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The media’s damaging indifference

Email sent: May 17, 2020 11:00am

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Do you ever get the feeling that the news is trying to kill you? I found myself contemplating the possibility a couple of Sundays ago when a tweet from Meet the Press’s official account, featuring an image with the words “Reopening America: Too Soon?” briefly scrolled into my field of vision. “What are we doing here, friends, with this question mark?” I thought to myself. The simple declarative form of the sentence is best, because the matter really shouldn’t be up for debate.

A few days later, I encountered another troubling bit of media chicanery. Responding, no doubt, to the fact that following an objectively destructive course of action had become the subject of debate, Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health academic who’d previously served as the health commissioner for the city of Baltimore, wrote a piece for The Washington Post titled “As states reopen, here’s how you protect yourself from the coming surge.” This kind of article is traditionally known as “service journalism,” but for some reason the Post had the bright idea to stick it in the “Opinions” section, despite the fact that Wen was not dispensing opinion, but facts.

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Finally, there was a similarly troubling moment this week. Donald G. McNeil, a reporter from The New York Times, went on CNN with Christiane Amanpour and offered up a slew of what could fairly be called opinions: Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, deserved to be fired; Vice President Mike Pence was too much of a “sycophant” to be useful in this crisis; and President Trump’s grasp of science was short of third-grade level. Along the way, McNeil also spoke some plain and necessary truths: The United States “completely blew it for the first two months of our response,” and this was Trump’s fault. But McNeil also faulted the Times, saying, “I was trying to convince my editors that this was really bad, this was a pandemic. It took a while to get them … to believe this.” His outburst drew a predictable response from his bosses: McNeil “went too far in expressing his personal views.” 

As the U.S. has been overwhelmed by this pandemic, it’s not just the president who’s failing in predictable ways. The media is, too. If this pandemic were happening somewhere else—confined to a foreign country or a computer simulation—the media would likely treat the matter with factual clarity. But the moment the coronavirus hit our shores, it got subsumed within our dumb politics, and from there, into a media infrastructure that’s built on the notion that the best way to cover “politics” is to retreat to a neutral point of view, disregard the idea that there are objectively correct and incorrect positions, and instead, through an absorbing interest in “optics” and “messaging,” choose winners and losers.

This is not new by any stretch. This same bankrupt political-media culture helped to normalize Trump (“the Michael Jordan of name-calling”), and before that, spent the better part of the decade after the 2008 financial crash treating economic misery as primarily relevant in its impact on electoral outcomes. For an equally long time, critics have contended against these tendencies—NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen wrote his seminal text on “the view from nowhere” 17 years ago—without making much headway in reforming the media. Mostly these efforts have been turned aside with the idea that the truth exists only through hard facts delivered with a virtuous, and necessary, display of neutrality. No one exactly remembers who demanded this approach to political news, of course, but somewhere along the way it became a powerful shield to wield against critics who say a self-consciously neutral press is not acting fully in the public interest.

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I recently ran across this line from Drew Magary’s sci-fi novel Point B: A Teleportation Love Story: “There was a lot of hate in this world, but it was the indifference that did the most damage.” One of the best aspects of Magary’s forays into science fiction is the seamless way he builds new worlds out of recognizable parts of our own, and I realized that here, he’d inadvertently summed up the current moment. What we have learned to call “neutrality” is actually “indifference.” And it’s the media’s titanic indifference to the lives of others—ably seen when a doctor’s attempt to save people from the predations of idiot politicians is treated as an “opinion”—that is going to cost others their lives. What’s happening in America right now is not complicated: More people are dying because of the coronavirus than anywhere else in the world, and this is the predictable and natural consequence of having a corrupt idiot as president. But a press that’s afraid to plainly state this obvious truth is not without blame, either.

This week, Osita Nwanevu identified a debased project that’s thrived over the past few decades: the Republican war against knowledge. Libby Watson identified another, in the form of evil fop Jared Kushner. Elsewhere, our contributors have fresh perspective on crises that are raging right now. Laura Weiss explored how Trump’s deportation flights are spreading the very virus his White House is blaming migrants for bringing here. Talmon Smith described how new battle lines between deficit hawks and doves are being drawn for an epic, post-pandemic clash. There’s time in all of this tempest for some curiosity, as well: J.C. Pan plumbed the depths of America’s political fascination with Scandinavia. But in the ultimate of humble offerings, and in the spirit of sparking some positive change, our own Matt Ford took out his copy of the U.S. Constitution and … well, let’s just say he found some room for improvement.

—Jason Linkins, Deputy Editor

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