Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

‘These Devices Making the Super-Wealthy Super-Wealthier Will Have to Come Apart’ - CounterSpin interview with David Cay Johnston on the 2008 bailout

The March 27, 2020, episode of CounterSpin included an archival interview with David Cay Johnston about the 2008 bailout, which originally aired October 10, 2008. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: The coronavirus is new, but economic shocks and the government response of bailing out certain industries are not. We have experience to draw from there. In 2008, the New York Times described the announced $700 billion bailout bill, presented to address the financial crisis, as, “One of the most favored new options being discussed in Washington and on Wall Street.”

Of course, many asked, “What about Main Street?”—the people whose calls to legislators had spurred the House’s initial rejection of the legislation. Once policy has that much-vaunted “bipartisan support,” it’s an elite media juggernaut.

But CounterSpin spoke with a journalist who’d been calling for skepticism from the start. David Cay Johnston, then recently retired from the New York Times, is an investigative reporter and the author of a number of books, among them Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You With the Bill) and, most recently, It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America.

When he spoke with CounterSpin in October 2008, he’d just issued a call for reporters covering the bailout not to “repeat the failed lapdog practices that so damaged our reputations in the rush to war in Iraq and the adoption of the Patriot Act.” CounterSpin asked him, first, for his general assessment of big media’s bailout coverage.

***

David Cay Johnston: The electronic coverage, broadcast television and cable, has been awful, absolutely awful, including both the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, and Brian Williams on the NBC Nightly News, opening their newscasts on Monday night, September 29, when the stock market tanked, with a flat-out untrue statement. The very first thing they told their audience was that this was the biggest one-day decline ever in the stock market. It was only the third-biggest decline in just the last 21 years.

The coverage in the print media has gotten better as we have gone along. A lot of it is still very gullible. I’m particularly troubled by some areas of print, including the Washington Post, that just seem to accept that you need to trust the official version of events. But both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have actually done some extraordinary, solid reporting on this stuff, and have dug up some very troubling things.

New York Times (9/28/08)

JJ: I know you had a cite for a former colleague of yours, Gretchen Morgenson in the New York Times, who’s done some reporting that maybe she’s the only one on, so there are some investigations going on there, right?

DCJ: There is some. Fundamentally, the problem here is the constant problem with Washington journalism, which is this idea that sources are what matter. And this is fueled by editors, who say, “Well, the reason we have you in our Washington bureau is to talk to the official sources.”

Well, you’d probably get better coverage if you had a reporter sitting in your newsroom in Chicago or Rochester, where I live, or Los Angeles, reading the government’s record and writing about all the things the government has to disclose. We’ve known there was a high risk of something like this happening, not exactly what would happen, but some kind of serious collapse, for 14 months.

And one of the questions I haven’t seen journalists asking is, “All right, when you were put on notice 14 months ago, in August of last year, what plans did Treasury and the other government agencies put in place in the event that the credit markets seized up, that there was a huge collapse of asset values?” And I’m fairly confident we will find out they didn’t do anything.

JJ: You mentioned the question of sources, and one of the things that we’ve complained about is the “no one saw it coming” angle, which you’re just touching on. It certainly looks a lot like the Iraq War story, where we were told, “no one could predict” the post-invasion scenario that we’re now experiencing. Well, in fact, of course, in both cases, people did predict the current situation. They just weren’t the folks we were seeing on TV. So I guess the question is, why are they still not the people we’re seeing on TV?

DCJ: Yes. Well, that, Janine, is exactly what troubles me. And in the case of the Iraq scenario, remember that we now know—we didn’t know then for sure, but we absolutely now know for sure—that the Bush administration was aware that there were no weapons of mass destruction. Knowing that, recognizing that you have an administration that will lie through its teeth to pursue a policy that’s cost thousands of Americans, and probably tens of thousands of Iraqis, their lives, why would you hesitate to think that they might not be telling you the whole truth and nothing but the truth about something dealing with money? Particularly when, as President Bush famously said when he ran for office, that the people at the top were his base, the haves and the have-mores.

Some of us have, for years, been warning about this. I wrote a book called Perfectly Legal, that came out five years ago, almost; I wrote it six years ago. And I say in the book, inevitably, these devices that are making the super-wealthy super-wealthier will have to come apart, because they involve artificially inflating assets. And when that happens, all of us will be worse off. Some of us—and I wasn’t the only one—wrote stories; there was a housing bubble four or five years ago. So it wasn’t like this wasn’t known. It wasn’t like there weren’t economists and government data telling you, sooner or later, the bubble had to prick and come apart.

Steve Rendall: I just want to note that in that piece by Gretchen Morgenson that Janine mentioned earlier, that you had blogged about, that in that piece, she actually had a scoop that showed that the CEO of Goldman Sachs was actually in the room as the bailout plan was being put together.

DCJ: Yeah, that’s right. And Gretchen Morgenson also revealed that Goldman Sachs is on the hook for as much as $20 billion from AIG, and that’s one of the important issues not being covered here. Henry Paulson, the Treasury secretary, has devised a plan that is exactly what one would expect from someone who spent his whole career at Goldman Sachs, the premier investment bank—and, by the way, where a lot of these toxic products and derivatives were cooked up and sold. And it turns out that one of his first actions, the one that the Wall Street Journal says triggered the panic, was the decision to not rescue Lehman Brothers, a competing bank.

Then he decides that he’s going to rescue AIG. Guess who benefits from that, first and directly? Goldman Sachs. Now we have pumped more than $120 billion into AIG, so that people who wanted to cash out of AIG could get their money. You think it just might be possible that a little bit of that money went to people who are either Goldman Sachs or its clients? Well, we don’t know, because the government isn’t asking, and neither are reporters demanding answers.

