Last night, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders met for a one-on-one presidential debate, the first—and perhaps last—such event of the 2020 campaign. Under normal circumstances, it would have taken place in front of a (raucous, if recent form is any guide) studio audience in Phoenix, and would have been one of the biggest media events of the year so far—but in light of the coronavirus crisis, it was broadcast from a TV studio in Washington, DC, with no studio audience and no journalists present, bar the hosts from CNN and Univision. The build-up was muted, and marked by questions as to whether the debate should still be happening at all. When the candidates emerged, they didn’t shake hands—not in a news-cycle-driving-snub way, but because no one should be shaking hands right now. (They bumped elbows instead.) Some snippets—Biden pledging to name a woman as his running mate—made headlines, but as of earlier this morning, the typical post-debate spin was a secondary or tertiary consideration on many major news homepages, including those of CNN and Univision. (If you do want to know who the winners and losers (plural) were, Chris Cillizza still has you covered.) The headline on the AP’s top debate story led with a coronavirus quote from Biden: “Bigger than any one of us.”
A news cycle that would otherwise have teemed with pundits parsing the debate and prognosticating about tomorrow’s primaries is ringing, instead, with much bigger worries, including questions as to whether those primaries should go ahead at all. (As The Atlantic’s Elaine Godfrey put it on Saturday, “Three days from now, millions of voters in Arizona, Illinois, Florida, and Ohio will grasp the same door handles, drag their fingers across the same touch-screen voting machines, and wait in long lines with dozens of other people.”) Georgia and Louisiana—which were set to vote on March 24 and April 4, respectively—already pushed their primaries back several weeks, but Ohio and Illinois will vote as planned tomorrow, even though their respective governors, Mike DeWine and J.B. Pritzker, moved yesterday to shutter all bars and restaurants in their states. (To those eating in, at least.) Also yesterday, Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, announced similar measures, and said he would be closing the city’s public schools, too, after initially resisting calls to do so. Nationwide, the list of such closures and restrictions is getting longer and longer, unleashing dire consequences on businesses large and small. Last night, the Federal Reserve cut interest rates almost to zero and announced huge stimulus measures. And still, economic fears abound. “Has the Fed used its last tool in its kit?” Edmund Lee, a media reporter at the New York Times, asked on Twitter. “What if this doesn’t work? What can it do next?”
Related: How the coronavirus could hurt the news business
Unfathomably huge stories—that are all part of one, even more unfathomably huge story—are cascading all around us, many of them stalked by those same two words: What If? Each story in isolation feels almost impossible to grasp, let alone all of them together. “I cannot quite wrap my head around how many thousands of people went into the weekend having a job, and are waking up on Monday without one,” Stacy-Marie Ishmael, editorial director of the Texas Tribune, tweeted yesterday. Ben Smith—who used to work with Ishmael at BuzzFeed, and is now the media columnist at the Times—wrote that the huge, sudden economic dislocation is so disorienting because it “doesn’t remind me of anything.” We’re in uncharted waters; even our sense of time feels warped. “My coronavirus rule of thumb is that at any point, if you look back on life three days earlier, it is unrecognizable,” Chico Harlan, the Rome bureau chief at the Washington Post, tweeted yesterday. “That has been true in Italy for about three weeks. It’s terrifying to project it forward.”
This morning, I reread the newsletter that I sent out last Monday. Already, its headline—“The many challenges of covering the coronavirus”—feels almost laughably understated; in some ways, the whole thing feels like a dispatch from a different time. That’s true of so much that we’re reading and watching right now, as assumptions about our routine social interactions—assumptions that news coverage needn’t normally elucidate—fall like dominoes.
That’s not to find fault. Journalists all around the world are working flat out to break this crisis down, to the extent that that’s possible; every day, as I scroll through social media, reams of great work detailing consequences-that-I-hadn’t-considered-yet flashes past. But even in good times for the news business—and these are not good times for the news business—this story would be too big to cover in its entirety. When natural disasters hit, newsrooms scramble to send reporters to the affected place to report out the situation, which is often a seat-of-the-pants exercise. This time, the affected place is everywhere, and everything.
Below, more on the coronavirus:
- Bolsonaro confusion: On Friday, reports circulated that Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who met Trump at Mar-a-Lago last weekend, had tested positive for the coronavirus. Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo appeared to confirm the diagnosis to Fox News, but then walked that back; later, Jair Bolsonaro posted on Twitter that he’d actually tested negative, along with a photo showing him making an offensive gesture toward reporters. He then slammed the “FAKE NEWS MEDIA.” (I wrote for CJR last year on Bolsonaro’s anti-media rhetoric.)
