The Media Today

COVID relief and the misplaced outrage about Rage

September 10, 2020

Yesterday, NPR, along with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, published a bleak poll on the economic health of the nation since the pandemic began. Nearly half of respondents said their household has experienced “serious financial problems” linked to COVID-19, including with rent, mortgage, utility, and car payments, affording medical care and food, paying off debt, and maintaining savings. America’s four biggest cities—New York, LA, Chicago, and Houston—have been especially hard hit; more than half of their residents reported losing a job and/or income, and more than half those cities’ households with kids reported serious childcare issues. People of color are doing worse than their white peers: in Houston, for example, over 80 percent of Black households attested to serious financial difficulty. Harvard’s Robert J. Blendon, who worked on the poll and expected the results to be bad, said they were “much, much, much worse than I would’ve predicted.”

Blendon said he would have expected to see such bad results if the federal government hadn’t passed any COVID relief measures at all; in other words, the $2-trillion package that was passed, in March, “is not helping nearly as many people as we had expected.” One would think that such news would spur the Trump administration and lawmakers to pass an even bigger bill, with no delay. Instead, they are doing nothing, or next to it. In May, the Democratic-led House passed a $3-trillion package, but Trump and Senate Republicans have dismissed it. Today, Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, will call a vote on a $500-billion proposal—he calls it “skinny”; his opposite number, Chuck Schumer, calls it “emaciated”—and even that is expected to fail, with Democrats set to filibuster even if McConnell manages to rouse a majority of his warring caucus in support. Yesterday morning, Politico’s Playbook newsletter—which, unlike many other outlets, has kept the stimulus story front and center of late—speculated that relief efforts may be dead. Its afternoon edition noted that in declining to talk up the prospect of a deal, Steven Mnuchin, Trump’s treasury secretary, is “NOT EVEN FAKING IT ANYMORE!”

ICYMI: Journalism’s Gates keepers

As I wrote last month, the stimulus story has generally been underplayed in mainstream media, and much of the coverage we have seen has at worst been misleading (in terms of apportioning blame for the failure of talks), and has at best been desperately unimaginative. Our job, now, is to center the plight of the millions of people who are struggling, urge the Trump administration to help them, and mediate a broad debate on stimulus that goes beyond miserly, piecemeal solutions and gives bigger, structural ideas a hearing. Several outlets have done that—Vox and the Omidyar Network, to cite just one example, recently launched “The Great Rebuild,” a timely project proposing bold, explicitly Keynesian stimulus policies that, as well as offering pandemic relief, would help fix persistent problems, including child poverty and climate change. In general, though, such discussions are trapped at the margins of the national conversation. That reflects media power players’ longer-term infantilization of “unrealistic” left-wing ideas. It also reflects an insider-baseball approach to Washington coverage, and defeatism about the ability of federal institutions to broker change. Cynicism is warranted—but we must resist it. Politicians know that inaction is a reliable way to kill media scrutiny of pressing concerns. (See also: guns.)

And then there are the natural rhythms of the daily news cycle, which respond more viscerally to shallower outrages than to deeper ones—especially when Trump is central. Yesterday, the cycle exploded after the Washington Post published details from Bob Woodward’s new book, Rage, which is out next week. An excerpt concerning Trump’s inaction in the face of an acknowledged threat elicited an especially furious reaction: in February, before the coronavirus was an all-consuming story in the US, Trump told Woodward (on tape) that the virus was very deadly, only to downplay the danger in public. Online, many journalists charged that Woodward was wrong to sit on the interview until now; on TV, pundits fumed. “Tonight, I have to tell you the worst thing I ever have about coronavirus,” CNN’s Chris Cuomo said, of the Trump tape. He later called the tape “the most important thing I’ve ever had to tell you,” period.

The gulf between what Trump told Woodward and what he said publicly is, obviously, despicable, and Woodward’s new book looks likely to be a useful contribution to the historical record. (More so than Michael Cohen’s, at any rate.) The idea that Woodward could have saved lives by going public sooner, though, is highly hypothetical. And his revelation doesn’t fundamentally change a fact that we’ve always known—that whatever Trump said in private, he did nothing to stop the coronavirus from ruining American lives and livelihoods. Trump’s motivation for doing nothing matters. But it matters far less than the fact of doing nothing itself.

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And Trump doing nothing in February matters less than him doing nothing right now. The explosion of outrage about Woodward’s tape feels like a pent-up proxy for Trump’s handling of the pandemic as a whole, and is perfectly legitimate on such terms. Still, it’s possible to imagine a more useful news cycle yesterday, that channeled the rage into wall-to-wall headlines about stimulus talks, and the injustices laid bare by NPR’s poll. Trump’s February disgrace is fixed, but something can still be done to help those he has left vulnerable. Calling the Woodward tape “the most important thing I’ve ever had to tell you” is unlikely to resonate with renters on the cusp of eviction. But many of us seem to have given up on such people. Trump has, too. We don’t need a tape to tell us that he knows it. The topline should be: Why aren’t you doing anything about it?

Below, more on the coronavirus:

  • The publication debate: Yesterday, as criticism of Woodward’s decision to sit on the Trump tape swelled, Erik Wemple, a media writer at the Post, came to his defense. “Woodward is a book author and the implicit understanding with his sources is that he’ll interview them, interview them again and again and again until he can stitch together something authoritative,” Wemple argued, adding that it’s “really healthy” for democracy to have reporters who work at different paces. Later, Wemple spoke with Woodward; when asked if publishing earlier could have saved lives, Woodward said, “No! How?” Wemple’s colleague Margaret Sullivan also spoke to Woodward, but reached a different conclusion about his conduct: “The chance—even if it’s a slim chance—that those revelations could have saved lives is a powerful argument against waiting this long.”
  • Ed Yong speaks again: Yesterday, The Atlantic’s Ed Yong published another must-read essay outlining the “conceptual errors” that continue to plague America’s pandemic response. These include a “serial monogamy of solutions,” whereby the national conversation can only focus on one COVID solution at a time; “false dichotomies” that paint the impact of the virus in black and white and elide shades of gray; and a “misplaced moralism” that “can provide cover for bad policies.” Journalists should take note. (ICYMI, I reflected on Yong’s excellent work in a recent edition of this newsletter.)
  • Fauci muzzled, again: According to Politico’s Sarah Owemohle, Trump appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services are once again trying to curb the speech of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. One official “weighed in on Fauci’s planned responses to outlets including Bloomberg News, BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, and the science journal Cell,” Owemohle writes. The official’s messages “often contradict mainstream science while promoting political positions taken by the Trump administration.”
  • The industry impact, I: Yesterday, Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism published a database tracking newsroom cutbacks since the beginning of the pandemic. Lauren Harris, of CJR and Tow’s joint Journalism Crisis Project, has an overview. “The published map is a bleak sight—the United States news landscape riddled with a mess of holes: lost jobs, stilled printers, newspaper nameplates retired forever,” she writes. “And the startling image only hints at the true cost of the crisis.”
  • The industry impact, II: For the New Republic, Clio Chang—who reported on unemployment for VICE before herself being laid off in May—writes about her subsequent difficulties navigating processes she once covered. “I had a good grasp on the system… But what followed—a summer spent plumbing the cursed depths of unemployment rules—quickly tested that premise,” Chang recalls. “The starved, complex unemployment system is designed to deny people benefits; you don’t build a maze unless you want to keep people chasing dead ends. I mean, I should know.”

Other notable stories: 

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.