The Media and the Virus
American press coverage of Covid-19 was first dismissive, then alarmist—but always condescending.
On April 18, 40 days after Italy became the first Western country to go into lockdown to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, found solace amid the worsening pandemic in the words of Jennifer Lopez. “What I know is how much we need each other,” he tweeted, attributing the words to the star of such pop hits as “Booty.” Then, not content with quoting (as Emerson would have it) “some saint or sage,” he imparted to his 1 million followers a few exhortations of his own. “No to hate,” he said. “No to stigma. No to divisions. Yes to unity. Yes to solidarity.”
Anyone surprised by this rhetoric from Tedros (as he is known) hadn’t been paying attention. Stigma, especially, was the bête noire of the leader of the WHO, which for weeks in late 2019 and early 2020 was all but asleep at the wheel as the virus spread around the globe. More than once since the beginning of the outbreak in Wuhan, Tedros had taken it upon himself to admonish the masses not to disparage the Chinese. “It’s so painful to see the level of stigma we are observing,” he declared in early March. “Stigma, to be honest, is more dangerous than the virus itself.” Two months later, a quarter of a million people would be dead, though not of stigma.
It would once have seemed strange for a man in Tedros’s position to adopt the saccharine slogans of protest marches. Just so, it would once have seemed strange for a medical expert to rate protecting people from racial offense a higher priority than saving lives. That it no longer seems strange is part of the story of the Covid-19 pandemic.
That story is one of compounding failures. During the early stages of the unfolding crisis, the WHO failed to take the coronavirus threat seriously, to question China’s official claims about its outbreak, and to coordinate a global response. In January, February, and early March, while the WHO was still declining to label the coronavirus a pandemic—partly because that label carries, according to Tedros, “significant risk in terms of amplifying unnecessary and unjustified fear and stigma”—the American media were also failing, systemically, to sound the alarm.
As it unfolded in the media, the story of the pandemic was initially that of a nonevent. On January 31, Vox ran a supposedly comprehensive “explainer” about the coronavirus. There was no need for Americans to wear protective face masks, Vox said, and “really no reason to worry.” On Twitter, Vox was still more blunt: “Is this going to be a deadly pandemic? No.” The hectoring tone and sham certitude are Vox specialties. But Vox wasn’t alone in dismissing the virus. USA Today, the Washington Post, Canada’s National Post, and many other outlets treated the Wuhan virus (as it was then known) less as a matter of objective concern than an instance of mass hysteria.
Their cardinal error, in almost every case, was to rely on the WHO, an organization at best egregiously mistaken and at worst politically compromised, carrying water for the Chinese Communist Party and President Xi Jinping. Taiwan, which, as a result of pressure from China, has been shut out of the World Health Assembly for four years running, claims that it alerted the WHO in late December that the virus could spread from person to person, but its warning was ignored. On January 14, the WHO declared that investigations “conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” of the virus. In fact, as independent Chinese press later revealed, a Wuhan official had ordered in early January the destruction of lab samples that made the cause of infection clear, while doctors were forbidden to discuss the disease that would come to be known as Covid-19. Xi remained silent about the outbreak for nearly two weeks.
None of this came up in the statement that Tedros gave on January 30, two days after meeting Xi in person during a visit to Beijing and ten days after the first U.S. case of the coronavirus was confirmed. Instead, Tedros praised China’s commitment to “transparency” and to “protecting the world’s people.” He congratulated China on its containment measures, calling them “very impressive, and beyond words.” He said that China was “setting a new standard for outbreak response.” In declaring the coronavirus a public-health emergency of international concern, he said that “this declaration is not a vote of no confidence in China. On the contrary, WHO continues to have confidence in China’s capacity to control the outbreak.”
Such patent falsehoods were baffling, as was the health agency’s ostentatious concern lest anyone should dwell on the source of the outbreak or otherwise find fault with China. The WHO even instructed the public to “talk about people ‘acquiring’ or ‘contracting’ Covid-19,” rather than “transmitting Covid-19,” “infecting others,” or “spreading the virus,” because such language “implies intentional transmission [and] assigns blame.” How is it that China can exert such influence, when it made only $7.9 million in voluntary contributions to the WHO’s 2018–19 budget, less than Luxembourg made and a mere 0.3 percent of the total, in contrast to the $553.1 million given by the United States?
