The ‘end’ of the pandemic is a bigger story than Biden

Last week, President Biden sat down with Scott Pelley, of 60 Minutes, for his first interview on that show since taking office and his first formal interview with any major outlet in a while. I say “sat down,” but Biden’s most newsworthy remark—at least in the eyes of those who write the news—came while he was on his feet, strolling down a blue carpet between gleaming red and white cars at an auto show in Detroit. Pelley noted to Biden that the show was taking place for the first time in three years due to covid, then asked a loaded question: “Is the pandemic over?” “The pandemic is over,” Biden replied. “We still have a problem with covid. We’re still doing a lotta work on it. But the pandemic is over.” He gestured around. “If you notice, no one’s wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape. And so I think it’s changing.”

Quickly, the political news cycle locked into the script that it always follows when Biden appears to have torn up his own: Had the president intended to say something so controversial? Or had his aides lost control of him again? Politico was quick to report that Biden “had not originally planned to make major news on covid” and that—even though the interview was pre-taped and the White House had access to a transcript—senior health officials were blindsided by Biden’s declaration that the pandemic is over, learning about it from the news media. Two of those officials—Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general, and Anthony Fauci, Biden’s (retiring) top medical adviser—publicly tempered Biden’s finalistic tone without directly contradicting him, leading to suggestions (again) that the president’s authority had taken a hit; meanwhile, Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, insisted that Biden had been “very clear” on 60 Minutes but notably did not reiterate that the pandemic is “over.” By last night, Biden had “clarified” his remark, suggesting, in similar terms to Murthy’s and Jean-Pierre’s, that he had merely intended to emphasize the progress the US has made in fighting covid. In the meantime, the dreaded G-word was invoked (again). The White House had “scrambled to clean up a presidential ad-lib,” said a CNN talking head. “Cleanup on aisle covid,” said another. (Again.)

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The news cycle around Biden’s remark also offered up more substantive engagement with his claim that the pandemic is over. Stories in numerous major outlets quoted public health experts disavowing Biden’s conclusion, with many pointing to the fact that hundreds of people are still dying of covid in the US every day. “It’s a 9/11, week after week after week,” the Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves said. Numerous progressive commentators agreed. “Two Americans died from covid in the time you’ve been listening to me speak,” MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan said at the end of a six-minute monologue in which he excoriated Biden for indulging Trump levels of recklessness and liberals for giving him a pass. “Another two will die in the next five minutes.” Others had different takes, and not necessarily along totally predictable ideological lines. Two journalists at Slate debated the merits of Biden’s remark and published their discussion. New York’s Ross Barkan argued that Biden was right, even if, “technically,” he was wrong. “Biden’s definition of the pandemic is political, even psychological, and it’s the common sense millions across the world now follow,” Barkan wrote. “Public-health officials should understand that it’s impossible to expect any population to be on permanent war footing.”

Whether you agree with him or not, Barkan’s argument pointed to one important reality: the end of the pandemic is not a precise medical term but a highly subjective question, both scientifically and, as importantly, socially. When I last wrote about what might constitute the end of the pandemic, a little over a year ago, I noted that the question had sporadically been raised in the press, both implicitly and explicitly, ever since the start of the pandemic (which itself was hard to define), without a clear answer ever presenting itself; one Atlantic writer even raised the prospect that the pandemic would end “in one person’s head at a time.” Some coverage emphasized such subjectivity in the wake of Biden’s 60 Minutes remark; Stat’s Helen Branswell, for instance, noted that “reaching the end of a pandemic is not like driving out of one county into the next.” Other coverage elided it, including by framing Biden’s remark as fact-checkable.

Even if you accept the individual subjectivity of the end of the pandemic, what’s in Biden’s head matters a great deal because he’s the president. As various articles about his remark (fairly) pointed out, his words have a bearing on the policies of his administration, which, at the moment, is still treating covid as an official emergency and still pressing Congress for more covid funding, including for new vaccines, tests, and treatment; the White House signaled that none of this has changed, but prominent Republicans nonetheless seized on Biden’s remark to argue that he no longer needs more money or administrative powers. Major outlets, at least in their topline coverage, often characterized this GOP stance as a response to Biden’s remark, making the case that Biden had handed his opponents a sharp stick with which to beat him.

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At least in a narrow sense, this was accurate. Some of the toplines, however, risked eliding that the GOP was already staunchly opposed to Biden’s covid policies and downplaying its own responsibility for this stance. (Again: blaming Democrats for Republican obstructionism is an old trope in DC coverage.) And, while Biden’s “pandemic is over” quote dominated the toplines of coverage—and Biden certainly did lean into those words—he did also acknowledge that covid remains a problem, a stance that, to my mind, didn’t overtly contradict his funding request or even his maintenance of emergency measures, cleanup or none. “Pandemic” and “emergency” are not interchangeable concepts. And the rationale for robust public health policies doesn’t depend on either being invoked.

And, while what’s in Biden’s head matters when it comes to the end of the pandemic, it isn’t the be-all and end-all, and coverage shouldn’t treat it as such. Biden does not have the power to declare the pandemic “over,” either administratively or, given that it’s such a slippery term, conceptually. Given the subjectivity of the question, Biden doesn’t have the moral power to declare the pandemic over either—not least when it’s still affecting so many people, day after day. Following Biden’s remark, a protest outside the White House organized by people with long covid and myalgic encephalomyelitis got some media attention, not least from journalists affected by those conditions; outlets including the New York Times, meanwhile, told the stories of people who have recently lost loved ones to covid, including Peter W. Goodman, a former Newsday reporter and journalism professor whose medically vulnerable wife, Debbie, died last month. Much coverage of Biden’s remark, though, did not center these voices to anywhere near the same extent, even though the end of the pandemic is their determination, too. “It’s not over for me,” Goodman said.

