Yesterday, Marty Baron announced that he’s retiring as editor of the Washington Post, effective at the end of February. Baron arrived at the Post eight years ago after spells as executive editor at the Miami Herald and the Boston Globe (the latter immortalized by Liev Schreiber in Spotlight). In that time, the Post won ten Pulitzer prizes, was bought out by the billionaire Jeff Bezos, roughly doubled the size of its newsroom (which is still expanding), and adapted to the demands of the internet; the paper now has around three million digital subscribers, more than triple its 2016 total. It’s long been rumored in media circles that Baron planned to step down sometime after the 2020 election. Yesterday, he told Paul Farhi, a media reporter at the Post, that his job is exhausting, and that he’s ready to move on. “With the internet being so big a part of it, it’s twenty-four/seven, three-sixty-five,” Baron said. “It means you never really get to disconnect.”
In the hours after his announcement, tributes to Baron’s leadership poured in. Barton Gellman, a former national-security reporter at the Post (who is now at The Atlantic), praised Baron’s handling, in 2013, of the secrets that Edward Snowden leaked about the National Security Agency and shared with Gellman and others. “I remember thinking he might throw me out of his office when I laid out my outlandish conditions—a windowless room, a heavy safe, encrypted email and so on—for bringing the Snowden documents to the Post,” Gellman told Farhi, but “every choice he made came from a place of courage and common sense and journalistic integrity.” (That wouldn’t be the last big national-security story that Baron would shepherd: in 2019, the Post published the Afghanistan Papers, a huge project revealing the deceptions behind America’s longest war. Thanks to the Trump news cycle, it did not get the sustained attention it deserved.) Jason Rezaian, a Post reporter who spent more than five-hundred days in jail in Iran, hailed Baron, who worked to secure his release, as a “tireless advocate in public and behind closed doors.” Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the New York Times, who had a friendly rivalry with Baron, said he “made every institution he touched better.” Margaret Sullivan, a media critic at the Post, called Baron “a truly outstanding editor” and said that “American citizens owe him a standing ovation.” Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, argued that during the Trump era, Baron made the Post “a more essential read” than the Times. I agree.
Not that everything has gone smoothly for Baron—in recent months, in particular, the Post has had to reckon with newsroom tensions around issues of race, representation, and the treatment of its staff. A year ago this week, Baron suspended Felicia Sonmez, a politics reporter at the paper, and upbraided her for “a real lack of judgment” after she tweeted (innocuously) about a past rape allegation against the basketball star Kobe Bryant in the hours after Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash. Hundreds of Sonmez’s colleagues signed a letter supporting her, accusing Post management of seeking repeatedly to “control” Sonmez’s speech on sexual violence, and of failing to protect her after her Bryant tweet triggered a wave of threats and abuse against her. A few days later, Sonmez was reinstated; Baron pledged a review of the Post’s social-media policies, but did not apologize. This was not an isolated incident: around the same time, the Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani reported that Baron had also censured Wesley Lowery, a Pulitzer prize-winning Post journalist, over his tweets about media coverage of race. At the time, Lowery did not directly address the story, but did tweet asking, “What’s the point of bringing diverse experiences and voices into a room only to muzzle them?” He has since left the Post for CBS, and been a leading voice in the industry-wide debate about the meaning of “objectivity.” (Yesterday, Lowery tweeted a smiley face twenty minutes after Baron’s retirement was confirmed.)
Last April, the findings of a report about the Post’s social-media policies circulated internally; it concluded, based on interviews with staff, that management may be quicker to forgive the indiscretions of “white men and newsroom stars” than those of “women, minorities, and less high-profile reporters.” Such iniquities haven’t been limited to social media. In 2019, the Post’s union conducted a pay study and found that women and people of color in the newsroom earned less than white men; last summer, a number of Black journalists who had left the Post spoke out, online and in interviews with Ben Smith, the media columnist at the Times, about what they perceived to be barriers to their professional advancement at the paper. “This place just seems to run off its best people,” Soraya Nadia McDonald, who left the Post for The Undefeated, a site owned by ESPN, told Smith. (In the same, mammoth story on tensions at the paper, Smith reported that Baron killed a story that Bob Woodward wanted to run outing the then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh as a liar, and was left infuriated by an article the Post ran about people getting high before watching the movie Cats, which he felt “glorified recreational drug use.”) The Post has since filled new editorial roles focused on race—including the post of managing editor for diversity and inclusion that was filled by Krissah Thompson, a veteran of the paper—but, as Business Insider’s Steven Perlberg reported recently, numerous Post staffers feel that the internal reckoning is incomplete. In his exit note, Baron acknowledged that, despite “progress,” the Post still needs “a wider diversity of life experiences and backgrounds represented in our newsroom and reflected in our coverage.”
Baron’s departure doesn’t just come at a natural inflection point in the national political news cycle, but at a moment of philosophical introspection for the news business. The calls for a new approach by Lowery and others have often been caricatured, by traditionalists, as a capitulation of rigor and fairness to subjectivity and opinion, but in reality, rigor is central to the reformers’ vision—recognizing the flawed assumptions of the old model of objectivity isn’t inimical to hard-hitting journalism, but should bolster it. The Post isn’t the only outlet to have initiated a changing of the guard since this broader conversation started, but it is the most powerful to be seeking a new top editor, and the paper now has an opportunity to prove that righting the errors of Baron’s approach will only strengthen his legacy as an editorial powerhouse. As Smith noted last year, Baron’s tenure has been defined by a “steadfast adherence to the longstanding rules of newspaper journalism and the defense of the institution.” I wrote at the time that assessing the merit and continued relevance of those rules requires seeing them as separate from the institution. That will soon be someone else’s job.
Below, more media jobs news:
- The Post: Last month, Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo reported on speculation as to who might be in the running to succeed Baron. Kevin Merida, who served as a managing editor at the Post and is now editor in chief of The Undefeated and a senior executive at ESPN, and Steven Ginsberg, the Post’s current national editor, are thought to be the favorites, though Pompeo noted that a recruitment process had not begun at time of writing. (Baron, for his part, plans to take a “breather” before deciding what he’ll do next.)
- The Economist: James Bennet—who was ousted as the Times’s opinion editor last year after his section ran a controversial op-ed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton—is joining The Economist as a visiting senior editor for a year; he plans to write on foreign policy and advise on broader digital initiatives. Last week, the Times confirmed that Kathleen Kingsbury, who replaced Bennet as opinion editor on an interim basis, will keep that job permanently.
- TheTimes: Lauren Wolfe, who lost her job as an editor at the Times after tweeting last week that watching Joe Biden’s plane land on inauguration day gave her “chills,” has spoken publicly about her treatment. The Times noted that Wolfe only worked for the paper on an informal basis, and denied parting ways with her “over a single tweet,” but Wolfe told Erik Wemple, of the Post, that—while a manager had warned her about her Twitter once before—the chills missive was “the only reason they fired me.” Wolfe feels that the Times’s statement about her termination was inappropriate. “Whatever they’re implying,” she said, “it’s a shot at my reputation, which I worked very carefully to build.”
- The Idaho Statesman: On Monday, McClatchy fired Christina Lords, the editor of the Idaho Statesman. The paper’s union said afterward that Lords was fired for tweeting her frustration at being unable to procure access to Microsoft Excel for a new hire; yesterday, Lords gave the same account to the Post. In an open letter, Kristin Roberts, vice president of news at McClatchy, said that the company wouldn’t share details of a personnel matter, but said that it has “never terminated anyone’s employment because they were vocal about concerns or because they advocate for staff.” Roberts said that she spoke with Lords about the possibility of her returning to her job “as a leader committed to solving problems together,” but Lords declined. Lords said that she appreciated the gesture, but that McClatchy’s offer entailed “certain stipulations I did not feel comfortable agreeing to.”
- CBS: Over the weekend, Meg James, of the Los Angeles Times, published a two-part investigation focused on Peter Dunn, the president of CBS Television Stations—one story looked at a deal to acquire a station that came with an exclusive golf-club membership thrown in; the other alleged that Dunn and David Friend, his lieutenant, “cultivated a hostile work environment that included bullying female managers and blocking efforts to hire and retain Black journalists.” On Monday, CBS placed Dunn and Friend on administrative leave pending an investigation.
- Fox: Yesterday, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington reported that Kayleigh McEnany, the former White House press secretary, revealed in a recent disclosure report that she had reached an “employment agreement” with Fox News, starting this month—though a Fox spokesperson denied that the network currently employs McEnany. Fox definitely has hired Larry Kudlow, a senior economic adviser to Trump, as a contributor. He’ll also host a show on Fox Business.
Other notable stories:
- Yesterday, all but five Republican senators voted to dismiss Trump’s impeachment trial as unconstitutional; the trial will go ahead, but the prospects for conviction, which would require at least seventeen Republican votes, now look slim. That’s a sharp change from two weeks ago, when media reports breathlessly suggested that senior Republicans were minded to break with Trump. Declan Garvey, an editor at The Dispatch, noted yesterday that there was “legitimate momentum” for a break back then. “That it stalled so quickly is a testament to the power of partisanship and right-wing media.”
- Adam Serwer, of The Atlantic, reminds journalists and the public that “Biden will lie to you,” because lying is a thing presidents do. “The press and the public should resist the temptation to assume that the Biden administration will always be on the level, or that its dishonesties can be forgiven because Biden’s predecessor wielded falsehood with such abandon,” Serwer writes. “Already, Biden has sought to mislead the public by setting expectations for vaccinations that experts have said are too modest—which will allow the president to declare his approach a great success if the goal is exceeded.”
- Leon Black is stepping down as chief executive of Apollo Global Management—a private-equity firm that, on the media front, financed Gatehouse’s merger with Gannett and acquired local TV stations from Cox Media—following a review into payments, totalling more than $150 million, that he made to the pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. The review found that the payments—which, the Times reports, “effectively bankrolled” Epstein’s post-conviction lifestyle—were legitimate business transactions. Black will remain as Apollo’s chairman.
- Twitter is getting into the newsletter game by acquiring Revue, a Dutch platform; Sara Fischers reports, for Axios, that the deal “marks Twitter’s first step into building out long-form content experiences on Twitter, and its first foray into subscription revenue.” In other newsletter news, the Everything Bundle—a collection of Substack newsletters that teamed up to offer readers a joint subscription—is leaving Substack to become an independent company called Every. Kia Kokalitcheva has more, also for Axios.
- Yesterday saw the official launch of Pipe Wrench, a new online magazine offering “a new issue every other month, made of a longform story surrounded by a constellation of interpretations and reactions and asides in conversation with it.” The first issue will appear in April. Pipe Wrench was founded by former staffers at Longreads, including Michelle Weber, Pipe Wrench’s editor in chief, and Catherine Cusick, its publisher.
- The Fort Lee Traveller—an eighty-year-old military newspaper that is printed by Gannett and produced by the public affairs office of the Army garrison at Fort Lee, Virginia—will put out its final edition tomorrow. According to Bill Atkinson, of the Petersburg Progress-Index, the Traveller is shuttering, in part, due to a COVID-linked decline in ad sales. The garrison will continue to be served by an online portal called Fort Lee News.
- On Monday, Handelsblatt, a German newspaper, reported that officials in that country believe that the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID vaccine may only be eight-percent effective among seniors—a claim that set off a firestorm in Britain, which has been racing to give its older residents the shot. AstraZeneca, however, dismissed the story, and yesterday, Germany’s health ministry suggested that the eight-percent figure may have stemmed from a basic misreading of the vaccine’s trial data. (Handelsblatt is standing by its story.)
- And Will Wilkinson—who recently lost his job at the Niskanen Center, a center-right think tank, after tweeting a joke about “lynching” Mike Pence—pushed back on media reports that called Wilkinson a victim of “cancel culture.” The term, he writes, is meaningless, serving only “to short-circuit debate, avoid the underlying substantive controversy, and shift the entire burden of justification onto advocates of the rival position.”
The January 22, 2021, episode of CounterSpin brought together archival interviews about the Flint water crisis from Chris Savage, Talia Buford and Peggy Case. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Welcome to CounterSpin, your weekly look behind the headlines. I’m Janine Jackson. This week on CounterSpin: Michigan’s attorney general has indicted nine state officials, including former Gov. Rick Snyder, the state’s former health director and two of the emergency managers of the city of Flint, for exposing at least 100,000 people to dangerous levels of lead in their drinking water, and for an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that killed at least 12 people and sickened many more.
In an op-ed for The Hill, Michigan Congressman Dan Kildee called the 2014 decision to switch the source of Flint’s drinking water “one of the greatest environmental injustices in our lifetimes.” Which is true, but “the environment” didn’t do it: It’s often forgotten that Flint was a crisis of democracy. Decision-making had been taken out of the hands of Flint’s elected officials and given to an “emergency manager” tasked with reining in costs—a system that seems to be used disproportionately in communities of color, taking decision-making out of community hands but leaving them to deal with the fallout of those decisions.
There’s been a $640 million settlement of class action lawsuits, but Michigan Radio reports that many civic leaders say the deal presents inappropriate hurdles—children might not get their settlement if they don’t undergo a specific bone lead test—and some question how money could ever compensate Flint residents for months and months of washing and bathing and cooking with bottled water to avoid exposing themselves and their families to a neurotoxin, all while officials deflected and denied and belittled their concerns.
We’ve talked about Flint on CounterSpin, in its particulars and in terms of how it fits into bigger questions around environmental racism and resource control and local governance. In light of the renewed attention around the story—which has not ended, even as media have looked away—we’re going to revisit some of those conversations today.
You’re listening to CounterSpin, brought to you each week by the media watch group FAIR.
Janine Jackson: While Flint’s water became a symbol—a meme, even, around the world—of environmental racism and government indifference, it was mainly local reporters who really tracked the political actors and actions behind what was not at all a natural disaster.
Chris Savage: The whole thing really began in 2013. Prior to that, Flint had been considering changing where it got its water. It was at the time getting its water from the city of Detroit, through the Detroit Water & Sewage Department; they had a nearly 50-year contract with them. However, the water was very expensive; they had some of the highest water costs in the country, actually, in Flint, Michigan.
They joined up with other regional concerns, like Genesee County and other groups around the area, and decided to form what was called the Karegnondi Water Authority. And they’re building a pipeline and a water treatment plant to provide their own water, rather than purchasing it from Detroit. That happened in April of 2013.
Several days after they did that, the Detroit Water & Sewage Department exercised its option to cancel their current contract with the city of Flint, which meant they had to give one-year advance notice. This was done, by the way, with Detroit being under an emergency manager as well. So both cities were actually under the control of emergency managers at the time, who were making all of the decisions for the local government.
So what transpired in the following year was that Flint had to make some decisions about where they were going to get their water, or if they were going to renegotiate their contract with Detroit. Just prior to when Detroit’s contract ended with them, in April of 2014, the Detroit Sewer & Water Department sent Darnell Earley, who was at the time the Flint emergency manager, a letter saying you can stay on our system, you’re not being kicked off, but they were going to renegotiate the contract. And of course, because of this, their water rates were going to go even higher. And I find some brutal irony in this, that both cities were under emergency managers, and yet you have one city basically exploiting the other city for higher water costs.
CS: So Darnell Earley at that point just sent them a letter back, saying thanks but no thanks. He had made the decision they were going to go to the Flint River. And in April of 2014, that is when that happened. And that really was the fateful decision, that decision not to remain on Detroit water, but to switch to the Flint River in the interim, while the Karegnondi pipeline was being completed.
The idea that they would go to Flint had been considered in the past, and a report was sent to the state of Michigan in 2013, telling them that going to the Flint River would require considerably more water treatment, including phosphate treatments to prevent the mineral scale and biofilm on the insides of people’s pipes from being eroded away and revealing the lead solder underneath. And it’s that lead solder in the pipelines going from the main water line in the streets to people’s homes that is the source of the lead in people’s drinking water.
They made the switch in April 2014. Almost immediately, people in Flint began to report this disgustingly discolored water coming from their taps. The water smelled foul, people were getting rashes, people were getting sick. They found that there were high levels of E. coli, so there was a boil-water alert for some time. They began treating with chlorine to fix that problem. And because of the overtreatment with chlorine, it started creating trihalomethanes, which are a byproduct of disinfection. They exceeded the Clean Water Act’s regulations on those. That had to be treated. So they had a lot of problems before the lead issue manifested itself.
It took a while for that water of the Flint River, which is more corrosive than the Detroit River, to sort of erode away this coating that’s on the inside of these pipelines. And it was basically around January of 2015 that the lead problem started to become manifest.
Reports that were being sent to Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, which is in charge of approving all water treatment plants for municipalities, they had been doing testing according to guidelines, and they were using the guidelines incorrectly. They were supposed to be testing 100 different high-risk homes at the tap and then, if the lead level in the 90th percentile was above 15 parts per billion, then they were supposed to take action. This is required by federal law. They had only taken actually 72 samples, which they were supposed to take 100, and some of those had spiked pretty high, putting them in the action zone in the 90th percentile. And so people that were responsible for that reporting were instructed by DEQ to remove two of the samples, and that brought them down below the action level of 15 parts per billion, and so they could continue on without further treatment.
