The Media Today

The Omicron surge and the illusion of individualism

December 20, 2021
A doctor with the El Salvador Virology Center works on coronavirus genome sequencing. Photo by: Camilo Freedman/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Late last week, Shawn McCreesh, a writer at New York magazine, declared “what remained of the media-holiday-party industrial complex” to be over. Denizens of New York City’s media industry, including McCreesh himself, had begun (en masse, or so it seemed) to test positive for COVID-19, and there was, McCreesh noted, a lot of public finger-pointing going on. Gawker ran a brief blind item asking “which media company’s very large holiday party resulted in a rash of COVID diagnoses?” Insider subsequently reported that “a number” of positive cases followed BuzzFeed’s holiday party on December 10, and that BuzzFeed’s “staff Epidemiologist” was on the case; Katie Notopoulos, a reporter at the site, quipped thatBuzzFeed has truly unlocked the secret to making things go viral.” Not that they were the only media company to have had a holiday party recently—others did, too, including both Insider and New York. Julia Reinstein, also of BuzzFeed, coined the term “Media Variant.” McCreesh’s headline immortalized it.

The backdrop here, of course, is the Omicron variant—a bona fide strain of COVID that is currently spreading like wildfire through New York City, the wider region, and the world—with governments and private companies, including in the media industry, making adjustments and tightening their COVID protocols, sometimes considerably. In the days after its holiday party, BuzzFeed froze large group meetings and nonessential business travel until at least early January, and mandated masks in the office. On Thursday, management at the Washington Post, which had already mandated third vaccine “booster” doses for staff, emailed employees to say that they will also need to get tested weekly once they start returning to the office from late January. On Friday, the New York Times’s Washington bureau canceled its holiday party. On Saturday, CNN said it would close its offices to all staffers who don’t need to be there, and revert to scaled-down studio arrangements that better enable social distancing. Yesterday, Chuck Todd hosted Meet the Press from a remote location after a member of his household tested positive. Also over the weekend, SNL disinvited its studio audience and sent most of its cast home just hours before the broadcast was set to begin. Guest host Tom Hanks was left to walk on stage to thin applause from what he described as the “surviving crew members.”

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If this all feels a bit March 2020 to you—office closures, individual COVID cases feeling noteworthy again, Tom Hanks—you aren’t alone: in recent days, headlines in numerous major outlets have also made the connection. (The Associated Press: “Surging COVID-19 cases bring a 2020 feel to the end of 2021”; the Times: “As Virus Cases Surge, New Yorkers Feel a Familiar Anxiety”; BuzzFeed: “People Are Comparing The ‘Omicron Era’ We’re In To March 2020, And Yup, The Vibes Are Upsettingly Similar.”) Many journalists, however, have been at pains to point out that this isn’t March 2020: not just because the calendar has moved on, but because millions of Americans have since had at least two, and often three, vaccine doses, which seem highly protective against severe illness with Omicron, if not necessarily infection. “Because the circumstances are so different now,” Oliver Darcy, a media reporter at CNN, argued on Friday, “the news coverage should be, too.” Speaking on air yesterday, Darcy’s colleague Brian Stelter elaborated. “I know there are flashbacks right now to March 2020, but the differences are the story,” he said. “You know that phrase we’ve heard all year long: living with COVID? The keyword of that phrase is not COVID, the key word is living.” He went on to ask whether it’s still appropriate for the press to obsess over case numbers alone. “It feels to me like, in some media circles, this was the week where getting COVID became an inevitability.”

This, indeed, is not March 2020, in terms of the dynamics of the virus. But the feeling of that time does echo, and not just as some abstract sentiment: it reflects the more concrete similarity—that the press as a whole has struggled to articulate, then as now, because doing so is hard—of millions of people trying to recalibrate their personal risk calculations in light of manifest viral spread but acute ongoing uncertainty as to the exact consequences of that spread. (There remains a lot about Omicron that we just don’t know for sure, not least whether it’s intrinsically milder than prior variants or merely milder in vaccinated people.) Local and national news outlets have sought to assuage the resulting anxiety with a wave of explainers and advice articles—not least around how confident you should feel about your holiday plans—while reporters have shared their own calculations: Maggie Haberman, of the Times, tweeted that she went to a packed movie theater on Saturday; Dan Diamond, of the Post, told his Facebook friends (and everyone else) that he’d paused some of his hobbies and resumed double-masking, in part with his holiday plans in mind; Ed Yong, of The Atlantic, canceled his fortieth birthday party and wrote a piece explaining why. Many articles relayed advice from experts. Also writing for The Atlantic, Ashish K. Jha argued that “the national conversation is vacillating between panic and indifference” and that “neither is helpful”; instead, he wrote, we should chart a “middle course,” with increased vaccination and rapid testing central to that goal.

