The false ‘debate’ over reopening America

On March 24, President Trump told a Fox News virtual town hall that he’d love to have America “opened up and just raring to go” by Easter. Bill Hemmer, who was hosting, chuckled, and said that would be “a great American resurrection.” Later the same day, during a second appearance on Fox, Trump elaborated; Easter, he said, is “a very special day” for him. “Wouldn’t it be great to have all the churches full?” he asked, rhetorically. “I think it’ll be a beautiful time.”

Easter Sunday was yesterday, and America, in large part, remained closed. (Some churches did open, in defiance of social-distancing recommendations, but many others held virtual services instead.) Trump spent much of his Easter weekend being angry on Twitter. When he wasn’t busy with that, the Daily Beast’s Asawin Suebsaeng reports, he was working the phones, asking allies for advice on (you guessed it) when he ought to reopen America (for real this time, no takebacks). Of late, the president has floated the idea of jumpstarting the US economy on May 1. (Federal stay-at-home guidelines are currently in place through April 30, after Trump backed off his Easter-opening wish and extended them.) At a White House briefing on Friday, the timing question was clearly on Trump’s mind. “I’m going to have to make a decision, and I only hope to God that it’s the right decision,” he said. “But I would say, without question, it’s the biggest decision I’ve ever had to make.” (As many journalists pointed out, state officials, not Trump, are the ones who have the authority to ease lockdown measures, though it’s also true that Trump’s nonbinding guidance carries great weight—especially in red states led by his allies.)

Related: Some of the worst takes of the coronavirus crisis, animated

Discussion of when we might all be allowed back outside isn’t new, to Trump or to the press; for weeks, clichéd warnings of “lives v. livelihoods” and “the cure being worse than the disease” have swirled in the national discourse, and in right-wing media, in particular. In recent days, what Axios referred to, yesterday, as “the great reopening debate” has only intensified. Trump’s plan to appoint an “opening-our-country task force”—he’s expected to announce its members (“names that you have a lot of respect for”) tomorrow—drove chatter, including on the Sunday shows, whose anchors also asked federal and state officials to weigh in on Trump’s May 1 timeline. Also yesterday, Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, headlined, “My Plan to Safely Reopen America.” And the Times Magazine published a roundtable discussion in which five experts from different fields debated the moral dimensions of the question. “Restarting America means people will die. So when do we do it?” the magazine asked. In the long run, it wrote, “there will be difficult compromises between doing everything possible to save lives from COVID-19 and preventing other life-threatening, or -altering, harms” linked to economic inactivity.

The Times Magazine acknowledged that in the short term, saving lives and saving the economy are complementary goals. And its roundtable offered important insight on the trade-offs we are already making, and don’t talk about enough. (Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, pointed out that we’re putting low-wage workers—grocery-store clerks, for instance—in harm’s way right now, and that talk about reopening the economy is more about “whether we’re comfortable with the professional classes becoming part of the trade-off.”) Still, in general terms, the media’s widespread framing of the relationship between protecting lives and protecting the economy as a “debate” or a “trade-off” is dangerous—or at least one-sided. As Gupta notes, trade-offs already exist. The “debate” about them exists, too, insofar as there are two sides that are arguing about them. This framing, however, risks missing that there is, in reality, no choice to be made between public health and a healthy economy—because public health is an essential prerequisite of a healthy economy.

In recent weeks, several observers—including the New York Times editorial board, various ethicists, and some financial experts—have noted the flaws in this conversation. “THIS IS A FALSE CHOICE!!!!!!,” Julia Coronado, an economist, told Axios in late March. “If we go back to work and the disease continues to spread, not only will people die, and the 20 percent of our economy dedicated to healthcare be overwhelmed, but people won’t have the confidence to resume normal activity.” Around the same time, Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media studies professor at the University of Virginia, pointed out, in a column for The Guardian, that “The global economic depression unleashed by the deaths of millions in the United States, millions in Europe, millions in Asia, millions in India, millions in Mexico and millions in Brazil would be beyond our experience or imagination.” These are both important points. Economics involves trade-offs, but these aren’t binary—they exist in a complex, interlocking system. The notion that we could prematurely (from a health standpoint) end the lockdown and accept the resulting loss of life as collateral in reviving the economy isn’t just morally tasteless. It’s also a fantasy.

