Frustration, polarization, and the pandemic ‘endgame’ in America

Yesterday, President Biden gave a speech at the White House outlining what he sees as the way out of the pandemic morass. Again. He announced his most aggressive action yet to mandate vaccination—tightening existing rules for the public sector and adding requirements for many businesses—and articulated frustration with the unvaccinated (“Our patience is wearing thin”) that drove headlines in major outlets. Frustration has been a dominant mood in mainstream pandemic coverage lately—with the unvaccinated, for sure, but also with Biden, for taking too long to announce tougher measures. Yesterday morning, an NPR report channeled public-health experts’ “growing sense of disappointment and frustration” with the administration’s performance; Politico’s influential DC Playbook newsletter regurgitated the report at length (under the heading “IF YOU’VE LOST NPR…”) and concluded that Biden risks “losing his intellectual base.” Other coverage, by contrast, has expressed frustration at Biden’s relative powerlessness. Ahead of his speech, many observers predicted that the Americans Biden most needs to reach wouldn’t be listening. Speaking on CNN after Biden wrapped up, Jake Tapper raised doubts as to the viability of his policies and the effectiveness of his sharper tone, especially in a climate of rampant COVID misinformation. “I certainly understand his frustration,” Tapper said. But, he added, Biden “wants to govern a country other than the one we have.”

While Biden never explicitly addressed it, a question that has framed much media coverage in recent days hung over the speech: what constitutes the end of the pandemic, and when and how will we get there? Now is far from the first time that news organizations have raised the question. In May, as COVID waned in the US and the administration loosened masking guidance for the vaccinated, the Washington Post judged that “it’s no longer rash, impolitic or scientifically dubious to broach the topic” of the endgame, which, if anything, felt uncharitable toward the countless articles, podcasts, and broadcast segments—some of them very good—that had broached it already. Ed Yong, The Atlantic’s indispensable science writer, did so as early as March 2020, mapping out possible endgame scenarios that ranged from the “very unlikely” (quick global control of the virus) to the “very dangerous” (mass global infection) to the “very slow” (a global game of Whac-A-Mole until vaccines); Yong’s article was, in many respects, highly prescient, but he nonetheless returned to the question recently to warn that, thanks in no small part to the Delta variant, the way out of the pandemic looks “different now” and will definitely, not probably, involve the virus becoming endemic. Not that the path to endemicity is a matter of consensus, as the Post’s Marc Fisher highlighted in a recent article for which he canvassed leading experts (and, for reasons best known to himself, Alex Berenson). The range of opinions Fisher heard don’t read so differently from Yong’s early pandemic work.

Related: How a story about ivermectin and hospital beds went wrong

If such coverage can feel circular at times, it was never rash or impolitic—we all, as news producers and consumers alike, want to know when this thing will be over, and the endgame has never been a distant concern, since the road out is paved by the actions we take in the present. Nor has the best of this coverage been scientifically dubious; uncertainty and weighing complex processes is central to what science is. It’s true, though, that we still can’t see the ending with much clarity, and that the behavior of the virus is not entirely within human understanding, let alone control; to the extent that it is, there are limits to how much we can control the behavior of others. Most crucially, there is no set scientific definition of the end of the pandemic—it’s much easier to define what it’s not than what it is, since the latter, ultimately, is subjective. Is success a function of case numbers, or—as Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general, has stressed in recent interviews—of hospitalizations and deaths? If the latter, how many? Answering these questions globally is even harder than answering them nationally. As The Atlantic’s Joe Pinsker put it nearly a year ago, pinpointing the pandemic’s conclusion “may never be possible.”

Ultimately, what constitutes the conclusion is as much a socio-political question as a medical one. The best endgame coverage has reckoned with this. Sometimes, though, the two dimensions have felt divorced. Attempts to quantify the end are a case in point. So, too, is the frustrated tone of much of the recent commentary about the unvaccinated, which has asked, either implicitly or explicitly, why right-wing anti-vaxxers won’t just agree to get the shot so we can all move on. Often, the problem is defined through the lens of disinformation or “polarization”; last weekend, Chuck Todd framed a whole episode of Meet the Press around the latter term, calling it one of “two viruses” ravaging America, with the other being the actual virus. (Todd asked, at one point, if the “only way to cut through polarization” is when voters in a state dominated by one party elect a governor from the other.) COVID disinformation is undoubtedly a huge problem; “polarization” is arguably harder to define, but to the extent that it means a large group of Americans being fed, and believing, unscientific nonsense, it is a problem, too. The feeling persists, however, that both the ongoing COVID crisis and our understanding of the endgame are a whole lot messier than such frames allow. Much vaccine commentary, for instance, still ignores skepticism in marginalized communities by limiting discussion of the phenomenon to stubborn white conservatives.

Nor is it helpful to tout political moderation and consensus as cures for these problems. As I’ve written before, the bad actors amplifying toxic lies, including in right-wing media, do not deserve to be let off the hook, and the situation would likely be much better without their distortions. At least to some extent, though, they’re catering to COVID views that would exist anyway. There is no easy fix for any of this, and certainly not one that is within Biden’s immediate grasp. This is not to say he doesn’t deserve sharp scrutiny and criticism; his administration has undoubtedly messed up parts of its COVID response, not least around its premature relaxation of mask guidance. Coverage that places the burden of ending the pandemic on his shoulders alone, however, overstates his power—not only over the incentive structures of America’s current, toxic information ecosystem, but over the more basic impulse to disagree about stuff.

