On grief, personal and collective

The title of Bob Woodward’s new book, Rage, dates back to March 2016, when Woodward asked then-candidate Trump about “angst and rage and distress” in the Republican Party, and Trump latched onto the middle word. “I do bring rage out. I always have,” Trump said. “I don’t know if that’s an asset or a liability, but whatever it is, I do.” Last week, rage was exactly what greeted the first major revelation from Rage: that Trump acknowledged to Woodward that the coronavirus would be deadly all the way back in February, only to downplay its threat in public. (A portion of the rage rebounded onto Woodward himself.) The reaction seemed also to channel a linked, yet distinct, set of emotions: grief. Since Trump’s two-faced February, we’ve faced an unrelenting wave of American death, and still, Trump does next to nothing to stop it. The collective death count is arbitrary—it never adequately expresses the weight of its accumulated singularity—but we mark it anyway, especially when it reaches a round number. The latest cover of Time magazine, by the artist John Mavroudis, marks the impending confirmation that there have been at least 200,000 COVID-19 deaths in the US. The true total is higher.

The cover, which charts the confirmed death count for each day between late February and early September, is ringed by a black border—only the second time in Time’s history that that has been the case. The first was in response to 9/11, the 19th anniversary of which was Friday. 

ICYMI: Why did Matt Drudge turn on Donald Trump?

The anniversary is always an occasion for visible, pointedly-unified public grief; this year, some commentators observed that the US, collectively, has not yet come to mourn the victims of the pandemic in the same way, even though there have already been many more of them than on 9/11. “Whatever shared national spirit existed in the first weeks of the pandemic has been fractured beyond repair,” Garrett M. Graff, the author of an oral history of 9/11, argued in The Atlantic. “The sadness and fury are still present, but in 2020 they don’t galvanize; they paralyze.” Graff offered several explanations for the discrepancy: the fact that the virus resists easy visualization; our inability to mourn together physically; the endlessness of the pandemic. Writing in The Intercept, Jon Schwarz added a sharp reflection on the conduct of leaders who—post-9/11 and, as Woodward proved, pre-COVID—sought to plant different “illusions” in the national psyche. “Bush wanted a pretext to do a lot of things that were unnecessary, such as invading Iraq, while Trump wanted an excuse to do nothing,” Schwarz wrote. “Our lives have value insofar as the powerful can use them to create whatever ‘panic’ they desire.”

Assessing the national expression of grief is always complicated, perhaps never more so than right now. It can feel, at times, as if we have collectively normalized the pandemic and the immensity of its human cost, yet many of us try constantly to push back on that feeling. And, whichever way one looks, the national news cycle is unavoidably drenched in grief—about police brutality and its ending of Black lives; about our crisis-stricken climate and its consequences, most recently the enormous, devastating fires on the West Coast; about the natural deaths of guiding moral lights—that differs in its particulars but is all wound up together.

Writers including Jesmyn Ward and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have published prominent, poignant reflections on their personal grief following recent family deaths. “Grief is a cruel kind of education,” Adichie wrote last week in the New Yorker. “You learn how ungentle mourning can be, how full of anger. You learn how glib condolences can feel. You learn how much grief is about language, the failure of language and the grasping for language.” Such reflections exist within an information ecosystem that, still, features much bloodless, mechanical noise about national politics, business, and so on. Listen carefully, though, and you notice, sometimes, that there’s grief there, too—a quieter yearning for the way of life we all lost to the pandemic.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Grief is messy and contradictory. Everyone experiences it differently, which makes its collective expression hard to grasp. But trying to grasp it—or at least asking how we might begin to try—is a useful endeavor. Most journalists are not counselors, but the media, as a shared expressive apparatus, does inevitably channel collective feeling, and so it’s worth exploring the form that feeling is taking at the moment, and may take in the future. In his Atlantic essay, Graff, drawing on the collective civic erasure that followed the pandemic of 1918, raises the prospect that America may also try to memory-hole the coronavirus, as “an embarrassing chapter in which our government failed us and we failed our fellow Americans.” To me, the opposite also seems possible—that we’ll come to regard this traumatizing moment with a clarity that currently, in the midst of the fog, eludes us. The most profound personal grief I ever suffered only hit me 18 months or so after the fact. Before that, my energy went into putting one day in front of the next.