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And, as I wrote a few weeks back, any understanding of where we’re going requires a better understanding than we currently have of the state of play right now, and how it came about. In recent weeks, we’ve seen a string of useful stories on the initial failures that blinded the Trump administration to the coronavirus until it was too late to stop its spread; on Saturday, the Times added another. (On CNN yesterday, Anthony Fauci, Trump’s top virus expert, didn’t deny the Times’s reporting when pressed on it by Jake Tapper; later, Trump retweeted a missive demanding that he #FireFauci, and, per Suebsaeng, asked allies what they thought of Fauci.) Such reporting doesn’t just matter for the public record. It matters because the administration is still making some of the same mistakes, with regard to testing—which must be much more widespread than it currently is before we can know if reopening the country is safe—in particular. Until it stops making them, there is vanishingly little chance of safely reopening the country, and thus its economy. Yet rather than act on such stories, Trump gripes about them online, and passes the buck.

Trump relentlessly antagonizes the press, and so it’s tempting to make every story involving him conflictual. When it comes to the cyclical “great reopening debate,” that framing—the saintly doctors who value human life versus the monstrous president who only cares about money and his reelection—isn’t serving our coverage well. Again, that debate is happening, in the same way that debates about whether climate change is real can be said to have happened. Our job, when covering it, should be to deconstruct it, loudly and consistently, as a false choice. We should, obviously, all want the economy open again as soon as possible. Rather than be wary of that goal because Trump’s the one advocating it, let’s hold him accountable for failing to take the public-health steps necessary to deliver on it.

Below, more on the coronavirus:


Other notable stories:

  • Last week, after laying off 22 staffers, management at the Cleveland Plain Dealer told most of the paper’s 14 remaining union journalists that they would henceforth be banned from covering Cleveland, the surrounding county, or statewide issues, and that they’d have to cede their beats to nonunionized reporters at sister site Cleveland.com. On Friday, 10 of the 14 staffers asked to be laid off, citing their “impossible situation”; on Friday, management agreed. Cleveland Scene’s Vince Grzegorek has more details.
  • In more newsroom-decay news, Sports Illustrated fired star soccer writer Grant Wahl, a 24-year veteran of the magazine, after he reportedly balked at taking a permanent pay cut. After Wahl tweeted Friday that he’d been fired without severance, James Heckman, CEO of Maven, which publishes Sports Illustrated, slammed Wahl, in an email to staff, as having “made $350,000 last year to infrequently write stories that generated little meaningful viewership or revenue.” That missive went down poorly in the newsroom.
  • We can now look forward to a double dose of Slow Burn, Slate’s acclaimed history podcast, in 2020: it’s unveiled plans for a fifth season—hosted by Noreen Malone and focused on the Iraq war—to drop sometime after its upcoming fourth season, in which Josh Levin will unpack the rise of David Duke. The Hollywood Reporter has more.
  • Last week, Mort Drucker, the caricaturist best-known for his contributions to Mad magazine, died at 91. “Drucker, who specialized in illustrating Mad’s movie and television satires, inspired several generations of cartoonists,” the Times reports. “Some of [his] most inventive works were double satires.”
  • And Darran Simon, a reporter for the Washington Post, also died last week. He was 43. Simon recently joined the Post from CNN; before that, he wrote for local titles including the Miami Herald and Newsday. Mike Semel, metro editor at the Post, said Simon had made an “immediate impact” at the paper, and was “a nice guy with an electric smile.”

ICYMI: Why did Matt Drudge turn on Donald Trump?

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.