The everything story

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 Timeswrote 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.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.