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Disagreement is not bad, in and of itself; as I’ve written repeatedly, it’s a routine, even desirable feature of the scientific process. The same is true when it comes to defining the end of the pandemic, a question that has no single right answer; as Pinsker noted a year ago, the definition may be so subjective that “the pandemic ends in one person’s head at a time.” What the press should do, as has been necessary throughout the pandemic, is try and protect thoughtful debate in the face of bad actors who want to distort it with self-serving, culture-war binaries. Frustration is understandable—but, to echo Tapper’s question vis-à-vis Biden, it’s unclear that it’s all that helpful. To the extent that we let it flatten nuance, we all lose.

Below, more on the pandemic:

  • A media reference: At one point in his speech, Biden name-dropped several companies that have already voluntarily enacted the vaccine-or-testing scheme that he plans to now make mandatory. One of the employers he mentioned was Fox News, which raised some eyebrows, including in the post-speech chatter on MSNBC. As CNN’s Oliver Darcy explains, Fox has not mandated vaccines for its staff, but “has required employees to report their vaccination status to the company” and “has its own version of a vaccine passport which gives special privileges to those who have reported” vaccination; the network also requires weekly testing of some essential staffers. As Darcy also notes, various Fox hosts and guests trashed Biden after the speech, calling him “authoritarian,” a “rotting bag of oatmeal,” and “very frail and very weak,” among other things.
  • Disinformation: Earlier this week, NBC’s Carmen Sesin reported on Spanish-language radio shows and social-media accounts that have targeted disinformation at Latino audiences as the Delta variant has surged. “A common theme is to compare international government responses to the pandemic to Nazi Germany, with groups claiming lockdowns as well as mask and vaccine mandates are the beginning of global tyranny,” Sesin writes. “Many of the claims being made in Spanish are not much different from those in English and other languages throughout the world.”
  • “Death shaming”: Recently, Elizabeth Bruenig, a staff writer at The Atlantic, called on news organizations to stop “death shaming” unvaccinated victims of COVID. Newspapers and TV stations have covered a number of these deaths as cautionary tales, “with notes of shame or contempt subtle in some tales and bold in others,” Bruenig writes. “If persuasion is the target, then the aim seems off—a general problem in our democracy, where persuasion is a key method of self-governance but something we’re less and less amenable to. In that sense, the strange case of vaccine persuasion is just another entry in the annals of our disillusionment with our own liberal democracy.”


Other notable stories:

  • In the 1970s, Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, famously won the right to have an abortion—but it’s less well-remembered that the Supreme Court handed down its verdict only after McCorvey’s baby was born. The child was put up for adoption, and its identity was known only to an attorney who was murdered shortly after Roe was decided. In the course of writing a new book about the case, however, Joshua Prager, a journalist, was able to track down the child, who agreed to publicly identify herself, for the first time, as a woman named Shelley Lynn Thornton. The Atlantic has more details.
  • Last month, the Daily Beast reported on allegations that Simon Denyer, the Post’s Tokyo bureau chief, sent an “unsolicited pantless photo” to another reporter, in 2018. (The claim came to light after Felicia Sonmez, a Post reporter, referenced it, without naming Denyer, as part of a lawsuit she filed against her employer.) Now Denyer is leaving the Post; in a memo, an editor characterized Denyer’s departure as his decision, and part of a “scheduled” staffing change in the Tokyo bureau. Washingtonian has more details.
  • Yesterday, Axios splashed an “exclusive poll” from a “bipartisan policy group” showing that a majority of Americans support Senator Joe Manchin’s call for a “strategic pause” before Democrats push ahead with a spending bill. As numerous observers pointed out, however, the policy group has close ties to Manchin, and its poll presented a leading question—caveats that Axios did not note. The Post’s Philip Bump was among its critics.
  • In media-jobs news, ABC hired Armando Tonatiuh Torres-García as its first immigration reporter/producer. “As a journalist who happens to be undocumented,” Torres-García wrote, “I’m so humbled to be trusted to help lead our network’s coverage of the complexities of immigrant communities across the globe.” Elsewhere, Lulu Garcia-Navarro is leaving NPR. And Meghan McCain is now a columnist for the Mail.
  • In local-news news, several Aldenowned titles in California called on state lawmakers to continue to exempt newspaper carriers from a law limiting contract work in the state. Elsewhere, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution will consolidate its printing with the nearby Gainesville Times and shutter its current plant; more than two hundred jobs will be lost. And Colorado’s Supreme Court declined to take up a controversial open-records case.
  • Earlier this year, senators Tim Kaine and Lindsey Graham proposed a bill aimed at protecting threatened journalists overseas. “The legislation is predicated on the idea that the United States is a uniquely safe place for journalists, but that notion doesn’t always hold up under scrutiny,” The Intercept’s Rose Adams argues. Kaine and Graham have vocally criticized Julian Assange, who faces US charges that threaten press freedom.
  • In the newsletter On Posting, Luke Winkie argues that investors should “stop taking up residence in the bloated, desiccated corpses of Former Magazines,” such as Spin and Newsweek, and just let them die with dignity. “Eighty years ago Newsweek journalists were filing stories from Iwo Jima,” Winkie writes, “and now the paper’s reporting footprint consists of headlines that read, ‘Critical Race Theory is Repackaged Marxism.’”
  • Vanity Fair’s Delia Cai went to the (re)launch party for the new Gawker. “The vibe was—as strange as it is to evoke the kind of Midtown power lunches Old Gawker might have guzzled for breakfast—swanky,” Cai writes, resembling “less of a gossip-flush media party than that of a work friend’s tasteful wedding reception.”
  • And Stephanie Grisham, who served as White House press secretary under Trump, has a book coming out. It’s called ​​I’ll Take Your Questions Now—an ironic title, Bloomberg’s Nancy Cook noted, since Grisham didn’t hold a single formal briefing during her tenure.

ICYMI: When members of the media run for office

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.