Unmasking Certainty

Claire Merchlinsky

In early March I was wondering, as many people were, if I should get a face mask. I remember standing in my kitchen watching cable news when a medical expert declared that there was little evidence a mask could prevent our catching covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. People should not wear one, the expert said, unless they were medical workers, were displaying covid-like symptoms, or were caring for someone who was sick. I relayed that advice to friends and family and repeated some variant of it in The Media Today, the daily newsletter I write for the Columbia Journalism Review.

What I’d heard on cable news was typical of the time. As the coronavirus crisis intensified, many health authorities—including the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—offered similar advice. If members of the public rushed to buy hospital-grade masks, we were told, the supply for essential workers, who needed them, would be scarce. Some experts even argued that because the average person wasn’t trained to wear one properly, a mask could heighten the risk of exposure to covid-19 by inducing a false sense of security.

News organizations repeated these claims. In late February, Forbes ran a piece with the headline “No, You DO NOT Need Face Masks For Coronavirus—They Might Increase Your Infection Risk.” The story has since been viewed more than 4.5 million times; it was also updated (including the headline) to reflect changing mask guidance. Jerome Adams, the surgeon general, tweeted to implore Americans to “STOP BUYING MASKS,” which drove a further round of coverage. On March 2, Adams appeared on Fox & Friends to hammer home the point; masks, he said, had “not been proven to be effective in preventing the spread of coronavirus amongst the general public.”

Then, in early April, officials reversed themselves: everyone, the CDC said, should have face coverings and wear them in enclosed spaces. Health officials explained that compelling new evidence had come to light regarding asymptomatic transmission of the virus, and that wider usage of masks could prevent unknowing carriers from spreading infection. Alex Azar, the secretary of health and human services, said the new guidance was the fruit of a “science-based approach.” On April 3, Adams appeared in a video in which he showed viewers how to fashion a mask from an old T-shirt. Fact-based media outlets, striving to follow the latest findings, scrambled to keep up as infectious-disease debates, normally consigned to journals and conferences, played out in public in real time.

The usual shortcuts to writing authoritative-sounding articles were not available on this story. People picked up on that, filling the air of uncertainty with political conviction. Conservatives adopted masks as symbols of fearmongering government overreach; liberals counter-adopted them as icons of Enlightenment values. Political reporters lapped it up, mindful that the pandemic had arrived in an election year. President Trump played the lightning rod; he declined repeatedly to wear a mask, even after the White House made them mandatory in the West Wing. (In May, Trump briefly wore one during a visit to a Ford factory in Michigan, but took it off before addressing reporters. “I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it,” he said.) On Fox News, Laura Ingraham suggested that masks were tools of “fear and intimidation,” designed to assert “social control over large populations.” Elsewhere, masks were described as a new “tribal totem”  in the all-encompassing culture war. In late May, after a white police officer killed George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis, and protests convulsed the country, some right-wing commentators accused the mainstream media of a double standard, since journalists didn’t chastise demonstrators who violated mask rules. (Reporters covering the protests typically wore masks, of both the medical and anti-tear-gas varieties.)

There’s conflicting evidence as to whether the mask culture war actually took hold. Some polling showed persistent differences between how Democrats and Republicans—and consumers of different news outlets—perceived aspects of the pandemic, including the threat it initially presented, the death toll, and masks. Other polls indicated that support for public health measures—including masks—was high across the board. What’s not in dispute is that a narrative of a mask culture war swept America’s media, nourished by egregious examples of anti-mask conduct, including lockdown protesters bearing anti-mask signs; Trump supporters harassing mask-clad journalists; and even the murder, at a store in Flint, Michigan, of a security guard who turned away an unmasked patron. Readers were told about Republicans in Congress failing to wear masks, unlike their Democratic colleagues. In May, Sen. Susan Collins, the famously flip-flopping Republican from Maine, began a congressional hearing without a mask, then put one on. James Poniewozik, TV critic at the New York Times, skewered her for “trying to keep one lung in each camp.”

Masks were described as a new “tribal totem.”

 

A hallmark of the recent wave of right-wing populism around the globe has been the denigration of expertise. Experts are cast as sneering, liberal elites who are out of touch with, and also hate, common folk. Whenever an expert changes his mind, doing so underscores his fallibility. Adjusting one’s position upon learning of new evidence is not admired, but rather scorned as a sign of weakness.

