The Media Today

The many anniversaries of the start of the pandemic

March 9, 2021

Recently, Lulu Garcia-Navarro, of NPR, asked her Twitter followers to share when and where they first realized that the coronavirus would upend all our lives, and tag their recollections using the hashtag #TheMoment. Responses poured in. “Pi Day,” a tweeter named Beth Ochsner wrote. “We always have a Pi Day party (March 14) and one of the friends we invited suggested that maybe, according to his information, gathering in a group right now was not advisable. I debated a bit but then cancelled the party. (We still ate pie, though.)” Alyssa Jackson, a content strategist, remembered empty shelves at Target; E. Anderson, a teacher, recalled reading students’ first remote assignments and thinking, “I might never see their handwriting on paper again.” Journalists shared memories, too. Joey Palacios, a local-government reporter for Texas Public Radio, said that #TheMoment for him was March 2, “when San Antonio Metro Health said a COVID-positive cruise ship evacuee at Lackland was released and went to North Star Mall.”

This week has brought a new wave of stories recalling the early days of the pandemic, a year on from its rapid intensification in the US. Local outlets have marked local milestones; beat reporters have summarized sweeping changes on their beats. Nationally, many people have pegged March 11, which falls this Thursday, as the one-year marker; President Biden will deliver his first prime-time address then, and the comedian Jimmy Kimmel has planned a special “Coronaversary Show” for that day. The equivalent date last year “is the one that we all remember,” Chuck Todd said on Meet the Press. “That’s the day the WHO finally declared COVID a pandemic. It’s when Tom Hanks announced that he and his wife, Rita Wilson, had tested positive for the virus. And it’s the day after multiple NBA players tested positive, that the league shut down.”

New from CJR: What the pandemic means for paywalls

News organizations are also using the anniversary as an opportunity to remember those who have died, scheduling the sort of programming that has, to this point, mostly been reserved for milestone numbers of confirmed deaths. Tomorrow night, MSNBC will broadcast an hour-long special of “Lives Well Lived,” extending a shorter segment that appears daily at the end of Nicolle Wallace’s show. Next week, the Brian Lehrer Show, on WNYC, will air “Reading Their Names,” devoting “ninety uninterrupted minutes to 484 listeners who will read the names of 1,780 people in our listening region who have died from the virus.”

The concept of the coronaversary is, however, a hard one to pin down. As projects like #TheMoment attest, everyone’s pandemic anniversary is personal to their experience. To the extent it can be collective, different localities mark different key dates; even nationally, there is no one clear start point to commemorate. On March 1, there were stories marking a year since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first US COVID death; in early February, there were stories marking a year since the first known US COVID death (which was only confirmed as such posthumously); in late January, various outlets marked a year since the CDC confirmed the first US COVID case. Internationally, different people might anchor their reflections in the devastating outbreak in Iran or the devastating outbreak in Italy, which awakened many residents of Western countries to the dangers of the virus. Earlier, there was, of course, the devastation in Wuhan. On the final day of 2020, news organizations marked a year since China first reported a cluster of mysterious pneumonia cases to the WHO. The precise origin date of this coronavirus is lost to the mists of time. The one-year marker is less an anniversary, and more, as CNN’s Sanjay Gupta put it recently, “an era of anniversaries.”

Time is messy; yardsticks, however arbitrary, can help us make sense of it. Reflecting on our own personal COVID milestones can feel cathartic, and grounding, as lockdown days recede into an impressionistic blur. There are grounds for caution here, though, and they lie in the hazy space between individual memory and what we stake out as collective reality. It’s one thing to remember the start of the pandemic as an apocalyptic, disinfectant-drenched trip to the grocery store; quite another to declare that COVID only became real when a famous actor got it and we couldn’t watch live sports anymore. Marking a year since the WHO’s “pandemic” designation at least carries a stamp of global officialdom—but even this feels shaky. (CNN, for instance, started using the word several days earlier, and even that, in hindsight, was perhaps overly cautious.)