The ironic part about this, and the really just disgusting part about this, is that that phosphate treatment would have cost them about $60 per day to do. It was very inexpensive to do, this phosphate treatment, which is very effective at maintaining that film that covers the lead, and protects the water from being exposed to lead. But the DEQ signed off on the treatment that did not include the phosphate, and that’s why the Snyder administration—Governor Snyder is our governor—and his administration is complicit in this.
I do give a lot of credit to our local media. I don’t always do that, Janine, but the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit News, MLive, these organizations have done a very good job over the last couple of years in following this story and making sure that people knew what was going on. In an interesting turn, the ACLU actually hired an investigative journalist, Curt Guyette, and he’s done a lot of the FOIA work, and has revealed a lot of the information that we have today that has shined a light on the Snyder administration, and the ways that they have so tragically failed the Flint residents.
Janine Jackson: There were those who claimed that the fact that Flint is a predominantly African-American and predominantly poor community had nothing to do with the poisoning of their water. We talked around such people in February 2016 with Talia Buford, then a reporter at the Center for Public Integrity, working on a series called “Environmental Justice, Denied.” She filled us in on the role of agencies like the EPA.
Talia Buford: I think that what we see in Flint is a failure on a number of different levels, a failure from the city level to the state level to the federal level. EPA has a role, of course, as an overseer of the Michigan Environmental Agency. The Michigan department should be probably the one that has a bigger responsibility than the federal agency, since they are working in conjunction with the state, but I think that everyone here had something that they did where they fell off the job.
JJ: A headline of a piece that you co-wrote recently was “Environmental Racism Persists, and the EPA Is One Reason Why.” Those are strong words. You’ve talked about the Office of Civil Rights. What did your investigation turn up about the actual track record of that office?
TB: In our investigation, we looked at more than 15 years of complaints that citizens had filed to the EPA Office of Civil Rights. These are minority communities, often low-income but not always, who are saying, we live next to a sewage plant that makes it horrible for us to sit outside on our porches, or there are pesticides being sprayed on the fields next to our schools.
So what we found is that over the 22-year history of the office, the agency had only had about 300 complaints, and they’ve never made a formal finding of a Title VI violation. They’ve made one preliminary finding, and there have been some investigations, but they’ve never come out and said, Texas or Indiana or whatever state, you are violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
And that struck us as something—especially over a decades-long history—that you can’t find one bad actor, when we know that there are so many of these cases; we hear about them all the time. To hear that there’s been no wrongdoing, it struck us as kind of odd.
So in our investigation, what we also found is that only 12 of those cases that the EPA has found, they’ve closed with any actual official action. That means they’ve either negotiated or had some sort of informal settlement. The rest of them were all resolved among the complainants or the agencies, or dismissed. And that even beyond that, there are several cases, almost 20, that have been just waiting in limbo, waiting for EPA to act in some way. In some cases, they’ve been waiting more than a decade.
JJ: Your thoughts on journalistic coverage of this?
TB: I’m thinking about it in the context of Flint, and I think that a lot of the local news media is paying attention, and there’s been some amazing reporting and watchdogging that’s been coming out of the Detroit Free Press and the Flint Journal. But a lot of this really comes down to people not being listened to—either by state officials and, in some cases, by the national media.
There is so much information that’s just out there if you look for it. Our series was built on data that we pulled from the EPA that was publicly available. We were able to get it through a FOIA request. We actually created a database and made it public on our website, so that people can tell their own stories using our data as well.
So I think that these stories like Flint, or other stories out of the Office of Civil Rights even, can be a jumping off point for us to just start asking more about our communities and asking more about the world that we live in, and looking for the data to back those questions up.
Janine Jackson: We spoke with Talia Buford again in July 2017, after Michigan’s Attorney General brought involuntary manslaughter charges against five officials, one of whom—Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon—had been reported saying, “Everyone has to die of something.” Now at ProPublica, Talia Buford gave us some history of environmental justice as a state concern.
TB: It popped up during the civil rights movement, but it really took hold in the early ’80s, when citizens in North Carolina really pushed back on the state choosing to dump contaminated soil in a landfill near their homes. After that happened, the federal government started to take notice. There were some studies by EPA, and then there was a church group that also did a really instrumental study on just where toxic facilities were sited around the country.
And after that, President Bush—this is George H.W. Bush—at that point decided to implement the Office of Environmental Equity, which is today the Office of Environmental Justice. That was in ’92.
Two years later, President Clinton gave us, I guess, the biggest win for the environmental justice community. Clinton signed an executive order in ’94 that required federal agencies to consider environmental justice in all of their policies. What he also did is he declared that environmental injustice was a violation of Title VI’s Civil Rights Act, which was huge, because it’s the same law that also sought to end segregation in schools. So this is a really powerful tool that advocates now had to use.
During the second Bush administration, however, a lot of those protections got rolled back. They were watered down, in some instances. The Title VI office was basically dormant for years, cases languished for literally a decade, and there just wasn’t any movement on the issue.
And Democrats in Congress tried to push legislation on this issue forward, to really mandate and legislate some of the protections that Clinton had tried to implement through the executive order, and just really make them law and really crystallize them and give them some teeth. They weren’t able to even get a vote on any of those issues during the time that they were in Congress, and, actually, there’s never been a vote on an environmental justice bill in Congress ever since this has become an issue.
Under Obama things got a lot better, but they still weren’t perfect. He was able to really focus on environmental justice during his administration. They cleared a backlog of civil rights complaints, they really elevated the idea of environmental justice, and the Office of Environmental Justice was really, really productive during that period. They were able to go out and give grants, and they had meetings and really talked to communities, and it really did a lot of education during that point.
But even then, there was still a lot more that could have been done. There could have been a stronger executive order that was put forward, to maybe have a federal environmental justice advisor at every federal agency, or we could have tried to push further to codify a lot of the things into law that the executive order professed, and those things were never done.
So there was a lot of progress, and then things just kind of stalled a little bit. And now the movement is at a point where a lot of the protections they had been relying on are possibly in retreat.
JJ: The fact that the Trump White House is looking to eliminate the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, that’s no surprise, and it fits with everything else. They’re doubling down on this ideological twist, if you will, that you note predates them, that comes really from Bush Jr., this effort to say, oh, sure, all people deserve protection from environmental harm.
TB: Right. And some of the people we talked to, they called it the “all lives mattering” of environmental justice. The idea that, yes, of course, everyone should not be subjected to intense environmental pollution. And, yes, you do want to have protection for everyone. But by not focusing on the people who currently do not have those protections, you’re basically ensuring that they never will.
JJ: I just want to cite the work of Paul Mohai, from the University of Michigan, who researched the chicken-or-the-egg question in terms of environmental racism. You know, do polluting industries cause white people to move out, or people of color to move in (for lack of options, for example)? Or do companies locate polluting industries and hazardous waste facilities in minority and poor communities? And he found that it’s the latter, that existing minority communities are targeted. It’s not happenstance, and class has a lot to do with it, but it’s not class alone. There’s this irreducibility of racist impacts that it seems to me the whole environmental justice movement is about, and I guess I’m asking what one of the sources in your piece asks: Do we have to prove this all over again?
TB: A lot of work has been done to tie a lot of zoning issues to environmental justice. Think about whatever community your listeners may have grown up in; think about where facilities were sited in your community. Were they in the more affluent areas, with tree-lined streets, and along the waterfront in a very affluent part of town? No, they were probably—maybe they’re on the waterfront, but they were on a part near a landfill and near, you know, a power plant, and near dilapidated buildings or more industrial areas. And there are always homes still around there.
So you have to think about the people who are maybe not allowed to, either through restrictive covenants or other more blatant reasons, not allowed to move into some of those nicer places, some of those more affluent places, and had to settle or had to move and make their homes in communities in places that were less desirable, less affluent areas or generally less desirable areas. So that’s definitely a part of it.
And when you don’t take into account the history of the way that communities are formed or have been formed in our country, you’re in danger of ignoring an entire section of the population that needs that special attention, or needs, at least, that focused attention, in order to make sure that they aren’t being unduly harmed.
JJ: Yeah. I cited the Mohai research, because I think sometimes people think that environmental justice is about the feeling that some people are disproportionately impacted, or it’s just a sense that we have—and people should understand that there’s plenty of data to back it up.
I wanted to bring you back for just a moment. In the piece, you talk about one of the early beginnings of the environmental justice movement, in Afton, North Carolina, and you cite a pastor who was one of the people resisting a landfill there. And what he says is so important: He says, “Nobody thought people like us would make a fuss.” And so we really are talking about political voice.
And that seems to be what the Flint story is about, too. It’s not just the water; it’s the way the community was treated when they complained. It really is a story about political agency as well.
TB: That’s a main tenet of environmental justice, that the communities that are impacted have a voice, their voices are listened to, and they’re taken into account before decisions are made. And I think that definitely, that’s what you saw in Flint. That was where you had people complaining for months and months and months, and they were literally being dismissed, and told that they were wrong and that there was nothing wrong, even though we now know that it was the state and then the federal regulators who were doing something wrong.
Environmental justice, when I think about it, a lot of times I think of the idea of “not in my backyard.” There are certain communities that if something were to happen, they’re able to call their local congressman, or their city council member or the mayor, and get a direct line and complain, maybe because they have donated money for a campaign, or maybe because they’re politically connected in some other way, and their concerns are listened to.
But there are other people who, whether they are minorities, or whether they are low-income, or whether they just don’t have a lot of political clout, are often cast aside, and their issues are not championed in the same way as someone who is a little bit more connected would be. And so when you have something “not in my backyard” from these more politically connected people, it still goes in someone’s backyard, and those backyards are often the people who are low-income, minority or speak a different language.
Janine Jackson: By April 2018, a judge was calling an agreement to screen Flint’s children for learning disabilities a “win/win situation for all sides.” The state cut off free bottled water for residents, whether or not their tap water was safe. And, to complete the circle, Michigan decided to let Nestlé extract more spring water to sell for profit.
It shouldn’t take much to connect these things, which is what Peggy Case, president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, did when she spoke with us in April 2018. First, we noted that when media said Nestlé faced a fight moving into Michigan, her group was who they were talking about.Peggy Case: That’s how our group was formed, actually, back in the year 2000, when we discovered that Nestlé was pumping 400 gallons per minute from a spring well in Mecosta County, Michigan. When they put up the bottle plant was when people realized they were even there. So our organization formed way back then to oppose it, because there were already damages showing up to a stream and a lake, and the environment was already being impacted with that level of withdrawals.
It took a nine-year court battle and a million dollars to win a case. It was a partial victory. We didn’t get Nestlé out of there. They had to reduce their pumping by a half, down to 218 gallons per minute, and the judge ruled that anything more than that is damaging to the environment.
So that’s a court precedent case that still stands on the books, and it’s important to know that, because almost two years ago, Nestlé applied for a permit to increase their pumping at a well in Evart, Michigan, 20 miles down the road from where the original battle was, to 400 gallons per minute, the exact amount they were told they really couldn’t take from Mecosta.
It’s spring water, which is bottled as “Ice Mountain,” and they were given an increase of 100 extra gallons per minute, with no public comment, no chance for anybody to go through the proper procedure, and we think it really violated the existing water withdrawal laws. Then they tacked on another 150 when they applied for the 400 permit. So it gets very complicated after a while, and your head starts to spin. But the bottom line is that Nestlé’s wanting to take even more out of a stream that’s already damaged. So of course we’re contesting that again.
And I just wanted to say that I’m really glad that you started your comments out by mentioning Flint, because that’s been really significant for us. We have been connected to the Flint battles over water from the beginning. We were invited to come and consult in Flint four years ago, when things first began to develop. We find it totally outrageous that Flint is still in the condition that it’s in, and people are getting shut off from their water.
And you mentioned the high water bills. They’re even higher than you suggested. Some people we know are paying $350 or $400 a month for water that they still can’t drink.
PC: And at the same time, the water that the city claims is good water, now, people are being shut off from that water as well. It’s not just that they’re not delivering bottled water to people; they’re also cutting people off at the tap, in the same way that they’ve been doing in Detroit now for a number of years. We think those issues, Detroit and Flint, are intimately related to what’s going on with Ice Mountain.
Before the Flint crisis, the state had cut Flint off of revenue-sharing money that could have been used to fix their infrastructure. They get money taken away from them; Nestlé gets profits given to them, in the form of free water. It’s just completely unjust.
JJ: There’s not been a tremendous amount of coverage, but those stories that have existed, that are deeper, will mention that this has been a twisty road for Nestlé, and that in fact they were initially rejected by the state’s water withdrawal assessment tool, that said, “You’re going to harm streams, you’re going to harm fish.”
But Nestlé appealed that decision, and it’s that appeal that is now being approved. So it’s not as though it was always obvious, you know, there’s no environmental impact, or no harm here.
PC: Yeah, the water assessment tool, which they got scored a D on it—that’s the lowest grade you can get—so they didn’t pass that. So they go to the site-specific review, which is not site-specific at all. It’s a computer model. It takes place in an office. They never visit the actual site to determine what’s really going on there. So in both cases, you’re dealing with computer models; you’re not dealing with reality.
Whereas, we walk out and walk around in the woods and tromp around in the streams and the wetlands, and take reporters who are interested to look at the actual site where the streams are dried up, where Nestlé claims that water is pumping at 250 gallons per minute, and you’re looking at a puddle that’s one-foot wide and there’s no water moving in it at all.
They were given a lot of expert testimony, legal testimony, extensive, that was submitted as part of those 80,000 comments. They chose to ignore that as well.
JJ: I guess it’s a question of, “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” Because Nestlé’s natural resources manager for Michigan says, “We never take out more than nature’s bringing back in.”
PC: Yes, that’s probably Arlene, right?
PC: Yes. We’ve gone to their dog-and-pony shows, which is what we call them, where they do their PR work. It’s very fancy, charts and graphs, and they keep passing the same information out to people all the time.
The other issue is that they create 3,000 plastic bottles—I can’t remember whether it’s in an hour or what. So there’s the plastic bottle issue as well. Another story.
JJ: What would you say to people who hear that now a company, Nestlé or another company, is coming to their community to pump their water out from under them?
PC: One of the things that has to happen is that people have to strengthen the laws that are supposed to be protecting the water. Because we do have the public trust doctrine in Michigan, which requires that the state of Michigan protect the water for all of us. And if that were actually honored, they wouldn’t be able to come and take it and send it off in bottles elsewhere, and they wouldn’t be allowed to destroy the environment.
In 2008, however, the state of Michigan weakened its laws a bit. They gave themselves the loophole to send it out as much as they wanted to, in small plastic bottles that end up in the Pacific Ocean. There’s some pieces of that Safe Drinking Water Act that could be used by the government to protect the water, but they don’t choose to use those pieces of the law.
So I would tell people, “Get those laws in place that actually make the government protect the water.”
Particularly it’s important that the state laws get strengthened, and that the people who are paying attention continue to put pressure on the various agencies to do it.
JJ: We’ll end on that note of people paying attention and applying pressure. That was Peggy Case of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation. Before her you heard Talia Buford of ProPublica and Chris Savage of Electablog.com. And that’s it for CounterSpin for this week.
CounterSpin is produced by the national media watch group FAIR. We’re engineered by Erica Rosato. I’m Janine Jackson. Thanks for listening to CounterSpin.
Corporate media are having a field day with the ascendance of Rep. Ritchie Torres, a Democrat from New York City. The image we see repeated across outlets is that he is a new kind of progressive: a young Black gay man from the Bronx, he stands as an alternative to the rise of democratic socialism. In particular, he is offered as a pragmatist, rather than an idealist, and above all, he’s aggressively pro-Israel.
Media sources (New York Times, 6/11/20; City and State, 8/23/20) anointed Torres as the Goldilocks candidate in a complicated open Democratic primary last year: He was well to the left of the conservative and anti-gay Ruben Diaz, Sr., but more palatable to the Democratic establishment than socialist Samelys Lopez. Now representing the Bronx along with two socialists who have bucked the pro-Israel consensus, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, Torres continues to brand himself as an alternative that the establishment can trust, and media are going along for the ride.
Bloomberg (11/16/20) was one of many news sources to trumpet Torres’ victory as a win for pro-Israel advocates, carving out a place for Zionism on the left. And his announcement that he would not join the “Squad,” the small socialist-backed congressional faction primarily associated with Ocasio-Cortez, due to its support for Palestine, made headlines from Tremont Avenue to Tel Aviv (Jerusalem Post, 12/21/20; Daily Beast, 12/31/20; Ha’aretz, 12/21/20; New York Post, 12/19/20; i24, 12/21/20).