The pandemic has rallied consumers of right-wing media against expertise, with mask-wearing a key target. In early April, as the mask advice shifted, Fox’s Ingraham called it an example of “experts” (scare quotes hers) all but admitting to their “spectacular record of failure.” (Ironically, Ingraham previously advocated the wearing of masks. After the expert advice changed, so did her position—in the opposite direction.) Rush Limbaugh, the talk radio host, likewise bashed experts; in March, he said that unelected public health officials were part of the “Deep State.” In April, Tucker Carlson warned Fox viewers that “the experts now have more power than ever before”; he insisted he wasn’t making “an argument against expertise,” then said, “We can’t allow experts to make the big decisions. That’s not their job. This is a democracy. It is our job.”

Distrust of centralized authority is a foundational theme in the history of the United States, going back to its Constitution. In 1831, when Alexis de Tocqueville, a French nobleman, arrived to scope the country out, he observed that people seemed wary of experts: “The intellectual superiority which any man whatsoever may acquire in relation to the rest of the community is soon overshadowed,” he writes in Democracy in America. People in democracies “are naturally strongly persuaded of the certainty of their opinions, or are unwavering in belief; they frequently entertain doubts which no one, in their eyes, can remove.” As the years went by, others noticed the same thing. Anti-intellectualism was a key tenet of McCarthyism, and hardened amid the political and cultural battles of the sixties and seventies. “The citizen cannot cease to need or to be at the mercy of experts,” Richard Hofstadter, a historian at Columbia, wrote in 1963. “But he can achieve a kind of revenge by ridiculing the wild-eyed professor, the irresponsible brain truster, or the mad scientist.” Lately, anti-expert rage has appeared in the Tea Party and the rejection of climate science and the anti-vaccination movement; it helped elevate Trump, and vice versa. Tom Nichols, a professor at the US Naval War College and the author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters (2017), writes that, thanks in part to the balkanization of American media, “A significant number of lay people now believe, for no reason but self-affirmation, that they know better than experts in almost every field.”

The mainstream press, too, positions itself as possessing unique knowledge and authority—often in tone, if not explicitly. But our authority only means something if we maintain a healthy skepticism of the people and institutions in power, by demanding corroboration for their claims, rather than accepting their edicts at face value. In the pandemic era, that essential function of journalism became fraught: because this is a novel threat, the evidence we’d normally demand isn’t available—or is hotly disputed by institutions that appear to be (or actually are) equally credible.

And so, with masks, much of the coverage parroted whatever the official guidance was at the time, with scant scrutiny. Expertise, many news organizations felt, was to be defended against bad-faith attacks. (See: Fauci, Dr. Anthony.) Though many good articles acknowledged that science is a process, not a ready-made consensus, plenty of others fixated on batting down whatever the right-wing position was—and, in doing so, accepted the premise that there are two “sides” in competition for truth.

American election stories are commonly about the conflict between sides—Democrat versus Republican, mask-wearer versus barefaced resister. The Trump era has supercharged that dynamic. The resumption of full-bore campaign coverage will impose an even tighter partisan framing on the pandemic; Trump has already started politicizing science in the hopes of gaining an electoral edge. There’s no reason, however, for reporters to accept that story line.

Expertise, many news organizations felt, was to be defended against bad-faith attacks.

 

The press has got to slow down. Reporters need to accept ambiguity and uncertainty. Rather than rush toward facile answers or simplistic assertions, our stories must reveal the profound complexity of the problems at hand. We must be humble.

That may feel counterintuitive, given the immediacy of the pandemic, its centrality in all our lives, and our need to know much more about it before we can get back to normal. It’s the press’s job, in part, to bring a responsible sense of urgency to our collective quest for greater knowledge—including when and whether masks should be worn. But that work cannot be done responsibly if we don’t take the time to ask essential questions and open every possible window into understanding. Our coverage of vital public health information will not be truthful unless it’s patient. As Ed Yong, the Atlantic science writer (and master of authorial humility), put it in April, science is “less the parade of decisive blockbuster discoveries that the press often portrays, and more a slow, erratic stumble toward ever less uncertainty.” The more we can convey that reality to readers, the more we will have earned their trust.

The same thinking should apply to coverage of the campaign. Political reporters and pundits ought to acknowledge that we don’t know what the result will be ahead of time, rather than foreclose certain outcomes based on hunches, anecdotes, and biases. Discard sound bites and embrace the messiness of things. Submit candidates’ policy proposals to rigorous, evidence-driven interrogation, as if their plans held our lives in the balance. After all, they do.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.