This week, as the headlines of major media outlets fixated on the threat to American democracy, the coronavirus pandemic continued to rage. Every day, the United States reported more than two-hundred-thousand confirmed new cases of COVID-19; according to data from Johns Hopkins University, Tuesday set a new daily record for COVID deaths, with more than four-thousand reported. Public health experts have criticized the slow pace of the vaccine rollout; on Tuesday, the Trump administration told states to loosen their vaccine eligibility criteria and pledged to release all its available doses immediately, rather than hold back second doses for people who already had their first. The economic toll is intensifying, too: yesterday, the Labor Department reported the biggest weekly rise in filings for unemployment benefits since the early days of the pandemic. These dire data points are a reminder: the urgency of pandemic coverage does not rise and fall to reflect the gravity of the situation. As Politico’s Renuka Rayasam put it this week, “You can’t impeach the virus.”
It wasn’t just the pandemic—there was other major news this week, too: We learned that 2020 effectively tied (with 2016) as the hottest year the planet has ever recorded. The Supreme Court ruled that women seeking to use mifepristone, a pregnancy-termination drug, must collect it in person, and not by mail—the court’s first abortion decision since adding Amy Coney Barrett, who has a history of anti-abortion views. Prosecutors in Michigan charged Rick Snyder, the state’s former governor, with willful neglect of duty in relation to the contamination of drinking water in Flint. (He has pleaded not guilty; eight other defendants, including other ex-officials, have also been charged.) The case, Kym Worthy, the Wayne County prosecutor, said, is aimed at “finally holding people accountable for their alleged unspeakable atrocities that occurred in Flint all these years ago.”
New from CJR: Our year of pandemic words
Much of the week’s non-insurrection news involved Trump administration policies, including some that officials are trying to ram through before leaving office next week. Whistleblowers alleged that Trump appointees overseeing the Census Bureau were pressuring staff to hurriedly count undocumented immigrants in order to exclude them from Congressional apportionment (though on Wednesday, the bureau seemed to abandon the effort). The State Department designated Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, reversing an Obama-era decision, then moved to designate Houthi rebels, an Iran-backed faction in Yemen’s war, as a terrorist group. The Environmental Protection Agency banned the regulation of emissions from stationary infrastructure including oil wells and gas refineries—a move that was variously interpreted as a preemptive brake on Biden’s climate agenda and as “a parting gift to polluters”—and diluted safety advice around PFBS, a toxic chemical that is widely present in drinking water. On Wednesday, the federal government executed Lisa Montgomery—the first female prisoner to meet that fate since 1953, and the eleventh prisoner of any gender to be executed since Trump re-authorized federal capital punishment. The twelfth, Corey Johnson, was executed last night; the thirteenth, Dustin Higgs, will be executed today. And yesterday, the Justice Department’s inspector general published a report on the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their families at the border. Afterward, Rod Rosenstein, the former deputy attorney general who oversaw the policy, said that it “should have never been proposed or implemented.”
None of this is to say that the intense focus on the insurrection, Trump’s impeachment, and the ongoing threats of fascism and white supremacy isn’t justified; nor is it to say that the stories listed above haven’t been covered—they were, and diligently so, by reporters at a range of outlets. CNN, to pick one example, made an effort to spotlight the pandemic on air: Sara Sidner, a correspondent, reported from an overwhelmed hospital in California, the tenth she’d visited recently to speak with doctors and relatives of COVID patients. A woman described holding her mother’s funeral in a parking lot. Sidner broke down in tears. “To see the way that these families have to live after this, and the heartache that goes so far and so wide,” she said. “It’s really hard to take.”
Still, the coup attempt by Trump supporters has undeniably swallowed reporters’ time and news consumers’ attention. Trump has not had favorable coverage this week—and its tone will, in all likelihood, remain in historical tellings of the Trump presidency, with the infamy of the Capitol siege and two impeachments at the fore. In a way, though, he still won: by creating a horrific display of his disgrace, he’s avoided adequate, focused scrutiny on past offenses—from his climate denialism to child separations—that deserve prominent placement in news reports and assessments of his legacy as he prepares to leave office. Media critics often lament that election campaign coverage relegates substantive talk about policy. It turns out that election overthrow coverage does, too.
The turbulence of the White House transition could serve as an opportunity for the news media, if only we choose to seize it. Experiencing the shock of how fragile American democracy is should jolt journalists out of our past, often complacent way of doing things; political reporters ought to recenter civic conversation around the long-term wellbeing of the republic and its citizens. Last night, Biden gave a detailed speech outlining his vaccine strategy and stimulus plans; networks carried it in full and, this morning, Biden’s pledges top many major homepages. It was a hopeful foreshadowing of a news cycle less drenched in the shallow daily outrages of the Trump era. Cutting away from the speech, CNN’s Erin Burnett seemed almost dumbfounded by its normality: it was “the kind of speech that we have, you know—we can—it’s a presidential speech,” she said. Of course, Trump’s impeachment trial is yet to come, and it will coincide with Biden’s first days in office. Our balancing act isn’t done yet.