SR: Many people, perhaps over-hopefully, imagined that this crisis might lead to an actual reevaluation of what have been dominant ideas about regulation, the role of financial institutions and so on. What do you see as likely to happen, and what role should or could journalists play?

David Cay Johnston: “We now have 28 years of experience with Reaganism. The average income of the bottom 90% of Americans is today what it was back in 1980, when you adjust for inflation, and the incomes of the top tenth of 1% and above have gone through the roof.”

DCJ: You know, I’ve written two books about this, Perfectly Legal and Free Lunch, and they are about how we now have 28 years of experience with Reaganism. The average income of the bottom 90% of Americans is today what it was back in 1980, when you adjust for inflation, and the incomes of the top tenth of 1% and above have gone through the roof. It doesn’t work. It works if your goal is to take from those with less to give to those with more. But fundamentally, it doesn’t work.

And I think the public, after years and years and years, is beginning to change. Now, one thing I can tell you, as someone who does an enormous amount of radio around the country: Five years ago, I would always get hostile calls, and people would say things like President Bush has created the strongest economy in American history, which is utter nonsense.

I’m not getting calls like that anymore. I’m getting callers who are saying, What do we need to do to fix this? How do we address this?

And, by the way, the most fundamental thing is: Elect a different Congress! Elect a Congress that is not in the pocket of Wall Street and the companies that Wall Street finances, which is where most of the campaign contributions come from.

***

JJ: That was journalist and author David Cay Johnston, speaking with Steve Rendall and me in 2008.

 

Democracy Dies in Blah Blah Blah

 

In a live appearance on the Fox News network (3/30/20), Donald Trump said it was good that Democratic proposals for increased voting protections and ballot access—including vote-by-mail, same-day registration and early voting, as well equipment and staffing to make voting safe during the pandemic—were not included in the coronavirus relief package.

“The things they had in there were crazy,” Trump said. “They had things—levels of voting that, if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

“There is scant evidence of actual large-scale voter fraud in this country,” Aaron Blake (Washington Post, 3/30/20) notes in his 14th paragraph.

If Trump was guilty of saying the quiet part loud, as a number of commentators pointed out, the Washington Post can be charged with saying a straight thing crooked. In the Post‘s March 30 account:

Trump didn’t expand on the thought. But he clearly linked high turnout to Republicans losing elections. The most generous reading of his comment is that he was referring to large-scale voter fraud resulting from the easier vote-by-mail options; Trump has in the past baselessly speculated about millions of fraudulent votes helping Democrats in the 2016 election. The more nefarious reading would be that allowing more people to participate in the process legally would hurt his party because there are more Democratic-leaning voters in the country.

Well, which do you want to be—”generous” or “nefarious”? And baseless speculation about fraud—that’s otherwise known as lying, right? So now the generous reading—not “unreasonable,” but “generous”—is that a person who has lied about this very thing is lying about it again. There had to be a clearer way to get that across.

The reporter, Aaron Blake, would likely say, if asked, that he believes, and thinks readers will take away, that “nefarious” reading. Yet here we have the specter of voter fraud—debunked again and again, including in the Post (e.g., 11/5/18)—being legitimized by consideration. Reporters may think this is tactful, grown-up language, when it’s actually misleading, milquetoast language that does the opposite of what journalism is meant to do—which is clarify issues, break down doublespeak, and help readers understand what’s happening.

Which is that the president of the country has declared himself an opponent of one person, one vote democracy. We already knew that, but he said it out loud, on the record. The thing to do would be to take him at his word, and to assume that his actions have been and will be of a piece with this expressed view. And if you really want to get wild, you might actually be critical of this anti-democratic position, call for resistance to it, and actually platform those who do resist it.

“Democracy dies in darkness,” the Post‘s Trump-era branding tells us. True, but sometimes also in broad daylight, if you smother it with blah blah blah.

ACTION ALERT: Messages can be sent to the Washington Post at letters@washpost.com, or via Twitter @washingtonpost. Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective. Feel free to leave a copy of your message in the comments thread of this post.

Bama Athreya on Gig Economy & Covid-19

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This week on CounterSpin: The Wall Street Journal called frontline workers like grocery store employees and food deliverers “unexpected heroes” of the Covid-19 pandemic, which should prompt the question: Unexpected to whom? The truth is the US has always relied on low-paid, unprotected workers for all kinds of services, only now it’s called a “gig economy” and celebrated by some as some radical way forward, offering workers “flexibility” and a chance to “be your own boss.” Strikes going on around the country right now are an indication of how workers themselves are reacting to this moment, in which it’s being made painfully clear that they are deemed both essential and expendable at once.

We’ll talk about the gig economy with Bama Athreya, economic inequality fellow with the Open Society Foundations.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look back at recent coverage of voter protection, AP‘s coronavirus boilerplate and retail anti-heroes.

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Corporate Media Ignore International Cooperation as Shortcut to Coronavirus Vaccine

 

An exceptional op-ed in the Washington Post (3/2/20) argued that “relying on a profit-driven healthcare system undermines the health and safety of all.”

When Dr. Jonas Salk was asked in a legendary interview about who owned the patent on the effective polio vaccine he and his team had developed, he acknowledged that their achievement belonged to “the people,” and likened efforts to profit off their innovation to be as unethical as trying to patent the Sun (Washington Post, 3/2/20). Their story is a fitting reminder in the midst of a global coronavirus pandemic, as Salk and his team understood that universal no-cost or low-cost access to their innovation was central to their mission of eradicating the scourge of their day.

