The Media Today

Why the coronavirus and election stories will be hard to untangle

November 10, 2020

Last week, the pandemic continued not to respect editors’ and politicians’ priorities. The day after Election Day, the US recorded more than 100,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19—the first time any country had surpassed that daily rate. The same day, Mark Meadows, President Trump’s chief of staff, tested positive for the disease; he tried to keep his diagnosis under wraps, but the public found out about it on Friday via Bloomberg, which has become a preeminent source on the White House petri-dish beat. The day before Meadows’s positive test, he visited Trump’s campaign HQ and then attended a White House election party; according to Yamiche Alcindor, of PBS, aides feared the election party would be a COVID superspreader, but felt pressured to show up. The Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who also attended the party, has now tested positive for COVID; so, too, has David Bossie, who is spearheading Trump’s post-election legal fight. Back on the macro level, the US beat its own daily record for confirmed cases on Thursday, then again on Friday, then again on Saturday. By Sunday, the country had recorded its ten-millionth confirmed case.

Records aside, this was all grimly repetitive; for months now, the COVID story has been a ceaseless cycle of infection, death, and administration fecklessness. Yesterday, however, felt like a possible inflection point, as two developments gave news consumers possible glimpses of light at the end of the tunnel. First, Joe Biden, the president-elect, unveiled a thirteen-member COVID task force that will help guide his pandemic response. Several of its members will be familiar to news junkies—Atul Gawande is a staff writer at the New Yorker, while Vivek Murthy, Michael Osterholm, Ezekiel Emanuel, and Celine Gounder all appear regularly on TV—but not in the “Trump-Fox-feedback-loop” sense to which we’ve all become accustomed. (A Biden-New Yorker feedback loop would be an interesting thought experiment, but still not a good way to run an administration.) The Washington Post covered the task force under a headline—“Biden announces coronavirus task force made up of physicians and health experts”—that, as the journalist and CJR contributor Gabriel Snyder noted, was overwhelming in its normality, “like reading ‘Dog Bites Man’ after a long spell cowering in fear about a crazy man who was going around biting everyone’s dogs.” Biden also held a press briefing and called on all Americans to wear masks, a presidential invocation of science that CNN’s Sanjay Gupta called “surreal.” Presidential invocations of bleach—which are actually surreal—will soon be a thing of the past.

Related: Biden wins, but Trump—and division—aren’t going away

Also yesterday, the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer made a big announcement: according to an early analysis, a vaccine that the company has been developing with BioNTech, a German drugmaker, was more than ninety-percent effective among trial volunteers, with no serious safety concerns observed. Sarah Zhang—a science writer at The Atlantic who warned recently that it can be hard to tell what’s significant and what isn’t amid an unprecedented, dizzying flood of vaccine news—called the Pfizer announcement a “*big deal*”; around the world, medical experts debated the announcement, and reporters, as CNN’s Brian Stelter put it, “zigzagged between optimism and caution.” There were grounds for both: the ninety-percent finding was surprising and hopeful, but it’s not yet clear how long immunity from the vaccine lasts, and Pfizer has yet to show its work. (It made its announcement in a press release, not a peer-reviewed journal.) Even if all is well scientifically, we’re left with the thorny questions of production, distribution, and uptake. Still, appropriately nuanced coverage is always grounds for optimism; science, after all, is naturally zigzaggy. There’s reason to hope that Biden, as president, will drive fewer—and less anguished—COVID headlines than Trump has done, leaving more space in our collective attention span for the scientific method to play out in public.

We’re not there yet, though. For all the past-tense talk of Trump’s presidency, he will remain in office for another two months—and it’s hard to imagine he’ll devote his last days in power to prudent public-health management. How many more Americans will become infected and die before Inauguration Day? Already, the Trump administration and its media boosters have acted to politicize the Pfizer announcement—claiming credit for it, at the thin end of the wedge, and suggesting a conspiracy of timing, toward the thicker end. On Fox Business, Dagen McDowell accused Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, of “fomenting fear and uncertainty about the vaccine” out of antipathy toward Trump; on Fox & Friends, Ainsley Earhardt asked Charles Payne whether he was “curious” about Pfizer’s timing given that “we had an election a week ago,” and Payne called the situation “frustrating.” On Twitter, Donald Trump, Jr., suggested that the timing was “nefarious”; later, his father fired off a tweetstorm accusing Pfizer of cowardice and his own Food and Drug Administration of obstructionism. (Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s CEO, told CNN’s Gupta that he only found out about the trial analysis on Sunday.) Jumping off the wedge entirely, anti-vaxxers flooded social media with conspiracy theories, including in spaces—anti-lockdown Facebook groups, for instance—whose causes Trump has promoted.

Medicine is inherently political, and often, that’s a truth to be embraced. But when the political realm is as toxic and divided as it is right now, it militates against principles—like uncertainty, good-faith discussion, self-correction—that are essential to good science. Having a president committed to good science and scientific communication is essential, but it isn’t sufficient to end America’s COVID crisis—tackling the pandemic can’t be fully elite-driven because it requires public buy-in. Diehard Trump supporters won’t suddenly embrace masks and social distancing because Biden asks them to—they already don’t trust Biden, and Trump continuing to call the election result illegitimate will only pour gasoline on that dynamic, whether he does so from the Oval Office or as a private citizen. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but there’s also a lot more tunnel yet to come. The virus doesn’t respect our desire for a narrative shift.

