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.”
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.
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.
Below, more on the coronavirus:
- Not just politicians?: Ming Lin—an emergency room physician in Bellingham, Washington, who publicly accused his employer of failing to protect its staff—has been fired. “Lin said supervisors threatened his employment more than a week ago after he spoke to reporters and made social media posts,” Ron Judd, of the Seattle Times, reports. “Lin said he was told to take down his social media posts about the hospital but refused.”
- Accountability reporting during a pandemic: CJR’s Lauren Harris spoke with Robert Faturechi, of ProPublica, and Lachlan Markay, of the Daily Beast, who broke stories about Republican senators Richard Burr and Kelly Loeffler, respectively, dumping stocks ahead of the coronavirus crash. “We’ve seen the president, a lot of his supporters, and even some of his detractors refer to him as a ‘wartime president,’” Markay told Harris. “One angle is to consider who is getting rich off of the suffering.” Also for CJR, Maria Bustillos, our public editor for MSNBC, argues that the network should completely close its studios at 30 Rock in New York during the coronavirus crisis.
- No Easter miracle: Yesterday, Trump announced plans to extend America’s existing social-distancing guidelines through the end of April—a U-turn on his comments, last week, that the country could be “opened up and just raring to go” by Easter. Also yesterday, Trump bragged, on Twitter, about the ratings for his daily coronavirus briefings, quoting from a story in the Times. As well as being highly inappropriate, Trump’s boasts lacked context. “In relative terms, Trump live *isn’t* a hit at all,” the Post’s Paul Farhi concluded. “He’s actually grossly underperforming the competition.”
- Who should know what?: Thomas Fuller reports, for the Times, that officials across the US are declining to publish detailed data—demographic and location breakdowns, for example—on confirmed coronavirus cases. “American researchers are starved for data, unlike their colleagues in other countries who are harnessing rivers of information from their more centralized medical systems,” Fuller writes. “In the perennial tug-of-war between privacy and transparency in the United States, privacy appears to be winning.”
- Who should get what?: On Friday, Congress passed a $2-trillion coronavirus stimulus package, and Trump signed it into law. For Nieman Lab, Ken Doctor assessed how media companies might benefit (or not) from the legislation; it should “extend a lifeline to many small local publishers,” Doctor wrote, “but for bigger companies and chains, the help they’ll receive is still up in the air.” In his column for the Times, Ben Smith argues that it’s time to “let newspaper chains die.” In their place, he writes, “a national network of nimble new online newsrooms” could rescue “the only thing worth saving about America’s gutted, largely mismanaged local newspaper companies—the journalists.”
- “I couldn’t hear your question”: Last week, RTHK, a public broadcaster in Hong Kong, asked Dr. Bruce Aylward, an adviser to the World Health Organization, about Taiwan’s status with the body. Aylward appeared repeatedly to dodge the question, including by saying, “We’ve already talked about China.” China considers Taiwan to be part of its territory. The World Health Organization said in a statement that “the question of Taiwanese membership in WHO is up to WHO Member States, not WHO staff.”
- In brief: WHO said that it’s still safe for people to touch their newspaper at the moment. (The Wall Street Journal told its readers as much on the front page of Saturday’s paper.) In the UK, the Daily Mail asked its journalists to talk to vendors about sales of the paper, and check that they’re displaying copies correctly. (Mark Di Stefano, of the Financial Times, has more details.) And Twitter deleted a pair of tweets by Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil, because they contravened its rules around public-health information.
Other notable stories:
- Last year, Tara Reade, a former staffer in Joe Biden’s Senate office, accused Biden of inappropriate touching. (Afterward, some commentators accused Reade of shilling for Vladimir Putin, based on a blog post she wrote praising the Russian president.) Last week, Reade told the podcast host Katie Halper that Biden sexually assaulted her. (Biden denies the allegation; “Women have a right to tell their story, and reporters have an obligation to rigorously vet those claims,” his campaign said.) Media outlets on both the left and the right have covered Reade’s claim, yet mainstream news organizations have mostly avoided it. For The Guardian, Arwa Mahdawi explores the reasons for that.
- Data handed to The Guardian’s Stephanie Kirchgaessner by a whistleblower appears to show that the government of Saudi Arabia is “exploiting weaknesses in the global mobile telecoms network” to surveil Saudi citizens in the US. The “tracking requests” shown in the data can be a legitimate way to register roaming charges, “but excessive use of such messages is known in the mobile telecoms industry to be indicative of location tracking.”
- The government of Togo suspended the publication of two opposition-linked newspapers after France’s embassy in the country complained about their coverage, AFP reports. The papers accused French officials of propping up Togo’s president, Faure Gnassingbé, who was reelected last month amid fraud claims from opposition leaders.
- And The Guardian published the essay that Lyra McKee—a journalist from Northern Ireland who was killed while covering riots in Derry last year—was working on before she died. In the 1990s, politicians promised that “the days of young people disappearing and dying young would be gone,” McKee wrote. “Yet this turned out to be a lie.”