According to scientists who are closely studying the novel Covid-19 pathogen’s genetic code, the coronavirus’ especially slow mutation rate makes the promise of a potential vaccine especially potent. It would likely only require a single vaccine that would grant immunity for a long time—like the vaccines for measles and chickenpox—rather than requiring new vaccines every year, as do rapidly mutating viruses like the flu. When it comes to infectious diseases like Covid-19, vaccines are the strongest tools health officials have—since vaccination can potentially protect people from getting infected and limit the virus’ ability to spread—making it absolutely critical that the world discovers and shares a vaccine as quickly as possible.

Yet, despite the daily exponential growth in confirmed cases, and death tolls putting the US on pace to be the epicenter of the pandemic, corporate media coverage of the global race for a coronavirus vaccine marginalizes the most effective and safe route to discovering one quickly: eschewing corporate profitability and intellectual property rights in favor of international cooperation through open and shared, publicly funded research.

The New York Times (3/19/20) warned that China’s “decision to ship diagnostic kits to the Philippines, an ally of the United States, and to help Serbia was a leading indicator of what may come with drugs and vaccines.”

Framing the search for a coronavirus vaccine as a “global arms race,” the New York Times (3/19/20) declared that “what began as a question of who would get the scientific accolades, the patents and ultimately the revenues from a successful vaccine is suddenly an issue of urgent national security.” Although the Times cited several sources urging international cooperation between pharmaceutical companies and nations, the paper also suggested that the threat of nationalizing companies showing promise will “create a complication” during a time when the world is “trying to get a vaccine made as quickly as possible,” implying that the most efficient way to obtain a vaccine quickly would be to incentivize pharmaceutical companies to compete with the lure of hoarding profits at the end.

The Times also spun this “scramble” as the “harsh reality” of nations being just as selfish as the US, as “any new vaccine that proves potent against the coronavirus” is “sure to be in short supply as governments try to ensure that their own people are the first in line.” The Times ominously warned that nations don’t want to be “beholden to a foreign power for access to the drugs that are needed in a crisis,” and played into the racist trope of untrustworthy Chinese people (FAIR.org, 3/24/20) when it portrayed crucial Chinese aid to pandemic-stricken countries, which “once would have looked to Europe or the United States,” as “signs” that “China is using the moment for geopolitical advantage.”

While China is devoting serious efforts to find a vaccine, and has filed defensive patents (which won’t be enforced if unnamed foreign companies collaborate with them) on the use of remdesivir to treat coronaviruses, it’s also true that top Chinese researchers have stated that they intend to launch cooperative efforts to test overseas, if initial test results indicate that their vaccine is safe and effective. In stark contrast to reported efforts by the Trump administration to poach German pharmaceutical firm CureVac to develop a vaccine reserved for the US’s exclusive use, and continued genocidal sanctions on Venezuela and Iran (FAIR.org, 2/6/19, 3/25/20; CounterSpin, 5/2/19), China has urged an end to the US’s illegal unilateral sanctions, and has delivered medical expertise and supplies across the world.

Newsweek (3/20/20) says an unsafe vaccine would be “less likely in the US where bodies like the Food and Drug Administration oversee generally tighter regulations”—even though the FDA oversaw 232,000 deaths from presciption opioid overdoses from 1999-2018.

Newsweek’s “China’s Race for a Coronavirus Vaccine Could Produce an Unsafe Solution, Former Ambassador Warns” (3/20/20) continued corporate media’s Yellow Peril coverage, reporting on former US ambassador to China Max Baucus’ warning that the race for a vaccine “might lead the Chinese government to cut corners in the hunt for one”:

“The big danger here is that China will move too quickly to develop a vaccine and it’ll be unsafe,” he said, noting this would be less likely in the US, where bodies like the Food and Drug Administration oversee generally tighter regulations. Racing to the vaccine is “a double-edged sword,” Baucus added.

Any suggestion that US pharmaceutical companies might “cut corners” in their race to monopolize profits from a coronavirus vaccine was omitted by Newsweek, even though there have been prior reports (Reuters, 3/11/20; New Republic, 3/16/20) on US drugmakers skipping the animal testing phase, or proceeding simultaneously with human trials, as there are no US laws requiring them to complete testing on animals before moving onto human experiments.

This is especially dangerous, considering how rushed testing carries the risks of disease enhancement, where the vaccine could worsen, rather than protect against infection, and particularly when coronaviruses are more likely to produce this kind of response. Despite this, the New York Post (3/26/20) reported—without any pushback—that US scientists are arguing for the ability to “sidestep ethical restrictions and infect healthy people with a small amount of the Covid-19 virus to speed up the race for a vaccine.”

Reports from corporate media on US pharmaceutical companies taking shortcuts in their research, along with numerous articles purporting to explain why vaccine development takes such a long time, presume that intellectual property rights are legitimate, and that there’s no alternative to firms hiding their research and competing in parallel with each other.

Reporting why it will take months before a coronavirus vaccine will be available, Business Insider (3/24/20) explained that “vaccine development is really expensive “ and that it’s “hard to know the return on investment for these companies,” before pitching “philanthropic groups” as a potential answer. The Los Angeles Times’ “Why Will It Take So Long to Make a Coronavirus Vaccine That Can Prevent Covid-19?” (3/12/20) reported that a potential vaccine could take anywhere from 12 to 18 months, noting that “the labs that create a successful vaccine probably won’t be the ones that are able to scale up,” and that “many companies may be wary of investing the resources it takes to manufacture a new vaccine when the epidemic could end before there’s a chance to bring it to market.”

The New Yorker’s “How Long Will It Take to Develop a Coronavirus Vaccine?” (3/8/20) reported that a coronavirus vaccine being developed and distributed at a global scale within 12 to 18 months would be an “unprecedented, remarkable, even revolutionary achievement,” as “no other vaccine has come close to being developed that quickly.” Citing Rachel Grant, the advocacy and communications director for the Gates Foundation–founded Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, the New Yorker explained:

“The resources and expertise sit in biotech and pharma, and they’ve got their business model,” Grant said. “They’re not charities. They can’t do this stuff for free.”

