Humility, the media, and the pandemic

On Tuesday, President Biden took aim, during a press conference, at the Republican governors of Florida and Texas, who have banned various coronavirus mandates in their states. “If you aren’t going to help,” Biden said, “at least get out of the way.” On Wednesday, DeSantis in turn accused Biden of letting COVID variants enter the US via the southern border. “Why don’t you get this border secure?” he asked. “Until you do that, I don’t want to hear a blip about COVID from you.” On Thursday, a reporter asked Biden for a response to DeSantis’s response. “Governor who?” Biden quipped. “That’s my response.” On Friday, a reporter asked DeSantis for a response to the response to the response. “I guess I’m not surprised that Biden doesn’t remember me,” DeSantis said, with a grin. “The question is, what else has he forgotten?” All week long, the Biden-DeSantis “feud” filled column inches as the soundbites rang around cable news. Yesterday, they aired at the top of Meet the Press, then were used to tee up the show’s panel discussion. There followed an exchange about Biden’s and DeSantis’s poll numbers.

The coverage of the spat often put it in proper context (albeit sometimes secondarily to the theatrics): thanks to the Delta variant, COVID is surging in the US and Florida is now the epicenter, setting new daily records for confirmed cases as ICU beds quickly fill up. (DeSantis has accused the media of “hysteria” around hospitalizations and of being “judgmental” toward the unvaccinated.) The mainstream-media narrative around the surge—and DeSantis’s laissez-faire approach—has been a far cry from some of the coverage he attracted earlier this year, when major news organizations declared that he had “won the pandemic” by keeping his state “in business,” defying liberal naysayers and boosting his 2024 presidential hopes in the process. As I wrote in April, this narrative was always wrong, but it’s now come to look indefensible. Parts of the press “embraced GOP spin,” the press critic Eric Boehlert wrote recently. “Everybody makes mistakes. And holding DeSantis up as Republican COVID hero was a doozy. Now the press needs to address that failure.” Judd Legum, who writes the newsletter Popular Information, described the coverage as “an abomination” that shows “what happens when you cover everything—even a response to a deadly pandemic—like a horse race.”

ICYMI: The Visual Failings of the Heat Dome Coverage

Horserace framing is indeed morally shallow. (We’re still hearing about polling; DeSantis is fundraising off of his Biden feud.) There are also deeper problems with the model. It can serve to overly personalize coverage, creating heroes and villains and deputizing them as simple stand-ins for a given position or swathe of the population that is, in reality, more complicated. (Moderate Republicans v. Trump Republicans; the vaccinated v. the unvaccinated.)  And it tends to be kneejerk and myopic, missing the sweep of the track for the tip of a runner’s nose. Remarkably, this year’s was not the first bout of DeSantis/COVID boosterism to be followed by a fall—he won some similar plaudits early in the pandemic, only for Florida to be hit hard by the virus last summer. The resulting sense of whiplash has not been limited to the standing of individual politicians, but arguably reflects much topline media coverage of the pandemic itself. COVID is surging! Now it’s in retreat. Now it’s surging again! Now it’s in retreat again. Now it’s over! Oh, no, it’s not. The effect is jarring and, above all, repetitive.

Yesterday, the Sunday shows framed the latest surge as “déjà vu all over again,” a “rewind,” a trip “back to the future.” As my colleagues and I have written, a sense of repetition has often been justified in pandemic reporting. (The weekend’s warnings about possible COVID spread at the Sturgis motorcycle rally in South Dakota, for instance, carried me right back to this time last year, and Brianna Keilar’s memorable burn on the lead singer of Smash Mouth.) Repetition can even be a smart framing device when it’s used to underscore persistent mistakes, and lessons not learned. More often, though, the repetitiveness of this moment’s coverage feels reactive—giving the impression that members of the media have been taken by surprise again when the course of the pandemic ought to be, if not exactly predictable by now, than at least predictable in its unpredictability. If hailing DeSantis once was premature, doing so again was shameful. Again, such dynamics aren’t limited to Florida.

It’s hard to generalize here, of course. Much coverage of the apparent end of the pandemic in America was tentative, and did note the warning signs of what would become the Delta surge. More generally, at any given moment of the pandemic, reporters must tread a fine line, guarding against complacency without tipping—as was the case with some recent coverage of “breakthrough” infections in vaccinated people, for instance—into conjecture and alarmism. The challenge, rather, has been to respect uncertainty, at a moment that might, as I wrote recently, be the most uncertain we’ve faced since the pandemic began. It requires leveling with news consumers about what we do know and what we don’t, then working to fill in the gaps with careful, proportionate, data-driven reporting, rather than extrapolation or supposition. It requires always remembering that the pandemic might veer suddenly in a direction we don’t expect, and understanding that things looking good is not always a cause for triumphalism, just as things looking bad is not always a cause for defeatism. It requires, in other words, extreme humility, which can be devilishly hard to center in an industry that trades off its claims to authority. The press has visibly struggled to balance the two while covering COVID. I’m sure I’m not immune.

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A month or so ago, with cases not yet at immediately alarming levels in the US, the eyes of many journalists turned to England, where, despite a major Delta surge, the government was preparing to lift most remaining COVID restrictions. Many liberal commentators condemned that decision as reckless; a prominent modeler warned that it was “almost inevitable” that confirmed cases would soon surpass one hundred thousand a day, and his words echoed through coverage. But that hasn’t happened—instead, confirmed cases have fallen dramatically, and no one is really sure why. Potential explanations have ranged from the bullish (herd immunity) to the cautious (fewer exposed people getting tested). None of this is to say that the British government made the right decision, or that the country is out of the woods. Nor are we dealing with a complete mystery—Britain has high rates of vaccination, and we know that the vaccines are very effective. Still, the country is a stark reminder of the pandemic’s ability to confound even those watching it very closely. We should be humble about that, and center it in coverage. Feuds and other forms of political theater, by contrast, don’t tend to be exercises in humility.

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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.