No, journalism can’t wait until ‘after this war is over’

Yesterday morning, the homepage of the New York Times made for grim reading. “NYC’s 911 system is overwhelmed,” one headline read. “Who should be saved first?” another asked, “Experts offer ethical guidance.” Amid the coverage of the present, horrifying state of things, one prominent story looked back in time, at the period between late January and early March. It did not offer readers any respite; rather, it traced the current problems to a “lost month” during which officials’ failure to test widely for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, “blinded the US” to its advance. Six reporters—Michael D. Shear, Abby Goodnough, Sheila Kaplan, Sheri Fink, Katie Thomas, and Noah Weiland—interviewed more than 50 experts and officials, who attributed the testing failure to “technical flaws, regulatory hurdles, business-as-usual bureaucracies, and lack of leadership at multiple levels.” As Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, of Boston University, told the Times, “Testing is the crack that split apart the rest of the response, when it should have tied everything together.”

Federal officials aren’t the only ones who have questions to answer about their initial response to the spread of the coronavirus; state and local governments do, too. When journalists have asked such questions, they’ve sometimes gotten answers; other times, however, they’ve met with blanket denials, and/or the insinuation that in light of the present emergency, bygones should be allowed to be bygones, at least for now. Yesterday, we heard that reasoning from Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, on CNN. When Jake Tapper played footage of de Blasio saying, as recently as March 13, that New Yorkers should go about their daily lives, de Blasio replied that “We should not be focusing, in my view, on anything looking back on any level of government right now.” Tapper pushed back—de Blasio, he pointed out, had himself made critical remarks about Trump’s early handling of the crisis. “You can ask all the questions you want—they’re fair,” de Blasio said. “But I think the time to deal with these questions is after this war is over, because literally, here in New York City, it feels like a wartime environment.”

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Such logic may sound fair, but it’s faulty—and not just because politicians shouldn’t get to write journalists’ questions for them. Assessing the mistakes that got us here isn’t an indulgent distraction and asking officials about them isn’t gotcha journalism. First and foremost, we are, as we speak, living the results of those mistakes—the rising infection and death counts aren’t apropos of nothing, and situating them in context isn’t exactly “looking back.” That’s true of lots of stories, but it’s especially true of this one, since many of the dynamics surrounding the coronavirus—and the measures taken to slow its spread—manifest with a time delay. And sunlight, as the cliché goes, can disinfect—publicizing our leaders’ mistakes to this point increases the odds that they’ll rectify them, or avoid similar mistakes, going forward. Waiting until “after this war is over” is too long to wait.

Instead of listening, some of our leaders are instead choosing to slam the press, or shut it out altogether. President Trump—who has long favored that approach—has bashed news coverage throughout the coronavirus crisis. Yesterday, he was at it again, respectively accusing Yamiche Alcindor, of PBS, and Jeremy Diamond, of CNN, of “threatening” language and of dishonesty, when they were simply asking the president about questionable things he’d said last week. It’s not just Trump. On Saturday, Mary Ellen Klas, a reporter with the Tallahassee bureau of the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times, was turned away from a briefing with Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida; state officials said Klas was denied entry in response to concerns she (and others) had raised about social-distancing practices at press conferences, but First Amendment organizations called that a thin excuse to dodge scrutiny. (Last weekend, the Herald’s editorial board criticized DeSantis’s crisis management so far, and called on him to “act like you give a damn.”) Yesterday, another Florida Republican, Sen. Marco Rubio, tweeted that “some in the media” have been unable to contain their “glee & delight” about confirmed virus cases in the US surpassing China’s official count.

This, of course, was a terrible thing to say—as many in the media pointed out in response, journalists, just like everyone else, have been affected by this crisis, on levels from the financial to the deeply personal. As Rubio’s tweet circulated yesterday, so did the news that Maria Mercader, a veteran of CBS News, had died after contracting the virus. Mercader isn’t the only person our industry has lost since this began. We’re not asking questions about politicians’ failures for fun, or to be difficult; we’re drawing attention to them because we want them to stop. That shouldn’t need to be said, but there we are.

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Some of our leaders have taken a different tone toward the press than Trump, Rubio, et al. Yesterday, Phil Scott, the Republican governor of Vermont, posted a video to Twitter in which he called on residents of his state to offer financial support to local news outlets. “We’re fortunate to live in a country where free speech and the freedom of the press are constitutional rights,” Scott said. “It’s a fundamental part of who we are as Americans.” He continued, “There are times I don’t like the way a story comes out, but accountability and facts are so important—especially now—and you deserve transparency and the truth.” The merits of transparency and the truth don’t expire just because the facts are in the past.

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