Curiously absent from all of these articles is any interrogation of a business model that involves cutting corners and endangering human life, privatizing the profits of drugs developed at public expense through patents, and making vaccines unaffordable through rampant price-gouging (FAIR.org, 4/1/20).

When corporate media aren’t ignoring alternatives to profit-driven vaccine development, they run op-eds praising it as the ideal solution. Wall Street Journal editorial board member Kim Strassel (3/19/20) credited the “profit motive and competition liberals detest” for the “resourcefulness” US companies are showing during this pandemic, and had “Drug companies will save lives, even as Bernie Sanders is denouncing them” as the subhead.

Rich Lowry (Politico, 3/18/20) assures us: “The nightmare stories of ungodly expensive treatments usually involve drugs for rare diseases.” You know, like insulin.

Politico ran an op-ed by National Review editor Rich Lowry, “Only the ‘Crooks’ of the Pharmaceutical Industry Can Save Us Now” (3/18/20), that fawned over pharmaceutical companies, claiming that they provide an “indisputable boon to public health” and “routinely create medical miracles for which we all should be grateful.” Trying to justify patents, Lowry argued that they “ensure that companies get the benefit of research that is expensive, time-consuming and risky,” and asserted that if corporations don’t have intellectual property protections to reap “market benefits,” then much of their “research would dry up.”

But as economist Mariana Mazzucato (Guardian, 3/18/20) has pointed out, the US government invests more than $40 billion a year in health R&D used by pharmaceutical companies through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and has spent around $700 million on coronavirus research, more than any other country. Until 1995, the NIH actually had the authority to require companies to make drugs based on public research available at reasonable prices (Intercept, 3/2/20). But when amendments to restore the authority were brought to the Senate in 2000, then-Sen. Joe Biden—the presidential candidate who has received the most money from the pharmaceutical industry this election cycle—was one of eight Democrats who voted with Republicans to kill the amendment (Sludge, 3/17/20).

Remdesivir, the only drug the World Health Organization thinks may have “real efficacy” in treating coronavirus, was actually developed in partnership with the public University of Alabama with a grant from the NIH, despite being monopolized by Gilead Sciences (Intercept, 3/23/20). Hence Mazucatto argues that coronavirus vaccines and treatments developed with taxpayer money should be produced “without giving an exclusive license to private manufacturers.”

Critics of market-driven health R&D also include people like Bill Gates and Dr. Peter Hotez, who testified that he and his team had developed a promising SARS coronavirus vaccine that could’ve been used to speed up research for Covid-19—or possibly provide cross-protection—but couldn’t test it on humans due to a lack of funding, as corporations have little financial incentive in pursuing preventive vaccines.

Dean Baker (Truthout, 3/2/20) notes,  “It is the government-granted monopoly that would make a vaccine expensive, not anything inherent to the production process or the normal workings of the market.”

Economist Dean Baker (Beat the Press, 3/12/20) has also pointed out the moral and utilitarian absurdities of intellectual property rights, especially during a pandemic. He argues (Truthout, 3/2/20) that patents are actually slowing the development of a coronavirus vaccine, due to inefficient redundancies and inevitable waste resulting from secretive competition:

It’s likely that any vaccine that is developed will be relatively cheap to manufacture and distribute. If it is expensive, it will only be because the government will arrest anyone who produces the vaccine in competition with the patent holder. It is the government-granted monopoly that would make a vaccine expensive, not anything inherent to the production process or the normal workings of the market….

We have people around the world working as fast as they can to try to develop an effective vaccine against this dangerous disease. That is great—except these people are working in competition, not in collaboration. They all want to be the first to develop a patentable vaccine that will allow them to get very rich if it proves successful. Imagine how much faster the research would advance if these researchers were working in collaboration, sharing their results with each other, and posting them on the web so that researchers throughout the world could learn from them.

A coronavirus vaccine could be developed under the precedent set by the collaborative Human Genome Project, where research was shared as soon as possible, because mapping the human genome was considered a common project that would benefit all humanity. Especially when a Trump administration official like Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar rejects the notion that coronavirus treatments and vaccines should be affordable to everyone (Intercept, 3/19/20), and when industry lobbyists remove language threatening intellectual property rights from a coronavirus spending package (Intercept, 3/12/20), there needs to be pressure on the government to use all its power to make a coronavirus vaccine accessible to anyone who needs it.

You Don’t Need to Believe China About China’s Coronavirus Success

 

Accusing China of deception provides a ready excuse for the Trump administration’s failures: “The reality is that we could have been better off if China had been more forthcoming,” says Vice President Mike Pence (Bloomberg, 4/1/20).

Bloomberg News (4/1/20) reported that anonymous US officials say that a secret US intelligence report says that China’s statistics on the coronavirus outbreak are “fake”:

China has concealed the extent of the coronavirus outbreak in its country, under-reporting both total cases and deaths it’s suffered from the disease, the U.S. intelligence community concluded in a classified report to the White House, according to three US officials.

The officials asked not to be identified because the report is secret, and they declined to detail its contents. But the thrust, they said, is that China’s public reporting on cases and deaths is intentionally incomplete. Two of the officials said the report concludes that China’s numbers are fake.

Neither the Chinese government nor US intelligence agencies are particularly trustworthy sources. So if they disagree about whether China’s figures on its Covid-19 outbreak are accurate, as Bloomberg reported, is there any way to tell who’s telling the truth?