Tedros may be in China’s debt for his position at the WHO. China reportedly “worked tirelessly behind the scenes” (as World Politics Review columnist Frida Ghitis put it) to ensure that Tedros defeated the United Kingdom’s preferred candidate, David Nabarro. Less than four months after Tedros assumed his post, he named Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe a WHO “goodwill ambassador.” Mugabe, who died in 2019 at 95, was a staunch China ally and Tedros supporter. “It’s clear that [Mugabe’s ambassadorship] was a prize, if not compensation, for something,” Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, told the Washington Post in 2017. (Tedros ultimately dropped Mugabe, under intense criticism.)
More disturbing still was a Der Spiegel report in early May, citing German intelligence, that Xi had pressured Tedros in a phone conversation on January 21 to “hold back information about human-to-human transmission and to delay a pandemic warning.” (The WHO didn’t declare the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic until March 11, by which time it had reached more than 110 countries.) Germany’s national intelligence service, the BND, estimates that China’s cover-up cost the world four to six vital weeks in its fight against the virus.
The health agency issued a narrow denial, claiming that Tedros and Xi “have never spoken by phone.” The organization noted further that it had publicly declared on January 22 that “data collected . . . suggests that human-to-human transmission is taking place in Wuhan.” At the time, however, the WHO had said that more analysis was needed “to understand the full extent” of that transmission. If the report is correct, it would mean that the WHO, while presenting itself as a neutral arbiter of medical and epidemiological facts, was choosing to shield an authoritarian regime from criticism rather than to save lives. It would also mean that any media reports relying heavily on WHO pronouncements to gauge the severity of the outbreak, as most did, would be unreliable.
If the virus itself was not initially considered much of a story, it nevertheless presented the media with a golden opportunity to scold those reacting improperly to it. On CNBC, Ezekiel Emanuel offered a sanguine view of the coronavirus, drawing on his years as a health advisor to the Obama White House, and a dim view of the American people as given to “histrionics.” “Everyone in America should take a very big breath, slow down, and stop panicking and being hysterical,” he said, expressing confidence that health officials would restrict the spread within the United States. Americans needed to put this new contagion into context, given that “the death rate is much lower than for SARS.”
In the weeks that followed, a great deal was put into context for the benefit of the unenlightened. People were buying and wearing face masks, though Vox had declared that “just about every health expert Vox has spoken to has said there’s no good evidence to support the use of face masks for preventing disease in the general population.” A month later, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams leaped into the fray. “Seriously people,” he tweeted, “STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus.” And some ignorant journalists had employed, in their reporting on the Wuhan outbreak, “exoticizing language” that might, the Columbia Journalism Review feared, “orientalize” Chinese people and drive racism.
That the press seemed unable to inform without shaming, and that many of its claims proved wrong, was barely appreciated at the time. Yet if segments of the public were later inclined to mistrust the national media in the role of Dr. Doom, it was surely due in part to how avidly that same media had played Dr. Pangloss: flights from China did not need to be canceled; New York did not need to be quarantined; the general public did not need to wear masks. Those who advocated the widespread use of masks or kept personal stockpiles were paranoid doomsday preppers—at least until April 3, when, facing a tsunami of coronavirus transmissions nationwide, the CDC began recommending that all Americans wear masks in public. It was said that the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force was insufficiently diverse and that racism and xenophobia were the real epidemics. Long after the lethality and high transmissibility of the coronavirus were known, in other words, the media remained trapped in old narratives.
So pervasive were these narratives that when President Donald Trump made a comparison on March 9 between the coronavirus and the common flu—“Nothing is shut down” in response to the latter, he wrote, “life & the economy go on”—he was merely repeating an argument that the media had made for weeks. “Don’t worry about the coronavirus. Worry about the flu,” BuzzFeed News instructed on January 29. “If you’re freaked out at all about the coronavirus, you should be more concerned about the flu,” Anderson Cooper told CNN viewers on March 4. The origin of Trump’s remark in these narratives, however, was willfully obscured amid the loud opprobrium that followed. Between media coverage lecturing the public for not treating the flu as a greater threat and media coverage lecturing Trump for speaking of the flu as a greater threat, the common element was the impulse to lecture.
