The Media Today

Taking a breath at the eye of a storm

May 11, 2020

Around the world, versions of the same question are being debated all at once: now what? In recent weeks, multiple countries and jurisdictions have taken steps to ease the lockdown measures they imposed to stop the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. France begins a process of déconfinement today, having set the date nearly a month ago. In the UK, some manual laborers are expected to report back to work this week; they only found out about that last night, when Boris Johnson, the prime minister, addressed the nation on TV with a “first sketch of a roadmap” to reopening, which also includes expanded outdoor-exercise rights. Britain’s opinionated press is divided on whether the easing goes too far or not far enough, but many outlets seem to agree that Johnson’s strategy is a confused mess. (Metro: “IT’S ALL GREEK TO US, BORIS.”) Last week, some right-wing papers reported that Johnson would loosen more restrictions than he ultimately did—a result, apparently, of a briefing war between different government factions. Unnamed senior officials accused sections of the press of trying to bounce Johnson into a fuller reopening, because the lockdown is hurting newspaper sales. Emily Bell, of the Tow Center, summed up the furor: “Anonymous sources say that anonymous sources are manipulating the news media says the news media.”

In the US, we’re seeing mixed messages of a different nature: President Trump has been increasingly aggressive in pushing for a broad reopening, but at the same time, the virus has infiltrated the inner sanctum of his administration. (Britain already went through a similar episode; it ended with Johnson in the ICU.) In the middle of last week, a valet to the president tested positive for COVID-19; on Friday, Trump confirmed that Katie Miller, the press secretary to Vice President Mike Pence (and partner of top Trump aide Stephen Miller), tested positive, too. As a result, senior administration figures—including the leaders of the CDC and the FDA—have entered quarantine. Yesterday, we learned that Pence is isolating as well. Over the weekend, Politico’s influential Playbook newsletter pointed out the dissonance between the White House’s reopening push and its own current public-health crisis—“Is anyone really safe?,” its authors asked—and Kevin Hassett, an economic adviser to Trump, admitted, on CBS, that he finds it “scary to go to work” right now. All this, as CNN’s John King noted yesterday, is a “messaging disaster” for Trump.

ICYMI: The Animal Fact Checker

If the worldwide reopening wave feels like a turning point in the coronavirus era, stories like Britain’s confusion and the arrival of the virus in the West Wing remind us that it is not. As I wrote on Friday, we all must resist the journalistic urge for narrative advance at this time—the pandemic isn’t a linear story; its rhythms are much choppier than that. Still, now is as good a time as any to try and step back on the coronavirus story—to zoom out from the messy specifics of transmission data and individual countries’ reopening debates, and ask a bigger-picture question: what will the reopened world look like? And what should it look like?

Some journalists have already made an effort to do that. As early as March, Ed Yong, of The Atlantic, imagined various ways the pandemic might end; he outlined possible outcomes including mass economic destruction, a surge of new stigmas, and renewed isolationism, but also improved practices around hygiene, employment, disaster preparedness, and more. Last month, Donald G. McNeil, Jr., of the New York Times, took a similarly deep look at the dynamics that will shape the medium-term future, including a new class divide that’s taking shape around the idea of immunity. Yesterday, Matt Thompson wrote, also for The Atlantic, that even the hardest questions we’re asking ourselves right now feel too small. “The virus, as it spreads, is also spreading awareness of the deep and long-standing brokenness in our society,” he wrote. “I find myself hoping that we might strive for something greater than survival.”

In a similar vein, journalists should take a minute, if they can, to reflect on their own work, and how it has evolved since this crisis began. As I wrote in mid-March, as Western nations started to lock down, almost everything about the world we knew changed overnight. Many journalists have, on the whole, adapted remarkably to the new normal. We’ve seen a deluge of astonishing work—channeling energy, invention, and sacrifice—even as the pandemic has upended our personal lives and accelerated the rot of our creaking industry. But life at the eye of a storm—especially a storm that never seems to end—inevitably dims broader perspective. To the extent possible, we should try, from time to time, to assess what our coverage to date might end up looking like when it’s viewed as the first draft of this tortured history. Why did we fail to see this coming? When it came, did we focus fully enough on the social iniquities it exposed? Did we obsess over data points that turned out to be pretty meaningless? Did we grapple, really, with the centrality of the testing debacle? What we still don’t know about this virus is staggering—and that means we can’t yet know all that we could be doing better in covering it. Still, asking such questions of ourselves now—before we get to the scalding clarity of hindsight—might help us correct some courses, and pursue others with renewed vigor.

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In a story that was published yesterday, Gina Kolata, of the Times, looked at plagues past, and how they concluded. Often, she wrote, pandemics end socially before they end medically; “An end can occur not because a disease has been vanquished but because people grow tired of panic mode and learn to live with a disease.” This time, as Kolata notes, the social ending has begun even though there is no medical ending yet in sight. It is our job, now, to interrogate that process—to ask who it benefits and who it harms, and to try and tether it to some kind of scientific reality. The more clarity we can bring to that task, the better.

The coming weeks and months will likely be a mess; an unsatisfying patchwork of advances and retreats. Already, some countries that reopened parts of their economies—South Korea, for example—have seen renewed transmission of the virus; in the UK last night, Johnson made it clear that his reopening policies are highly conditional, and could be reversed at short notice if a tighter lockdown looks necessary to prevent a second wave of infections. For now, those of us trying to make sense of all this are bobbing, storm-lashed, between waves. We will be for some time. Every now and then, we should remember to wipe the water out of our eyes.

Below, more on the coronavirus:

Other notable stories:

  • On CJR’s podcast, The Kicker, Pope spoke with Giancarlo Fiorella, of the open-source investigative website Bellingcat, about the wild story of former green beret Jordan Goudreau and the botched recent attempt to invade Venezuela and overthrow its president, Nicolás Maduro. The AP reported elements of the plot ahead of time. “Why, after it’s been revealed in the international press, would you then do it?” Fiorella asked.
  • On Friday, the National Labor Relations Board rejected a series of anti-union arguments from management at Hearst Magazines, and ordered the company to hold a union election, New York’s Sarah Jones reports. The verdict was “a total loss for Hearst,” she writes, “made doubly resonant by the fact that conservatives currently control the NLRB.”
  • Rosie O’Donnell told Marlow Stern, of the Daily Beast, that she visited Michael Cohen, Trump’s former fixer, in prison, and has been helping him with a tell-all book about Trump that he’s been working on. According to O’Donnell, Cohen hopes to publish the book before the November election. She told Stern that “it’s pretty spicy.”
  • Ron Harrist, a long-serving reporter and editor for the Associated Press in Mississippi, has died. He was 77. The AP’s Jeff Amy writes, in an obituary, that Harrist “covered Elvis Presley, black separatists, white supremacists, and college football legends,” and that his “talent for logistics proved to be critical in the 2005 aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.”
  • And after a flushing sound was heard during the live broadcast of a Supreme Court hearing last week, Slate’s Ashley Feinberg set out to investigate where it came from. She concluded that Justice Stephen Breyer was the “likely flusher.” (ICYMI, I wrote for CJR last week about the unexpected joy of the SCOTUS live feed.)

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.