He downplayed his non-association with the socialist contingent, telling WNYC/Gothamist (12/31/20) that he refuses “to be defined in relation to someone else,” and that he wants to be “defined on my own terms, based on my own story and my own record.” He told Jewish Insider (12/5/19) that a 2015 trip to Israel helped inspire his belief that anti-Zionism is antisemitic. (This would make a great many Jews antisemitic, by the way.)
He later told Jewish Insider (1/15/21) that a “few demagogues [can] pump antisemitic poison into the bloodstream of a political party,” and that he wants to “resist the Jeremy Corbynization of progressive politics in the United States.” It’s a reference to the idea that former British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn allowed antisemitism to fester in the party, which Corbyn’s defenders call a politically motivated accusation designed to steer Labour to the right (Jacobin, 10/29/20).
This framing of a left-wing critique of Israel as “antisemitic poison” is line with the impulse to take a misleading “both sides” approach to antisemitism: Sure, on the right, literal armed Nazis are storming the Capitol, but politicians and media alike feel the need to equate that with left-wing lawmakers getting too vocal about Palestinian human rights (FAIR.org, 11/6/18).
The coverage of Torres’ Israelophilia is also unbalanced. For example, in the New York Post piece, he says: “I remember meeting a family in Sderot. And I had no concept of what it was like to live in a city that lives under the fear of rocket fire.” But here’s a fact he leaves out about that Israeli city: It is where Israelis infamously gathered in 2014 to watch rockets rain down on Gaza as if it were a sporting event (New York Times, 7/14/14). There are two sides to the terror and to the hatred in the conflict, and Torres missed half the lesson. Worse, Torres doesn’t appear to get questioned about it.
Certainly, a progressive politician in the United States might be interested in like-minded, progressive lawmakers and activists abroad. But his appearance last summer for an LGBT event with the Israeli embassy, alongside former Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and Israeli Defense Force Lt. Col. Dana Ben-Ezra, is an example of support for Israel’s right-wing government that is hardly in line with Torres’ stated domestic agenda. There are numerous organizations in Israel that organize against discrimination and offer services for LGBT people. Standing with them would, indeed, be progressive. But doing public relations for Israel’s current right-wing leadership very much isn’t. Who in his constituency or the progressive Democratic base benefits from this? The media covering his “progressive but pro-Israel” image ignore this contradiction.
Some of the coverage of Torres’s pro-Israel advocacy, like the New York Post piece (12/19/20), pays lip service to the other side of the issue: Yes, he supports a two-state solution and believes in addressing the rights of Palestinians, and, as he told Jewish Insider (12/5/19), it’s OK to criticize Israel as long as you don’t threaten to cut aid or “delegitimize” the state, especially by backing boycott campaigns meant to highlight the second-class status of Palestinians living under occupation.
What Torres and his media cheerleaders miss is that such existential questions about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and the legitimacy of the current government, are at the heart of the nation’s own discourse. The country’s leading human rights group, B’Tselem, declared recently “that the entirety of Israel should be considered an apartheid state” (Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 1/14/21). Street protests against the right-wing prime minister are more than half a year old (Ha’aretz, 1/16/21). Israel’s main political opposition leader has said he is open to an alliance with the Joint List, a coalition of Arab parties and the left-wing Hadash party (Middle East Monitor, 1/18/21). Sixty Israeli teenagers have refused military conscription this year, citing the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories (Ha’aretz, 1/5/21).
One would think that on the question of Israel’s future, a progressive would be aligned with these forces rather than the current leaders of the state. But US media’s concept of Israeli politics is woefully unnuanced: You either support Israel, or your criticism veers into pro-Palestinian extremism. A realist might conclude that Torres is taking advantage of that media myopia, branding himself as a pro-Israel lawmaker in order to seek funding opportunities in the future.Hot button compromiser
At first glance, Torres comes into Congress with a fairly progressive platform. For instance, he has voiced support for the Green New Deal and told one progressive LGBT Democratic club that he’d support “universal healthcare, including the availability of Medicare for all,” as long it had the support of organized labor and wouldn’t result in healthcare job losses in the Bronx.
But missed by much of the media branding is his time as a City Council member, where he often found himself as a compromiser on hot button issues. On police violence, it’s true that he’s taken heat from cop advocates—the sergeants union once tweeted that he was a “first class whore” (Gay City News, 9/4/20), the kind of vitriol that can be a badge of honor for police reformers. But advocates of reform have also accused him of “surrendering to the mayor and police department” (Politico, 12/12/17)—with more substance to back up their criticism.
At issue was Torres’ role in the Right to Know Act, a set of proposals to promote transparency and accountability in the New York Police Department. As the Center for Constitutional Rights explained, “at the very last minute,” Torres, a sponsor of one of the key bills, “pulled the version supported by [more than 200] community groups” and put forth a “compromise version backed by the NYPD and the mayor which effectively removed the key provisions of the bill.” The group said Torres helped craft an exception that excused “officers from showing their ID in a vast majority of encounters.”
While “defund the police” became a battle cry for the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement, Torres was quoted in the New York Post (12/19/20) saying the phrase was “arbitrary and irresponsible.”
While fair housing has been his key city issue, Politico (10/1/19) reported that his congressional campaign received cash from “executives at a contracting company with a history of wage theft allegations and safety violations,” and The City (10/21/19) found that his campaign took in more $100,000 in real estate industry contributions. Campaign finance records also show that he took money from the pro-Israel group NorPAC, as well as Elliot Management, the hedge fund of Paul Singer, who mostly gives to Republican candidates (Intercept, 10/15/20). One Democratic Socialists of America chapter (Twitter, 6/18/20) called out Torres for accepting money from Bradley Tusk, a venture capitalist who also was campaign manager for Michael Bloomberg’s controversial third mayoral run.
The Trump administration in 2018 signed a “massive expansion of a controversial program called Rental Assistance Demonstration, or RAD, which privatizes public housing” (Intercept, 4/2/18). Torres co-wrote an op-ed (Daily News, 11/21/18) in favor of this program, and City Limits (11/19/15) covered his embrace of privatization more than five years ago. The New York Post (8/29/18), in a pro-privatization editorial, praised Torres for pushing the public housing authority management to seek more discipline against its workers.
Despite the media hype, Torres not joining AOC’s Squad is not a case of a fellow progressive challenging the group’s pro-Palestine position, but rather a politician considerably to their right declaring that he is much more at home with the Democratic establishment. The media should be honest about that, rather than making him out to be an iconoclast that he isn’t.
Last August, Alexei Navalny—the Russian opposition leader and scourge of Vladimir Putin—was poisoned, and fell into a coma. Authorities initially refused to let Navalny leave the country for treatment—in order to hide evidence, his supporters surmised—but friends eventually managed to get him to Germany, where he stayed for months to convalesce. Recently, he made an announcement: he was coming home. A little more than a week ago, he boarded a flight for Moscow with a bevy of eager journalists and a few bemused onlookers. The plane was scheduled to land at Vnukovo airport, where a crowd of Navalny’s supporters and yet more journalists had gathered. But at the last minute, Russian officials rerouted the flight to the nearby Sheremetyevo airport, blaming weather conditions for the switch. (“Obviously,” Anton Troianovski, Moscow correspondent for the Times, said, “no one believes that.”) Upon landing, Navalny was able to briefly address the press and the millions of people watching him online, until police officers showed up and arrested him. Officially, his stay in Germany had violated the terms of a six-year-old parole agreement.
Before Navalny was incarcerated, he was able to record a video message urging opponents of Putin’s rule to take to the streets in protest. On Saturday, they did just that—turning out in huge numbers, across Russia, for what would prove to be the country’s biggest day of demonstrations in at least four years. In Moscow, some protesters threw snow at police—a daring act, videos of which blanketed social media and topped news bulletins around the world. “If there was one incident that suggested the significance of Saturday’s protests, it was probably the footage of the riot police in Moscow looking lost and disoriented as a crowd blitzed them with snowballs,” Alexey Kovalev, an editor at Meduza, an independent newsroom based in neighboring Latvia, wrote in an op-ed for the Times. “These protests, summoned by an imprisoned opposition leader and undertaken against the government’s warnings, are a significant development. After years of relative calm, Russia is restive once more.” Nationwide, police arrested nearly four thousand people.
Journalists were among those detained. Officials had warned reporters, outlets, and social-media platforms, including TikTok, not to participate in or advertise the protests; according to the Committee Protect Journalists, a freelance journalist named Anastasia Lotaryova was summoned to a police precinct in Moscow and given what officers called a “prophylactic talk.” Voice of America put the number of reporters seized by police at several dozen; among them was Roman Anin, the editor of a prominent investigative outlet called iStories. (He was subsequently released.) The radio station Ekho Moskvy reported that at least four journalists in Moscow sustained injuries in the course of their reporting.
Russia has long had a restrictive climate for press freedom. As I wrote last summer, that climate bears directly on Navalny—in the sense that the speech rights of dissidents and journalists cannot be separated, but also because Navalny is himself a journalist. Sort of. Since his arrival on the national political scene, Navalny has used reporting to expose corruption and cronyism at the highest levels of the Russian state and rally opposition to Putin, first as a blogger, then via the Anti-Corruption Foundation—an organization, founded by Navalny, that publishes slick, highly-detailed video investigations of the affairs of senior figures, including, in 2017, Dmitry Medvedev, who was then the prime minister. As Anin told the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project last year, Navalny “doesn’t follow journalistic standards” of balance, but has nonetheless created “probably the most effective investigative media outlet in the country.”
Navalny’s journalism helped build momentum for Saturday’s protests weeks before they began. Around Christmas, he cooperated with Bellingcat, The Insider, Der Spiegel, and CNN to release a bombshell report showing that he was being trailed by a team of operatives working for Russia’s secret police. Posing as a senior security official, he spoke by phone with one of the operatives, a chemical-weapons expert named Konstantin Kudryavtsev, and induced him to inadvertently confess the details of Navalny’s poisoning, and say plainly that it had been a failed assassination attempt. (Bellingcat observed the call, which Navalny recorded and published online, and confirmed details of Kudryavtsev’s account by cross-referencing them with “objective data.”) Then, last week, Navalny’s YouTube channel posted a highly-produced, two-hour-long documentary—complete with 3D graphics—leveling a series of extraordinary allegations about an opulent Black Sea palace that Putin had supposedly financed via a “slush fund.” The video has since been viewed nearly a hundred million times, an astronomical figure even by Navalny’s viral standards. Yesterday, Putin took the unusual step of personally responding to the film when asked about it by a college student; he denied that he or his family own the palace (a claim that Navalny did not technically make) and accused Navalny of attempting to “brainwash our citizens.”
Navalny will spend at least thirty days in jail, and his sentence is likely to be extended at a court hearing in early February. But Russian authorities do not only have him to worry about—as Bloomberg and others have reported recently, a new generation of “guerilla media” outlets including iStories and Proekt, an independent site founded by Roman Badanin, have been reporting aggressively on previously “taboo” topics, including Putin’s private life. The growing ambition of these newsrooms reflects a broader truth—that Putin’s grip on Russia’s information sphere is weakening. Kovalev, of Meduza, has observed that ten times as many people watched footage of Saturday’s protests on TV Rain, an independent channel, as on RT, which Putin controls. The student who’d asked Putin about the palace story had a comment, too: that people of his generation don’t watch TV, and instead get their news online. Polling data backs that up. Changing news consumption habits pose a long-term problem for Putin. In the short term, the protests are set to continue.
Below, more on Russia:
- President Navalny?: In recent days, various Russia-watchers have noted that Navalny is a complicated figure: his politics aren’t uniformly liberal, and he has a history of bigoted and nationalistic views. Masha Gessen, of The New Yorker, writes that in years’ past, much of Russia’s intelligentsia has been wary of Navalny, but that his post-poisoning return to Russia “has shown that the alternative to Putin is courage, integrity, and love.” Gessen predicts that either Navalny or his wife will “almost certainly” be Russia’s next leader.
- A deportation: On Thursday, Russian police ordered Vladlen Los, a lawyer for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation who is a citizen of neighboring Belarus, to leave Russia within four days; a day later, Los was arrested and jailed for disobeying the order. On Sunday, police put a bag over Los’s head and drove him to the Belarusian border. He is now free in Belarus, but he has been banned from returning to Russia for five years. Meduza has more details.
- Repeated arrests: Last week, police in the Russian city of Khabarovsk arrested Dmitry Timoshenko—a journalist for a regional newspaper who was covering a wave of local protests that preceded Saturday’s demonstrations—for the third time in quick succession. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, officers physically assaulted Timoshenko, who has also been ordered to pay a fine.
- Foreign agents: Earlier this month, Russia’s media regulator issued notices alleging that four media outlets affiliated with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, an editorially-independent broadcaster funded by the US government, have violated Russian law by failing to label themselves as agents of a foreign regime. The outlets are now likely to face fines totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. Last week, a bipartisan group of US lawmakers called on President Biden to respond with new sanctions if Russian officials demand pay.
Other notable stories:
- Last night, the House of Representatives formally transferred its article of impeachment against President Trump to the Senate. Two weeks from now, Trump will stand trial for inciting the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. Slate’s Aymann Ismail asked six journalists to reflect on what it was like to cover the Trump era, and on any regrets that they have. “I don’t see the last four years as this journalistic anomaly that will never be replicated again,” Astead W. Herndon, a political reporter at the Times, replied. “I think that it is one piece of what is a larger conflict in America.”
- Politico’s Christopher Cadelago and Natasha Korecki report on the efforts of right-wing outlets—including Sinclair, Newsmax, and Breitbart—to gain access to the White House briefing room, and how the Biden administration plans to handle their requests. “White House officials stressed that they won’t take steps to banish pro-Trump voices from the White House,” Cadelago and Korecki write—though T.J. Ducklo, a deputy White House press secretary, stressed that “organizations or individuals who traffic in conspiracy theories, propaganda and lies to spread disinformation will not be tolerated.”
- Last year, David Pecker retired as chairman and CEO of American Media Inc. when a medical-products manufacturer acquired the company and rebranded it as A360 Media. But according to the Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove, Pecker is still “calling the shots” at A360 titles, including the National Enquirer. A source told Grove that Pecker is “behind the curtain pulling the strings just like the Wizard of Oz.” (Dan Dolan, the editor of the Enquirer, denies this.) For more on the Enquirer, read Simon van Zuylen-Wood in CJR.
- Also for CJR, Maggie Jones Patterson, a journalism professor at Duquesne University, shares her research on differences in crime coverage, including the practice of naming suspects, in the US and Europe. “In the Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany, citizens and journalists alike largely trust their governments, the police, and the criminal justice process,” Patterson writes. “There is a greater emphasis on avoiding trials-by-media.”
- Yesterday, McClatchy fired Christina Lords, the editor of the Idaho Statesman. Lords had recently tweeted her frustration at being unable to provide a new employee with access to Microsoft Excel, and appealed to readers to support the paper; the Statesman’s union believes that Lords was fired over the tweet, but said that executives have “refused to answer basic questions” about the decision. Margaret Carmel has more for BoiseDev.
- S. Mitra Kalita, a former CNN executive, and Sara Lomax-Reese, the CEO of WURD Radio, in Philadelphia, are launching “URL Media,” a newsletter that will bring local reporting on communities of color to a national audience. According to Axios’s Russell Contreras, URL—which stands for “Uplift, Respect, and Love”—already has partnerships with outlets including the Haitian Times, in New York, and Scalawag, in North Carolina.
- Ben Strauss, of the Post, profiles Bomani Jones, of ESPN. Last summer, after police killed George Floyd, Jones’s commentary on race was in demand, and his bosses called to thank him for his work. But sports now dominate once again, and Jones is uncertain about the future. The summer didn’t “usher in some new revolution” at ESPN, Jones told Strauss, “as much as it’s going to prove to be a moment in time.”
- On Sunday, BuzzFeed’s Rachel Zarrell, a past Forbes “30 under 30” honoree, revealed that Forbes invited seventy-five of her peers to travel to Bermuda in March, for a month-long “residency.” Forbes pledged to implement “state-of-the-art” COVID protocols to make the trip possible, but after Zarrell and others criticized the plan on public-health grounds, the company pulled the plug. The Guardian’s Archie Bland has more.
- And Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s second White House press secretary, is now running to be governor of Arkansas. In her (long-expected) campaign announcement, she bragged that she “took on the media, the radical left, and their cancel culture,” and won. (She also lied a lot.) Sanders was most recently a paid contributor on Fox News, but the network has now severed their relationship.
A Democrat has assumed office, and so, like clockwork, corporate media are here to play their favorite game of pretending to suddenly be deeply concerned with the deficit and the national debt. Debt has risen sharply after a Covid-induced economic crash and rounds of enormous Trump tax cuts (the last of which gave 82% of the benefits to the richest 43,000 Americans, while only 3% went to those earning less than $100,000 per year). While media had little problem with those tax cuts as they were happening (FAIR.org, 2/28/18), the party is now over, and it’s apparently time for austerity.