Below, more from a news-filled week:
- East Coast bias: Yesterday, Sidner appeared on Reliable Sources, CNN’s media podcast, to discuss her coverage of California hospitals. She told Brian Stelter, the host, that she felt “exposed and embarrassed” when she broke down on air, since journalists are taught not to show emotion, but added that if her emotional reaction “did something to help, then I’ll embarrass myself every single day, all day long.” Sidner also argued that national coverage of COVID reflects an East coast media bias, because the level of reporting on California’s spike doesn’t match what had come out of New York, when cases peaked there.
- CJR coverage of Trump’s harmful legacy: In the summer of 2018, with child separations dominating the news cycle, Roberto Lovato assessed the coverage for CJR, and found that it often excluded Central American voices; a few months later, CJR’s Amanda Darrach spoke with Kim Kyung-Hoon, a Reuters photographer who captured a shocking image of border officials teargassing young children. In August 2019, I outlined the many steps the Trump administration has taken to suppress government climate science. And in November 2019, Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, discussed coverage of executions with Robert Dunham, executive director at the Death Penalty Information Center, on our podcast, The Kicker.
- Notes on an insurrection: Yesterday, a coalition of media advocacy groups, including the News Media Alliance and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, wrote to federal law enforcement agencies demanding greater transparency, including regular briefings, around the investigation into the insurrection. Sara Fischer, of Axios, has more. Fischer also reports that, according to NewsGuard, ad placement software put spots from hundreds of advertisers next to election disinformation, without the advertisers’ knowledge. And CNN has an early candidate for correction of the year, on a story detailing a Democratic lawmaker’s reaction to the Capitol siege: “A previous version of this story misstated that Rep. Ted Lieu grabbed a crowbar before leaving his office. He grabbed a ProBar energy bar.”
Other notable stories:
- Yesterday, Politico’s Playbook newsletter—which has recently tapped a series of guest writers as it makes new arrangements on staff—handed the reins to Ben Shapiro, a right-wing podcaster. Shapiro used his Playbook turn to spread nonsense about the impeachment vote. Media critics were scathing of Politico’s decision to include him and, according to the Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani, many (though by no means all) Politico employees were angry, too; one pointed to Shapiro’s “long history of bigoted and incendiary commentary.” On a call with staff, Matt Kaminski, Politico’s editor in chief, defended the choice: “Mischief making,” he said, “has always been a part of Politico’s secret sauce.”
- Ed Butowsky and Matt Couch—both of whom spread conspiracy theories about the murder of Seth Rich, a Democratic Party staffer, in 2016—have retracted their claims and apologized to Rich’s family as part of an agreement to settle a lawsuit brought by Rich’s brother. Butowsky was heavily involved in a Fox News story, later retracted, on Rich’s death; last year, the network reached a separate settlement with Rich’s family. (For more details, Yahoo’s podcast Conspiracyland is worth a listen.)
- Laura Poitras, the filmmaker who worked on the Edward Snowden story in 2013, says that First Look Media, the company she co-founded, recently fired her. Poitras alleges that she was terminated for publicly criticizing First Look’s treatment of Reality Winner, a whistleblower who was arrested for leaking documents to The Intercept, which First Look owns; First Look says it decided not to renew Poitras’s contract since she was no longer actively working for the company. (She denies this.) The Post’s Sarah Ellison has more.
- Bloomberg’s Gerry Smith profiles Popular Information, a Substack newsletter written by Judd Legum that investigates corporate power. Last week, Legum contacted every corporate contributor to Republican senators who challenged the election result, and major companies responded by halting their donations. Legum told Smith that he finds stories by focusing on topics that are “so monotonous and boring that it’s unlikely to be duplicated” by a mainstream outlet. (For more on Substack, read Clio Chang in CJR.)
- Wikipedia was born twenty years ago today, and Stephen Harrison and Omer Benjakob write for CJR that coverage of the site could still be better. Reporters should show that “Wikipedia operates within a larger information ecosystem and relies on the availability of trustworthy media coverage,” they argue. “We need journalism that reveals how the act of collecting knowledge—and even the concept of knowledge itself—is complex.”
- Last week, Paul Mozur and Aaron Krolik, of the Times, reported that mobile telecom providers in Hong Kong cut off access to HKChronicles, a pro-democracy website that contained personal information about police officers. The block sparked fears that Hong Kong officials had, for the first time, censored a site under the terms of a draconian security law introduced last year; yesterday, a local broadband company confirmed this.
- Recently, WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, notified users that they will have to let the company access more of their data in order to keep WhatsApp on their phones. The update sparked outrage in India, which is the app’s biggest market. On Wednesday, Facebook placed full-page, A1 ads in major Indian newspapers in a bid to convince WhatsApp users that the company respects their privacy. Fast Company has more.
- And if you ever wanted to learn to write in the style of Axios, you’re in luck. For ten thousand dollars a year, businesses will soon be able to use AxiosHQ, a communications tool that, among other perks, will allow subscribers to solicit writing tips from a team of editors. A “perk”: one of them used to work on Trump’s presidential briefings. (The editors will work independently of the Axios news desk.) The Journal’s Benjamin Mullin has more.