The Media Today

The messaging mess among Biden’s top health officials

January 10, 2022
Hold for story - Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) speaks during an interview with the Associated Press on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021, in Atlanta. The CDC on Wednesday gave new details of the first U.S. cases of the new omicron variant of COVID-19. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

On February 25, 2020, Nancy Messonnier, a top official within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned journalists on a press call of inevitable “severe” disruption to life in the US as the coronavirus spread. Then-President Trump was furious, and other officials contradicted Messonnier in interviews and at a second briefing the same day; meanwhile, right-wing pundits conspiracized that Messonnier was trying to hurt Trump because she’s the sister of Rod Rosenstein, the Justice Department official who oversaw the Mueller probe. The episode was an early example of Trumpworld hobbling the CDC’s experts. There would be many others. Political appointees meddled with agency reports to soften grim COVID data while berating staffers for doing off-message interviews and press officers for facilitating them, sometimes cc’ing Robert Redfield, then the CDC’s director, on angry email chains. Redfield and other CDC officials themselves botched messaging under pressure from Trump. Not that Trump was always a factor: after the CDC published, then deleted, a key update on COVID transmission dynamics, an agency scientist said that on that occasion, “we shot our own foot.”

Joe Biden’s presidential campaign seized on Trump’s muzzling of the CDC as a talking point; after Biden beat Trump, he reportedly planned to put the CDC back at the center of COVID communications, including by recommencing regular agency briefings, which Trump had curtailed, and returning Messonnier, whom Trump increasingly sidelined, to the public eye. “I think that if we lead with science and scientists,” Vivek Murthy, a Biden transition adviser who is now the surgeon general, said, “we will ultimately get good results.” This promise reportedly excited CDC officials. But things would not prove so simple. CDC representatives appeared at White House COVID briefings, but the agency did not restart regular briefings of its own; Messonnier, meanwhile, quit in May, in somewhat murky circumstances. (One official told the Washington Post that Messonnier had “disappeared off the face of the Earth.”) As 2021 wore on, Rochelle Walensky, Redfield’s successor, was repeatedly criticized for further mixed messaging—not least when the CDC tightened mask guidance for vaccinated people after having just relaxed it. Data underpinning the decision leaked to the press before the CDC published it.

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Now, with the Omicron variant spreading like wildfire, such criticism has crescendoed again. In late December, the CDC slashed its isolation guidance for asymptomatic (and, in some cases, recovering) people with COVID from ten days to five, without advising them to take a test before re-entering society. The update was communicated in a press release with no accompanying data or media briefing. Murthy and Anthony Fauci, Biden’s top COVID adviser, suggested in interviews that they favored a testing recommendation and that the CDC might soon add one, but when the agency moved, last week, to clarify the new guidance, it stopped short of any firm advice to get tested. “There’s a right way to do public health messaging,” Tom Frieden, a former CDC director, told NPR. “For whatever reason, that’s not how CDC recommendations are being rolled out.” Satirists ripped the CDC for causing confusion. (“Remember this rhyme,” the Daily Show’s Desi Lydic quipped: “if symptoms again, the days are ten; if you’re symptom free, the days are thr-five.”) On NBC, Savannah Guthrie confronted Walensky with memes mocking CDC advice—“cdc says go ahead and get bangs”—and asked if the agency has a credibility problem. (She then asked Walensky if she ought to get bangs.)

In recent days, Walensky has tried to clear things up by talking to the press. Last Monday, she appeared alongside a satirist herself, sitting down for an interview on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. On Friday, she held her first independent briefing as director, alongside a career CDC scientist; on the call, she pointed out to reporters that she has appeared at eighty White House briefings since last year, but also acknowledged media interest in separate briefings and pledged to do more of them going forward. At the briefing and in interviews, Walensky has stressed the challenges of “fast-moving science,” and said that she is committed to “continuing to improve” her explanations of it. We learned on Friday, via a report from CNN, that Walensky has been participating in media-training sessions with Mandy Grunwald, a Democratic media consultant. (The sessions have been going on for several months. A CDC spokesperson stressed that it isn’t unusual for a director to seek such help).

