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.”
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.
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.
Below, more on the pandemic:
- A safety step: The White House is now requiring visitors to confirm that they’ve been vaccinated or undergo regular testing at their own expense—an edict that applies to members of the press. On Friday, the White House Correspondents’ Association sent its members a form and asked them to return it to the White House press office by hand; the WHCA also confirmed that pool reporters will continue to have to submit to same-day testing. The vaccination requirement shouldn’t be a problem for the press corps; when the WHCA conducted a confidential survey earlier in the year, nearly a hundred percent of respondents said that they were fully vaccinated already.
- A step back: Over the weekend, former President Barack Obama hosted a sixtieth birthday party on Martha’s Vineyard. Due to the Delta surge, the event attracted a lot of media scrutiny; Obama implemented public-health protocols and cut back on the original guestlist, though numerous celebrities were still invited. Guests were banned from taking photos and posting to social media to stop details of the party from getting out. Unsurprisingly, they got out anyway. The Daily Mail splashed them. Online, some media critics wondered whether all the coverage was really necessary.
- A step forward: For CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Samuel Danzon-Chambaud documented how nine news organizations used automated-journalism techniques to cover the pandemic. In a sense, COVID “could have been the perfect story to automate as the technology draws on structured data that can fit into predictable story frames,” Danzon-Chambaud writes. But newsrooms also faced challenges that show “the difficulties associated with having to rely on external datasets.”
Other notable stories:
- Over the weekend, the Taliban continued to surge in Afghanistan, taking control of a series of provincial capitals including the city of Kunduz; meanwhile, Taliban militants in Kabul, the capital, killed Dawa Khan Menapal, who was in charge of the Afghan government’s media and information operations and was previously a spokesperson for President Ashraf Ghani. Somewhat better news came from the UK, where officials moved—following an appeal by a coalition of news organizations—to allow at-risk Afghans who worked for British outlets to relocate to the country “on an exceptional basis.” The US government recently made a similar pledge; I wrote about it on Friday.
- CBS and the Albany Times Union worked together to interview Brittany Commisso, a previously anonymous staffer whose claim that Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, groped her was central to the damning report that the New York attorney general’s office published last week. Commisso appeared on CBS This Morning today. Meanwhile, Melissa DeRosa, a top Cuomo aide, resigned, reportedly after concluding that she could no longer support Cuomo in public; DeRosa also featured in the report, which detailed how she retaliated against one of Cuomo’s accusers, and screamed at the editor of the Times Union. For more on that paper’s relationship with Cuomo, the Times has a profile.
- For CJR, Ankush Khardori advises reporters and pundits against interpreting Donald Trump’s legal woes as an inevitable prelude to his incarceration. “The considerable anti-climax of the Mueller investigation should be a cautionary tale,” Khardori writes. “The public deserves our best effort to convey and evaluate the full range of possibilities as facts continue to unfold, and to acknowledge the many uncertainties that remain.”
- Last week, after Axios reported that staffers at Politico are working to form a union, a spokesperson said that Robert Allbritton, Politico’s publisher, “understands that the decision to form a union is the choice of the newsroom employees who would be impacted by it,” and will respect their decision. On Friday, Allbritton wrote staffers making the case that unionization is not in their interests. The Daily Beast’s Max Tani has more.
- For the Petersburg Progress-Index, in Virginia, Tamica Jean-Charles profiles a campaign that aims to highlight the legacy of the Richmond Planet, a Black newspaper in the state, by putting its name and logo on car license plates. Reggie Carter, who launched the campaign, has nearly collected enough pre-orders for the plate for its design to be presented in the state legislature, where it must pass with a lawmaker’s support.
- On Saturday, Tucker Carlson, of Fox News, spoke at a far-right conference in Budapest that was backed by Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister. The Times noted that Carlson has a family connection to the Hungarian leader: “his father, Richard Carlson, is listed as a director of a Washington-based firm that has lobbied for Orbán in the United States.” (Fox said that Carlson, Sr., had “nothing to do” with his son’s trip.)
- Last week, the authoritarian government of Cambodia created a committee that says it will monitor “journalism ethics and professional standards” and recommend punishments for perceived lapses. Journalists and press-freedom groups reacted with concern; Human Rights Watch called the committee “another landmine planted to blow up on” reporting and commentary that the government doesn’t like. Radio Free Asia has more.
- In Haiti, friends and relatives of the journalist Diego Charles and the activist Antoinette Duclaire—both of whom were shot dead in June, a week prior to the assassination of the country’s president—now fear for their own safety after talking to the Haitian authorities. Amnesty International has called on Haitian officials to protect the families and make progress in their investigation; Jacqueline Charles has more for the Miami Herald.
- And the Tokyo Olympics concluded yesterday. The Games proved challenging for NBC, which held the rights in the US, with prime-time TV viewership way down, though the network said that it expects to make a profit on the Games overall. Tokyo “was in many ways a transition Olympics” for NBC, the AP’s David Bauder writes, with “the old ways in which America has consumed the Games fading fast and new ways still taking hold.”
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