The Media Today

Defusing the culture war over masks outdoors

April 28, 2021

Yesterday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an update to their coronavirus masking guidance. Fully vaccinated people can now go maskless outdoors, apart from in crowds, and even people who aren’t fully vaccinated can exercise maskless outdoors alone or with their household. Everyone should continue to mask in indoor settings. President Biden announced the changes at an outdoor press conference. He walked up to the lectern masked; when a reporter asked what message he was trying to send, Biden grinned and said he wanted people to watch him take his mask off and not put it back on til he got inside. The update was anticipated, but it was nonetheless a big story, and there was no shortage of takes (and jokes) among journalists. “If even one of you tries to write a ‘Why I Miss Masks’ essay for The Atlantic,” the journalist Laura Bassett warned, “I’m going to launch myself into the sun.”

The need (or not) to wear masks outdoors has been a subject of media coverage—and impassioned debate—for a while now. Last weekend, Shannon Palus, science editor at Slate, made the case that it’s time to end the practice, because “evidence shows that being outdoors is very, very safe.” Numerous medical experts agreed, but some readers vehemently did not; one Twitter user commented that Palus has “blood on her hands.” The debate continued yesterday on either side of the announcement. “This is a good thing,” Joe Scarborough said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, of the anticipated update, before turning to his co-host (and wife), Mika Brzezinski, and asking, “That makes sense, right?” Brzezinski replied that it does, but then added a caveat: “I just think that also a lot of adults wearing masks is a good model for society right now when a lot of people are still not vaccinated and we want to be as careful as we can.” Online, some journalists wondered how they’re supposed to tell which maskless passersby have been fully vaccinated and which haven’t, and said they would continue to wear masks outdoors, for reasons of signaling, safety, and ease. Others were more bullish; some experts even said that the CDC’s update didn’t go far enough. On his CNN show, Chris Cuomo pressed Andy Slavitt, a senior COVID adviser to Biden; given the low risk of outdoor transmission and the effectiveness of vaccines, Cuomo asked, why not “let the vaccinated live their lives?”

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Meanwhile, on the right, agitators have joined the debate by jumping in at the deepest end possible. On Monday night, Tucker Carlson, of Fox News, referred to people who wear masks outdoors as “aggressors,” and said that “it’s our job to brush them back and restore the society we were born in. The next time you see someone in a mask on the sidewalk or the bike path, don’t hesitate. Ask politely but firmly: ‘Would you please take off your mask? Science shows there is no reason to wear it. Your mask is making me uncomfortable.’ We should do that, and we should keep doing it, until wearing a mask outdoors is roughly as socially accepted as lighting a Marlboro in an elevator.” He wasn’t done: making your children mask up outdoors, he said, should be “illegal,” and anyone who observes masked kids playing should “call the police immediately. Contact child protective services. Keep calling until someone arrives. What you’re seeing is abuse. It’s child abuse, and you’re morally obligated to try to prevent it.” These comments, predictably, pitched the broader debate at a lower level of nuance, as some conservatives backed him up, while liberal commentators condemned him as a lunatic. Last night, also predictably, Carlson doubled down. “The CDC has produced a new round of guidelines that are as indecipherable as a Turkish train schedule,” he said. “Next stop, Istanbul. Or is it Ankara?”

This was merely the latest iteration of a media dynamic that we’ve seen—and that I’ve written about—throughout the pandemic: right-wing talking heads hijacking the naturally slow-moving, contentious development of science by taking the most absurd position imaginable and forcing those of us who care about reality into a reflexive defense of oversimplified truths, all covered under the flattening lens of the “culture war.” We saw this a year or so ago, when officials started to advise widespread masking, and, more recently, in the debate around vaccine passports, which some conservatives cast as Satanic Nazism. The more nuanced the debate, it seems, the wilder the right-wing claims about it. “As the center of gravity on COVID restrictions has shifted toward more of a risk-mitigation approach,” FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver noted yesterday, “it’s telling that the fringes have also shifted toward more extreme positions.”

