The Media Today

The Atlantic’s Ed Yong tells the whole story of America’s pandemic

August 4, 2020

Good magazine covers are often simple. That of the September issue of The Atlantic consists of six words—how did it come to this?—set in bold black type against a plain white background. The question runs down the center of the page. On either side, in smaller, lighter font, is a title from a pair of cover stories: to the left, “Why the Virus Won,” by the science writer Ed Yong; to the right, “The Power of American Denial,” by the anti-racism scholar Ibram X. Kendi. The only other text on the cover is the issue date and The Atlantic’s svelte, capital-A logo.

Kendi’s story, on the crisis of racial injustice, will be published online tomorrow. Yong’s, on the crisis of the covid-19 pandemic, is already up. In its first line, the piece echoes the cover question: “How did it come to this?” Yong proceeds, over the course of nearly ten thousand words, to offer an answer that manages simultaneously to be comprehensive in scope, rich in detail, and heartbreaking in simplicity. He outlines the nuts-and-bolts failures of America’s response to the pandemic, some of which, such as insufficient testing, have driven coverage for months, others of which—such as a worldwide shortage of medical glass that could complicate efforts to store a future vaccine—have yet to fully register on our collective radar. (The latter problem, he writes, is, “literally, a bottle-neck bottleneck.”)

Related: ‘When the heart gets filtered up through the camera’: Vietnam War photographers on how to cover covid better

Yong outlines President Trump’s many failings, too. Crucially, however, he situates the coronavirus crisis on a much broader arc of American shortcoming. Trump has his place on that arc and in Yong’s account, but he doesn’t loom overly large, as he does in so much other coverage. The result is a scalding reminder that the country’s many problems aren’t reducible to the current president, and can’t simply be voted out come November. As Yong puts it, the covid-19 disaster has “touched—and implicated—nearly every other facet of American society: its shortsighted leadership, its disregard for expertise, its racial inequities, its social-media culture, and its fealty to a dangerous strain of individualism.”

The coronavirus has been described—including, recently, by the secretary-general of the United Nations—as an “X-ray” revealing systemic inequality. Both in this piece and his other work on covid, Yong has proved himself a masterful radiographer. He notes, in this latest piece, that the pandemic’s impact on prisons has been exacerbated by mass incarceration, which means overcrowding, which makes social distancing impossible. He explains that long-term staffing and safety issues exacerbated the impact of the pandemic on care facilities, and that the broader American healthcare model—which conceives of health as a private good rather than a public one, and prioritizes profits over people—left hospitals ill prepared to deal with a surge in patients, and some patients unable to foot the bill for their care. The virus and its attendant economic consequences have underscored discrimination against the elderly, people with disabilities, women, and Native Americans. Yong explores how the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow have made Black Americans less likely to have good access to healthcare and more likely to work in low-paid, “essential” jobs on the front lines of the pandemic response. Both factors have contributed to the grotesquely elevated covid death toll among Black people.

To this list of preexisting national conditions, Yong adds a dangerously unregulated information climate that cuts against clear scientific messaging and instead incentivizes disinformation and grift. The news media hasn’t always helped. “Drawn to novelty,” Yong writes, “journalists gave oxygen to fringe anti-lockdown protests while most Americans quietly stayed home.” We also “wrote up every incremental scientific claim, even those that hadn’t been verified or peer-reviewed.”

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Yong also, however, offers some cautious grounds for hope. On the media front, he points to a study by Beth Redbird, a sociologist at Northwestern, which suggests that since the pandemic began, consumers of right-wing media have diversified their news habits. Away from the press, Yong points to the protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd, in Minneapolis, as evidence that many Americans are now in the mood for systemic change. The pandemic, of course, has much to do with this. “covid-19 is an assault on America’s body, and a referendum on the ideas that animate its culture,” Yong writes. “Recovery is possible, but it demands radical introspection.” Examining the X-ray results is a good place to start.

Great journalism often shocks us by telling us stuff we didn’t know. Sometimes, though, the skillful juxtaposition of everything we do know can have an even greater effect. Journalists are often told—with good reason—to whittle their reporting down and find a focused story, not a topic. But, as I’ve written before, the world needs writers who are capable of zooming way out, taking the biggest swing possible, and putting our day-to-day work in perspective. Yong’s work on the coronavirus has been essential—and spawned appreciative tweets, Pulitzer chatter, and all the rest—because it has done just that, proving, in the process, that the virus truly is an everything story. The simple arrangement of The Atlantic’s new cover reinforces the point. The huge stories of this moment are nominally separate, but the biggest questions we face animate them both.

