Tuesday, March 9, 2021

The Media's Agenda-Driven COVID-19 Coverage is Symptomatic of a Larger Problem

Reporters are supposed to do research and ask questions designed to discover facts, and then report those facts. A reporter's job is not to persuade, but to inform. A commentator's job is to utilize facts to persuade the audience that a given policy or viewpoint is more logical than the opposing policy or viewpoint.

It is unfortunate that far too many reporters and commentators either do not understand the above job descriptions and/or refuse to do their jobs appropriately.

It has become a widespread practice for reporters to highlight the facts that they believe are favorable to whatever "higher truth" they support, and to suppress the facts that they believe are not favorable to that "higher truth." It has also become a widespread practice for reporters to deliver commentary. If you are a reporter covering an election, the reader/viewer should never know which candidate you support; it used to be said of sports reporters that "there is no cheering in the press box," and that should be the approach taken by political reporters. Instead, reporters feel free to tell us how elated--or despondent--they feel about an election result. Viewers can decide for themselves how to feel after reporters do their job of reporting what has happened. It is appropriate for a commentator to express elation or despondency, but those feelings should be grounded in facts: elation because an election result will likely produce a desirable policy impact, or despondency because an election result will likely produce an undesirable policy impact. The commentator's job is to analyze the facts and explain what outcomes are most likely based on the facts. 

The media's agenda-driven COVID-19 coverage has been awful, but it is symptomatic of the larger problem described above, and that problem has existed for a long time--though it seems to be getting worse--across many different subjects, ranging from life and death topics such as Mideast politics to lesser matters, such as determining who is the best player in the NBA. Some issues have much greater existential importance that others, but issues great and small are affected by this problem.

For example, by any objective measurement President Trump's Operation Warp Speed vaccination program has been a huge success, as noted by The Wall Street Journal:

President Biden announced Tuesday that the U.S. should have enough vaccine supply for every American adult by the end of May. Last week the Food and Drug Administration finally approved Johnson & Johnson's vaccine, and this week J&J struck a deal with Merck to manufacture the single-shot J&J vaccine as well. With the Moderna and Pfizer shots already going into more than a million American arms each week, thousands of lives will be saved.

It's important to appreciate what an achievement this is. Critics scoffed when President Trump set a target of having a vaccine approved by the end of 2020, and Kamala Harris suggested she might not take a shot recommended by the Trump Administration.

The Biden-Harris Administration has now changed to full-throated encouragement—though not before continuing to trash the Trump efforts. White House aides have suggested that they inherited little vaccine supply and no plan for distribution. Both claims are false.

The supply was ramping up fast, and while there were distribution glitches at first, the real problem has been the last mile of distribution controlled by states. Governors like New York's Andrew Cuomo tried to satisfy political constituencies that wanted access to vaccines, adding complexity and bureaucracy that confused the public...

Mr. Biden ought to give the vaccine credit where it is due--to U.S. drug companies and Operation Warp Speed.

In Joe Biden's Trump-Like Fabrication on Covid (The Wall Street Journal, March 2, 2021), Gerard Baker discusses how former President Trump's recent CPAC speech is being used by many media outlets as a pretext to focus coverage on the former President instead of focusing coverage on how President Biden is rewriting history to benefit his administration:

The primary problem with having Mr. Trump back is that it allows the media to focus again on the many deceptions of the 45th president while conveniently ignoring the large, central deception that is intended to define the administration of the 46th.

The Biden team is concocting a fiction, elaborately developed and assiduously repeated. It is designed to cement the new president's legacy, ensure the political success of his party and ineradicably defame their opponents.

It is that before Jan. 20, the Covid-19 pandemic was out of control, threatening an even larger catastrophe than the one that had already claimed more than 400,000 lives and destroyed so much productive economic capacity. It had been allowed to do so, the narrative asserts, by Mr. Biden's callously indifferent predecessor, who ignored the virus, disparaged science and did nothing to protect Americans. Only the heroic efforts of the Biden team, with deference to science and carefully targeted economic relief, averted catastrophe.