The Washington Post (1/14/21) led the fearmongering in a piece co-produced with ProPublica, warning that the “immense” debt was “approaching World War II levels,” but that, “This time around, it will be much harder to dig ourselves out.” Throughout the article, reporters Allan Sloan and Cezary Podkul also linked the debt crisis to Social Security and Medicare programs, insinuating that these need to be drastically cut, even though Social Security by law can only spend money from its own dedicated tax stream (or money from that stream borrowed by the Treasury and returned with interest), and so can never make a net contribution to the national debt (FAIR.org, 2/28/17).
Fortune (1/14/21) went even further, claiming that the US is now in a similar debt position to Italy, “the most worrisome basket case among Europe’s major economies.” It uses scare words such as “gigantic debt,” “ever-rising mountain,” “gamble,” “gigantic risk,” “staggering $3-trillion-plus deficit” and “mushroom[ing]” to describe the US’s new problem. Not to be out-sensationalized, Business Insider (1/17/21) insisted that “America’s soaring national debt is a looming disaster.”
Biden is proposing a $1.9 trillion spending package featuring unemployment benefits, vaccine programs and direct checks to every American (which corporate media also tended to oppose—FAIR.org, 1/8/21).
“Dear Joe Biden: Deficits Still Matter,” was the Financial Times’ response (1/20/21), with Morgan Stanley’s Ruchir Sharma claiming that, “as vaccines roll out and normalcy returns, injecting more stimulus into a recovering patient is likely to do more harm than good.” “There is no free lunch,” he wrote. “The path to prosperity cannot be so easy as to just print and spend,” he added, claiming that further government spending will actually cripple growth and increase inequality.
The Wall Street Journal (1/18/21) was also suddenly as worried. “How much [debt] is too much,” it asked, wondering if “there is a ceiling on the US’s debt load and how the country will pay it back.” One source described Biden administration plans as “gluttony.” Other outlets expressed their new concern for the rising figures (e.g., Raw Story, 1/14/21; Fox Business, 1/19/21; CNBC, 1/21/21)
The Detroit News (1/11/21) spelled out what it wanted to see to combat what it considered the “out of control” spending: “Develop a balanced budget amendment like those already in place by 49 of the 50 US states.” Given the economic crisis the country is in, this would mean drastic cutbacks in government programs keeping people alive through the pandemic, and likely no stimulus at all.
It is unclear whether Biden will listen to the deficit hawks, but he should be used to this by now. As he and President Barack Obama assumed office during an economic crisis, media pretended to be greatly concerned with the debt and the deficit, trying to foment a nonexistent public outrage with the problem (FAIR.org, 6/18/10, 6/24/10). The Washington Post (5/19/10), for example, led a story with the words:
With voters up in arms over the mounting federal debt, congressional Democrats are growing increasingly queasy about adding to the nation’s tab, with some arguing that additional spending to prop up the economy and help the unemployed should be paid for or abandoned.
In reality, polls showed that the public considered the debt a secondary or minor issue.
The debt then, as now, was caused principally by a sustained economic shock, Republican tax cuts and gigantic military spending. Yet a FAIR study (9/11/11) of six months of ABC World News, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News broadcasts covering the deficit or debt found that only three segments mentioned any of these causes at all, even in passing.
Likewise, the same corporate media who feigned outrage at Bernie Sanders’ pro-public spending ideas, questioning how America could ever afford such lavish proposals as universal healthcare or student loan forgiveness, were uniformly silent when the Trump administration decided to add $81 billion extra onto the military budget that already rivaled that of all other nations combined (FAIR.org, 11/21/17).
There is some dissent to the austerity orthodoxy in corporate media, perhaps most prominently economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who has long argued against the phony deficit doom-mongering (e.g., New York Times, 2/4/10). “We know what’s going on here,” he wrote last month (12/17/20), predicting what was coming. Republicans are “clearly getting ready to invoke fear of budget deficits as a reason to block anything and everything Biden proposes once he’s finally sworn in.” Once again, they have found an ally in even nominally liberal media outlets.
With Biden’s spending plan aimed at providing direct aid to people and necessary support to vital services and institutions, the relief package is far from frivolous. Furthermore, as the Center for Economic and Policy Research co-founder (and FAIR regular) Dean Baker (Beat the Press, 1/13/21) has noted, rock-bottom interest rates make these debts particularly straightforward to pay off in the future. Without relief, we will see sustained decreases in living standards for ordinary Americans.
Ultimately, however, that is the point of deficit hawkery: to scold and scare readers into accepting cuts to welfare and public services that are of no use to the wealthy. While they curiously have little problem with Republicans running deficits to suit their wealthy constituents, as soon as a Democrat is elected, media move to neutralize the threat that any progressive legislation might be enacted on behalf of the people.
Featured image: Washington Post graph (1/14/21) of debt-to-GDP ratio.
On Thursday afternoon, twenty-eight hours after Joe Biden was sworn in as president, Michael D. Shear, a reporter at the New York Times, asked Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, a question that was more of a comment. “There’s this call for unity that the president made in his speech yesterday, but there has so far been almost no fig leaf to the Republican Party,” he said, presumably meaning “olive branch”; Biden, Shear went on, has thus far not appointed a Republican to his cabinet, prioritized executive orders “largely designed at erasing” Trump’s legacy, and put forward an immigration bill that “doesn’t do much of a nod towards border security” and a relief bill that Republicans also dislike. “Where is the actual action behind this idea of bipartisanship?” Shear asked, finally. “And when are we going to see one of those sort of substantial outreaches that says, ‘This is something that the Republicans want to do, too?’”
This wasn’t a new or unexpected focus: unity was a key theme of Biden’s campaign and has swirled down through media coverage as a result, driving much network chatter on the day the election was called for Biden, then again on inauguration day and ever since. On Thursday, Shear’s colleague Peter Baker published a news analysis that both-sidesed the concept of sides under the headline “In Biden’s Washington, Democrats and Republicans Are Not United on ‘Unity.’” Biden “may discover he can get a big coronavirus stimulus bill or a bipartisan deal—but not both,” Erica Werner, Seung Min Kim, and Jeff Stein wrote in the Washington Post on Saturday. “The path Biden chooses with his first major piece of legislation could set the tone for the remainder of his term, revealing whether he can make good on his promise to unify Congress and the country.” Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s Meet the Press, said yesterday that Biden’s call “to dial down the temperature of political disagreements may quickly face its limits when it comes to policy consensus,” and noted the Republican argument that Donald Trump’s impending impeachment is a threat to unity; “If Joe Biden wants to unite the country,” Dana Bash quipped on CNN’s State of the Union, “maybe he should borrow Bernie Sanders’s mittens.” (Later, Bash acknowledged that the mittens, which went massively viral online last week, were a “distraction” from economic pain in the country, then presented Sanders with a few of her favorite mitten memes anyway, including images that placed Sanders in scenes from Ghost and Dirty Dancing. “She put you in the corner, senator.”)
In recent days, media critics have argued that much of this coverage is misguided, pointing out, correctly, that unification cannot be a unilateral act, and that seeking to hold Biden alone to the unity standard risks obscuring his opponents’ responsibility to reciprocate. Greg Sargent, a columnist at the Post, wrote last week that Republican politicians—and their boosters in right-wing media—are running a “‘unity’ scam,” attempting to “game the media into saying Biden is already reneging on his unity promise by being divisive” in an effort to move the national debate past their complicity in Trump’s abuses of power. “We are not required to play this game,” Sargent wrote. “Biden may or may not succeed in securing ‘unity.’ But Republicans don’t get to unilaterally dictate in advance what counts as a true attempt to achieve it.” Sargent suggested, in a separate column, that rather than channel the synthetic outrage of GOP elites, reporters should assess the tangible impact of Biden’s policies in places where Trump won.
When it comes to this narrative, media susceptibility to partisan grifting is only the tip of the iceberg; much of the recent coverage has betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding—both of what Biden seems to mean by unity and how the press might usefully approach the concept—that stems from the conflation of unity with the concepts of bipartisanship and ideological consensus. In his inaugural address, Biden didn’t once mention either of the latter terms; instead, as Sargent notes, he framed his call for unity around the rejection of white supremacy and domestic terrorism. To be sure, Biden is seeking bipartisan cooperation on his agenda—but that doesn’t amount to a policy goal in and of itself, and administration spokespeople have strongly implied, in recent media interviews, that if Republicans won’t come to the table, Biden will press ahead without them. As Baker reported in his news analysis, Biden’s allies see unity as “a change in culture, not splitting the difference on policy plans.”
Irrespective of what Biden means by unity, it’s not the media’s job to police political consensus; holding political candidates to their campaign pledges is not an absolute moral good, as the Trump presidency should amply have demonstrated. There are facets of unity that should concern the press, insofar as the rejection of rampant lies, bigotry, and insurrectionary violence can be seen through that lens—but a shared commitment to the basic truth is not the same as a shared worldview, and we should be careful not to blur the two. (As I’ve written before, nostalgic calls to return to the pre-internet age and its common set of facts often gloss over the reality that the gatekeepers of that era, mostly white men, shut out many valuable perspectives.) To be useful, the unified understanding that facts and democracy matter should be conducive to sharp, genuinely broad debate on the substance of policy, rather than constraining it. Too often, though, journalists—from White House correspondents to cable TV bookers—have instead defined unity as a window of acceptable opinion; as the historian Rick Perlstein told me last year, many in the media “fetishize” consensus, or the idea “that Americans are united and fundamentally at peace with themselves,” and that reporters should elide “structural tensions” in American society. This impulse entails the old idea that the truth is to be found somewhere between the major parties’ positions. One party, in particular, understands that by moving shamelessly to the right, it can pull the political media’s center of gravity in the same direction.
Over the weekend, various journalists, commentators, and Democratic interviewees did offer more nuanced conceptions of what unity might mean, but others continue to hew to the yardsticks that Shear planted in the White House briefing room. According to Politico, conservatives were thrilled by Shear’s question; the office of Kevin McCarthy—the House minority leader who voted to challenge the results of the election even after the insurrection on January 6—went as far as to send reporters a clip of Shear “calling out” (in their words) Biden. Political journalists, of course, can’t control how partisan hacks quote their reporting. But they are responsible for the way they frame questions of accountability. When it comes to Biden and unity, we need more sophisticated metrics than cabinet berths and legislative capitulations.
Below, more on the Biden news cycle:
- A different approach: Late last week, Politico’s Jack Shafer and the Post’s Margaret Sullivan both argued that reporters should tone down the thinly-veiled adulation that marked much coverage of the inauguration. “CNN glowed almost as brightly about the event as a state media would have,” Shafer wrote. “MSNBC worked from the same script, going gaga for not just Lady Gaga but the whole schmear.” Sullivan added that the press “runs the risk of being seduced by an administration that, in many cases, closely reflects our values: multiculturalism, a belief in the principles of liberal democracy, and a kind of wonky idealism.”
- A different lens: The media critic Dan Froomkin argues that with Trump gone, White House reporters should zoom out, focusing less on the person of the president and more on his administration as a whole. “The White House is more than just the president’s whims and mood disorders. It is filled with staff, and process, and sometimes competing senses of mission,” Froomkin wrote on his blog, Press Watch. “It’s hugely important for our major news organizations to break themselves of the habit of obsessively focusing on what the president says—and instead devote themselves to exploring much more broadly what is going on inside the White House, and how, and why.”
- The return of the briefing: On CJR’s podcast, The Kicker, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, spoke with S.V. Dáte, a White House correspondent for HuffPost, about covering the Trump era, and the return of regular, reality-based press briefings under Psaki; Dáte called the normalcy of the first briefing “very bizarre” compared to what came before. Elsewhere, the New Republic’s Alex Shephard cast a skeptical eye over the continued relevance of the briefings. Psaki’s approach is an improvement “but we needn’t honor it with extended bouts of applause,” he writes. “The longer you’re starved of the bare minimum, the more it looks like the extra mile when it returns, perhaps.”
- In brief: Azi Paybarah, of the Times, profiles WABC-AM, a right-leaning New York radio station whose air Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s attorney, is still using to push conspiracy theories about the election; management recently barred hosts from spreading such lies, but Giuliani claims, literally, that he didn’t get the memo. Elsewhere, Harris Faulkner, an anchor on Fox News, slammed Time magazine over a “not real!” cover image, showing Biden in a trashed Oval Office, that was clearly metaphorical. And Psaki seemingly mistook Peter Doocy, Fox’s White House correspondent, for his dad, Steve, also of Fox. (Last year, Mark Oppenheimer profiled Doocy—Steve, not Peter—for CJR.)
Other notable stories:
- On Saturday, Larry King, who hosted an eponymous CNN interview show for twenty-five years, died. He was eighty-seven. “In an era filled with star newsmen, King was a giant—among the most prominent questioners on television and a host to presidents, movie stars and world class athletes,” CNN’s Tom Kludt, Brad Parks, and Ray Sanchez write in an obituary. “With an affable, easygoing demeanor that distinguished him from more intense TV interviewers, King perfected a casual approach to the Q&A format, always leaning forward and listening intently to his guests, rarely interrupting. ‘I’ve never learned anything,’ King was fond of saying, ‘while I was talking.’”
- Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx are speaking out about their experiences working on the pandemic under Trump. In an interview with Donald G. McNeil, Jr., of the Times, Fauci said that Trump advisers resorted to “nefarious” tactics to undermine his credibility while also controlling his media appearances; speaking with Margaret Brennan, of CBS, Birx said that officials would plant negative stories about her anytime there was an internal disagreement. Birx also pushed back on the criticism that she was an “apologist” for Trump. (Maggie Haberman, of the Times, notes that Birx did often appear to be “in lockstep” with Trump, and would brush off reporters who asked for her side of the story.)
- Last week, the journalist Yashar Ali reported that the Times canceled the contract of Lauren Wolfe, who worked as an editor for the paper, after she tweeted that watching Biden’s inauguration gave her “chills.” Online, critics accused the Times of bowing to pressure from right-wing trolls; yesterday, the Times responded that Wolfe did not have a formal contract with the paper, and denied ending her employment “over a single tweet”—while also maintaining that “we don’t get into the details of personnel matters.”
- Eric Boehm, of Reason, noticed that the Post recently updated a 2019 piece about Vice-President (and then presidential candidate) Kamala Harris by removing comments that she made comparing the rigors of the campaign trail to life in prison. The Post said that it “repurposed” some of its past reporting on Biden and Harris for a new series pegged to the inauguration, but acknowledged that it ought to have left the text of the original Harris piece online. The new version of the story now links back to the old one.
- Meg James, of the LA Times, investigated a deal that CBS struck nine years ago to acquire WLNY, a TV station on Long Island—a purchase that came with an exclusive golf-club membership thrown in. Peter Dunn, the executive in whose name the golf membership is registered, pledged to expand the station’s news output, but most of its journalists have since been let go. (CBS defended the deal as a “strategic acquisition” and noted that reporters at WCBS, in New York City, cover Long Island on WLNY.)
- The Boston Globe will invite subjects of the paper’s past criminal-justice coverage to apply to have stories about them updated or anonymized—a journalistic “right to be forgotten” that, the paper says, is part of an effort to reckon with the disproportionate impact that crime coverage exerts on communities of color. The Cleveland Plain Dealer has launched a similar initiative, and the Philadelphia Inquirer is working on a policy, too.
- Mike Smith, a carrier for the Herald and News in Klamath Falls, Oregon, raised the alarm after noticing that Kenneth Plank, an elderly subscriber, hadn’t picked up recent issues. Plank was stuck in his bathtub; he’s now recovering. “Be thankful for your newspaper man,” Plank’s daughter told the Herald and News, “because he might be the only one who knows something’s wrong.” (In 2018, I wrote for CJR on carriers’ unheralded work.)
- According to The Guardian’s Archie Bland, Rolling Stone is inviting “thought leaders” to pay two-thousand dollars for the chance to write for the magazine’s website; approved contributors will be members of an invitation-only “Culture Council” made up of “industry professionals.” Penske Media, which owns Rolling Stone, noted that all paid articles are labelled as such and do not run as editorial content.
- And Dan Rather is starting a newsletter on Substack—it will be called “Steady,” and Rather will aim to use it “to build and cultivate” a community of readers, away from the “divisiveness and pique” of Facebook and Twitter. (Back in 2018, Pope spoke with Rather about Trump, Nixon, and network news for CJR’s Monday interview series.)
The new president seeks bipartisanship, but he is caught between Republicans who want tangible concessions and Democrats who are in no mood to compromise.
Having made clear at the outset which is the party of compromise, Baker wrote that Biden
reached out to Republicans with messages of conciliation, vowing to work together…. But in Mr. Biden’s opening hours at least, the outreach was more about words and symbols than tangible actions.
Baker then enumerated Biden’s sins:
He did not appoint any members of the opposition party to his cabinet, as Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama did, and many of the executive orders he signed in his first two days in office were aimed at reversing Mr. Trump’s policies and enacting liberal ideas, not finding common ground. He has offered no examples of Republican priorities he was willing to adopt in the interest of bipartisan cooperation nor described what compromises would be acceptable to win congressional approval of his initiatives.