As I’ve written repeatedly, it’s always been important for the press to respect the messiness of scientific discovery. It’s more so now—with vaccination ramping up, the pandemic in the US is entering a new phase where the appropriateness of reinforcing blunt universal rules is being superseded, as I wrote recently, by much finer interpretations of personal and collective risk, and coverage has had to keep pace. Risk calculations involve science, of course, but they also centrally involve social science; the same goes for vaccine passports, with their attendant privacy and equity concerns, and, now, for outdoor masking. These are subjective—and, to an increasing degree—cultural questions. Of course, masks have long been cultural symbols, both in the US and overseas; it’s true, too, that traditional “scientific” vigilance around the virus should not let up. (A glance at India will tell you that—and as I wrote yesterday, that story is not a distant tragedy but part of a single global story that concerns us all.) Still, it’s possible to conceptualize a subtle shift in framing here—one that is less concerned with litigating the “culture” part of the culture war (it’s not culture, it’s science!), and more concerned with the “war” part. On his MSNBC show last night, Chris Hayes noted that when it comes to outdoor masking, the right-wingers are “not really off-base on the science” (with some caveats, of course). Rather, they are taking aim at the “form of social solidarity” that masks have come to represent.

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Whether Carlson and his ilk believe their delusions or the whole thing is performance art doesn’t really matter. (As I’ve written before, obliterating the distinction between sincerity and trolling is a key, dangerous plank of present conservative discourse.) Either way, their continued mask hysteria underscores that the emphasis, for such people, has always been on the “war” part—staking out an extreme position, intellectual consistency be damned, and aggressively policing it to turn Americans against each other. The job, for the rest of us, is to create a less hostile climate where legitimately contentious cultural and scientific debates can thrive. The CDC changing its mask guidance isn’t the final word on what public-health habits individuals and communities will choose to adopt going forward—through the end of pandemic, and, perhaps, beyond. If figuring it out involves “Why I Miss Masks” essays, then so be it.

Below, more on COVID and the right-wing culture wars:

  • Briefing encounters: Yesterday, Slavitt announced that the White House COVID-19 Response Team will henceforth brief the press twice per week, on Tuesdays and Fridays; it had, up to now, been briefing three times per week, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. “As we enter the next phase of our COVID-19 response, transparency with you is vital and you will continue to see this transparency in a variety of formats,” Slavitt promised. “We will continue to bring you updates on our progress; the public health messages; and the stories behind the science, health equity, and our efforts to improve confidence in and access to vaccines; and of course, continue to take your questions.”
  • The Joe Rogan Vaxperience: Last week, Joe Rogan said, on his immensely popular podcast, that while vaccination is safe “for the most part,” he wouldn’t advise healthy young people to get a shot. A source told Ashley Carman, of The Verge, that Spotify, which hosts Rogan’s show and has taken down some anti-vax content, reviewed the episode and decided to leave it up, because Rogan “doesn’t come off as outwardly anti-vaccine,” and “doesn’t make a call to action.” Carlson, of course, defended Rogan.
  • Picture-book response: Last week, the New York Post reported that unaccompanied migrant children arriving at a shelter in California were being given “welcome kits” containing copies of Superheroes are Everywhere, a children’s book written by Vice President Kamala Harris. The story—which appeared on the front page of the paper under the headline, “KAM ON IN”—blew up on the right, but it wasn’t true. Yesterday, the Post took the story down, then republished an amended version with an “editor’s note” that said while “the original version of this article said migrant kids were getting Harris’s book in a welcome kit… only one known copy of the book was given to a child.” (Still not quite right.) Later, Laura Italiano, the reporter who wrote the story, resigned from the paper, calling the article “an incorrect story I was ordered to write and which I failed to push back hard enough against,” and adding that it was her “breaking point.”
  • Meanwhile, in the UK: Rupert Murdoch’s News UK—which was planning to launch one of two new right-wing TV channels that critics fear could turn into “British Fox”—has scaled back its plans for the enterprise; executives now believe that launching a rolling TV channel is not financially viable, and will instead turn their attention to streaming shows. David Rhodes, the American media executive who relocated to London to run the channel, will now instead advise Murdoch on streaming projects. The Guardian’s Jim Waterson reports that “the decision also leaves a large number of established television producers who were hired by Rhodes asking questions about their future.”