The reaction to all of this has been mixed. Some scientists and former officials stressed the benefits of media training; Tara Haelle, a science and health journalist, tweeted that she was “frankly stunned that Walensky waited until months into the job to get media training” when “that should have been the first thing she did.” Peter Hotez, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine and ubiquitous media commentator on the pandemic, struck a very different note, however, warning that media consultants often “script” their subjects and strip them of “any vestige left of authenticity,” even though the public values that attribute in science communication. Jay A. Winsten, an expert on public-health communications at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told the Post that it might be time for the Biden administration to rethink its approach to scientist-led messaging altogether. Even Walensky’s appearance on Colbert, a less formal setting, felt clinical, he argued. “Brilliant clinicians,” he said, “are not necessarily brilliant communicators.”

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Several points are at issue for the press here, and it’s worth trying to disentangle them. Walensky is right to say that the fast-moving science of the pandemic is a challenge—journalists know this better than most—but this challenge needn’t preclude clear communication; if anything, it sharpens the imperative. Changing guidance to meet changing circumstances can be much less confusing if you explain what the changes are and why you’re making them. To that end, it’s a good thing that Walensky is now making herself available to reporters in a setting where they have more latitude to scrutinize the scientific basis for CDC decisions, an opportunity they took with regard to the new isolation guidance during Friday’s briefing. (Walensky said the guidance was grounded in studies, though not all were studies of Omicron.)

There is a danger here, though, of conflating the CDC’s communication of its guidance and the wisdom of the guidance itself, when these are linked but ultimately separate issues. The agency’s rollout of its isolation guidance—and other officials’ public disagreements with it—was messy, but the absence of a testing recommendation from the guidance ended up being pretty clear-cut; multiple news outlets emphasized the American Medical Association’s argument, in a press release, that the guidance is “confusing,” though the bulk of the statement was devoted to rejecting the guidance as “counterproductive” policy that could drive even more infections. Chunks of the CNN story that led with Walensky’s media training, meanwhile, focused on internal complaints about her imperial decision-making style; the New York Times recently reported similar concerns, with some critics arguing that—in contrast to Trump—Biden has been too hands-off in managing federal health agencies. Such stories bear on communication, but are ultimately about much more than that. There are many ways to shoot yourself in the foot.

Below, more on the pandemic:

  • The latest: In recent weeks, Dan Diamond, a health reporter at the Post, has been sharing reflections on the course of the pandemic via his Facebook account. (Margaret Sullivan, a Post media critic, credited the posts’ conversational tone with “cutting through the noise” of pandemic news.) In his latest update on Omicron, Diamond assessed the coverage of the variant’s spread. “Whatever you’ve heard about Omicron, just know that it’s causing tons of havoc in the US health system, as care gets delayed, ambulances get turned away and hospitals are running out of places to put people,” he wrote. “This can be a hard story for the media to tell. A traffic jam doesn’t make for particularly thrilling TV, and patient privacy rules limit photos and video in hospitals anyway.”
  • What’s in a name?: The Post’s Jennifer Hassan asked people with the Sanskrit first name Kovid what their lives have been like since COVID with a “C” came along. “Many of the Kovids are tired of the jokes,” Hassan writes. “Several have even bonded over social media, forming a loose network to discuss and complain about their shared experiences of being mocked for a name that means ‘scholar or learned person’—and is referenced in Vedic literature, including within a Hindu prayer dedicated to Lord Hanuman—yet takes on a whole new meaning in the COVID pandemic.”
  • PS 5 love you: Also for the Post, Gene Park reports that @Wario64, a Twitter user who “sometimes acts as a news account but has been most useful in recent years in finding online availability of ravenously desired and hard-to-find gaming products” like the PlayStation 5 console, has pivoted toward helping his followers find hard-to-get rapid COVID tests. “The identity of the account has been kept secret for more than a decade,” Park writes. When contacted, “a person who runs the Wario64 account declined to be interviewed on the record, citing a policy that they don’t do media interviews.”

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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.