When Biden used the word “unity” in his inaugural address, that he followed it immediately by invoking Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation was certainly no accident; it was intended to make quite clear that “unity” does not mean “adopt the priorities of the minority opposition (which, by the way, just sought to overthrow the democratic election).” Rather, it means that we “treat each other with dignity and respect” and, crucially, that “disagreement must not lead to disunion.” And what president launches their term by describing the ways they’re going to back off their campaign promises?
But rather than judge Biden against his own claims, Baker turned the idea of unity into an open question with two valid and competing perspectives: “Biden and his allies, however, argue that unity means something different than concession—more of a change in culture, not splitting the difference on policy plans,” while
Republicans complained that the new president’s agenda on immigration, economics and the environment advanced through executive actions and proposed legislation offered no gesture toward them.
The rest of the article is structured as a back-and-forth, quoting competing claims by Democrats and Republicans, as if claims about unity coming from people like Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who repeatedly backed Trump’s lies about Democrats stealing the election, should be given equal time to scold the opposition for “not hav[ing] the ability or the willingness to unify us.”
The result painted exactly the narrative the GOP will work for the next two years to build: that Democrats are the ones sowing division by refusing to work together to get things done. It is the narrative the GOP—which, with a split Senate, has already made its obstructionist intentions patently clear—desperately needs in order to take back the House and Senate in 2022, and to avoid accountability for the most serious attack on US democracy in living memory. And the country’s top “liberal” paper is handing it to them on a silver platter.
Similarly, at NBCNews.com (1/21/21), Sahil Kapur began:
When President Joe Biden seeks to fulfill his urgent plea for unity, he will confront a dissonance between the two parties’ definitions of the word, and is likely to be forced to choose between fighting for a bold agenda and forging bipartisan agreements.
This presents “forging bipartisan agreements” as a task that can actually be accomplished through the efforts of the president alone. The piece quoted three Republicans, a former Obama adviser and a right-wing House Democrat from New Jersey, who illustrated the idea that “some Democrats believe the wiser path is moderation” by warning against letting “the far left of our party dictate our agenda.” Not a single progressive was quoted.
The opinion the furthest to the left NBC included was that of the former Obama adviser, Dan Pfieffer, who astutely noted:
There will be a tendency among many press and pundits to condense Biden’s promise to heal the soul of the nation into nothing more than appeasing congressional Republicans.
Apparently Kapur believed that including Pfieffer’s observation absolved him of essentially bearing it out.
Impeachment plays a big role in the discussion about unity. At the New York Times (1/19/21), reporter Trip Gabriel wrote, Biden “has tried to focus on his policy plans. But many of those who elected him are still fixated on his predecessor.” Noting that an impeachment trial for Trump was imminent, Gabriel predicted:
The opening chapters of the new administration are likely to be marked by tension among Democrats about how to move forward. Party institutionalists led by Mr. Biden want to hammer out deals with congressional Republicans, while the Democratic base is eager for Mr. Trump, his allies and his family members to be held fully accountable.
This is presented as if the two are incompatible—which is only true if Republicans refuse to engage with a party that demands accountability for coup attempts.
This week on CounterSpin: Michigan’s attorney general has indicted nine state officials, including former Gov. Rick Snyder, the state’s former health director and two of the emergency managers of the city of Flint, for exposing at least 100,000 people to dangerous levels of lead in their drinking water, and for an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease killed at least 12 people and sickened many more.
In an op-ed for The Hill (1/19/21), Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee called the 2014 decision to switch the source of Flint’s drinking water “one of the greatest environmental injustices in our lifetimes.” Which is true, but “the environment” didn’t do it: It’s often forgotten that Flint was a crisis of democracy—as decision-making had been taken out of the hands of Flint’s elected officials, and given to an “emergency manager” tasked with reining in costs—a system that seems to be used disproportionately in communities of color, taking decisions out of community hands but leaving them to deal with their fallout.
There’s been a $640 million settlement of class action lawsuits, but Michigan Radio (1/11/21) reports that some civic leaders say the deal presents inappropriate hurdles—young children might not get their settlement if they don’t undergo a specific bone lead test—and some question how money could ever compensate Flint residents for months and months of washing and bathing and cooking with bottled water, to avoid exposing themselves and their families to a neurotoxin, all while officials deflected and denied and belittled concerns.
We talked about Flint on CounterSpin, in its particulars and in terms of how it fits into bigger questions around environmental racism, resource control and local governance. In light of the renewed attention around the story—which has not ended, even as media looked away—we revisit some of those conversations this week.
Science reporting frequently fails to meaningfully communicate research results, especially when it comes to medical research. Out of context numbers and percentages only create public misunderstanding of the scientific results.
When the LA Times (12/15/20) published Karen Kaplan’s comparison of the Moderna and Pfizer Covid-19 vaccines consisting essentially of a list of percentages without explanation, it created the impression that one vaccine was better than the other for certain populations. Asian parents sent the article to their children urging them to get the Moderna vaccine if possible. Yet these numbers were calculated with a sample size too low to make even a guess of that conclusion.
Many people have seen in numerous news stories and press releases that both of these vaccines have about 95% efficacy. But news stories don’t explain how these numbers are calculated. Vaccine efficacy (VE) is calculated by comparing the difference in rate of infection between the vaccinated group and the placebo group.
The efficacy calculation used in these vaccine trials is reduction in relative risk in the vaccinated group, calculated with this formula:
In the Moderna vaccine trial, 13,934 study participants received the vaccine and five of those participants developed Covid-19. 13, 883 participants received the placebo and 90 of those participants developed Covid-19. (Source: Page 23, Table 9 of FDA Moderna briefing document)
In the Pfizer vaccine trial, 18,198 study participants received the vaccine and eight of those participants developed Covid-19. 18,325 participants received the placebo and 162 of those participants developed Covid-19. (Source: Page 24, Table 6 of FDA Pfizer briefing document)
These numbers answer the question the LA Times poses, “How effective are the vaccines overall?” The FDA had signaled it was prepared to consider emergency use authorization to any vaccine with over 50% efficacy, and these VE percentages were well above that threshold.
But then, the LA Times article goes on to ask the same question for different populations, and answers it based on the VE % for different subgroups published in the study data. The problem is that many of these subgroups do not have a large enough sample size of study participants who developed Covid-19 for this VE % to be statistically evaluable.
The data are displayed in the documents for completeness, but any difference between the subgroup VE % and the overall VE % is most likely due to chance. Publishing these numbers as if the Pfizer vaccine is 100% effective in Pacific Islanders when there was only one case of Covid-19 among Pasifika participants for the analysis is irresponsible and misleading.
Calculations for how each VE % published in the LA Times article are shown in the following table, and show how absurd it is to conclude that one vaccine is better than the other for any of these subgroups. The comparisons made were not always even between subgroups of the same criteria, for example showing the VE % for ages 65+ for the Moderna trial and ages 56+ for the Pfizer trial in the evaluation of whether these vaccines are effective in older people.
There simply is not enough data to assess efficacy among groups that make up a small percentage of the trial participants. While there are efforts to recruit people of color and older trial participants, and most of these trials end enrollment for younger white people once they reach certain overall enrollment goals, it would take thousands more Asian, Black and other trial participants to make any meaningful assessment on the vaccine’s efficacy for any of these specific groups.Overblown racial disparity
Likewise, the reporting on the MIT machine learning study, as in a Yahoo! report (12/4/20), wrongly implies that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines may not be as effective for Asian and Black participants:
Researchers used artificial intelligence and machine learning to examine a vaccine similar to these big developers’, and found that while less than 0.5% of white trial participants didn’t respond strongly to the vaccine, nearly 10% of Asian participants didn’t.
This is misleading, and overblows the potential racial disparity in vaccine efficacy. For a summary of the immunological reasons for this, please refer to this Twitter thread by professor of immunology Akiko Wasaki. Yahoo! also reports on the study as if it were a clinical trial performed on real people, but it was a computer simulation that modeled theoretical vaccines.
The MIT study found striking simulated racial disparities for a predicted vaccine that only encodes the receptor binding domain (RBD) of the spike protein: 37.3% of Asian people’s immune systems wouldn’t be able to recognize an RBD vaccine.
However, Moderna’s vaccine encodes the entire spike protein. Astrazeneca’s vaccine encodes the entire spike protein. Pfizer performed trials on two vaccine variants: one encoding only the RBD and one with whole spike protein. The whole spike protein version of Pfizer’s vaccine is the only one approved for emergency use in the UK and US. The MIT study actually predicts more than 98% robust coverage for every demographic group for a vaccine that encodes the whole spike protein.
The study does say that vaccines which contain the whole virus, or at least includes more than one viral protein, are more robustly effective than a vaccine which only expresses the spike protein. For example, we can infer from the MIT study that SinoVac’s inactivated virus vaccine may be more effective than any vaccines developed by Operation Warp Speed. However, the MIT study suggests that all the vaccines developed by these US companies are predicted to be effective for most people in every demographic group as well.
Misleading and distracting
There are two take-home messages we’d like to focus on.
1. Much of the scientific journalism on US Covid vaccines has been inaccurate, misleading, fearmongering and irresponsible. That should make people think extra hard about how poorly represented the Chinese (and likely other future non-Western) vaccines are in any reporting on them done by Western corporate media.
2. The US clearly has enough problems to worry about with domestic Covid containment, vaccine production and distribution, and lack of clear and accurate reporting of information to the people. US corporate media should stop wasting its time speculating on China’s vaccines and Covid caseload from last winter. These are racist distractions that only hurt Americans further.
A version of this article originally appeared in Plan A (12/30/20).
Janine Jackson interviewed Kaiser Health News‘ Elisabeth Rosenthal about the troubled vaccine rollout for the January 15, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Having for weeks held back doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, the federal government announced this week that not only is it releasing all of it now, but states will be penalized for not using it quickly enough. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar claimed that this was always the plan, that states have “ample funding” to roll out the vaccines to the public, and that there was “never a reason” for prioritizing any groups like healthcare workers, or the frontline workers, overwhelmingly low-waged people of color, who have been disproportionately sickened and killed.
It’s just the latest opportunity for reporters to use words like “stunned” and “perplexed” in describing the response of state and local officials to the vaccine rollout, which would have been challenging at the best of times—and these sure aren’t those.
Joining us now to talk about what we’re seeing is Elisabeth Rosenthal, longtime journalist, now editor-in-chief at Kaiser Health News, and author of the book, An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back. She joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Elisabeth Rosenthal.
Elisabeth Rosenthal: Thanks for having me here.
JJ: You see phrases in stories like, “The administration of vaccines has met with delays and roadblocks.” That passive voice is safe. But the opposite of that isn’t necessarily finger-pointing, another word we’re seeing a lot. It’s just trying to understand where the breakdowns or flaws in the system are, so they can be addressed. I think it’s understood that this process was going to present challenges, as we say, but what would you identify as the primary factors that have made it more confusing, more chaotic, than it needed to be?
ER: Sure. I always say this is not rocket science; it’s complicated logistics, but not even that complicated. The basic problem is a lack of central strategy. You can argue that a lot of different kinds of algorithms should dictate who gets the vaccine. And instead of deciding nationally, with the best experts, how we want to do it, basically the feds have sent it to the states, the states decide how they want to allocate it to the counties, the counties decide how they want to allocate it to hospitals, and likewise to nursing homes and CVS. And it’s just predictable chaos without a central plan which people can trust.
And the newest wrinkle in this today, which I have smoke coming out of my ears for, is all these governors and mayors have announced that, OK, starting this week, January 11, folks over 75, or over 65, will be able to sign up for the vaccine. Well, good luck with that. I compare it to trying to get a delivery from Whole Foods during the beginning of the pandemic; you have to be tech savvy, sitting there when the slots are released, refreshing your web browser. That is a crazy way to do a vaccine program.
And I think one thing that would have made this whole thing better was a central strategy, where everyone knew where they stood. And if someone says to me, “OK, you’re going to get your vaccine in April,” I can be OK with that, because I can at least know exactly when and where it’s coming, rather than this current turmoil, where we have—literally, these are the stories we are hearing at Kaiser Health News today, where I’m currently editor-in-chief: A doctor’s office will get a call from a hospital saying, “Hey, we have six extra doses, send your staff over here,” or there’ll be an announcement at a Giant supermarket saying: “Hey, we’ve got four extra doses. Come one, come all.”
You hear of a one nursing home getting everyone vaccinated, and another one 10 miles away, which is presumably not as well-connected, or in a different county that’s doing things differently, having no idea when they’re getting that vaccine. So that introduces chaos, introduces anger. And we just have to be slow and plodding and systematic about the way we do this, in a rapid way. So how’s that for a challenge?
JJ: And particularly at a time when public trust is obviously going to be paramount, you have to trust that there is a plan. But first I wanted to say, it can be hard for some people to see the unfairness in that “first come, first served”; it sounds like it’s equitable. Of course, it’s not at all equitable, both in terms of, as you say, having to be tech savvy enough to get in line on the website, or sign up and then know when you’re supposed to show up to someplace. But also, of course, a lot of folks—we’re talking about undocumented workers, we’re talking about homeless people, a lot of the folks who should be getting vaccinated—they’re just left out entirely. There’s no incentive, in that sense, to reach them, particularly if the federal government is going to be counting how quickly you can say you’re vaccinating folks.
ER: Yes. And I think we know there’s more vaccine skepticism, generally, in those populations, which makes it even more troubling. Boy, you have to be good at playing the game of accessing healthcare in the US. As you said, you need to be tech savvy. So what does that mean? It means maybe 80-year-olds are not as good as the 65-year-olds, or an 85-year-old who has a 30-year-old grandson who can snag an appointment is in much better shape. So you’re kind of favoring the well-educated, well-connected, well–hooked up to the internet. And then, PS: We’ve seen in some states, like New York, where you officially get an appointment, but it’s not really timed, so there are these long lines. So many people, particularly low-income people, have to work, so they need an appointment time if you want this to go smoothly, or good weekend and evening times. There are ways to do this well, and other countries are doing so, but we are not.
JJ: Well, but you say “central plan,” what are you, some kind of Communist?
ER: [laughing] No, not at all.
JJ: Your book is about the businessification of healthcare. I wonder what role you see that playing in all of this, in terms of the development of the vaccines and their distribution?
ER: Well, no, I’m certainly not a Communist or a socialist, but being a capitalist doesn’t mean you don’t plan; it should mean the opposite, right? But instead of planning, having a government plan, we’ve let every company—and I will call hospitals “companies” for the purpose of this interview—and doctor’s office go it on their own, and nursing homes.
So, for example, what did many hospitals in New York do? There was a great New York Times article about this: They gave it to their entire staff, including people who’d been working from home for the last eight months.
Now, that’s what a company would do: You would protect your own before you protected your vulnerable patients. A hospital that really cared about its community would say, “Yes, we want these frontline workers who have Covid exposure to be vaccinated. But then, next, we’re going to look to our vulnerable cancer patients, who may be in here every week for chemotherapy, or our vulnerable people with bad lung disease.” And we did not see that happening at many, many hospitals.
JJ: I think part of the problem was the setup: A vaccine was presented as “the light at the end of the tunnel” for a scientifically under-informed and to some degree politicized public; it was going to be something that would put an end to arguments about what we needed to do societally, since we could do this thing individually–or not, you know.
JJ: In a way, “public health,” as a thing—kind of like democracy—it seems is being tested.
ER: Yes, we have chosen the most profitable form of ending the pandemic, which is a vaccine. And, you know, the fact that we’ve gotten vaccines at record pace, I’m not going to say that’s a bad thing; it’s a good thing, and that was one way to solve the problem. But why can these other countries be more methodical and systematic? It’s partly because they have central planning, but it’s partly because Covid never got out of control there. So we are desperate for a solution; this is the only solution, given how out of control we’ve let this become, as a result of not being good at public health. And so there’s a kind of feeding frenzy for how to distribute it and who should get it, and survival of the fittest, in a way—and that’s not very good.
JJ: Not the way to do it. Well, I wonder, are there things that you think reporters could maybe do more of, could maybe do less of, in covering Covid and the vaccine?
ER: I’ve written that I thought the public service announcements should be scarier, because Covid is scary, if you get a bad case. I think we believe in this, like, “Let’s be good neighbors, think about your grandma.” That didn’t work. We saw it all over the country, we’ve had Covid exploding, because we didn’t do the right public health things.
So I think, lessons learned is, we really need to reinforce our public health system, make the CDC and the FDA scientific, not political, organizations. And then at this point, yes, we will be depending on a vaccine, mostly, to get us out of it, but that doesn’t mean you should stop the social distance and masking.
And a lot of people are, you know, the classic American thing, “Well, which vaccine is the best? I only want the best.” I think the answer so far is any one that’s out there looks pretty good—and, you know, different countries are using different ones—but when it’s your turn, you should take what’s available. That would be my advice as a journalist and as a former physician, and it’s what I intend to do.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Elisabeth Rosenthal, editor-in-chief at Kaiser Health News. Her book is called An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back, out from Penguin Press. Elisabeth Rosenthal, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
ER: Thanks for having me.
