it was promoting, by Vox health correspondent Julia Belluz, was not as confident as the tweet: While Belluz wrote that the virus was unlikely to spread widely inside the United States, she cautioned that “there are too many unknowns” and that “we should brace ourselves for an escalation.”) But just three days later, another tweet from the Vox account said that “the coronavirus is on track to become a pandemic.”

On February 4, one of Vox’s leading authors, Dylan Matthews, published an interview with biologist Beth Cameron, former director of the now-disbanded Obama-era White House office for global health security, focusing on America’s poor preparedness for a possible pandemic. Two days later, the site ran a piece by staff writer Kelsey Piper titled “Don’t scold people for worrying about the coronavirus,” which noted that that there was still a lot of uncertainty about how the outbreak would develop—especially given the unreliable information out of China—and concluded that “maybe we should actually be more paranoid.” On the same day, a new article by Belluz stated that “we’re at a pivotal moment in the outbreak of the new coronavirus in China” and outlined eight different scenarios, from good to very bad. Ten days later, Belluz published a story headlined, “Why the coronavirus outbreak might be much bigger than we know,” which discussed the spread of COVID-19 outside China and warned that a pandemic could “overwhelm a country’s health infrastructure.”

The Daily Beast has been skewered for a February 6 column by Michael Daly, “The Virus Killing U.S. Kids Isn’t the One Dominating the Headlines,” which is featured in the aforementioned media-shaming collage. (If you think about it, that’s a bit self-defeating: Doesn’t the column’s title refute the notion that the media were generally downplaying COVID-19 at the time?) Yet no one has made a peep about the Daily Beast piece published a day earlier, “What the Worst Case of a Coronavirus Pandemic Might Look Like.” In retrospect, even that article looks overly optimistic, since it relied on the assumption, since shown to be mistaken, that asymptomatic transmission was unlikely. However, it quoted experts as saying that “containment is already a lost cause” and concluded that public health preparation could determine how many coronavirus infections would become a “death sentence.”

The New York Times coronavirus coverage in late January and most of February focused primarily on China (and, contrary to the suggestion some conservatives have made that the press was kowtowing to the Chicoms, much of it was highly critical of the Chinese regime). But there were also, in early and mid-February, alarming reports of the virus’s spread in Europe and of experts’ warnings that a pandemic lay ahead. And while a few op-eds and columns lectured smugly on irrational fears, others warned that the situation could be dire. “I’m no epidemiologist, but what I’ve seen looks pretty scary,” Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote on January 30, chastising commerce secretary Wilbur Ross for his suggestion that the coronavirus outbreak in China could have the salutary effect of bringing jobs back to America.

Yes, there were the cringeworthy “woke” takes as well. In late January, New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo suggested that the real reason to freak out was not the epidemic itself but the way “panic about a foreign virus” could hurt “marginalized people.” (Manjoo actually praised Trump for a “measured response to the virus” and approvingly quoted his claim that it was “totally under control.”) In early February, a Vox piece by Nylah Burton cited Australia’s move to quarantine recent visitors to China’s epidemic-stricken Hubei province, “many of whom are of Asian descent,” as evidence of the racism and xenophobia unleashed by the outbreak. One can easily find more examples of such PC preaching. But overall, it accounts for a tiny share of coronavirus coverage. It also needs to be said that reporting on the very real problem of coronavirus-related anti-Asian harassment is not, as some conservative media critics seem to assume, tantamount to “political correctness” or nonchalance about the disease itself: There is no moral inconsistency in worrying about the pandemic and being concerned about incidents of racial harassment.

One can fault the media for falling too easily for Trump’s “Chinese virus” trolling, which hit all the right identity-politics buttons. But surely we should be more troubled by the president of the United States using deliberately inflammatory rhetoric as a “Look! Racism!” diversion from the mishandling of a public health crisis.