Well, you could look at the report from the World Health Organization (2/28/20), which sent a team of international observers to China from February 16–24 as the outbreak was still ongoing, talking to hundreds of Chinese doctors and other frontline health workers in hospitals, clinics and laboratories. As Dr. Bruce Aylward, the Canadian doctor and former WHO assistant director general who co-led the team, said in a press conference (2/24/20) presenting the team’s findings:

I know there’ve been challenges with statistics that come out of China sometimes with the changing numbers. And [what] we have to do is look very carefully at different sources of information to say with confidence that this is actually declining. And when you get out into the field, there is a lot of compelling data and observations to support this decline….

I know people look at the numbers and ask what is really happening. And we do as well. I work for the WHO. Yes. But I have 12 people with me who work for the best institutions, researches and public health institutions around the world. They want to be convinced. And very rapidly, multiple sources of data pointed to the same thing: This is falling and it’s falling because of the actions that are being taken.

A report in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2/24/20) compares the response to SARS with the much quicker Chinese reaction to Covid-19.

Or you could look to the Journal of the American Medical Association, which has published many reports on the Chinese outbreak of Covid-19, including “Characteristics of and Important Lessons From the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19) Outbreak in China” (2/24/20), which noted that “the Chinese government has improved its epidemic response capacity” since the 2002–03 SARS outbreak, when 88 days passed from the first case of SARS emerging to China notifying WHO of the epidemic, at which point there were 300 cases and five deaths. With Covid-19, by contrast, there were only 23 days between the onset of symptoms in the first case and China’s warning to WHO on December 31, 2019, when there had been just 27 cases and no deaths.

Or you could look at similar reports in other leading medical journals, like “Early Transmission Dynamics in Wuhan, China, of Novel Coronavirus–Infected Pneumonia” (New England Journal of Medicine, 3/26/20) or “Estimates of the Severity of Coronavirus Disease 2019: A Model-Based Analysis” (Lancet, 3/30/20). If any of the thousands of researchers who have been scouring Chinese coronavirus statistics in search of patterns that could help defeat the pandemic elsewhere have detected signs of “fake” numbers, Bloomberg doesn’t seem to know about it.

The reality is that it’s very hard to hide an epidemic. Stopping a virus requires identifying and isolating cases of infection, and if you pretend to have done so when you really haven’t, the uncaught cases will grow exponentially. Maintaining a hidden set of real statistics and another set for show would require the secret collusion of China’s 2 million doctors and 3 million nurses—the kind of improbable cooperation that gives conspiracy theories a bad name.

China is slowly and carefully returning to a semblance of normalcy (Science, 3/29/20).  If China is merely pretending to have the coronavirus under control, the pathogen will rapidly surge as people resume interacting with their communities. Once international travel is restored, it will be quite obvious which countries do and don’t have effective management of Covid-19.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying (Bloomberg, 4/2/20): “These slanders, smears and blame games cannot make up for the lost time, but will only cost more lost time and lives.”

Until then, news outlets can serve the public by quoting health experts on the reliability of health statistics, rather than politicians. In a follow-up piece, Bloomberg (4/2/20) quoted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying (“Some US officials just want to shift the blame,” she said, plausibly enough) and Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Republican Sen. Ben Sasse. The only expert quoted was Deborah Birx, “the US State Department immunologist advising the White House on its response to the outbreak,” who said, “The medical community…interpreted the Chinese data as: This was serious, but smaller than anyone expected.”

That’s not how the Chinese data was interpreted by the WHO mission. As Aylward said at the press conference:

There is no question that China’s bold approach to the rapid spread of this new respiratory pathogen has changed the course of what was a rapidly escalating and continues to be deadly epidemic…. that’s what happens when you have an aggressive action that changes the shape that you would expect from an infectious disease outbreak. This is extremely important for China, but it’s extremely important for the rest of the world, where this virus you’ve seen in the last few days is taking advantage to explode.

Featured image: Total confirmed cases of Covid-19 by nation (with China highlighted), from Oxford University’s Our World in Data.

 

 

‘Millions of People Lose Water Service Because They Can’t Afford Their Water Bills’ - CounterSpin interview with Mary Grant on Covid-19 and water

Janine Jackson interviewed Food & Water Watch’s Mary Grant about Covid-19 and water for the March 27, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: Without doing a count, I’m confident saying that vanishingly few articles noting the critical importance of frequent handwashing during the Covid-19 pandemic evince any acknowledgement at all that not everyone can do that. As some fight for attention for laid-off workers, for overstretched nurses, for underprotected delivery workers, others are also fighting to keep the distressingly large number of Americans who’ve had their water shut off for inability to pay in our vision—not just now, but in whatever is coming after.

Mary Grant is the Public Water for All campaign director at Food & Water Watch. She joins us now by phone from Baltimore. Welcome to CounterSpin, Mary Grant.

Mary Grant: Thank you so much for having me.

From “America’s Secret Water Crisis,” Food & Water Watch (10/22/18)

JJ: I say a “distressingly large” number of people. The thing is, we didn’t really know the full scope of the shutoff problem until Food and Water Watch did some mapping of it a few years back. So when we think of folks who are without water in this country—not necessarily this second, but generally—how many people are we talking about?

MG: We estimate that as many as 15 million Americans experienced a water shutoff in 2016. So millions of people every year lose water service because they can’t afford their water bills.

JJ: Fifteen million—that, I think, is a much higher number…and some of it’s temporary, but that’s at any given moment during 2016, you were talking about, yeah?

MG: The entire year. We don’t have numbers on how many people are restored each year for water service. But data from Detroit, Michigan—a hotspot of the water affordability crisis—found that about half the people who were shut off last year are still without water this year. So over a year, only about half of the people actually have their service restored. So we’re talking about as much as 2.5% of Americans could be without water because they can’t afford their bills.

JJ: There is action right now, in response to Covid-19, to stop some planned shutoffs. What’s going on on that front?

Mary Grant: “The first thing that the CDC tells you to do to help prevent the spread of disease is to wash your hands. But if you don’t have water at home, you can’t take that simple action to protect yourself or your family or your community.”