Early yesterday, then-President Donald Trump vacated the White House and headed to Joint Base Andrews, where he gave a farewell address before flying to Florida. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer wondered aloud if we’d be treated to a final Trump surprise, but the event was predictable, as was the coverage it generated. “The Trump era ends as it begins,” James Poniewozik, TV critic at the New York Times, wrote, “with news networks wall-to-wall showing the empty stage where he’s going to speak.” Every major network carried the whole address live; reporters got in some final digs about the smallness of the crowd; one columnist even hailed the president’s new tone, though there didn’t seem to be much heart in any of it. After he finished speaking, Trump left the stage and boarded Air Force One as “YMCA” blared from the speakers. “Y’know, the first line of that song is, young man, there’s no need to feel down,” Rob Finnerty, a host on the pro-Trump network Newsmax, said on air. “Even though he will not be the president at noon Eastern today, there is no need to feel down.” And then he was gone.
Cut to Joe Biden—first at church, and then at the Capitol. Network talking heads chattered over music (the Marine band, not the Village People) and footage of various dignitaries taking their seats. Trump lingered, despite his absence—on CNN, John King accused him of neglecting the “norms and traditions” that “truly make America great”—while Mike Pence showed up and won some lukewarm plaudits for doing so. Various anchors hailed the “peaceful transfer of power.” With midday approaching, proceedings began and the punditry gave way to bromidic speeches by senators Amy Klobuchar and Roy Blunt, the latter of whom was, as recently as last month, still refusing to call Biden the president-elect; then, Kamala Harris was sworn in as vice-president, and Biden as president. Major outlets whipped out the banner headlines and unleashed a flood of news alerts on readers’ phones. Online, every journalist felt compelled to note either that Trump was no longer president, or, as it still wasn’t yet midday, that they weren’t yet sure who was technically president. Their tweets jostled for attention with Bernie Sanders memes, and then with a flurry of (deserved) praise for Amanda Gorman, a poet whose recitation instantly went viral; news organizations quickly turned all of this content into more content, further flooding the zone. In his inaugural address, Biden repeatedly stressed the importance of truth. The sun came out, and was quickly pressed into service as a metaphor.
New from CJR: What is Laurene Powell Jobs trying to achieve?
Less so in the right-wing mediasphere, though there was some generosity of spirit on display. On Fox News, Chris Wallace urged “us in the media” to take to heart Biden’s words on the truth, and called the speech as a whole “the best inaugural address I ever heard”; his colleague Brit Hume called Biden “an amiable, genial man,” and said, “Let’s give him a chance.” Over at FoxNews.com, editors gave Biden a chance with headlines including “Hunter Biden in attendance amid reported suspicious transactions probe,” and “CNN anchors let insults, condemnations fly as Trump leaves the White House”; later, back on the air, Sean Hannity said that Biden was “cognitively struggling,” and Laura Ingraham flashed up chyrons such as “MEDIA & CHINA GIDDY OVER PRESIDENT BIDEN” and “BIDEN’S DIVISIVE POLICIES SACRIFICE OUR FREEDOM.” One America News Network didn’t broadcast the inauguration at all, instead airing a documentary-length program titled Trump: Legacy of a Patriot. On his radio show, Rush Limbaugh insisted that Biden and Harris have “not legitimately won” the election.
Even in the reality-based media, it felt as if some of us were struggling to compute that Trump was really gone and Biden was really in. Given the events of two weeks ago, the networks were primed to cover more noisy strife after Biden was sworn in; instead, we got low-key formalities and a rare stretch of silence, as Biden traveled from the Capitol to Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath. There was a collective feeling, almost, of Trump withdrawal; as Charlie Warzel, a columnist at the Times, put it, “it is very clear to me right now the extent to which my brain has become extremely conditioned to reading continuous and preposterous news about one man.” Media critics no longer had to write takes about all the unchecked lies in the president’s speech. By the 5pm hour, CNN was rattling breathlessly about the fact that Biden was now in the Oval Office. Reporters were excited to discover that Trump had left Biden a note; one shouted a question about it, but Biden declined to share what Trump wrote, beyond calling it “very generous.” At 7pm, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, convened a televised briefing, and pledged to do so daily going forward. (Though “not Saturdays and Sundays. I’m not a monster.”) The second reporter to be called asked about Trump’s note. Afterward, everyone agreed that Psaki’s professional demeanor was disarmingly normal. Van Jones said that the briefing was “mesmerizing”: “There was a human, and that person said words, and the words made sense, and somebody asked a question, and that person answered.”
Throughout the day and into the evening—either side of a celebratory, ninety-minute special that every major network bar Fox carried live—the themes of normality and unity kept recurring in coverage. NBC’s Chuck Todd called the former “an elixir of sorts”; a CNN correspondent barked “Mr. President, can you unite the country?” as Biden unexpectedly walked past. These focuses were derived from Biden’s own messaging, but neither is entirely in Biden’s gift, and neither is a moral good in and of itself—the pre-Trump status quo, and much media coverage thereof, failed millions of people. It’s now accurate, at least, to say that there’s a “new tone” emanating from the White House, but actions still matter more. At some point, probably soon, pundits will stop seeing Biden’s boringness as refreshing, and start seeing it as boring. Before we get there, let’s drop our obsession with optics, and refocus the extra room that just opened up in our attention spans on the huge challenges that America still faces.
Below, more on the inauguration:
- Changing of the guard, I: CJR’s Ian Karbal rounds up some significant moves within the White House press corps, including Kaitlan Collins’s promotion to chief White House correspondent at CNN, Ashley Parker’s promotion to White House bureau chief at the Post, and Maggie Haberman’s plans. One correspondent who is staying put is Yamiche Alcindor, of PBS. “It would be great to be able to take a vacation and go out,” she told Karbal, “but we’re living in the middle of a pandemic.”
- Changing of the guard, II: Michael Pack—the Trump-appointed chief executive of the US Agency for Global Media, which oversees state-backed, yet editorially-independent, broadcasters including Voice of America—resigned yesterday at Biden’s request, leaving a trail of firings, whistleblower complaints, conservative appointments, and other controversies in his wake. Pack—who investigated reporters for their perceived anti-Trump bias, and who moved to obliterate the firewall between management and journalists so that the agency might better “support the foreign policy of the United States”—called his ouster “a partisan act” on Biden’s part. Biden tapped Kelu Chao, a VOA news executive, as Pack’s interim replacement. NPR’s David Folkenflik has more.
- 1619 v. 1776: Biden also acted yesterday to dissolve the 1776 Commission, a panel of conservative educators that Trump convened to wage culture war on history-teaching generally and the Times’s 1619 Project—which sought to center slavery in the American story, including via resources for schools—in particular. Kevin M. Kruse, a historian at Princeton, warned that despite Biden’s decision, the commission’s legacy will live on; its final report, he wrote, “has the stamp of approval of the White House and will directly or indirectly influence the teaching of American history in large parts of the nation.”
- No trouble: As I noted in yesterday’s newsletter, major newsrooms provided their reporters with protective gear and special training ahead of the inauguration, given the heightened threat of domestic terrorism, but in the end, no violence came to pass. Andrew McCormick, who covered the inauguration for The Nation, wrote that the streets outside the security perimeter were so quiet that “journalists outnumbered civilians in comic proportion. I listened to one woman, who had traveled from Boise, Idaho, for the inauguration, give interviews to reporters from at least Japan, France, and Romania. (‘Joe Biden is going to unify our country,’ she told them all.)”
- Snookered Q: Online, many devotees of the QAnon conspiracy theory—which held that Trump would stage a successful inauguration-day coup and stay in power—were upset and confused when it didn’t happen. “Anyone else feeling beyond let down?” one poster asked. “It’s like being a kid and seeing the big gift under the tree thinking it is exactly what you want only to open it and realize it was a lump of coal.” Even Ron Watkins, a major figure in the community, gave up the ghost, advising his followers to “go back to our lives as best we are able.” NBC’s Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny have more.
- Justice with Judge Jeanine: When Trump’s published his final list of pardons and commutations early yesterday morning, Jeanine Pirro, a Fox News host and reliable Trump sycophant, was upset that the president hadn’t included her ex-husband, Albert Pirro, who was convicted of conspiracy and tax evasion in 2000. Per CNN’s Pamela Brown and Caroline Kelly, Jeanine quickly lobbied for Albert to be added, and in the final hours of his presidency, Trump complied—a final spin of the Trump-Fox feedback loop.
- Going bust: Biden put some personal photos behind his Oval Office desk, next to a bust of the labor leader Cesar Chavez (and not of Eleanor Roosevelt, as the Washington Post erroneously labeled it). Biden reportedly also removed a bust of Winston Churchill. Britain’s right-wing press is taking the news about as well as you’d expect.
Other notable stories:
- For Business Insider, Steven Perlberg explores what’s next for the Washington Post as Trump departs the White House and Marty Baron prepares to stand down as the paper’s editor. Current and former Post staffers told Perlberg that the paper is in a good financial position—but they have concerns about its ability to move past the Trump story, and say that the newsroom has yet to fully resolve internal tensions over race and diversity. According to Perlberg, some staffers “watched with envy” as Times journalists took a public stand against their opinion editor, James Bennet, last year, leading him to resign.
- In December, an attorney for Dominion Voting Systems, an election-tech company that was repeatedly smeared by Trump-allied conspiracists, wrote to leaders of One America News, which spread the smears, threatening legal action; in response, OAN doubled down, demanding that Dominion retain documents linked to Venezuela and George Soros. According to Business Insider’s Jacob Shamsian, however, OAN’s website has since quietly deleted articles about Dominion and Trump’s election lies generally, without disclosing any retractions. (ICYMI last year, Andrew McCormick profiled OAN.)
- Stephanie Edgerly, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Medill school of journalism, surveyed over a thousand US media workers in an effort to gauge industry views on election coverage. While strong majorities of respondents thought coverage of the Biden and Trump campaigns was fair, nearly two-thirds of respondents thought that the press was over-reliant on opinion polls. A similar proportion agreed that polls can themselves drive voting behavior, and a majority agreed (in a poll) that polls are “unreliable.”
- Andreessen Horowitz, the Silicon Valley investment firm, is launching an online opinion page that will publish “unapologetically pro-tech, pro-future, pro-change” content. The move comes “amid growing tension between prominent venture capitalists and the news media,” The Information’s Zoë Bernard reports. Marc Andreessen, the co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz, has “privately expressed antipathy” toward the media, and “has been known to block members of the tech press from viewing his tweets.”
- In press-freedom news, military authorities in Somalia arrested Kilwe Adan Farah, who runs a news outlet via Facebook, and accused him of murder; if convicted, he could face a death sentence. A local press group believes that the allegations are fabricated. Elsewhere, Egypt arrested two freelance reporters, Hamdi al-Zaeem and Ahmed Khalifa, on terrorism charges. The Committee to Protect Journalists has more on both stories.
- In France, the cartoonist Xavier Gorce said he would stop working for Le Monde after the paper publicly apologized for running a cartoon that he drew satirizing incest, which is currently the subject of a national reckoning following allegations against a political commentator. Critics said the cartoon was offensive and transphobic; Gorce said it was misunderstood, and that his editorial freedom “cannot be negotiated.” AFP has more.
- And The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood is under fire for calling Trump “the political equivalent of the Insane Clown Posse,” a reference to a rap duo with fans known as Juggalos. Taylor Lorenz, of the Times, wrote that Juggalos are “notably a very kind, inclusive community.” Violent J, one half of Insane Clown Posse, told HuffPost that Wood’s article “fuckin’ hurts,” and that “sad little bullshit like this makes me question the media.”
ICYMI: A tale of two inaugurations
This post has been updated to correct the misspelling of Amanda Gorman’s name.
In the sticky conversations around rationing life-saving treatments and vaccines during the Covid pandemic, corporate media have elevated some experts without disclosing their troubling views on disability, aging and the value of human life. Meanwhile, media outlets have largely sidelined the voices of disabled activists and others who could speak on behalf of those most affected by the pandemic.‘Quality of life’
In the first weeks of the Covid outbreak, national media outlets did shine a spotlight on issues for disabled people, including the potential for discriminatory triage guidelines. Disabled voices appeared in the op-ed pages of the New York Times (3/19/20, 3/23/20), Washington Post (4/6/20, 4/9/20) and Vox (4/4/20), advocating for their rights.
Disability became a viral social media topic in July 2020, after a Texas woman shared a recording of a doctor refusing life-saving treatment for her Covid-infected husband, Michael Hickson, a Black father of five who was already a quadriplegic with brain damage. On tape, his doctor defended his choice based on Hickson’s lack of “quality of life,” by which he clarified to mean Hickson being “paralyzed with a brain injury,” not the infection. He also referred to Covid medication as being appropriate for patients who are “walking and talking.”
A few national outlets picked up the story, reflecting varying degrees of understanding of the disability issues at stake. Newsweek (7/2/20) leaned on statements by the hospital and care agency only, which defended the doctor’s medical choice but glided over his statements. Nor did Newsweek‘s article itself include all of the doctor’s incriminating words—or any input from disability advocates.
The Washington Post (7/5/20) described the contrast between Hickson’s wife, who wanted life-saving measures used, and his sister, who sought legal guardianship to let him die, as between a “voice of hope” and “a pragmatist,” respectively. The sister’s pragmatism was illustrated by her acceptance that Hickson was no longer “a genius,” or “the person he was before 2017,” when he was injured—with the Post not questioning the assumption that that prior brain damage was relevant to whether he should be saved.
None of the national stories pointed out how the doctor’s statements by themselves violated federal anti-discrimination rules for Covid triage, as a physician pointed out in an op-ed in The Hill (7/15/20). Still, the Hickson case brought brief attention to disability issues, with follow-up stories from outlets like USA Today (7/14/20) and Politico (8/10/20) covering state and local battles for disability rights.‘Happiness’
While national corporate media have sometimes, especially early on, centered disabled and affected voices during this pandemic, representatives of affected groups have not been included in conversations about rationing and other policy issues. No advocates of disability or aging were invited to participate in either of two debates on Covid-19 ethical issues published in the New York Times Magazine and hosted by staff writer Emily Bazelon: “Restarting America Means People Will Die. So When Do We Do It?” (4/10/20), and “People Are Dying. Whom Do We Save First With the Vaccine?” (12/24/20).
Both conversations brought together five “thinkers,” as Bazelon described them. Each included author Peter Singer, described as “bioethics professor at Princeton [University].” Singer’s beliefs are guided by a “utilitarian” philosophy, which, he says, “does the most to increase the net surplus of happiness over misery” (NPR, 6/1/20). Singer has received significant positive attention in the last few years from national media outlets. An otherwise glowing article on Singer in Vox (12/11/20) did point to one notable mark on his record:
He has also been at times a controversial figure in modern ethics, alienating many in the disability community with what they’ve called his simplistic and horrifying takes on intellectual disabilities.
Indeed, Singer has argued, repeatedly and emphatically, that parents should be able to euthanize their disabled babies — not just abort fetuses, but kill actual infants. He describes nondisabled lives as “hav[ing] a greater chance at happiness” than disabled lives (New York Times, 2/16/03). Singer also believes that people with significant cognitive disabilities, such as Alzheimer’s disease, cease being “persons,” because they lack self-awareness, and so can ethically be euthanized by caregivers (New Yorker, 9/6/99).
Otherwise, Singer claims to value human and animal life highly (Vox, 10/27/20). He wrote a book called Animal Liberation and opposes eating, testing on or harming animals. (He has not offered an opinion on disabled animals.)
Disabled activists, religious scholars and others have spoken out ardently against Singer’s views for years, describing them as “eugenics” (e.g., Independent,, 10/10/11; National Review, 9/2/13;), which is defined as a coordinated effort to improve the genetic make-up of a population. The most famous eugenicists, the Nazis, sterilized and killed disabled people.
The beliefs that undergird Singer’s positions on disability correspond to some of his opinions on Covid. In the April debate in the New York Times Magazine, and in other writings around that time, Singer argues that the consequences of “lockdowns” are “horrific,” because “more younger people are going to die,” and that most of the people who died have been very old, with “underlying medical conditions.”
In the December New York Times Magazine debate, Singer argues that we should reconsider the plan to vaccinate older people in nursing homes first. “I think we should ask questions about the quality of their lives,” he says. “The objective that we should aim for is to reduce years of life lost.” He has said that he would give up lifesaving measures to someone “much younger” than himself, if that person didn’t have “underlying health conditions that mean that their life expectancy is no greater than mine” (NPR, 6/1/20).
Criticism of Singer was more prominent in mainstream media ten or more years ago, when British media outlets referred to him as “the man who would kill disabled babies” (Independent, 5/13/98) and “the most dangerous man in the world” (Guardian, 11/5/99). Yet Singer’s reputation would not have been a mystery to Bazelon or the Times when they selected him for the two Covid-19 debates. He has published similar views in the Times recently.