No amount of media explainers, however, can explain what we don’t yet know about the risks of Omicron; as Diamond put it in his Facebook post, at this stage, “anyone who swears that Omicron will *surely* lead to a mild case in a vaccinated person is over-promising.” More fundamentally, the threat posed by Omicron cannot responsibly be covered as a function of individual calculations alone. Throughout the pandemic, dominant US media narratives have emphasized personal responsibility for avoiding infection and severe illness, not least around masking and vaccination. (Often, these narratives have been bolstered by official messaging, and that is only growing sharper: on Friday, Jeff Zients, the White House COVID coordinator, told reporters that while the administration will work to minimize Omicron disruption for the vaccinated, the unvaccinated should expect “a winter of severe illness and death for yourselves, your families and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm.”) Personal responsibility is an important part of the COVID story, of course. But so, too, are systemic and institutional failings. Many unvaccinated people have refused the vaccine from a place of privilege; others are scared about the repercussions of taking time off work. Vaccination is not always sufficient to protect immunocompromised people. And people can’t do rapid tests if rapid tests aren’t available.

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Throughout the pandemic, there has been much good coverage, not least at the local level, of all these failures; recent days alone have seen a flood of articles (and angry tweets) about testing issues. But these problems often haven’t penetrated the top levels of the news cycle (the moment that the US urgently needs better testing infrastructure is too late to be focusing on inadequate testing infrastructure), and when they have, they’ve often been flattened out into oversimplified narratives. Ultimately, as Yong and others have pointed out, what we know of Omicron so far suggests that its biggest risk is at this systemic level: most vaccinated people who get it will probably be more or less fine, but so many people could get it that a relatively small percentage of severe cases might overwhelm hospitals anyway—and if that does happen, by the time we can see it, it’ll be too late to stop it. (Throughout COVID, news outlets have struggled conceptually with such lags between cause and visible effect.) Even coverage that centers systemic risk sometimes treats it as a separate phenomenon from individual action. But systems are made up of individuals, whose choices rebound beyond themselves.

We don’t yet know exactly what will happen with Omicron, but as we wait to find out, coverage must conceive of individuals’ decisions not only as discrete calculations tailored to their personal circumstances, but as component parts of society-wide chains of transmission and response. In his piece on his decision to cancel his birthday party, Yong wrote that while Omicron hasn’t greatly changed his personal risk calculus, it is “spreading so rapidly that if someone got infected at my party, my decision to host it could easily affect people who don’t know me, and who had no say in the risks that I unwittingly imposed upon them. Omicron is unlikely to land me in the hospital, but it could send my guests’ grandparents or parents to one.” The story is not so much who is getting sick at holiday parties as who might get sick despite not getting an invite.

Below, more on the pandemic:

  • Counting the (un)vaccinated: Bloomberg’s Josh Wingrove reports that the federal government has been overcounting the number of Americans who are partly vaccinated against COVID—an error that means more people than previously thought are fully vaccinated, but also means that more people than previously thought are completely unvaccinated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently “acknowledged a dynamic state officials have discovered: in collating reams of data on vaccinations, the US has counted too many shots as first doses when they are instead second doses or booster shots,” Wingrove writes. “The precise number miscounted is unknown, but revisions in data from three states—Illinois, Pennsylvania and West Virginia—found enough over-counting of first shots to indicate millions of unvaccinated people nationally who’ve mistakenly been counted as having received a dose.”
  • The frontlines: With Omicron surging, Peter Maass, of The Intercept, argues that hospitals have fresh reason to let journalists report from COVID wards. Despite protestations, early in the pandemic, that letting reporters into hospitals would endanger both patient privacy and journalists’ personal safety, such concerns often did not come to pass, Maass writes. “Hospitals do not have valid excuses for keeping journalists out, and letting reporters inside will confront skeptics with graphic evidence that might sway some of them.” Michael Dowling, the CEO of New York’s largest hospital network, told Maass that hospital leaders have made a mistake in obstructing coverage of COVID’s impact.
  • The Nihilism Variant: New York’s Sarah Jones pushed back on a recent Atlantic article in which Matthew Walther wrote that no one cares about COVID beyond the world of professionals in big cities. “It’s true enough that much of the country has decided to pretend that nothing is wrong,” Jones writes. “True, too, that winter 2021 is not spring 2020. For the fully vaccinated, the virus is not a major threat. I held my own wedding this fall after rescheduling it twice. Yet there are those among us, including the elderly and the immunocompromised, for whom Omicron poses greater risk. Even the unvaccinated deserve compassion. To deny them this is to surrender to Walther’s nihilism.”
  • Another cancelation: The rapid spread of Omicron in the UK forced The Guardian and its sister paper, The Observer, to cancel an annual telethon event at which the papers’ journalists take readers’ calls and field donations to a good cause; the UK government has advised people to work from home, and journalists aren’t allowed to conduct the telethon remotely due to regulations around the collection of payment details. This year, the money was set to go to the fight for climate justice; readers are still able to donate online. (ICYMI, I wrote about Omicron and the British media last week.)