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At some point, individual memories—those of powerful elites, especially—ossify at the level of a given community, and reproduce in that community’s media. It makes logical sense that nationally-oriented news outlets would mark the coronaversary now—not just in the US, but in every Western country that started to lock down around this time last year. If we’re not careful, though, US- (or UK- or wherever-) centric anniversary coverage risks sliding into insularity. This matters, not only because we ought to remember the victims who had already died in other countries by last March, but because it was insular thinking that fatally delayed our response to the pandemic; without insular thinking, in other words, our collective coronaversary wouldn’t fall now. The media was not solely to blame for many Western countries’ slow reactions last year; far from it. But we bear some blame. As The Atlantic’s Zeynep Tufekci wrote last March, many of us were hobbled for weeks by widespread “asystemic thinking” about the risks we faced. For much of February 2020, credible outlets were running articles—comparing COVID to the flu, for example, or advising foreign travel—that, just a few weeks later, were the stuff of widely-condemned conspiracy sites.

I include myself in this. I can’t remember what #TheMoment was for me, or if I even had one, though I do remember that I was aware of the scale of the problem intellectually long before my behavior caught up. A year ago yesterday, I went to a restaurant and a museum (a museum!), and still harbored hopes that I’d make a forthcoming foreign trip; professionally, this week last year was the first during which I devoted every edition of this newsletter solely to the pandemic. I’m pretty sure I wrote at least some of them from a café; I definitely played soccer one day then rushed home on the bus for an interview. This wasn’t solely a matter of complacency; I remember being wary of contributing to a panic or getting out ahead of my limited scientific expertise, and I made sure to feature the excellent reported work of my CJR colleagues, who closely tracked the evolution of the pandemic in China and some of its earliest impacts in the US (on anti-vax propaganda, for example). But I was also buried deep in the frantic Democratic-primary news cycle. In paying close attention to its various framing errors, I missed the biggest of all—what it was displacing—until it was too late.

Milestones can be useful if we use them to interrogate our memories, rather than entrench and ritualize them. That’s not to say now is the only, or even the best, moment to assess why so many journalists failed to adjust quickly enough to the threat of the pandemic; getting out of the tunnel we’re still in is currently more urgent. When we do come to write the full history of the pandemic, though, we should remember that its key dates weren’t inevitable; rather, they reflected choices that we made, many of them bad. That understanding will be crucial if we are to keep #TheMoment as a thing of memory, and not of grim repetition.

Below, more on the pandemic:

  • The pandemic and paywalls: For CJR, Mary Retta assesses what the pandemic has meant for paywalls, a year after major outlets started to lower theirs to allow readers easier access to vital information. Such decisions were “ethically sound,” Retta writes. “But it now raises important questions for media outlets: How long can they afford to keep their journalism free? And how will they determine which reporting is ‘essential’ to the public?”
  • A year of bad journalism news: Last week, CJR’s Lauren Harris marked a year since Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism started tracking pandemic-induced newsroom cutbacks by rounding up five big takeaways from its research. “The journalism crisis of the past year has been a crisis across the board, for digital media, magazines, radio and TV stations, and—especially—newspapers,” Harris writes, adding that every medium has seen significant layoffs, that there has been an acceleration away from print, that more than sixty outlets have ceased publication completely, and that cuts at Gannett have loomed especially large. (You can subscribe to Harris’s weekly newsletter on the future of the news business here.)
  • A year of bad-journalism news: With the House of Representatives set to vote as soon as today on Biden’s amended stimulus package, the press critic Eric Boehlert makes the case that news organizations have consistently “screwed up” COVID-relief coverage over the past year. “Over the last twelve months, Republicans sabotaged all COVID relief negotiations, including Trump who routinely, and publicly, gave wildly contradictory statements about the need for assistance,” Boehlert writes. “Yet since last April, the press tagged Both Sides for failing to pass a relief package that was universally seen as crucial to the country’s economic survival.”
  • Centomila: Yesterday, Italy surpassed a hundred thousand confirmed COVID deaths, becoming the second country in Europe, after the UK, to hit that figure. “It took nine months for Italy to register its first fifty thousand deaths, and just three-and-a-half months to double it,” Reuters reports. “Infections rose twenty-three percent last week by comparison with the week before and health officials have warned that the country faces a fresh surge of cases as a more contagious variant of the disease, first detected in Britain, gains ground.” This morning, the daily newspaper la Repubblica featured photos of victims on its front page under the word “CENTOMILA,” meaning a hundred thousand.
  • More hopeful news: Lungelo Ndhlovu reports, for the International Journalists’ Network, on Zimbabwe’s efforts to vaccinate thousands of journalists as a matter of priority. “The important thing about journalists being part of the vaccination campaign is first and foremost, they carry the message to a lot of people,” Dr. Edwin Sibanda, a health official in Bulawayo, said. To fight disinformation, “we really need journalists well informed on health issues, in particular the vaccination drive and educating people about vaccines.”