In 2017, Singer argued in a Times op-ed (4/3/17) that rape charges were unfair against a woman who had sex with a noncommunicative man with cerebral palsy. Singer’s argument shifted: the man “may lack the concept of consent altogether,” he offered at one point; elsewhere he suggested, even if the woman “wronged or harmed him, it must have been in a way that he is incapable of understanding and that affected his experience only pleasurably.” The Times earlier (1/26/07) gave Singer space to question a disabled body’s autonomy, dismissing qualms about doctors deliberately stunting the growth of a disabled child as “lofty talk about human dignity.”
Singer’s collection of beliefs is peculiar to him and nonscientific, yet he was invited to the Covid debate table among experts on public health. His ideas of “happiness” and “quality of life” are not measurable, and there is no evidence that happiness correlates with physical or cognitive ability. Scientists also cannot predict the life expectancy of anyone with “underlying medical conditions.”
What is more, Singer has no experience working in medicine or public health; bioethics is a humanities discipline, created in the late 1960s. He acknowledges as much in a Washington Post op-ed (4/27/20) on Covid-19, in which he and his co-author suggest people could voluntarily get sick to provoke immunity. “We are ethicists, not medical or biological scientists,” they write. “When it comes to factual beliefs about the pandemic, we defer to expert scientific opinion, as everyone should.”‘Diminishing capacities’
Singer was not the only controversial bioethicist to participate in Bazelon’s New York Times Magazine debates on Covid rationing. Her first conversation also included Ezekiel Emanuel. Unlike Singer, Emanuel does have a medical background, although not in epidemiology; he is an oncologist.
Even more than Singer, Emanuel has become one of the national media’s go-to experts on Covid, making frequent appearances on CNN (10/13/20), MSNBC (10/2/20), CNBC (10/13/20) and other news networks throughout the crisis, as well as writing numerous op-eds and being sought for comment. His media profile was further elevated after President-elect Joe Biden appointed him to his Covid-19 task force. Previously, Emanuel worked on the creation of the Affordable Care Act under President Barack Obama.
Like Singer, Emanuel has shared disturbing views on disability and aging in the past. Most famously, he published a piece in the Atlantic (10/14) titled “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” In the essay, Emanuel writes that aging “renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived.” The article enumerates a long list of physical and cognitive losses, or “diminishing capacities,” associated with aging. Emanuel lists various conditions that are normally experienced by disabled people of all ages and determines they would make life no longer worth living.
A good deal of Emanuel’s article focuses on how people over 75 almost never achieve great things, which, for him, is associated with production and validation in a capitalist society. When asked about seniors over 75 who do lead active lives, he replied (Technology Review, 8/21/19): “When I look at what these people ‘do,’ almost all of it is what I classify as play. It’s not meaningful work. They’re riding motorcycles; they’re hiking.”
Emanuel’s 2014 Atlantic essay ends with a promise to avoid any medical tests or interventions after 75, including the flu shot. He refers to pneumonia as “the friend of the aged” by gifting the elderly with death.
For this and other reasons, advocates for the disabled and elderly were especially concerned when Emanuel’s name was announced as part of Biden’s Covid-19 advisory team. These advocates and others spoke out on social media and in the independent press. Corporate media mostly ignored the controversy in its coverage of his appointment, with Fox News (11/9/20) and USA Today (11/25/20) as notable exceptions. But USA Today only mentioned the controversy to defend Emanuel, calling his Atlantic essay a “personal preference,” even though the essay used “we” and “us” language, making assumptions about shared views on aging and disability. The essay also included a long critique of the American impulse to fight aging.
Emanuel appears on talk shows regularly discussing Covid, but he has rarely if ever been asked about his views on disability and aging since 2014. Bazelon did bring it up during the Times Magazine debate. He told her the premise of his Atlantic article was a “personal preference, not a policy proposal,” the same language used by USA Today.
If Emanuel’s outlook on aging and disability is a “personal preference,” he has nonetheless pursued policies that seem to align with it. During Obama’s presidency, he proposed systematizing the rationing of scarce medical resources, like organs, based on a calculus of age and disability instead of first-come, first-serve. He also argued in opposition to the Hippocratic oath putting individual patients over cost and the greater good. These views were controversial, prompting some conservatives to suggest the ACA would instill “death panels’ (Forbes, 9/24/14).
Emanuel has been proposing a similar approach to who should receive Covid-19 treatment and vaccination. He proposes prioritizing individuals with greater social value and more estimated years remaining, which is calculated based on age and disability (New York Times, 3/12/20; NEJM, 5/21/20).
Several media outlets, especially the New York Times, have provided extraordinary and mostly uncritical space for Emanuel’s ideas on Covid, even though he is not an epidemiologist. He is also not the only member of Biden’s Covid advisory board. The Times has published 12 op-eds related to Covid written or co-written by Emanuel since the pandemic started (e.g., 4/14/20, 7/29/20)—more than the total number of Times op-eds about how Covid has affected disabled people and seniors. Emanuel has also written several Covid-related opinion pieces for the Washington Post (e.g., 4/22/20, 7/31/20), as well as for USA Today (3/19/20, 10/10/20), Science (9/11/20) and the Atlantic (4/18/20, 5/22/20) (for which he previously wrote reviews of DC-area restaurants).
Corporate media’s elevation of Emanuel and Singer as experts on Covid-19, without scrutinizing their troubling views, points to how unprepared news outlets are to report on the nuances of disability in the age of Covid. On November 7, many disabled people on Twitter were pleasantly surprised after CNN’s Jake Tapper mentioned “#cripthevote” on live television, a popular hashtag for disabled political conversation.
“This is not a community that gets a lot of attention as a political force,” Tapper said. About 25% of the US population has a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and this percentage is likely to have grown in the last year, with the rise in long-haul Covid illness.
Several reports on China’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic came out late last year, based on what US outlets like CNN, the New York Times and ProPublica claimed to be leaked Chinese documents. Although these reports implied that China was responsible for how bad the pandemic has been because of its downplaying of numbers and censoring of critical information, these narratives are themselves misleading in several ways.
CNN (11/30/20) released “The Wuhan Files” in late November, announcing “a string of revelations contained within 117 pages of leaked documents from the Hubei Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention.” According to CNN:
Taken together, the documents amount to the most significant leak from inside China since the beginning of the pandemic and provide the first clear window into what local authorities knew internally and when.
However, though the documents provide no evidence of a deliberate attempt to obfuscate findings, they do reveal numerous inconsistencies in what authorities believed to be happening and what was revealed to the public.
This is not the first time Chinese information has been leaked. Earlier in 2020, Foreign Policy (5/12/20) reported on a leaked dataset of coronavirus cases and deaths from the Chinese military’s National University of Defense Technology, which indicated that the Chinese government’s internal information matched the Covid-19 numbers the government publicly posted online, corroborating multiple professional judgments that China’s reported numbers were reliable. Dr. Bruce Aylward—a Canadian medical expert with 30 years of experience combating polio, Ebola and other global health emergencies—concluded that he “didn’t see anything that suggested manipulation of numbers,” after leading a team of experts visiting China for the World Health Organization (New York Times, 3/4/20).‘Numerous inconsistencies’
So, what are these “numerous inconsistencies”? Again, according to CNN:
The documents show a wide-range of data on two specific days, February 10 and March 7, that is often at odds with what officials said publicly at the time. This discrepancy was likely due to a combination of a highly dysfunctional reporting system and a recurrent instinct to suppress bad news, said analysts. These documents show the full extent of what officials knew, but chose not to spell out to the public.
Even though CNN claims that the Wuhan Files “provide no evidence of a deliberate attempt to obfuscate findings,” it’s still instructive to examine these inconsistencies on February 10 and March 7. On February 10, CNN notes that “Chinese authorities reported 2,478 new confirmed cases,” even though a confidential document in the Wuhan Files “list a total of 5,918 newly detected cases on February 10.” These were “never fully revealed at that time,” which CNN implies is due to “China’s accounting system” appearing to “downplay the severity of the outbreak.”
CNN is careful to note that the Chinese government wasn’t lying when it didn’t report all 5,918 newly detected cases, as it notes that the 5,918 figure is actually a total derived from a “variety of subcategories,” which include 2,345 “confirmed cases,” 1,772 “clinically diagnosed” cases and 1,796 “suspected cases.” and five who “tested positive.” (There were also five cases described as having “tested positive”; CNN does not specify how these differ from “confirmed cases,” which is how China described those who tested positive for a polymerase chain reaction [PCR] or genetic sequencing test.)
Apparently, the “inconsistencies” stem from Chinese officials taking a conservative approach in their daily reports of new coronavirus cases due to “strict and limiting criteria,” leading to “misleading figures” by omitting some subcategories:
That month, Hubei officials presented a daily number of “confirmed cases,” and then included later in their statements “suspected cases,” without specifying the number of seriously ill patients who had been diagnosed by doctors as being “clinically diagnosed.” Often in nationwide tolls, officials would give the daily new “confirmed” cases, and provide a running tally for the entire pandemic of “suspected cases,” also into which it seems the “clinically diagnosed” were added. This use of a broad “suspected case” tally effectively downplayed the severity of patients who doctors had seen and determined were infected, according to stringent criteria, experts said.
Certainly, without further context, it appears as if these announcements “downplayed” the number of China’s cases by treating as “suspected” what were really clinically confirmed cases, but merely being familiar with CNN’s own reporting about the outbreak is sufficient to dispel the notion. Just three days after these figures were presented, CNN (2/13/20) reported that health authorities in Hubei province (where Wuhan, the city where Covid-19 was first detected, is located) announced that “there had been nearly 15,000 new cases overnight—almost 10 times the number of cases announced the previous day.” What was the explanation behind this sudden and drastic increase in the number of reported cases? CNN explains that China had revised its methodology in reporting new cases to include “clinically diagnosed cases,” the very subcategory that had been omitted on February 10:
The government was quick to point out the outbreak didn’t suddenly get much worse; the authorities had simply changed the way they reported cases in order to allow more people to access treatment faster.
The total number of cases reported by China now includes “clinically diagnosed cases.” These are patients who demonstrate all the symptoms of Covid-19 but have either not been able to get a test or are believed to have falsely tested negative.Coverup or clarifying?
Is revising how a country reports new Covid information an abnormal practice unique to China? Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove (Hindu, 4/18/20), a WHO epidemiologist commenting on China revising Wuhan’s Covid-19 death toll upwards by 1,290—adjusting its previously reported number of deaths from 2,579 to 3,869 on April 17—stated that China’s actions were “an attempt to leave no case undocumented.” She also stated that she anticipates that “many countries” are “going to be in a similar situation where they will have to go back and review records” to see if they caught all cases.
And indeed, in April, New York City (the primary source of infection around the US, after travelers from Europe infected them) revised its death toll by 3,778 in one day, bringing its previous total of 6,589 deaths to 10,367 (Politico, 4/14/20). Britain likewise added 2,142 fatalities on April 11, revising its death toll from 4,093 on April 4 to 6,235 (Wall Street Journal, 4/14/20).
Despite these revisions occurring within a week of each other, only China’s revisions were presented as a possible “coverup” (Guardian, 4/17/20). It is actually normal to revise the criteria for counting new cases and deaths during a pandemic, to incorporate new information and improved testing capacities in real time.
On February 21, when China again revised its methodology of counting cases to include more cases, not fewer, CNN (2/21/20) reported that Chinese officials cited improved testing capacity as the reason for doing so. Revising death tolls upwards and broadening case definitions to include more people are actions that contradict the Western media narrative of China trying to deceive the world with fake statistics that minimized the outbreak.
Chinese officials (Xinhua, 4/17/20) gave a detailed explanation behind its discrepancies when they revised the death toll upwards on April 17. They explained that overwhelmed medical facilities at the beginning of the outbreak caused them to miss cases; a rapid increase in designated hospitals for Covid-19 had left some medical institutions unconnected to the epidemic information network, which prevented them from reporting their data in time; and there were repetitions, mistakes and incomplete registration information among some deceased patients.
Keeping New York City and Britain’s revised death tolls in April as a frame of reference, CNN’s Wuhan Files reporting that China had only reported 2,986 deaths in Hubei province on March 7, while having a total of 3,456 deaths divided into subcategories of 2,675 confirmed deaths, 647 clinically diagnosed deaths and 126 suspected case deaths, does not seem like an egregious discrepancy.
The only examples offered of China underreporting deaths—as opposed to omitting subcategories—was on February 10, when China didn’t publicize the deaths of six healthcare workers, and on February 17, when it reported only 93 deaths in Hubei Province when the daily confirmed deaths was 196. But the size of those discrepancies is small enough to have been accounted for in future revisions, and the Wuhan Files account for these discrepancies primarily on local health officials being “reliant on flawed testing and reporting mechanisms,” not on official dishonesty.Compared to what?
Disclaimers and qualifications aside, one cannot simply report numbers or approaches without putting them in a context that would be meaningful to the public. CNN’s Wuhan Files report omitted specific comparative figures like the ones cited above, even though it’s difficult to assess how competent China’s pandemic response was without any frame of reference. When Western media reports omit this necessary context, they imply that the appropriate benchmark to compare China’s response to is perfection, which it inevitably falls short of, allowing the creation of a narrative in which China’s pandemic response was especially (and suspiciously) incompetent and sluggish.
For example, the Wuhan Files mention a report from early March stating that the average time it took from the onset of symptoms to a confirmed diagnosis was 23.3 days, indicating that local officials were facing a “lumbering and unresponsive” IT network. Certainly, 23.3 days was a significant lag by early March, as the lag between onset symptoms and a positive test was four days in the US at the beginning of April (New York Times, 4/1/20).
But CNN citing professionals claiming that that delay would have made it hard to direct public measures is silly, considering that it had already cited the overwhelmingly successful results of the first 50 days of the pandemic (Science, 5/8/20). The Wuhan Files note that by March 7, “over 80% of the new confirmed cases diagnosed that day” were being recorded that same day, which was a significant improvement from earlier.
When compared to the US, where numerous reports (Washington Post, 3/30/20; New York Times, 3/10/20, 3/28/20; Wall Street Journal, 8/18/20) detail how the US’s failures to produce adequate testing kits and pursue aggressive testing until early March made it impossible to contain the outbreak—since it’s very difficult to stop a virus from infecting others without knowing where it is—the imperfections of China’s pandemic response seem grossly exaggerated. Notoriously, the Trump administration said that the US should slow down testing to avoid bad statistics, and even stripped the CDC of control over its own coronavirus data to a central database in Washington, which led the new Covid-19 hospital data system to be riddled with delays and inaccuracies as late as July (NPR, 7/31/20). Even when the daily growth in coronavirus cases appeared to be dropping at times, testing shortages threw the US coronavirus numbers into doubt (CNBC, 8/12/20).
When corporate media outlets report on the failures of US testing, they usually don’t go beyond comparing the US’s response with South Korea’s; if the US’s response were to be compared to China’s, the contrast would be even more embarrassing. China tests entire cities with millions of people, and implements swift lockdowns within days as soon as they detect even a single asymptomatic case. While it may be fair to criticize China for going against WHO guidelines by not including asymptomatic cases among its confirmed cases, this cannot be interpreted as a coverup, since China still records them in its own subcategory and quickly requires them to be under strict 14-day quarantine guidelines, with additional follow-up visits afterwards to make sure they are not spreading the virus (CGTN, 11/18/20).An exceptional response
But if it’s unfair to compare China’s response with one of the world’s worst performers, the US, one can also compare China’s response to countries like Germany and South Korea—which are frequently praised by corporate media—along with India, the only country with a comparable population to China, to get a sense of how exceptional China’s response has been. Although international comparisons are difficult for a variety of reasons—including missing data from these countries early on—data on new cases per week and total deaths from Johns Hopkins University clearly shows that China outperforms all of them. Here is data on February 10 and March 7 from these countries, the dates the Wuhan Files emphasizes to make the argument that China was “downplaying” the pandemic, along with the current status of these countries.
Despite being the first country to deal with the novel coronavirus, China has the lowest new cases per day, and has fewer deaths than all of them except for South Korea. But when we recall that China’s population is approximately 27 times that of South Korea’s, it’s apparent that many more people are dying as a percentage of the population there than in China.
It’s difficult to present this data in a visual format, because the vast disparities between China and everyone else—especially the US—make such a rendering visually unhelpful:
But here is that same graph (which normalizes for population size) with the United States and Germany removed, to illustrate how even among countries that had relatively low rates of Covid infection, China was exceptional:
Although the Wuhan Files offers some vindication of China’s pandemic response by noting the difficulties it had being the first country to confront the virus, and how little knowledge of the virus China was operating with, it is hard for readers to grasp how well China has done without including other countries’ performance as a basis for comparison.