- Trump confusion: Trump—who was exposed at Mar-a-Lago to Bolsonaro’s press secretary, who did test positive for the virus—said last week he didn’t need to be tested, then appeared to reverse course at a news conference on Friday afternoon. Soon afterward, Trump’s physician said, in a statement, that the president would not be tested—then, on Saturday, the physician said Trump was tested, and that the result came back negative. Earlier on Saturday, White House officials took reporters’ temperatures ahead of another briefing, turning away one who posted a high result.
- Empty seats: For the New Yorker, Troy Patterson explores the eeriness of shows, such as The View, going ahead without studio audiences. “It’s a necessary thing… a dispersal of a sort of community, a symptom of a new approach to public space,” Patterson writes. “The absence of a live audience is a presence in itself.”
- Impact on the media, I: The View is also going ahead without one of its regular hosts, Joy Behar, who is taking time off to protect herself from the coronavirus. (Behar is 77.) Elsewhere, six staffers at CBS News have now tested positive for the virus—the network’s New York offices remain closed to most personnel—and Vox Media closed all its offices worldwide after one of its employees in New York tested positive, too. Numerous networks moved to put more physical distance between reporters, interviewees, and pundits—and between Sanders and Biden. And at Fox Business, Trish Regan—who last week railed against the “CORONAVIRUS IMPEACHMENT SCAM”—has been benched from primetime “until further notice.”
- Impact on the media, II: On Friday, I noted the case of The Stranger, an alt-weekly in Seattle that said the virus was already hammering its business model, and appealed for reader support; later in the day, it announced that it was “temporarily” laying off 18 staffers and shuttering its print edition in a bid to weather the storm. Sales of Real Change, a newspaper sold by homeless vendors in the city, are also down, KUOW’s Joshua McNichols reports. It isn’t all bad news in Seattle, though—Michele Matassa Flores, executive editor at the Seattle Times, told CNN’s Brian Stelter that the paper is “setting records” for subscription rates, even though it made its virus coverage free. (Over the weekend, Merrill Brown profiled the paper’s virus response, also for CNN.)
- Impact on the media, Italy edition: Last week, as the Italian government considered which essential services should remain open while the rest of the country locked down, major newspapers argued that newsstands should be spared from shutting down due to the public need for information. In the end, the government agreed, and newspaper sales have seen a slight spike since; Luiz Romero has more for Quartz. Also in Italy, on Friday, a newspaper in Bergamo, near Milan, printed 10 pages of obituaries.
- In brief: Chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists in Oregon and western Washington state are offering small grants to journalists affected by the coronavirus. Sid Hartman, a sports writer at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, turned 100 yesterday, and wrote that the nationwide sports shutdown is “harder to believe” than his milestone birthday. And for the Times, Jack Nicas profiled Matt Colvin, a Tennessee man who stockpiled nearly 18,000 bottles of hand sanitizer and tried to sell them at a markup. Colvin told Nicas he wasn’t looking to “make the front page of the news” for hoarding; the story went massively viral. Colvin since donated his stash.
Other notable stories:
- For CJR, E. Tammy Kim explores how the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, best-known for its coverage of “all things nuclear,” talks about the climate crisis. Initially, the latter topic “might have seemed an odd fit” for the Bulletin, Kim writes. “But the two crises are now an inseparable apocalyptic pair. If memories of fallout shelters and air raid drills make rising sea levels and extreme temperatures feel more pressing, then so be it.”
- Andrew Gillum—the Democratic candidate for governor of Florida turned CNN pundit—apologized after police found him “inebriated” in the same Miami hotel room as a man who suffered a suspected overdose and three bags of “suspected crystal meth.” Gillum denied using drugs, but said he’d had “too much to drink.” Yesterday, he announced he’s stepping back from his public roles—including on CNN—to enter rehab.
- In January, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. launched Knewz, an aggregator that promised “the latest news from the widest variety of sources.” Pete Brown found for CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, however, that so far, “Knewz is not just heavily reliant on major news outlets, but frequently defaults to Murdoch titles and the Daily Mail.”
- Last week, Shafiqul Islam Kajol, a journalist in Bangladesh, went missing—one day after being named, along with 31 other people, in a defamation complaint brought by a government lawmaker, under the country’s draconian Digital Security Act. According to Human Rights Watch, Kajol’s family suspect that he may have been abducted.
- And last year, video leaked out of Inga Saffron, an architecture critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer, eviscerating her colleague Stu Bykofsky in a speech at his retirement party. Now Bykofsky is suing Saffron and the Inquirer for defamation. Philly Mag has more.
ICYMI: Why did Matt Drudge turn on Donald Trump?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.