The problem of seeing the pandemic through a partisan lens

On Saturday, former President George W. Bush made a rare public intervention. In a slickly produced video message, Bush called for compassion and solidarity in the face of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. “In the final analysis,” he said, over a montage of heart-warming images, “we are not partisan combatants. We are human beings, equally vulnerable and equally wonderful in the sight of God. We rise or fall together. And we are determined to rise.” Some partisan combatants did not take kindly to Bush’s words; one, the current president, Donald Trump, attacked Bush on Twitter for failing to speak up in similar terms when he (Trump) was impeached recently. Before the weekend was out, however, Trump, too, would condemn partisanship. Last night—during a town hall on Fox News in which he sat (*metaphor klaxon*) in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial—he expressed shock that “during a crisis, it would be so partisan” (the “it” here being Democrats and the media). “They always said, Lincoln, nobody got treated worse than Lincoln,” Trump said. “I believe I am treated worse.”

It’s not just Bush and Trump—as this crisis has gone on, voices from across the political spectrum have attacked partisanship as an impediment to our collective response. On CNN’s State of the Union yesterday, two governors—Gretchen Whitmer, Democrat of Michigan, and Larry Hogan, Republican of Maryland—did so; on Meet the Press, host Chuck Todd quoted from Bush’s video, and said that “good news” about “kindness, generosity, and heroism” in the face of the virus has been “obscured by the intensifying and often partisan debate over when and how to re-open this country.” Such critiques, especially when coming from the mouths of politicians, should be treated with caution: as with the similar Trump-era debate over civility, they sometimes seek, under the cover of American Unity, to blunt legitimate criticism. Trump’s impeachment was a good example of this dynamic. The president’s defenders in Congress and the news media took the fact that the impeachment was (almost) entirely partisan, in the sense that they refused to support it, and twisted that into a value statement; in so doing, they succeeded in muddying and delegitimizing the clear fact pattern around Trump’s conduct vis-à-vis Ukraine. All too often, the framing of mainstream political coverage—wittingly or not—aided that effort.

ICYMI: Thirteen seconds. Dozens of bullets. One explosive photo.

When it comes to the coronavirus story, partisan framing is once again serving us poorly—but not in the feelgood, all-in-it-together sense articulated by Bush et al. The cost of the coronavirus is not felt equally in our society, and the response of our leaders—in politics, business, and other spheres—demands sharp scrutiny and criticism, unblunted by folksy bromides about the American spirit. Rather, the problem here is that the partisan lens flattens out nuance, turning complex issues into simple dichotomies. Media coverage, of course, often ignores nuance for reasons that aren’t at all political. But partisanship invariably makes the problem worse—by entrenching misleading binaries, and aligning them with conflicting tribal identities.

As I wrote recently, the “debate” over reopening America is a case in point; there are trade-offs to be made here, but the crude, broader framing—public health v. the economy—often misses their nuances, and has stoked a culture war around a question culture warriors shouldn’t decide. Last week, Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, discussed the polarized reopening discourse—and attendant stupidities, including the politicization of wearing masks—with Charlie Sykes, a veteran conservative commentator and strident critic of the Trump cult, on our podcast, The Kicker. For Sykes, much of the right is currently channeling an anti-intellectual contempt for expertise that predates Trump’s rise, but has been supercharged by his presidency.

There’s been much discussion—throughout the Trump era, but especially recently—of the various harms right-wing hyper-partisanship can wreak on its adherents. But ill effects aren’t limited to one side of the spectrum; aggressively partisan framing sucks its opponents in, too, by contriving contestation around facts that didn’t ought to be contested. Creating the controversy is, in itself, a victory for the partisans—it wastes their opponents’ time, and distracts us all from the thoughtful, rigorous modes of inquiry that deserve our attention, especially now. As Sykes put it to Pope, “Science is never about dogmatism; it’s always about skepticism.” Obscuring that truth, Pope replied, doesn’t just affect the right—“it drives the other side into its own dogma, where you’re forced to believe everything science says because the other side is so wrong.”