Other notable stories:

  • For CJR, Elaine Yu asks whether Hong Kong’s free press will survive. “Conversations with more than two dozen journalists in Hong Kong showed that reporters are becoming more cautious, at times giving in to self-censorship,” Yu writes. “They sense a new fidelity to ‘both-sides-ism’ from their managers. Other journalists remain defiant, at professional and personal cost. Friends in the media joke about sharing a cell with one another. A look at the past eight months shows a systematic push from Beijing-backed authorities to tame Hong Kong’s press. This might be just the beginning.”
  • Also for CJR, Kyaw Hsan Hlaing and Emily Fishbein spoke with journalists in Myanmar, where authorities have arrested at least thirty-four reporters since the military seized power in a coup last month. Yesterday, “a Yangon-based news site, Myanmar Now, reported that soldiers and police raided its newsroom, taking computers, printers, and parts of the data server,” they write. “The military junta also revoked its license to legally operate, along with four other prominent Yangon-based independent media outlets.” (ICYMI, E. Tammy Kim recently spoke with Swe Win, Myanmar Now’s editor, for CJR.)
  • Teen Vogue’s decision to hire Alexi McCammond, a politics reporter at Axios, as its next editor in chief has “met with some skepticism within the company,” the Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani reports. Some staffers have privately pointed out that McCammond “has significantly less editing experience than even some of the publication’s existing staff”; yesterday, more than twenty of her new colleagues publicly criticized racist and homophobic tweets that she posted as a teenager. McCammond has apologized for the tweets before; yesterday, she did so again, and promised to win her colleagues’ trust.
  • For CJR, Bill Grueskin revisits lawsuits that the Trump campaign filed against the Times, the Post, and CNN last year, in response to op-eds and columns about Trump’s ties to Russia; the CNN suit was dismissed, but the other two have yet to be resolved. “On their face, the suits are a long shot,” Grueskin writes. “But you can’t write off these suits completely. In dismissing the CNN case, a federal judge sided with the Trump campaign on some key points.” There are financial costs, too, as well as psychological ones: “A journalist can win a lawsuit and still be haunted for years by the dread of another one.”
  • Yesterday, the Prison Journalism Project, a nonprofit that aims to elevate the voices of “the incarcerated and those in communities affected by incarceration,” announced that it has established a board of advisers. The board will be chaired by Bill Keller, a former executive editor of the Times and founding editor of the Marshall Project, and members will include the writer asha bandele and the Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.
  • The Nation is out with a special issue—guest-edited by Dani McClain, the author of a book on the political power of Black motherhood—focused on parenting as “a radical act of love.” The issue contains stories by Jamilah Lemieux, Courtney E. Martin, David M. Perry, Jenni Monet, Kathryn Jezer-Morton, and others, on topics including school choice as an act of resistance, ableism, and a maternal health crisis in the Native community.
  • For CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Gabby Miller explores the future of the Compass Experiment, a local-news project from McClatchy and Google that is “splitting up and transitioning to new management” after the hedge fund Chatham Asset Management acquired McClatchy. “Despite the initiative having Google-backed funding until 2022, the project lasted only eighteen months in its original form,” Miller writes.
  • On Sunday, Janice Neil and Lisa Taylor, respectively the chair and associate chair of the journalism school at Ryerson University, in Toronto, resigned their posts, hours before students there published an open letter accusing the school of “institutionalized racism and discrimination that has caused trauma for past and present students alike.” Neil and Taylor both defended their records, while recognizing that it is time for new leadership.
  • And British viewers who managed to watch the CBS broadcast of Oprah’s interview with Meghan and Harry on Sunday were shocked not only by its revelations, but by its ad breaks—discovering, as the Post’s Antonia Noori Farzan puts it, that US TV is “punctuated by a continual barrage of pharmaceutical ads that would be illegal almost anywhere else.” Last night, the interview aired in Britain, and the ads were low-key. This morning, Piers Morgan, who could never be described that way, stormed off the set of his TV show after a colleague challenged his strident recent criticisms of Meghan.

ICYMI: No Megxit

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.