Again, everyone experiences grief differently; journalism can usefully document individual reactions that resonate, or that simply inspire empathy, but it shouldn’t try and impress a uniform, sanctioned template on people’s feelings. That said, it is and will be our job to chart and interrogate the form our collective grief takes. Grief can trend toward acceptance and “closure”; it’s our job to ensure that that never means collective amnesia or repression. We can’t forget the failures—individual, institutional, and structural—that the pandemic, George Floyd, and the fires have illuminated. Under the weight of horribly big numbers, we can’t forget that each victim had a story and a family. Politicians will try and fuse the act of memorialization with their own agendas; that, too, will demand careful scrutiny. 

What will all this look like? As I’ve found before with grief, I don’t have useful answers yet. We’re still, all of us, grasping for language.

Below, more on grief and convergent crises:


Other notable stories: 

  • On Saturday, a gunman shot two LA County sheriff’s deputies in a suspected ambush in Compton. (The deputies are now in a stable condition.) Afterward, Josie Huang, a reporter with KPCC and LAist, was covering the arrest of a protester outside the hospital that’s treating the deputies when police threw her to the ground and arrested her. Huang, who clearly identified herself as a reporter and has since been released, suffered visible injuries including a black eye, according to a KPCC executive. LAist has more.
  • Last month, Trump threatened to shutter TikTok, the Chinese-owned video app, unless it found a US buyer, setting a deadline which expires this week. Microsoft was the initial frontrunner, but last night, multiple outlets reported that Oracle, a cloud-computing company, will win the race. The terms of the deal remain unclear, but sources told the Wall Street Journal that Oracle is “partnering” with TikTok, rather than “acquiring” it.
  • For New York, Clare Malone profiles Ben Smith, the Times media columnist who, she writes, has “spent the past six months stirring up an amount of shit, drama, and chaos that is notable even for these shitty, dramatic, and chaotic times.” Smith’s column isn’t “deeply philosophical,” but rather, “a reporter’s column, a tips-driven enterprise.” His latest criticizes The Intercept’s treatment of Reality Winner, a since-jailed whistleblower.
  • Last week, Politico reported that USA Today’s Susan Page, who will moderate October’s vice-presidential debate, hosted a taxpayer-funded “girl’s night” for Seema Verma, a top Trump health official who was, at the time, trying to raise her profile. USA Today said that Page covered costs herself and didn’t know public money was spent, and that the event did not breach the paper’s “ethical standards.” Still, it raised many a media eyebrow.
  • The University of California, San Diego, settled with the American Civil Liberties Union after it sued the school on behalf of The Koala, a satirical student newspaper that said its funding was cut in response to an article mocking campus “safe spaces.” A federal judge initially dismissed the suit, but an appeals court revived it. City News Service has more.
  • Recently, GZERO, a media company founded by the political consultant Ian Bremmer, asked journalists and commentators in 24 countries how US election news is playing where they live. “What do we see from the outside?” Camila Zuluaga, of Caracol TV and Blu Radio, in Colombia, asked. “It’s like it’s an empire that is going down.”
  • In France, alleged accomplices of Saïd and Chérif Kouachi—two terrorists who, in 2015, killed 11 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine that had published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed—are now on trial. To mark the trial, Charlie Hebdo republished the cartoons, leading, Le Monde reports, to a fresh threat from Al Qaeda.
  • And Nomadland, a new film based on a book of the same name by the reporter Jessica Bruder, took the top prize at the Venice Film Festival. In the book, Bruder, who has taught at Columbia Journalism School, reports on older Americans who travel around the US in search of work; she calls them “invisible casualties of the Great Recession.”

ICYMI: Journalism’s Gates keepers

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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