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When the right attacks expertise as part of an elite conspiracy, it’s tempting to defend it in terms that imply its infallibility. But that isn’t how expertise works, especially when it comes to a novel virus whose many vicissitudes the scientific community has yet to fully figure out. As Ed Yong put it in another indispensable article for The Atlantic last week, scientific advance is “less the parade of decisive blockbuster discoveries that the press often portrays, and more a slow, erratic stumble toward ever less uncertainty.” That, as Natalie Dean, a statistician at the University of Florida, told Yong, “looks jarring to people who aren’t used to it,” which is to say, most of us. We’re far more used to looking at things through the lens of partisanship, which prizes certainty, even when there is none to be found.

Below, more on the coronavirus:

  • On the ground: The pandemic continues to be terrible for the news business; on Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that NBCUniversal is the latest big media company to weigh “significant layoffs” at its media and entertainment properties, which include NBC News. Elsewhere, Hailey Branson-Potts, of the LA Times, reports on rural Plumas County, California, which lost all four of its print newspapers after their family-owned publisher, Feather Publishing, stopped the presses in the middle of the pandemic. On a different note, reporters at the Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, will be required to come to the office at least one day a week starting from today. Managers will impose health precautions, but some staffers are angry. Poynter’s Tom Jones has more.
  • “No right to social distancing”: Protests against lockdown policies continue in some states. On Thursday, armed demonstrators congregated inside Michigan’s state capitol. On Friday, Adrienne Robbins, a reporter with NBC4 in Columbus, Ohio, shared footage of a protester haranguing her for “terrifying the general public.” “I asked this woman to respect my space after she was yelling and spitting in my face,” Robbins wrote on Twitter. “She said I had no right to social distancing in public and continued to follow me.” Robbins said the protester also complained about her face mask.
  • “A key moment in the public’s view of mainstream news”: Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of The Guardian, argues that the pandemic is an opportunity to reset the relationship between journalism and a skeptical public. Rusbridger draws a parallel between the junk circulating on social media and in right-wing news during this pandemic, and WWII-era astrology columns in British newspapers that advised only readers with certain star signs to seek shelter from Nazi bombs. Back then, such advice met with strong calls for government regulation. Today, “the penny seems to be dropping in some quarters that journalism can be a matter of life and death,” Rusbridger writes.
  • Savior or charlatan? For Esquire, Katy Lee profiles Didier Raoult, the “renegade” French scientist behind a “deeply flawed” study on hydroxychloroquine that became a cause célèbre on the right. “Thanks to some highly misleading comments from a Fox News commentator, that study would soon catch the attention of Donald Trump,” Lee writes. “And Raoult would suddenly go from being well-known for a microbiologist, to the darling of a global internet movement.”
  • Also in France: Two weeks ago, in a bid to fight misinformation about the coronavirus, the French government published a page on its website linking to fact-checking materials published by “safe and verified” news organizations including Le Monde, Libération, and FranceInfo. Those outlets aren’t happy about the initiative, which they fear could undermine trust in the press by giving the impression that it’s in cahoots with politicians. In a letter published yesterday, groups representing journalists and editors said the page should be deleted. “The state is not the arbiter of information,” they wrote.
  • In brief: Last night, Lesley Stahl revealed, on 60 Minutes, that she recently underwent hospital treatment for COVID-19. She has since recovered and is now back at work. Jonathan Martin, a political reporter with the Times who should be on the campaign trail right now, is recreating the “best part” of that beat—sampling local delicacies from across America—by ordering them to his home. And in the UK, Stanley Johnson, the father of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is pushing for his old novel about a killer virus escaping from the Bronx Zoo to get a COVID-era re-release. Charged with self-promotion, he told The Guardian, “I’m a professional writer. Is it opportunistic for journalists and newspapers to be writing about the coronavirus?”


Other notable stories:

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