Below, more on the coronavirus:

  • A conversation: In June, Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, spoke with Yong on our podcast, The Kicker. Pope asked Yong what he sees as the purpose of his work on the pandemic. “Assembling all the pieces into a cohesive whole that will help people to make sense of the moment around them,” Yong replied. “I think people come to The Atlantic to learn how to think about the news, and that extra level of abstraction and analysis is something that I and a lot of my colleagues are trying to achieve.”
  • Meanwhile, in Washington: Talks aimed at steering a fresh coronavirus relief bill through Congress remain stalled, even though enhanced benefits for unemployed Americans expired over the weekend. In his newsletter, Press Run, the media critic Eric Boehlert argues that news organizations should stop blaming “Congress” for the gridlock. “Cutting off aid to tens of millions of Americans today represents a stunning act of political malfeasance by the GOP,” he writes. “It has nothing to do with ‘Congress.’ ”
  • Lessons from Vietnam: CJR’s Amanda Darrach asked four photojournalists who covered the Vietnam War—David Hume Kennerly, Art Greenspon, Robert Hodierne, and David Burnett—about the visual difficulties of covering covid-19, and how we might do better. So far, “the definitive image of the crisis has eluded us,” Darrach writes. “With the country in hibernation, and hospital patients largely off limits, how can photographers give meaning to the incomprehensible numbers?”
  • On freedom of the press: Since the early days of the pandemic, leaders worldwide have used the virus as a pretext to curb press freedom. According to Danish Raza, of The Guardian, India has arrested or otherwise threatened more than fifty journalists over critical coverage of the government’s pandemic response, and Narendra Modi, the country’s authoritarian prime minister, has scolded top editors for their “pessimism.” Elsewhere, federal censors in Russia have filed cases against Novaya Gazeta after the paper reported on a covid outbreak in the military. Meduza has more.
  • On freedom of information: An investigation by the BBC’s Persian Service found that official figures in Iran have grossly understated the spread of covid-19 in the country—nearly twice as many people are known to have been infected and nearly three times as many people are known to have died as official statistics claim. “A level of undercounting, largely due to testing capacity, is seen across the world,” the investigation states, “but the information leaked to the BBC reveals Iranian authorities have reported significantly lower daily numbers despite having a record of all deaths.”

Other notable stories:

  • Last night, Isaias made landfall in North Carolina as a Category One hurricane. The storm has started tracking up the East Coast, bringing heavy rain, flooding, and strong winds; the National Hurricane Center is warning of further floods and possible tornadoes, and meteorologists in New York say the city could see its most powerful winds since Sandy. Over the weekend, Jeff Berardelli, a meteorologist at CBS News, issued an important reminder: “Water temperatures, partly spiked by climate change, [are] aiding and abetting this system and the record pace of hurricane season overall.”
  • According to documents obtained by Ken Klippenstein, of The Nation, the intelligence division of the Department of Homeland Security is working to link activists in the US—including Brace Belden, a left-wing podcast host who went to Syria to fight isis in 2016—to overseas regimes. Once intelligence agencies have tagged an American as an agent of a foreign power, they have a greater ability to surveil them. A former DHS official told Klippenstein that the department “targeted Americans like they’re Al Qaeda.”
  • For The New Yorker, Jane Hu examines “the second act of social-media activism” that has followed the police killing of Floyd. The recent movement “has evinced a scale, creativity, and endurance that challenges those skeptical of the Internet’s ability to mediate a movement,” Hu writes. “Plenty of work remains, but the link between activism, the Internet, and material action seems to have deepened.”
  • On Sunday, The 19th*, a nonprofit news site focused on women and politics, launched in its own right. (It previously was publishing articles on the website of the Post.) The site is making its journalism free to republish; USA Today and Univision already agreed to help distribute its work. Angelina Chapin writes, for New York’s The Cut, that The 19th* plans to publish “in-depth reporting on inequality without any viral lifestyle or celebrity content.”
  • Today, a bankruptcy judge is expected to approve McClatchy’s sale to Chatham Asset Management, a hedge fund. CNN’s Kerry Flynn spoke with reporters at McClatchy titles and found “cautious optimism” about the takeover, given Chatham’s promises to honor existing jobs and union contracts—but as Edmund Lee reported recently, for the Times, Chatham has a history of making cuts at papers that it owns in Canada.
  • Some scheduling changes at MSNBC: Nicolle Wallace, who currently anchors the 4pm Eastern hour, will now anchor the 5pm hour as well, displacing Chuck Todd, whose show will move to the 1pm hour. Todd and Wallace will be bridged by Katy Tur, at 2pm, and Ayman Mohyeldin, at 3pm. Todd will also host a weekly politics show on NBC’s streaming services. Variety’s Brian Steinberg has more details.
  • Over the weekend, Sue Epstein, a retired reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger, died. She was sixty-eight and had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Epstein worked a range of beats, but spent most of her career covering crime and courts. “It could be music, baseball or some disgraced politician from the 1970s,” Kevin Whitmer, a former top editor at the Star-Ledger, told “Sue knew it all and could tell stories with anyone.”
  • Amid a fraught moment for independent journalism in Hong Kong, Timothy McLaughlin, of The Atlantic, profiles the South China Morning Post, a leading English-language paper in the territory. McLaughlin heard concerns from inside the newsroom that the paper’s coverage has favored the authorities and cast pro-democracy protesters in a negative light. Chow Chung Yan, the SCMP’s top editor, pushed back on that characterization.
  • And in the UK, a group of women named Karen are demanding that media outlets stop using their name as a shorthand for racist white women. “I think we should describe racist people as ‘racist,’ ” one of the Karens told Britain’s ITV yesterday, “and not use our name.” (If you are unaware of the Karen meme, Time’s Cady Lang has a primer.)

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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.