MG: Cities are finally taking action and realizing the scope of the affordability crisis, and how much it impacts public health. We’re seeing more than 400 communities and states across the country that have suspended water shutoffs, protecting more than 148 million people across our country. Making sure that people have water to wash their hands, it’s so basic: The first thing that the CDC tells you to do to help prevent the spread of disease is to wash your hands. But if you don’t have water at home, you can’t take that simple action to protect yourself or your family or your community.

JJ: We’re talking about realizing how much harm shutoffs would do at this time. But that would seem to imply action beyond that, and you’ve just referenced it: restoring service. What about restoring service to people who have already been disconnected?

MG: Only a couple of dozen communities are actually taking that next step of restoring service. And communities that have promised to restore service, like Detroit, Michigan, and Buffalo, New York, they’re really struggling to actually turn the taps back on. It was so easy for them to shut off water. But now that the onus is on them to actually restore the service, it’s taking a very long time. And people are in crisis mode, and Detroit is a hot spot of the coronavirus disease outbreak. There are a lot of people there are really suffering right now. And the grassroots organizations, from We the People of Detroit, the People’s Water Board in Michigan, are really trying to get people’s water turned back on, and giving people emergency water supplies while they are without water right now.

JJ: It sounds like a lot of the action is at the state level, and even at the municipal level. So it’s good, of course, where it happens, but it’s kind of patchwork. Where are the Feds on this?

MG: There was actually a really good provision in the House package for phase three of the coronavirus response package. So the House version released on Monday actually would tie aid to having a moratorium on shutoffs, and would also provide funding to help localities restore service, and give aid to low-income households to pay their water bills during this crisis. But it didn’t make it into the final compromise bill that the Senate passed yesterday.

It’s such a huge disappointment that there’s nothing helping households pay their water bills, helping cities restore water service in this corona aid package. But we are hopeful, there’s going to be a phase four package, we’re hearing, that maybe we can get some water funding in that.

JJ: We wouldn’t need to be doing this right now if we had some overarching legislation. So I wonder if you could just tell listeners about the WATER Act, which is designed to fight not just the shutoffs but kind of the nexus of problems that we’re facing around water.

MG: Yeah, the WATER Act is in Congress right now. It’s the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability Act, introduced by Rep. Brenda Lawrence from Detroit in the House, 85 cosponsors, and it’s in the Senate with Senator Sanders and three cosponsors.

So this is a comprehensive piece of legislation to really restore the federal government’s commitment to safe water for all, to take the onus off of localities, off of ratepayers; to have that federal investment in our water systems to make sure that every person has safe water, and water that’s affordable, at home. It would fully fund our water and sewer systems, provide funding to remove lead from school pipes; it would help rural households with septic systems and household wells. So this is a really comprehensive piece of legislation that would prevent shutoffs from happening, by making sure people have affordable water in the first place.

JJ: If we could step back just for a second, I understand that when you were trying to get the data on the extent of shutoffs, it wasn’t easy to get the information from, in particular, private utilities.

MG: Private companies overwhelmingly refused to give us any data on water shutoffs. They’re not subject to state information act requests, and they declined to reply. A lot of them pointed out that they’re not subject to the state Freedom of Information laws, and so they don’t have to tell us, and they are declining to tell us. And some just ignored us outright; we had a couple private operators hang up on interns who were trying to follow up to get data. So it was just a big struggle to get data, because there’s a black box.

We conducted state surveys. So we looked at the two largest cities in each state, and requested information under state public information act laws. So we got 73 cities to respond, but only one private utility responded.

JJ: Wow.

MG: Ten companies just outright refused to provide us data. So really, we really need to have more transparency on this so we can really map the affordability crisis in our country, where even states are struggling to collect that data, and utilities are struggling. So we need to have comprehensive laws to require transparency about shutoffs, and to also protect vulnerable populations from shutoffs beyond this crisis.

JJ: I’m sure some people are saying, “Why is it a private sector thing at all?” and listeners will have heard stories about, for example, Nestlé’s siphoning off water to bottle and sell, at the same time as people are being shut off because they can’t pay. Privatization—where does privatization fit into this?

MG: So we don’t know if private companies are shutting off households more, because we don’t have data on that. Nationwide, about 90% of people receive their water service from a publicly owned utility. Privatization is pretty rare in the United States. But there are certain states, like New Jersey, where there’s a lot of privatization, and a lot of private activity. Often this is systems that have always been privately owned: From their beginning, the systems were privately owned.

And there’s also efforts by these large companies, like American Water, Aqua America, Veolia, Suez, to purchase and take over water systems across the country. But there’s a lot of public opposition to privatization, so there hasn’t been a wave of privatization in the United States.

Our research has found that private companies charge on average about 59% more than local governments do. So we would expect private companies to have higher rates of water shutoffs, because they charge higher rates.

JJ: Yeah, yeah.

MG: We just don’t have that data. And we’ve really struggled to get data.

JJ: As we keep saying, the water crisis is an affordability crisis, meaning it overwhelmingly affects poor people, meaning corporate media don’t really care that much, or that often; let’s just be real. But when they do pay attention, when reporters do focus on it, they certainly can play a role in maybe pushing public officials to do more? What’s the place for reporters here?

Bridge (3/9/20)

MG: Oh, there’s a really good place for reporters. Bridge Magazine in Michigan has done an amazing job covering the Detroit water crisis. They’ve actually collected data, and gotten good data from the city, and compiled it in a way that’s accessible for the public. It’s been so helpful to see actual information about, not only shutoffs, but restorations, and who’s being effective, where the shutoffs are occurring, and overlapping that with public health information. So there are some local outlets that are doing great work.