Back when health officials were arguing against travel bans and shutdowns, a number of technologists were already expressing concerns and prepping for quarantine. On January 24, biotech investor Robert Nelsen called the coronavirus a “slow-moving train crash at epic scale.” Health-care entrepreneur Jamie Heywood, who had served for several years on a CDC committee, was stocking up on respirators and other supplies.
Whatever warning they had to impart, however, the media were slow to take it seriously. This was borne out in mid-February, when the tech news site Recode published an article shaming Bay Area tech workers for declining handshakes and taking other measures to limit their exposure. The piece conjured up images of frightened billionaires prepping for “Doomsday scenarios” and quoted a researcher opining that “in the midst of all this wealth, there’s this kind of deep, paranoid fear about bodies and disease.” Worse than the virus itself, the article concluded, was the possibility of “targeted xenophobia toward Asian immigrants and Asian Americans.” Barely more than a month later, California governor Gavin Newsom put all 40 million state residents under quarantine.
One technologist who declined to speak to Recode, and who later denounced it and other outlets for spreading misinformation, was Balaji Srinivasan. Like Nelsen, he had warned since January that the coronavirus had the makings of a pandemic. Among those with whom he found himself publicly debating the point was BuzzFeed News science editor Azeen Ghorayshi. The flu, she argued, had killed 5,000 Americans in the first two weeks of the year, while the coronavirus had killed none.
Srinivasan, who had cofounded a successful genomics startup years earlier and once taught computational biology at Stanford University, did his best to explain. “The current death toll of the flu is not comparable to the future death toll of a fast-spreading new virus with no vaccine,” he said. “It’s the difference between a five-alarm fire and heart disease.” “Not sure what info you have that [the] CDC director doesn’t,” Ghorayshi huffed. For his ostensible alarmism, another BuzzFeed staffer called Srinivasan “bubble boy.” Others called him “racist” for suggesting that Chinese New Year gatherings in San Francisco might spread the virus.
Such reactions are part and parcel of the tech backlash that in recent years has made “tech bros” targets of disdain and has informed muckraking exposés of Uber, Facebook, and Amazon. Former Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson said recently that it is “all too common” for tech reporters to see themselves as antagonists of the people and companies they cover, an attitude derived from the post-Watergate “self-importance of [the] press as a necessary counterbalance to power.”
By early March, however, many in the media had perceived that the coronavirus was not without a certain political upside. The crisis offered the best chance to achieve what impeachment had failed to achieve: sinking Trump’s chances at reelection. Only the month before, the U.S. unemployment rate had been at a half-century low and the stock market bullish, even overheated. Wall Street had reportedly been cheered by the sight of Bernie Sanders doing well in the Democratic primary, figuring him to have a worse chance of beating Trump in November and thus making more likely another four years of business-friendly policies. Yet by the end of February, all that had changed. Global markets had spent seven straight trading days in the red, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average had fallen by more than 12 percent, suffering its worst week since the financial crisis. Some $3.4 trillion had been erased from the S&P 500. On February 28, the WHO raised its assessment of the risk of a global outbreak of Covid-19 from “high” to “very high.”
Across the media, a major pivot occurred. It was hard to escape, in the weeks that followed, the suspicion that the dire headlines were informed by more than the mere facts of the case, alarming though they were. To that point, Marco Annunziata, former chief economist and head of business innovation strategy at General Electric, noted in his newsletter: “In the U.S., many commentators see an economic slump as the last hope to prevent President Trump from being reelected, and this compounds the usual doom-and-gloom bias that the media have displayed for the past 10 years.”