Other notable stories:

  • Tonight, Biden will address a joint session of Congress for the first time as president; the speech will take place under heavy security measures, and, thanks to the pandemic, only two-hundred people will be in the audience. (Many senior Republicans will skip the event. “They’re going to make you sit in the balcony,” Sen. Marco Rubio said. “You’re probably better off just watching on television.”) The address will be a rare high-profile appearance from Biden, who, nearing his hundredth day in office, has kept a lower media profile than Trump. Biden “has dispensed with the stream-of-consciousness ranting but kept the light touch in trying to steer the news cycle,” New York’s Jonathan Chait writes. His “rote proclamations, combining the ethos of the Hallmark Channel with the style of C-SPAN, seem designed to be ignored. The tedium is the message.”
  • Yesterday, the NewsGuild published a pay-equity study drawing on data from fourteen unionized newsrooms owned by Gannett, America’s largest newspaper chain; the study, Gabby Miller writes for CJR, found that “women across the board earned almost $10,000 less, or 83 percent of men’s median salaries each year” and that “women of color earned around $15,700 less, or 73 percent of white men’s median salaries”—figures that are “in step with general news industry trends.” The newsrooms in the study were also found, with one exception, to be “less racially diverse than the communities they serve.” Gannett disputed the “methodology and findings,” but has not published data of its own.
  • According to Insider’s Steven Perlberg, CNN Business, a unit that also covers media and tech, has opened an investigation into its workplace culture and treatment of women. “I get the feeling the company wants to keep as many people as possible at a low pay grade or stay in a certain box,” a female staffer said. Meanwhile, the Native American Journalists Association urged Indigenous reporters to avoid working with CNN after a video surfaced of Rick Santorum, a CNN contributor, making bigoted remarks.
  • Kayleigh Barber, of Digiday, spoke with staffers at Insider, where “each reporter must earn a specific amount of page views, unique visitors, or subscriptions every month,” and the standard for gauging such metrics “has gone from draining to confusing” as bosses shift their focus toward subscriptions. Insider’s recently-formed union is aiming to create “more flexibility in the system to help relieve worker stress and confusion.”
  • Vanity Fair’s William D. Cohan spoke with Sujeet Indap and Max Frumes, the authors of a new book about the gaming company Caesars Entertainment, who say that Paul, Weiss, a powerful Wall Street law firm that features in their story, sent them legal threats and demanded the names of confidential sources and draft manuscripts. In general, the growing power of corporate interests is “chilling” the work of the media, Indap said.
  • The publisher W.W. Norton will stop printing a new biography of the writer Philip Roth after the book’s author, Blake Bailey, was accused of sexually assaulting several women and grooming students whom he taught in middle school in New Orleans. (The local Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate was among the papers to run stories about Bailey, who denies wrongdoing.) Norton told Bailey he can “seek publication elsewhere.”
  • Adam Goldman and Julian E. Barnes, of the Times, report on the Biden administration’s efforts to free Austin Tice, an American journalist who was kidnapped in Syria, in 2012. The Trump administration initiated unusual, high-level contact with Syria aimed at securing Tice’s release, but without success; now Biden officials’ “willingness to resolve the case could run up against their reluctance” to build on such “unorthodox diplomacy.”
  • David Beriain and Roberto Fraile, two Spanish journalists, were kidnapped and killed in Burkina Faso this week, along with an unnamed Irish citizen. The journalists, who were working on a documentary about anti-poaching efforts, were traveling in a convoy in a nature reserve on Monday when they were ambushed. It is not clear who, exactly, carried out the attack, but militant groups have increasingly been active in the area.
  • And the food site Epicurious announced yesterday that it will no longer feature beef in its recipes and other content, due to its emissions footprint. “This decision was not made because we hate hamburgers (we don’t!),” David Tamarkin and Maggie Hoffman write. “Our shift is solely about sustainability, about not giving airtime to one of the world’s worst climate offenders. We think of this decision as not anti-beef but rather pro-planet.”

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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.