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OPINION | The US media shrug at their massive bungling of major stories

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HOW lovely it is to have a high-profile job in our major media institutions.

Let’s say you completely, hideously muck up a huge story. Let’s say you spend three years wildly misleading the public. Let’s say that, at the outset of the worst public-health crisis in a century, you mock people for being afraid and tell them to go about life as usual. When you’re proven wrong, you get to tell the next chapter of the story anyway. And if you feel like saying, “No fair noticing we were wrong!” you know other members of the mainstream-media cartel will rush to support you.

Media observers are today noticing how strange it is for reporters to juxtapose panic about Florida, where the virus has done relatively little damage, with robust defense of New York, the coronavirus death capital of the Western world.

Last week, after Politico Florida correspondent Marc Caputo noted that the long-predicted mass outbreak of coronavirus in his state still hasn’t happened, with three full months having passed since the first dire warnings about spring breakers partying on the beaches, Daily Beast Washington correspondent and CNN analyst Jackie Kucinich threw the yellow flag on Twitter:

“So, given how much everyone is suffering everywhere — grieving loved ones, job losses and even the simple things like hugging your friends — I fail to see how this snarky nonsense from @MarcACaputo — who I think is an awesome reporter —  is helpful.”

In other words, a reporter thinks it is not “useful” to report things that are true if those things happen to reflect badly on reporters? The contrast in coverage of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis seems to come from some bizarro world where the media considers nine deaths per 100,000 people (Florida) to be more alarming than 142 deaths per 100,000 people (New York). As Caputo and colleague Renuka Rayasam wrote, Cuomo “has something else DeSantis doesn’t: a press that defers to him, one that preferred to cover ‘Florida Morons’ at the beach (where it’s relatively hard to get infected) over New Yorkers riding cramped subway cars (where it’s easy to get infected).”

The media loves to run with “blood on his hands” stories about nefarious Republicans, but you’ll have a hard time finding even a quiet, pro-forma apology (much less an admission of bloody hands) from the media for their massive bungling of the early stages of the coronavirus story. On Jan. 31, Vox stated, with the customary absolute metaphysical certitude that characterizes its generally undergraduate tone, “Is this going to be a deadly pandemic? No.” Vox later deleted the tweet, but instead of an apology, it said the remark “no longer reflects the current reality of the coronavirus story,” which was obvious if insufficiently humble.

The following day, the Washington Post ran a story shouting, “Get a grippe, America, the flu is a much bigger threat than coronavirus, for now.” The Post’s medical writer Lenny Bernstein opined, “Clearly, the flu poses the bigger and more pressing peril; a handful of cases of the new respiratory illness have been reported in the United States, none of them fatal or apparently even life-threatening.” The headline of this piece has been widely mocked. But its contents are even more amazing, because none of the experts quoted in it say what Bernstein’s headline says. He appears to have generated the idea himself based entirely on how much damage had been done by the virus to that date, rather than the prospective risk. He features a truncated quotation from Anthony Fauci that leads in the opposite direction from his thesis: Fauci says people ask him why people are more worried about the coronavirus than about seasonal flu and he says seasonal flu is more predictable. Bernstein, a former sportswriter whose only degree listed on his Post biographical page is a B.A. in American culture, has not publicly apologized, as far as I can tell. I’ll be happy to update the record if he does so or has done so.

On Feb. 20, CNN gravely informed us that the real problem relating to coronavirus was racist remarks and decreased bookings at Chinese restaurants, under the headline, “What’s Spreading Faster than Coronavirus? Racist assaults and ignorant attacks against Asians.” (Number of actual assaults or attacks cited in the thousand-word article: one.) The piece quoted a Chinatown restaurant owner as saying, “No one in my restaurant has this disease. No one in Chinatown has this disease,” then followed up with these words from the reporters who wrote the piece: “Indeed, no one in the entire state of New York has been diagnosed with novel coronavirus.” So, nothing to worry about, then.

“Why are some fears misguided?” CNN asked. “While the novel coronavirus has infected more than 75,000 people and killed over 2,100 worldwide, it’s caused far fewer deaths than the flu.” Though 12,000 Americans die of the flu annually, the story continued, “By contrast, since the novel coronavirus was first detected in the United States in January, 15 people have been diagnosed with the illness as of Wednesday. None of them has died.” Oh, phew. We all know that something that hasn’t happened yet cannot happen.

Just as we know that if something didn’t happen, we should pretend it happened anyway, if it reaffirms our political instincts. The Russia–Trump collusion yarn is perhaps the most-promoted false conspiracy theory in American history: Major figures who advanced the theory have now conceded that they had no evidence for it, and yet leading media personalities who hyped it are expressing no shame or remorse whatsoever. CNN’s Brian Stelter is telling his audience, not, “My God, I have failed you, and I hereby announce my retirement in disgrace from public life” but, “Why are those jerks so obsessed with this Russia story we talked up incessantly for three years?” Working in the major media is a (self) love story: It means never having to say you’re sorry.

November 2020 pssnewsletter

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