And nationally, the Guardian has really stepped up looking at water shutoffs across the country, as well as looking at restorations of service, and using that information to push public officials, other localities and states to take action. Because it’s reporters and the media covering it, it’s informing the public, and allowing them, giving them opportunity, to call on their elected officials to take similar actions and to protect it. We need to know about the crisis in order to have good public policy.

JJ: Absolutely.

Finally, just like you don’t like to make arguments against mass incarceration by saying, well, it’s very expensive, you know, it’s distressing to feel forced to argue that we should care about people without access to water because their getting ill might make other, presumably more important, people get ill. That’s not a frame that’s going to carry us forward, or really ground us in this properly.

But on the other hand, if we don’t talk about water rights now, when is it going to be more central, you know? So, just final thoughts on what folks can do, and the state of affairs at the moment.

MG: Water is always a human right. It’s always necessary for basic human dignity and living a life with dignity. People should have water that’s safe and affordable at their home at all times, not just during a pandemic. And it’s not just about community well-being. It is about community well-being, but it’s also about human health, protecting yourself, protecting your families; everyone deserves to be able to live a life with dignity and having access to safe water.

Right now, we’re urging people to take action in their communities, call on their government to issue an executive order to stop all water shutoffs in their state, as well as to restore service to all households previously disconnected.

But long term, we really need to address this root cause, the affordability crisis, by passing the WATER Act. So we’re asking people to contact their representative, their senator, ask them to cosponsor the WATER Act. Maybe we can push it to be included in one of these coronavirus packages passing through Congress right now, so that we can have an economic stimulus. Because the WATER Act isn’t just about fully funding water systems, providing safe and affordable water. It’s also a jobs bill; it would create up to a million jobs across the country, at a time when we have record-breaking unemployment rates. And we really need to pass robust infrastructure legislation, to make sure people have safe water, at home and in their communities. And now is the moment that we can do that. So we definitely urge everyone to reach out to their elected officials to take action on this issue.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Mary Grant, Public Water for All campaign director at Food & Water Watch. You can follow their work online at FoodAndWaterWatch.org. Mary Grant, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

MG: Thank you so much for having me.

 

When the Invisible Hand Gives You the Finger - Corporate media shrug as elite declare loss of profits worse than loss of lives

 

Why the market fails to provide life-saving goods is not a question the New York Times (3/26/20) will be asking.

Since the days of Adam Smith, capitalists have been arguing that unfettered markets are the best way to organize the economy. Smith famously said that the rich are “led by an invisible hand” to, “without knowing it, advance the interest of the society.” The rise of the welfare state in the wake of the Great Depression tempered such magical thinking for a few decades, but the ascent of neoliberalism in the last half century has brought a resurgence in market fundamentalism, in both theory (very much including the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post) as well as practice.

Yet none of the steady stream of articles from these outlets attesting to heartbreaking shortages of medical equipment in coronavirus-ravaged areas in the US—“A NY Nurse Dies. Angry Co-Workers Blame a Lack of Protective Gear” (New York Times, 3/26/20), “Unprotected and Unprepared: Home Health Aides Who Care for Sick, Elderly Brace for Covid-19” (Washington Post, 3/24/20), “NY May Need 18,000 Ventilators Very Soon. It Is Far Short of That” (New York Times, 3/17/20), or “The Hardest Questions Doctors May Face: Who Will Be Saved? Who Won’t? “ (New York Times, 3/21/20), for instance—have stopped to ask why the laws of supply and demand have so catastrophically failed in this crisis.

I could feign surprise at this elision, but truthfully, it does not surprise me in the least. It angers me, yes; but surprises, no.

Americans can rightly demand an explanation for the vast gulf between the ideas espoused by free-market advocates and the failure of the market to provide essential social goods, most pressingly right now, healthcare. But instead, shortages of masks, ventilators and hospital beds are presented ahistorically, as though there is no cause; problems to be solved, but problems somehow without origins. A good bit of coverage addresses some of the political failures responsible for the shortages (that coverage has its own problems, though it is beyond the scope of my mental health to be able to address them here), but economic failures go completely without analysis, even when they are, on rare occasions, explicitly mentioned.

A Washington Post piece (3/28/20) noted that personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers cannot be bought from private vendors “because companies manufacturing masks and other emergency gear are demanding cash payments on delivery.” The same piece quotes Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam: “Allowing the free market to determine availability and pricing is not the way we should be dealing with this national crisis at this time.” But if you’re looking for criticism of the market-driven inability to provide life-saving equipment to front-line workers, you won’t find any in this article. Nor is there any analysis; Northam’s quote is close as it gets.

Similarly, the New York Times (3/29/20) ran a piece titled “The US Tried to Build a New Fleet of Ventilators. The Mission Failed”:

The stalled efforts to create a new class of cheap, easy-to-use ventilators highlight the perils of outsourcing projects with critical public-health implications to private companies; their focus on maximizing profits is not always consistent with the government’s goal of preparing for a future crisis…. Covidien executives told officials at the biomedical research agency that they wanted to get out of the contract, according to three former federal officials. The executives complained that it was not sufficiently profitable for the company.

This is a blow-by-blow account of the failed ventilator project, but it is as shallow in analysis as it is rich in detail. The subhead reads, “The collapse of the project helps explain America’s acute shortage,” but, really, all it does is describe it. The lines above are the only ones that even come close to analysis in the 1,800-word story. Also, “maximizing profits is not always consistent with the government’s goal of preparing for a future crisis” is a hell of a way to say capitalism is incompatible with public health.

As superficial and cursory as these two mentions of market failures are, they are the exception; hundreds of articles about the pandemic run every day without even this much. Even coverage of Trump’s use of the Defense Production Act—a Korean War–era law that gives the federal government significant additional power to compel private production and services—managed to sidestep mention of the fundamental truth underscored by the DPA’s very existence: that sometimes a visible hand is needed to “advance the interest of society.”