Some news from the home front:
Today, CJR is out with a new archival magazine to mark the occasion of our sixtieth anniversary. “In this issue, we have sought to convey the scope and ambition of CJR over the course of its life,” Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, writes in an introductory note. “The stories are organized thematically, rather than chronologically, to help connect the dots from one age to the next. In these pages, you’ll find Walter Lippmann; David Simon; assessments of the Kerner Commission’s findings, fifty years apart; and wariness of bloggers’ citing Jenny McCarthy as a vaccination expert. You’ll also find Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, referring to this magazine as ‘the fucking Columbia Journalism Review.’” You can explore the new issue here.

Other notable stories:

  • The Times published part one of the Civilian Casualty Files, a new investigation, by Azmat Khan, finding that America’s air war in Iraq and Syria “has been marked by deeply flawed intelligence, rushed and often imprecise targeting, and the deaths of thousands of civilians, many of them children, a sharp contrast to the American government’s image of war waged by all-seeing drones and precision bombs.” Officials pledged transparency and accountability around civilian deaths, Khan writes, but have instead resorted to “opacity and impunity.” Khan reviewed more than a thousand reports that she obtained from the Pentagon via Freedom of Information Act requests and lawsuits that she began filing nearly five years ago. Records related to Afghanistan remain subject to a lawsuit.
  • Also for the Times, Adam Goldman and Michael S. Schmidt explored how a diary owned by Ashley Biden, Joe’s daughter, ended up in the hands of the right-wing sting group Project Veritas last year. “Federal prosecutors and FBI agents are investigating whether there was a criminal conspiracy among a handful of individuals to steal and publish the diary,” they write. The case is “testing the line between investigative journalism and political dirty tricks,” with Project Veritas, which ultimately did not publish the diary, arguing that it enjoys constitutional protections. Project Veritas is suing the Times in a separate matter, and a court recently placed limits on the paper’s coverage of the group.
  • Recently, Cyrus Vance, Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, subpoenaed Randall Lane and Chase Peterson-Withorn, of Forbes, to testify before a grand jury investigating Donald Trump’s business practices. Lane and Peterson-Withorn, who have covered Trump’s worth (and fixation on Forbes’s estimates thereof), fought the subpoenas on the grounds that they threaten journalistic independence, but last week, a judge ordered them to testify, and they complied. Lane writes that he and Peterson-Withorn revealed no new information to the grand jury, instead confirming the accuracy of their past work.
  • Also last week, Amy Harris, a freelance photojournalist, sued the Congressional committee investigating the Capitol insurrection after it moved to subpoena her phone records. Harris, who was present at the Capitol on the day of the insurrection, said that she had been in regular contact with members of the Proud Boys, an extremist group, because she was covering them with their consent, and that the committee’s subpoena risks outing her confidential journalistic sources in violation of the First Amendment.
  • The US Press Freedom Tracker reports that, since 2017, at least sixty journalists have sued police departments after they were arrested or assaulted while covering a protest. Seven suits filed in the wake of last summer’s racial-justice protests have already been settled, the Tracker reports, “with known payments totaling $146,000 and at least one involving changes to police procedures.” Many others, however, remain unresolved.
  • San Francisco’s police department has encrypted its radio transmissions, BuzzFeed’s Sarah Emerson reports, making it impossible for journalists and members of the public to monitor them using police scanners. Officials cited state privacy regulations, but the move is “part of a growing trend among US law enforcement that worries government transparency advocates about the consequences of a less visible police force.”
  • The Times fired Erin Marquis, an editor at Wirecutter, a product-review site owned by the paper, after a gun-rights group published what it said were voicemail messages in which Marquis identified herself as a Times journalist then angrily condemned the group after its Michigan affiliate sent out a pro-gun press release following a school shooting in the state. The Times said that Marquis invoked the paper’s name “in an unprofessional way.”
  • Carlos Tejada, the deputy Asia editor at the Times, has died after suffering a heart attack. Tejada’s wife, Nora, announced the news via Tejada’s Twitter feed. Edmund Lee, a journalist at the Times, noted that “the outpouring of grief” on an internal email thread about Tejada’s death had been “long and striking, a mark of Carlos’s generosity, kindness, excellence and humanity. Clearly, he represented the best of the paper.”
  • And Chuck Todd is branching out into scripted programming as executive producer of American Assassin, a true-crime show about presidential assassinations and attempts that, per the Hollywood Reporter, will “dive into the singular minds of American presidents and the people who tried to knock them from their perch.” NBC’s Peacock streaming service is developing the show. Season one will focus on James Garfield.

From the magazine: Amy Davidson Sorkin on the moments when trust is tested

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.