It is a preposterous fabrication.

Covid cases peaked in the U.S. at the end of the first week of January and by the time Mr. Biden took office had already fallen by a third. 

The claim that the administration inherited no vaccine program at all, initially propagated through the ministrations of a kindly reporter, is so at odds with the evidence that even the most friendly newspapers were obliged to call it out.

So developed was the vaccination program in place when Mr. Biden took office that it was close to achieving his supposedly ambitious goal of a million shots a day. Credit the pharmaceutical companies (institutions Democrats love to despise) and the incentives provided by a capitalist market (a system Democrats love to despise). But the Trump administration gets much credit too--for identifying the opportunity early, and crucially for committing public funds to minimize the risks for drug makers...

The Biden Fabrication demands, at least for now, a steady drumbeat of negative Covid news from the administration--itself another cruel deception on a nation desperate for the good news that is actually the truth. The president tells a town hall not to expect much before Christmas, and the way Dr. Doom, a k a Anthony Fauci, speaks, you could be forgiven for thinking that we may all be triple-masking well into 2020.
A cynic would say that the only good thing about "The Biden Fabrication" is that it also necessitates telling the public at some point that all is well thanks solely to President Biden's efforts. You can expect the media to start actively broadcasting that message later this year, and--barring some unforeseen development, such as COVID-19 mutating into a vaccine-resistant variation--most likely before the end of the year we will be told that life can return to normal (or as close to the pre-COVID-19 normal as is possible, given that certain things will inevitably change as a result of the pandemic). I would not be surprised to see large numbers of fans attending sports events in person this fall, and perhaps we will even see championship teams visiting the White House, providing a photo opportunity for President Biden, as well as an opportunity for the media to note that many athletes refused to visit the White House during President Trump's administration.

President Biden is a politician, and like most politicians he is reluctant to give credit to the opposing party for anything that the opposing party did well. That is why it is so important that reporters and commentators do their jobs. When President Biden acts as if he is single-handedly bringing COVID-19 under control, it is the responsibility of reporters to report the facts: the vaccination program that is the main reason that cases and deaths are declining now was put into place by President Trump's administration. Commentators may have various opinions about what else could/should have been done to fight COVID-19, and whether or not Biden would have implemented a similar vaccination program had he been President when the pandemic began, but any reasonable and intelligent conversation about this topic must begin by stating the basic facts.

Reporters would be well advised to cultivate humility in general, and also to cultivate humility specifically regarding the many specialized fields of inquiry for which they have little to no training or expertise. After Dr. Robert Goddard wrote that it would be possible to launch a rocket that could travel to the moon, The New York Times sneered in 1920 that Dr. Goddard failed to understand "the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools." A mere 49 years later, the newspaper published a retraction: "Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th century, and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error."

False media reporting about scientific issues can have disastrous consequences. Outraged by the mocking media coverage of his research, Dr. Goddard spent much of his career avoiding the press. He just filed his patents and he did his rocket launches. While the mainstream American media scoffed at Dr. Goddard, others actually studied Dr. Goddard's patent filings; after a captured Nazi scientist was asked about the origins of the Nazis' deadly V-2 rockets, the scientist replied, "Why don't you ask your own Dr. Goddard? He knows better than any of us." 

It has become a popular mantra to say "Follow the science," but science is properly understood as a method of inquiry, not an infallible source for one indisputable truth; it has become evident that often when a media member says "Follow the science" the reader is meant to understand this to mean "Have faith in the higher truth I am bestowing upon you." Einstein's Theory of Relativity is perhaps the most successful scientific theory of all-time, but scientists still do experiments to test its limits, so the notion that there is one scientific truth about the COVID-19 pandemic would be laughable if that notion were not so potentially threatening not only to our lives but also to the spirit of scientific inquiry.

When any media outlet tries to convince you that there is just one absolute scientific truth about a given issue--particularly if that issue is highly politicized--remember how the media treated Dr. Goddard. We would all be better off if people who do not know what they are talking about kept their minds open and their mouths shut.

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