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Below, more on the pandemic:

  • A more optimistic view: In an op-ed for the Post, Daniel W. Drezner, a politics professor at Tufts University, argues that the timing of Pfizer’s announcement could actually “maximize the number of Americans willing to take the vaccine.” Transitions between presidents of different parties are generally “funny moments in public opinion” that “can produce rare confluences,” Drezner writes; on this occasion, both Trump and Biden have good reason to trumpet the vaccine, which could “increase trust in the vaccine across the political spectrum.”
  • Warped reality: Vice President Mike Pence has credited the administration’s Operation Warp Speed program with Pfizer’s progress, but Pfizer executives have sought to distance themselves from the initiative. On Sunday, Kathrin Jansen, the company’s head of vaccine research and development, said, “We were never part of the Warp Speed”; yesterday, a spokesperson clarified that Pfizer is part of the program for the purposes of supplying a potential vaccine, but has not received any federal funding for R&D, unlike some of its competitors. Katie Palmer, science and health editor at Quartz, writes that confusion about the arrangement stems, in part, from “the way many Operation Warp Speed contracts have been executed, with their terms largely invisible to the public.” NPR and watchdog groups have obtained some redacted contracts, with FOIA requests for others still pending.
  • A lawsuit: Today, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a Republican-led case aimed at destroying the Affordable Care Act. “The ACA has remained in place for a decade, and the legal landscape has changed so much over that time that many of those who originally took issue with the law in the Supreme Court think this challenge is a stretch,” NPR’s Nina Totenberg reports; still, the makeup of the court has changed, too, with the recent confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who has criticized prior rulings upholding the ACA, entrenching a conservative majority on the bench.
  • Remember them?: Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, and his chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, have tested positive for COVID-19, lengthening the list of world leaders and high-ranking functionaries to have contracted the disease. Last month, CJR’s Shinhee Kang and Ian Karbal spoke with reporters in three countries about covering world leaders’ health. Zelensky and Yermak, you may recall, were involved in an American political scandal a million years ago.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, Trump’s tumultuous “lame duck” period (we’re gonna need a new phrase) started in earnest. William Barr, the attorney general, authorized federal prosecutors to investigate “specific allegations” of voter fraud; his edict was carefully-worded, but it nonetheless overturned longstanding Justice Department policy, prompting Richard Pilger, the head of the department’s voter-fraud branch, to resign. Elsewhere, we learned that the White House has threatened to fire any political appointee caught looking for a new job. And Trump fired Mark Esper, his defense secretary, and replaced him on an acting basis with Christopher Miller, a senior counterterrorism official (not the BuzzFeed reporter or Lego Movie director). Esper’s firing was inevitable—so much so that he gave an exit interview to Meghann Myers, of Military Times, last week. It ran yesterday.
  • Mark and Patricia McCloskey—the St. Louis couple who went viral after brandishing firearms at protesters outside their home—are suing Bill Greenblatt, a photographer who captured the scene, and Greenblatt’s employer, United Press International, on trespassing grounds. The McCloskeys also allege that Greenblatt, UPI, and Redbubble, an online marketplace for printed products, have profited from merchandise making fun of the couple; UPI, for its part, recently considered legal action against the McCloskeys after they used its photo on a greeting card. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has more.
  • Today, Public Media for All, a group that aims to diversify public media, will hold a “Day of Action”: Caroline Lester reports for CJR that staffers of color are invited to call in sick, and white allies are encouraged to have tough workplace conversations about race. Six NPR stations—KCUR, Rocky Mountain Public Media, WUKY, KUT, Capital Public Radio, and Oregon Public Broadcasting—will take part in the Day of Action, and have pledged, within three years, to pay interns, diversify, and create systems to combat discrimination.
  • For OneZero, Marta Martinez spoke with social-media managers, for news organizations and other institutions, who are on the frontlines of the furious 2020 news cycle. “They are under immense pressure to stay online, always be on call, respond quickly, and not make mistakes,” Martinez writes. “In some cases they are on the verge of psychological collapse. Yet the importance of their work is still often invisible and undermined.”
  • CJR’s Savannah Jacobson spoke with Matthew Desmond, a sociologist at Princeton who has written on the eviction crisis in the US, about how journalists could better cover housing issues. “I think where we could be better is really to tell the story about who owns our cities—the real business dynamics on the ground,” Desmond says. “I also think we could tell better stories about the work behind housing policy.”
  • According to the Indian Express, vandals in the Indian state of Tripura intercepted nearly 6,000 copies of Pratibadi Kalam, a local newspaper, then destroyed them by the side of the road. While the culprits have yet to be officially identified, Pratibadi Kalam’s top editor thinks that the incident was a response to the paper’s reporting on an agriculture scam.
  • In Israel, Ruth Eglash, a Jerusalem-based correspondent for the Washington Post, has taken a new job as a spokesperson for Gilad Erdan, Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations who, from January, will also serve as the country’s ambassador to the US. Eglash worked at the Post since 2013, and previously was at the Jerusalem Post.
  • And the fallout continues from Rudy Giuliani’s Four Seasons (not that one) voter-fraud presser in Philadelphia. Politico’s Matt Friedman identified a “witness” called by Giuliani as a convicted sex offender. And a YouTuber rendered the location of the presser—a landscaping business, not a hotel—in virtual reality. Furries (virtually) flocked to it.

ICYMI: Masha Gessen on Trump’s bid for autocracy

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.