Even CNN’s defense of China’s initial pandemic response, noting that China “faced the same problems of accounting, testing and diagnosis that still haunt many Western democracies even now,” is misleading, because it suggests China’s initial response was as bad as Western democracies’ current responses. In reality, initial corporate media reporting noted that scientists had begun research with “unprecedented speed,” due to how quickly China sequenced and shared the SARS-CoV-2 genome (Washington Post, 1/24/20). The Lancet (3/7/20) criticized countries around the world for their “slow and insufficient” actions, and cited a WHO/China joint mission report describing China’s response as probably the most “ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history,” making for a “striking contrast.” Dr. Bruce Aylward (Vox, 3/2/20) claims that the “key learning from China is speed—it’s all about the speed.”‘Whistleblower doctors’
Perhaps this is why CNN’s Wuhan Files, and another report from the New York Times co-published with ProPublica (12/19/20), based on supposedly leaked Chinese documents, focus on the repeatedly debunked myth of Dr. Li Wenliang and other supposed “whistleblower doctors.”
The Times/ProPublica claim to have obtained more than 3,200 directives and 1,800 memos from China’s internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China, as well as internal files and computer code from Urun Big Data Services, a Chinese company. Unlike the Wuhan Files, it’s unclear how credible these documents are, since the Times and ProPublica don’t provide lengthy explanations for how they authenticated the documents. (They were provided by a hacker group called CCP Unmasked, which has provided unauthenticated documents before.) But assuming the Times/ProPublica documents are real, the report is still misleading in several ways when it describes how China’s censors “got to work suppressing the inconvenient news and reclaiming the narrative” of Li’s passing:
They ordered news websites not to issue push notifications alerting readers to his death. They told social platforms to gradually remove his name from trending topics pages. And they activated legions of fake online commenters to flood social sites with distracting chatter, stressing the need for discretion: “As commenters fight to guide public opinion, they must conceal their identity, avoid crude patriotism and sarcastic praise, and be sleek and silent in achieving results.”
While Li’s loss is a tragedy, he wasn’t a whistleblower, nor the first doctor to discover the Covid-19 outbreak, and he wasn’t even ahead of the Chinese government; international media were able to publish contemporaneous reports on the Covid-19 outbreak without relying on him as a source. On December 30, Dr. Ai Fen circled the word “SARS” on a report containing a false positive for the 2003 coronavirus and sent it to a former medical school classmate, which was shared until it reached Li. He shared the picture in a private WeChat group on December 30 as well, but he didn’t consider himself a whistleblower, and asked the group not to make it public before it was leaked on December 31. He and his colleagues were brought in for questioning by the police, and were reprimanded for spreading rumors on January 3 before being released. This might be why the Times/ProPublica avoid calling him a “whistleblower,” as many Western media reports did previously.
Dr. Zhang Jixian was the first doctor to discover the Covid-19 outbreak, and she wasn’t a whistleblower either, because she followed established protocol by reporting an unfamiliar respiratory illness to her hospital’s disease control department on December 27. This is why Dr. Zhang was never punished, but rewarded for her contribution. Her report led to an investigation and resulted in an announcement by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission on December 30, and a media statement on December 31. This is why various foreign news outlets (e.g., Reuters, 12/31/19; AP, 12/31/19) reported on this “pneumonia outbreak,” and how institutions like the WHO (12/31/19) and the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (12/31/19) received this supposedly “secret” information in real time.
This is public knowledge, and is probably known by the Times and ProPublica, since they studiously avoid calling Li the “first” doctor to report Covid-19’s existence, and instead refer to him merely as “a doctor who had warned about a strange new viral outbreak.” The Times/ProPublica link to an early Times report last year (2/7/20) also only describes Li as “among the first to warn about the coronavirus outbreak in late December,” which suggests that they are aware that someone else had already reported Covid-19 to health authorities before Li’s information was leaked. Yet their report and a search on both their websites for Zhang’s name turns up nothing, suggesting that they are burying the real story of how Covid-19 was discovered and reported, which is ironic for a report decrying Chinese censorship.
In fact, a Nexis search for Zhang Jixian’s name from January 1, 2020, to December 19, 2020, from the Associated Press, New York Times, LA Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, MSNBC, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News and Fox News return no results. To be fair, Nexis doesn’t catch all reports, but even after searching on Google and outlets’ websites, it’s clear that the biggest news outlets in the country are themselves omitting critical information that contradicts their false narrative of a Chinese government coverup.
Although the Associated Press failed to report on Zhang’s story, it has two press releases on its website from CGTN (4/13/20, 4/13/20)—a Chinese state media outlet—that mention her role in informing the world of Covid-19. Fox News (3/13/20, 4/16/20) is the only outlet above that briefly reported Zhang’s role in two reports that present baseless speculation, relying on anonymous sources, about the evidence-free lab leak theory, and about the WHO collaborating with China to conceal Covid information. The latter piece misleadingly presents a retroactive tracing of the first Covid-19 patient in China’s Hubei province to November 17, 2019 as evidence of a Chinese coverup.
The Washington Post (whose data is no longer included by Nexis) has only mentioned Zhang twice, once in a factcheck (5/20/20) debunking President Trump’s misleading letter to the WHO (which cites Zhang), and the other in an article (2/24/20) that shares the same talking points as CNN’s Wuhan Files report. A search for Li’s name on the Post‘s website, meanwhile, returns 81 results.Information against infection
One question ignored by the Times/ProPublica report, and countless other stories from Western media outlets condemning how local officials in Hubei province handled Li and his colleagues (for which the Chinese government has issued an apology and fired local government officials), is whether sharing Li’s mistaken information would have been helpful. If the Chinese population had been convinced that the initial reports of a mysterious pneumonia outbreak was a return of the 2003 SARS virus, instead of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19), that could have had disastrous results. One critical difference between SARS and SARS-CoV-2 is the latter having presymptomatic and asymptomatic transmission (where cases could infect others before, or without developing any symptoms), whereas SARS did not (Lancet, 5/1/20). Would it have been helpful for people to think they should only quarantine or isolate themselves when they develop symptoms?
Likewise, another question the Times, ProPublica and other Western outlets ignore when they criticize China for censoring “anything that cast China’s response in too ‘negative’ a light” is whether sharing negative or sensationalized information is useful for containing a pandemic. It’s impossible for any news media outlet to cover every bit of information, so story selection and prioritization of information is unavoidable and necessary. From the beginning, the WHO has criticized what it called an “infodemic,” which is an overabundance of information that can be either inaccurate or useless. FAIR has criticized news media for not prioritizing scientific coverage of how people get infected (4/11/20, 5/9/20), sensationalist reports that incite panicked and racist responses (3/6/20, 5/7/20), or misleading coverage that instills a false sense of security (5/27/20) or resigned helplessness (3/20/20, 5/1/20).
When the Times/ProPublica criticize the Chinese government for trying to “steer the narrative not only to prevent panic and debunk damaging falsehoods domestically,” but in order to “make the virus look less severe” and “the authorities more capable,” they omit that not only have the Chinese government’s pandemic results been superior to those achieved by most other governments, but that delivery of accurate information to the public was critical to that success. A visitor to China early in the outbreak (HuffPost, 1/30/20) noted that coronavirus coverage dominated all other topics, and prioritized explaining the rationale behind government measures, scientific information on how it spreads, and reports encouraging confidence and compliance with government directives:
Another really interesting manifestation of the power of government is the news. The coronavirus may be big news internationally, but in China, it’s the only news right now…. While China’s tight control of the media has many pitfalls, it seems uniquely well-suited for keeping an epidemic under control.
Other people living in China have testified that because the vast majority of the Chinese people express trust and support for their government, Chinese media’s unified messaging and emphasis allowed for a much more unified response and widespread compliance with government directives to prevent panic and infection.
In contrast, influential US media outlets like Fox News have been criticized by doctors for eroding trust in medicine, scientists and other data (NBC, 12/18/20). Numerous media studies of pandemic coverage (Washington Post, 6/28/20) have found that contradictory US media coverage has led millions of Americans to believe that the pandemic threat is exaggerated, join anti-quarantine protests, refuse to comply with wearing masks and social distancing measures, as well as panic shop for toilet paper, hand sanitizer and face masks, leading to shortages across the country at the beginning of the outbreak. The US has also allowed misinformation and conspiracy theories peddled by the notorious Plandemic documentary and right-wing media before social media giants like Twitter and Facebook began suppressing them.
The Times/ProPublica report also ignored how the US government engages in censorship and narrative controls in order to lie to the public, and crack down on actual whistleblowers. These actions are consistent with the deliberate mass infection strategy that the administration contemplated; whether or not that was the actual agenda, the government’s policies led to catastrophic deaths. These omissions create the misimpression that China’s government was uniquely incompetent and dishonest in its response to Covid, when any fair comparison would belie this.
It is important for American journalists to combat these misperceptions, so that the US can learn from China’s response on how to better deal with the current crisis—saving lives in this as well as future pandemics, as well as reducing tensions between the nuclear powers US and China.
Janine Jackson interviewed historian Keri Leigh Merritt about the New Lost Cause for the January 15, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: You can feel the eagerness of many people, including in the media, to get over January 6, to section those people off as outliers with little to do with the US conversation, much less the mainstream Republican Party, and why don’t we move along to the healing already? Donald Trump, in this rendering, is a unique, lamentable phenomenon that doesn’t represent who “we” are as a country, and when he leaves, those hateful ideas will leave with him.
Black Americans, anyway, know the price of healing without reckoning, because we pay it. And historians, too, are shaking their heads at descriptions of the attack on the Capitol as “unpredictable” and “unprecedented,” because, while it was many things, it wasn’t that.
People are ready to take on a more complicated understanding of this country’s roots. But will news media help inform that conversation, or just inflame, or even worse, ignore it?
Keri Leigh Merritt is an independent historian, author and filmmaker. She’s author of the book Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South and co-editor of Reconsidering Southern Labor History: Race, Class and Power. She’s also working on a new film on the Civil War. She joins us now by phone from Atlanta. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Keri Leigh Merritt.
Keri Leigh Merritt: Thank you so much for having me.
JJ: In the essay that you co-wrote with Rhae Lynn Barnes for CNN.com, you call the Lost Cause of the Confederacy “America’s most successful disinformation campaign.” Folks are kind of talking about the Lost Cause as an idea, but there’s not necessarily a deep understanding of what that’s really all about. I wonder if you can talk about that, and the resonances that lead you and others to talk about Trumpism with reference to a kind of New Lost Cause.
KLM: Right. So I think what’s happening today definitely has its roots in the mid–19th century. And obviously, we’re not the only historians to say this, or to be saying it for the last five years; as you were talking about, we’ve all been saying this since Charlottesville. And to be quite honest, Black Americans and Indigenous Americans, they’ve been saying this for four centuries now. So this is not a surprise to people who have been oppressed in America; it’s only coming as a surprise to white people, and people who have been in a privileged enough position to really not have to know the history, the really bad history, the bad side of our country’s history.
So a lot of the reason they don’t know this bad side of the history is because of the Lost Cause. And the Lost Cause is also known as the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. It was basically an ahistorical theory which accomplished two things: One was that all white Southerners supposedly fought for the Confederacy, valiantly and willingly, and really believed in the cause; and they made it into more of a states’ rights issue than the real cause, which was, of course, slavery. And then the second part of the Lost Cause mythology is that all these whites were fighting valiantly for the Confederacy because slavery wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t a bad institution; it was really a benign institution run by these benevolent, Christian men who were trying to uplift and take care of these kind of happy slaves. It’s that kind of imagery that’s in Gone With the Wind and some of these popular cultural representations that all of us know.
But, essentially, the Lost Cause helped to solidify the white South, even up until the very recent past; Georgia, obviously, was an outlier in that this year. But even up until this day, the Deep South, where slavery was at its apex, has traditionally, since Reconstruction, disenfranchised all the Black voters that it could, and united white Southerners of all classes in a white-supremacist, racist ideology that is actually rooted in this Lost Cause–ism.
And we argue that Lost Cause–ism is a type of grievance, right, a way that you get people to be white supremacists and to really have a lot of racial hatred in them, especially among poor whites, or working-class whites, who would have more in common on an economic level or a labor level with other working-class people from different races. You have to engender that by not only rhetoric, but by using grievance as a tool.
And I think we’ve underestimated how much you can whip up racism and xenophobia by just saying, “You were robbed of this, you’ve got something to be angry over, you’ve got something to be aggrieved about.” And scholars like Heather Cox Richardson have shown how this Southern sense of grievance, and white supremacists who are feeling like they were losing control of the country in the 19th century, this ideology really spread west, and then it also took over the whole United States. So essentially, the United States becomes Southern white supremacists, in some ways. And so really, the Lost Cause has in some ways won the Civil War, even up to this day, and we’re seeing how that’s playing out right now.
JJ: You talk about class fissures among white Americans. And media have fed the narrative of Trump supporters as hardscrabble white working-class people, that economic anxiety was the primary driver. But when you look at January 6, at least one of those folks came in on a private jet. And you’ve alluded to it, and I know we talked about it back in 2017 after Charlottesville: the misunderstanding, the kind of instrumental erasure of class difference among white people, is also historically referent.
KLM: Yes, and I have said from the beginning, as well as other scholars, yes, a majority of all whites supported Trump, until these recent elections, across all demographics, and there wasn’t a huge difference between affluent, well-educated whites, and poor and working-class whites.
First of all, I think those things need to be well-defined, because you have a lot of affluent whites that don’t have anything higher than a high-school education. So first of all our categories are messed up in how we’re analyzing all of this.
But second of all, the real drivers of all of this are these elite whites. I mean, who’s running this? Elite white men from the heights of New York wealth and high society. And they’re engendering this class hatred, and we’ve seen it from the first time Trump began running, it was whipping up as much hatred and xenophobia among poor and working-class people as whites as he could. And that’s just a complete continuation of the Jim Crow playbook that goes all the way back to how white supremacists, led by slaveholders and their sons, used a combination of really horrible racist rhetoric, the police state as well—they’ve used police to arrest people for essentially doing nothing and incarcerate as many Black people as they could — and then also with just violence, with vigilante violence, with any kind of terroristic violence that they could get away with.
Reconstruction is the bloodiest period in our nation’s history, in terms of this terroristic violence. We still don’t understand the depths of how many Black people were murdered and lynched during these years. And so we’re seeing today these threats of violence, these threats of white supremacist backlash. And our point in writing the article for CNN is there have to be punishments for all of the leaders, very publicly and very obviously, so that we can hopefully deter this from escalating, essentially.
JJ: And that’s part of the problem from the past, was a lack of repercussion, that essentially, in the name of things we’re used to hearing today, “civility” and “not being divisive,” “reaching across the aisle”; there was a desire to “go forward and not back” and all of that, and that has an effect, that absence of repercussion for this sort of backlash.
KLM: Right. There were no repercussions for even the leaders of the Confederacy. And so because of this, because Lincoln actually was pretty lenient, but then, of course, an upper-class white Southern zealot comes in and murders Lincoln, and then it’s left to Andrew Johnson, who killed any kind of progress that was to be made in terms of punishing the former Confederates who led this uprising against our country.
And if that had happened, which was the Radical Republicans’ plan at the time—they wanted to punish the Confederates primarily by taking away their huge plantations, and then dividing those up and giving land to freed men and women. And so that would have radically, radically changed the entire trajectory of America; it would have not gotten rid of, but it would have really minimized the incredible racial wealth gap we see today. It would have gotten rid of a lot of the police state, because formerly enslaved people would have land, and thus they would have some political and economic power.
And so because we failed to punish the leaders of the Confederacy, landholding in the South never changed, wealth-holding in the South never changed. Some of these small rural areas in the South are still run by the descendants of the people who ran the big plantations. And power and wealth has never changed hands in much of the rural South.
JJ: Finally, when we had you here in 2017 after Charlottesville, you were talking about an unwillingness or a hesitancy on the part of many historians to “enter the fray.” That they were academics, and getting into the political conversation was sullying somehow. I take it you have not changed your thinking about the idea that there’s an important role for historians in public conversation.
KLM: Absolutely. And we’ve unfortunately seen the backlash of this, over the last couple of years, with professors that have been outspoken about the racist violence in this country, or the brutality of our racist criminal justice system, the people who have actually spoken truth to power about these things have been fired or run out of their jobs, or there have been mobs to literally threaten their families on a daily basis. So anybody who’s actually speaking out about these issues is facing a lot of threats, and in some cases they’re having to give up their entire livelihood, because they’re telling the truth.
JJ: And yet that just speaks to the importance of it.
KLM: Absolutely, yes. The powers that be do not want this information out; they’re cutting education budgets, they’re cutting humanities, they’re cutting history.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with independent historian Keri Leigh Merritt. She’s the author of Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, which is out from Cambridge University Press. She’s also working on a new film on the Civil War with Rhae Lynn Barnes. And her article with Rhae Lynn Barnes, “A Confederate Flag at the Capitol Summons America’s Demons,” can be found on CNN.com. Thank you so much, Keri Leigh Merritt, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
KLM: Thank you.