Ultimately, two things can be true at once here. It’s the media’s job to convene a conversation about what it would mean for the pandemic to be over, in both the news and the opinion pages; if Biden’s remark has roused that debate from a state of relative dormancy, that’s welcome, though it’s telling of how political coverage is organized that it took a president’s words to give it life. On the other hand, coverage should not get too bogged down in semantics—or at least should prominently convey that, while definitions are subjective, plenty of facts about the current state of covid are knowable, within the limits of data collection at any rate: the death rate, the incidence of long covid, who those trends are affecting most.

These imperatives, while seemingly contradictory, can be balanced in covid coverage—but only to the extent, of course, that covid is being covered at all. It would be wrong to say that “the media” has moved on from the pandemic: science and health reporters, in particular, are continuing to cover it, and they’re far from the only ones paying close attention. Still, in recent months, pandemic stories have rarely pierced the toplines of the national political news cycle, and when they have, they’ve often focused on individual cases among members of the political elite, as I wrote earlier in the summer. (According to data maintained by Stanford, by far the biggest spike in cable news discussions of “covid” since then came after Biden himself tested positive.) There has been less topline focus, that I’ve seen at any rate, on structural interventions that might help better manage covid going forward and make its impact less inequitable—a trend that squares with the longer-term media tendency to frame the pandemic through a reactive, individualized lens more than a proactive, collective one. Appearing on Democracy Now! yesterday, the writer and academic Steven Thrasher made the case that media elites have misled Biden on the end of covid as much as the other way around: “A lot of the mainstream media has really just not done their job in being critical about those things, and saying, ‘Hey, this is creating the second leading cause of death in the United States, and it’s unacceptable.’”

This sort of scrutiny would, at least, be far more useful than parsing whether Biden’s more controversial interventions constitute gaffes, a media preoccupation that is both shallow and optics-driven and often seems wrong, or at least often fails to reach a definitive conclusion as to Biden’s intent. Biden offered further proof for this proposition during his 60 Minutes interview when he said again that the US would defend Taiwan against an “unprecedented” Chinese attack, a position that various media observers have dismissed as a gaffe when Biden has outlined it before. (Not that trying to police what counts as an unintentional departure from a policy literally known as “strategic ambiguity” ever made much sense, at least not to me.) It seems likely—again, at least to me—that Biden also knew what he was doing when he declared the pandemic “over” less than two months out from the midterms. Either way, interrogating what Biden actually said matters more. As does acknowledging that this story is bigger than him.

Below, more on the pandemic:

  • Getting the word out: Last week, Zeynep Tufekci wrote, for the Times, that while the recent rollout of vaccines that better target dominant variants is “terrific news,” the shots are “getting so little fanfare, and so much unfounded skepticism, that too few people might get them, and lots of people who need not get sick, suffer or die will get sick, suffer or die.” Part of the problem, Tufekci argues, is “public health officials or prominent media doctors casting doubt on the boosters by focusing on their imperfections rather than their immense benefits and worrying about public reaction—like concerns about ‘vaccine fatigue.’” Ultimately, “it’s vaccination, not vaccines, that saves lives—and many more would be vaccinated if given information and easy access.”
  • Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Also for the Times, Sharon LaFraniere reports that data gaps are still hampering the official response to covid, and, now, to the monkeypox outbreak as well. “Decades of underinvestment in public health information systems has crippled efforts to understand the pandemic, stranding crucial data in incompatible data systems so outmoded that information often must be repeatedly typed in by hand. The data failure, a salient lesson of a pandemic that has killed more than one million Americans, will be expensive and time-consuming to fix,” LaFraniere writes. Comparatively low vaccine takeup is a major factor in why the US has recorded the highest covid death toll among large wealthy nations, “but federal experts are certain that the lack of comprehensive, timely data has also exacted a heavy toll.”
  • Meanwhile, in the UK: During the pandemic, the British government contracted with numerous PR firms as part of its response, including for help in both implementing and defending covid messaging campaigns that drew pointed public criticism. Now, The Guardian’s Jessica Elgot reports, several of the same firms are in the running to run a “Listening Project” affiliated with the official inquiry into Britain’s covid response and the public’s experience of it. A group that represents bereaved families decried the possibility of one of the firms leading part of the inquiry as “another example of those in power being able to mark their own homework,” while a PR-industry veteran described the situation as a “farcical” conflict of interest. The project is set to launch next month.
  • While we have you: If you haven’t already, we’d love it if you spent some time with the latest, digital-only issue of CJR’s magazine, in which we took a deep dive into how the press has covered the pandemic. I charted the story of covid and the media starting early in 2020, while my colleagues Amanda Darrach, Karen Maniraho, Caleb Pershan, and Paroma Soni contributed multimedia reports zooming in on various periods and themes. I also interviewed Fauci for the issue. You can find the whole thing here.

Other notable stories:

“Other notable stories” were compiled with the help of Pesha Magid, Mercy Orengo, and Emily Ann Russell.

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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.

TOP IMAGE: President Joe Biden speaks about the DISCLOSE Act in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)