By March 10, nine of the ten most popular articles on The Atlantic’s website concerned the coronavirus, from the implications of empty public spaces to the out-of-control outbreak in Iran, and from evidence that the CDC was botching coronavirus testing to the reasons that the crisis was all Trump’s fault. The press had perceived that consumers’ appetite for coronavirus content was vast and growing. They had perceived that Trump could be blamed, as the Washington Post blamed him, for trying “to play down the severity of a public health crisis that might affect his reelection prospects.” They had perceived that Trump’s “handling (or mishandling) of the ongoing coronavirus epidemic” might be, as CNN’s Chris Cillizza speculated, his Hurricane Katrina. They had perceived that Fox News, alone among news organizations, should be called out, as Justin Baragona, a Daily Beast contributing editor, called it out on March 17: “Now that Trump’s been forced to take [the] coronavirus seriously, his biggest Fox boosters—who for weeks minimized and downplayed the crisis—are now taking it seriously too.”
Another media figure suddenly taking it seriously was New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo, who in late January had written a column arguing against a drastic response to the virus. The column reads like a winning card for coronavirus bingo. It’s all there: the common flu presented as a greater threat, the possible “scapegoating” of minorities, the reliance on the WHO as an impartial source, and the abhorrence of “racist memes blaming Chinese people” for the virus. In late January, Manjoo had urged skepticism “in case American politicians begin pushing for travel bans, overbroad quarantines, or other measures that might not be supported by the science”; by early March, he was blaming the severity of the outbreak on “the delusion that we can keep ignoring the science and scientists who are warning about the long-term dangers to our way of life.” Later that month, he had another revelation: the federal government was too small to get things done. “This is what happens when you starve the beast,” he wrote, ignoring decades of metastatic growth in the administrative state. “This is what happens when you shrink government down to the size that you can drown it in a bathtub.”
In sum, Manjoo and his peers had perceived that amid the chaos of that world-hysterical moment, while the WHO was covering for China and the CDC was botching coronavirus testing and the president was mishandling the epidemic, they could shift from confidently asserting one position to asserting with like confidence its exact opposite, from using the term “Wuhan virus” to declaring that term racist, and from playing Dr. Pangloss to playing Dr. Doom; they could bark all the more loudly now, brave watchdogs, to drown out their earlier silence. “They are supposed to be advocates for the public, but they increasingly see themselves as in the position of attempting to protect the public from themselves,” says Ari Schulman, editor of The New Atlantis.
For Schulman, the response by health officials and the media is familiar: it reminds him of the 2014 outbreak of Ebola, during which the mainstream press joined public-health agencies in condemning what Time magazine called “Our Collective Ebola Freak-Out.” A writer for Wired coined the portmanteau “Ebolanoia” in a piece arguing that “the only thing we have to fear is Ebola fear itself.” Vox published an ersatz quiz to determine whether a reader might be infected with Ebola. “Have you touched the vomit, blood, sweat, saliva, urine, or feces of someone who might have Ebola?” it asked. The flowchart had only one line, one answer (“NO”), and one possible conclusion: “You do not have Ebola.”
Then, as now, a number of journalists acted as though their responsibility was less to inform than to mock and chasten an ignorant public. Then, as now, the WHO was slow to declare the virus a public-health emergency, waiting more than four months after the first international spread. Then, as now, CDC guidelines regarding personal protective equipment proved inadequate and had to be reversed—in that case, only after two nurses in Dallas who had been treating an Ebola patient became infected themselves.
By the late spring of this year, as the lockdowns imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus inflicted vast economic damage, and deadlines for reopening kept being pushed back, the media continued to lecture, now reviling anyone who suggested that the cure might have become worse than the disease. When Lloyd Blankfein, former CEO of Goldman Sachs, asked on May 21 whether “the public health benefit from broad lockdowns at this point [is] worth such extreme damage to livelihoods,” Matt Stoller, a former Senate Budget Committee advisor who writes about politics and finance, said that Blankfein was “just trying to add to his human skin collection.”