Not all critiques of the media for failing to take COVID-19 seriously enough come from the right or have a political agenda. In a March 24 Atlantic article, University of North Carolina information scientist Zeynep Tufekci writes that “from the end of January through most of February, a soothing message got widespread traction, not just with Donald Trump and his audience, but among traditional media in the United States, which exhorted us to worry about the flu instead, and warned us against overreaction.” Tufekci attributes this not to political bias but to excessive deference toward established experts (many of whom, she writes, were falsely reassured by a New England Journal of Medicine paper from China suggesting that the virus had fairly low transmission and mortality rates), failure to ask probing questions about statistics, and skittishness about appearing alarmist.

Tufecki certainly argues in good faith, from her vantage point as a dissenter from conventional wisdom (she was among the first mainstream authors to champion masks as protection against the coronavirus). Her criticism is rooted in understandable frustration that the media did not raise sufficient alarm about impending catastrophe and did not help avert it. But in making her case, she lapses into the same selective vision as far more partisan media critics, leaving out numerous items that don’t fit her narrative. She even asserts that the relative complacency continued “until about early March”—even though, in the last week of February, the New York Times was already running front-page stories about coronavirus outbreaks in Europe, South Korea, and Iran and rising fears of a global pandemic (not to mention numerous editorials and op-eds).

Indeed, by then, many Trump supporters—and Trump himself—were loudly accusing the media of whipping up baseless fears. On February 25, Rush Limbaugh complained about “the Drive-By Media hype of this thing as a pandemic” as part of “an effort to bring down Trump”; three days later, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney made the same claim at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Could the media have done better? Of course it could have—that is always true. Vox’s Piper recently posted a Twitter thread grappling with her part in the failure to push hard enough for the facts. “I didn’t want to sound alarmist,” Piper wrote. “I didn’t want to step out ahead of public health officials, who were still telling us that the risk was low. I wanted to tell readers what scientists were saying, and they too were trying not to sound alarmist.”

But there is a world of difference between such introspection and using cherry-picked “headlines from the left” to deflect criticism of Trump’s negligence or of coronavirus denialism on the right. Some mainstream media outlets may have run regrettable “nothing to see here” articles in late January and early February; many mainstream journalists may have been insufficiently diligent and willing to ask questions. But this does not begin to compare to the dismal record of the president and the right-wing media, such as Trump’s insistence on downplaying the pandemic well into March when the full scope of the looming disaster was already clear, or the drumbeat of coronavirus trutherism from conservative outlets and pro-Trump pundits like former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, The Federalist’s Sean Davis, activist Candace Owens, and far too many others. (Some of them are still pushing it: After songwriter Adam Schlesinger died of COVID-19 complications on April 1 at the age of 52, Owens started a rumorapparently based on misreading a Google search results—that he had been battling pancreatic cancer and that the media were covering it up, presumably to stoke fear that the disease is killing healthy people in their prime.)

To be sure, not all the conservative media-bashers are covering for Trump and Trumpists. For some, it really is all about judging the mainstream media, which they see as intellectually and morally corrupt and mired in “social justice” ideology. But such a judgment, however deserved in many cases, can easily lead into the temptation of fitting the facts to the narrative: If you expect the media to view everything through the lens of identity politics, you’ll see it even where it doesn’t exist. (For the record, I don’t think the identity-politics ideology is nearly as dominant among journalists outside the culture/social issues beat as many conservatives assume.) With such a mindset, articles suggesting that the coronavirus is not as dangerous as the flu are quickly assumed to have a hidden agenda—downplaying a story that may cause racism against Asian-Americans—while articles that don’t fit that mold are quickly forgotten.

Media criticism is an important task. But it needs to rely on actual (and factual) analysis of coverage and commentary, not critique by screenshot—especially since, in the current climate, even well-intentioned media criticism is easily appropriated for Trump-excusing propaganda.

The propaganda, in this case, is particularly brazen. The same people who accused the press of overhyping the coronavirus are now claiming that the press is to blame for the America’s failure to take it seriously—not the president who, on February 29, when the pandemic was already a four-alarm fire, told a crowd of his fans that the flu was worse and that the peril from the coronavirus was his enemies’ “new hoax.”

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.