The information war being waged over the virus is only heating up. We have created a media environment in which millions are persuaded to turn from reputable sources to rogue websites and conspiracy videos. In early May, a 26-minute portion of a forthcoming documentary, Plandemic, which claims that a cabal of elites created the coronavirus to enrich themselves through the manufacture of “globally mandated vaccines,” went viral online before social media platforms began taking it down. Certain assertions in the video, such as that wearing a mask could actually make you sick, “could lead to imminent harm,” Facebook said. But in the weeks prior to the documentary’s summer 2020 release, the claims—inaccurate or unsubstantiated though they were—persisted, and among those who’ve learned to mistrust mainstream media, they took hold.
The treatment of Covid-19 victims is its own front in the war. One’s opinion of the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine, the antimalaria drug for which the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency authorization in March, allowing it to be used in treating patients hospitalized with Covid-19, is likely to depend on one’s media diet. Trump touted the drug early on as a potential “game changer,” and later announced that he had been dosing himself with it. The Atlantic knew what to think of this news: the president was “poisoning the entire body politic with chaos, misinformation, and distrust.” As for the drug itself, “studies have . . . showed no benefit against Covid-19.”
It’s true that the FDA has warned against using hydroxychloroquine outside of hospitals and clinical trials. By early May, both Northwell Health and Mount Sinai had stopped using it for routine treatment. But some studies have shown a benefit. While a New York State Health Department study of 1,500 Covid-19 patients found that treatment with hydroxychloroquine, the antibiotic azithromycin, or both did not improve their chances, New York University researchers who studied the records of 932 patients found that those treated with both drugs in combination with zinc sulphate were 44 percent less likely to die. More research is clearly needed. But one looked in vain for this nuance in most media reports, where an epistemology was being zealously guarded against unacceptable facts.
In other ways, however, that epistemology has proved all too accommodating.
Just as parts of the U.S. began to reopen, offering hope that something like normal life was about to resume, mass protests and riots broke out nationwide following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. After months of avoiding large gatherings—and being forbidden even to attend funerals or sit by a loved one’s hospital deathbed—hundreds of thousands of people were suddenly jostling one another in the streets. In the ensuing chaos, buildings were burned and stores looted nationwide. In the face of lockdown-breaking on such a vast scale, resistance crumbled. Media outlets and officials formerly united in the need for social distancing, who had warned against reopening too quickly and decried conservative anti-lockdown demonstrations in April and May, rushed to support the new protests.
In one egregious example, nearly 1,300 public-health professionals and activists signed an open letter arguing that “[p]rotests against systemic racism . . . must be supported”—even when demonstrators fail to wear masks, keep a safe distance, or take other precautions. “[A]s public health advocates,” according to the letter, “we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for Covid-19 transmission.” Yet as Nicholas Christakis, a physician and Yale professor, wrote on Twitter, “large gatherings of people facilitate [the] spread of contagious disease. The reason for the gathering . . . is not material to the spread of the virus.”
Large numbers of health experts have undermined their authority by encouraging mass protests, just as media pundits once vehement in their denunciations of anyone who violated quarantine have destroyed their credibility by affirming this double standard. “Overnight, behaviors seen as dangerous and immoral seemingly became permissible due to a ‘greater need,’ ” Jeffrey Flier, former dean of Harvard Medical School, told Politico.
The hypocrisy is too much for some. One poll in April found that nine out of ten Republicans trusted the information that they were getting about the coronavirus from medical experts. Now only one in three does. Americans are unlikely to abide lockdown a second time, even if the political will existed to implement it. The result in many parts of the U.S., by mid-June, was a halfhearted and piecemeal response to the ongoing pandemic, even as several states began posting record numbers of new infections. As a friend who works in the medical field in New York told me recently, “It’s hard to take distancing seriously when there are thousands of people protesting and health officials don’t have a problem with it.”
As of July 2, the coronavirus had claimed the lives of 130,000 Americans and of 516,000 people worldwide. The comforting notion that the media exist to inform and disseminate, rather than to hector and malign, to think critically and exercise independent judgment rather than to echo compromised experts—like the equally comforting notions that truth will drive out falsehood, that the best ideas will always win out in this best of all possible worlds—may prove another of its casualties.
Editor’s note: a previous version of this article incorrectly identified Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as a medical doctor.
Top Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
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