‘Moral trade-off’ of lives vs. profits

Given the blasé response to the market’s inability to deliver life-saving equipment to those who need it, because it’s not “sufficiently profitable,” it is perhaps not surprising that the view that profits are more important than lives has been treated as a reasonable opinion by corporate media.

As if on cue, in mid-March political and economic elites started talking about the need to “get the economy going again,” making sure “the cure isn’t worse than the problem,” and public-health restrictions having “gone too far.” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick suggested senior citizens should be willing to get ill and die so we “don’t sacrifice the country.” Twitter responded with scathing dark humor and a trending hashtag, #NotDying4WallStreet.

Jesus died for our sins, grandma died for the Dow.

— Marie Connor (@thistallawkgirl) March 24, 2020

We should call dying “being taxed at 100%” so republicans will care about it

— Megan Amram (@meganamram) March 24, 2020

We’ve been saying that the Republican Party is a death cult, or that capitalism itself is a death cult, for so many years, but I never thought we’d get this close to them actually getting on TV and telling us it’s our patriotic duty to die for their money.

— Dan Fishback (@dangerfishback) March 24, 2020

But corporate media treated the idea as legitimate. The Washington Post’s story (3/24/20) on Patrick’s comment went so far as to frame it as a “he said, she said,” Republicans vs. Democrats issue: 

Patrick (R) faced a sharp backlash Tuesday for suggesting that older Americans should sacrifice their lives for the sake of the economy during the coronavirus pandemic, with Democrats arguing that public health should remain the country’s top priority.

The Washington Post (3/24/20) refers to Trump’s urging a step that “health experts have made clear” would cause “many more deaths” as “optimism.”

The Post (3/24/20) covered Trump’s “raring to go by Easter” pronouncement in a similar manner: “Trump’s optimism contradicted the warnings of some public health officials who called for stricter — not looser — restrictions on public interactions.” “Some” public health officials here means all public health officials, and what the Washington Post calls Trump’s “optimism” would more accurately be described as his utter disinterest in anything or anyone that does not profit him personally. Further down the article acknowledged:

Health experts have made clear that unless Americans continue to dramatically limit social interaction—staying home from work and isolating themselves—the number of infections will overwhelm the healthcare system, as it has in parts of Italy, leading to many more deaths.

The Times (3/23/20) did no better: 

President Trump, Wall Street executives and many conservative economists began questioning whether the government had gone too far and should instead lift restrictions that are already inflicting deep pain on workers and businesses.

So on the one hand we have those concerned that “many more deaths” will occur if we loosen social distancing practices, and on the other hand we have the investor class that thinks public health has “gone too far.” That these two perspectives are both presented as reasonable opinions is yet another example of the false equivalencies that so often plague the Times and the Post. But the equanimity with which these corporate outlets discuss the trade-offs of lives and profits is truly appalling.

Stock market über Alles

For the Washington Post (3/24/20), this is good news: “Global markets held their highs even as entire countries announced lockdowns and deaths tolls continued to grow.” 

The false equivalence between profits and lives is aided in part by an additional layer of obfuscation: Corporate media are presenting 1% concerns about the stock market as a general interest in “the economy.”

As always in a capitalist economy, gains are privatized while losses are socialized. What this means is that when a company does well, shareholders and executives divide the spoils; workers rarely benefit (and almost never without a union that collectivizes their fight and strength). When, on the other hand, business is bad, it is workers whose hours, benefits or wages are cut, or who lose their jobs entirely. When stocks rise, the investor class benefits; when they fall, everyone suffers.

The economic impacts of the coronavirus are massive and devastating: Brick-and-mortar businesses cannot sell goods and services, and millions of workers have been thrown out of work. Income loss means people go hungry, aren’t able to afford medical care, lose their homes. It also further depresses sales across the entire economy, not just in brick-and-mortar points of sale.

The obvious solution is to keep workers on payroll, and for the government to subsidize businesses that have lost revenue as a result of public-health restrictions in order to meet their payrolls. But this solution has never even been on the table in Washington. Instead, the policy discussion has been dominated by calls to “re-open the economy,” i.e., ease social-distancing restrictions in order to increase commerce, and calls for corporate bailouts. But neither the kill-grandma approach nor the slush-fund approach does anything for the 99%.

Against this background, a piece like the New York Times’s “Restarting the Economy Is About Lives Versus Livelihoods” (3/24/20) highlights corporate media complicity in promoting Wall Street’s agenda. “It’s a moral trade-off between saving lives and sustaining economic livelihoods,” it says, without even mentioning aid to those who have lost their jobs. The actual trade-off is between saving lives and boosting corporate profits and stock prices, and it’s anything but moral.

Coverage of the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill likewise conflated the stock market and the economy, describing the bill as “a lifeline to Americans and their employers” (Washington Post, 3/24/20). The final bill, signed by Trump on Friday, March 27, provides for a $600 increase in monthly unemployment benefits for four months; a one-time means-tested payment of $1,200 per adult (and $500 per child); some state aid that very partially addresses the massive cost increases states are facing; and $500 billion in corporate aid that has no meaningful strings attached to it.

The stock market reacted positively to the bailout bill. As for the rest of us, it’s talk to the invisible hand.

 

Right-Wing Media Joined Trump in Enabling Health Disaster

 

“If Hitler succeeds in pointing the way of peace and order and an ethical development which has been destroyed throughout the world by war, he will have accomplished a measure of good not only for his own people but for all humanity.”—William Randolph Hearst (New York Times, 8/23/1934)

The downplaying of the coronavirus by the right-wing press in the United States was preceded decades ago by the media owned by William Randolph Hearst enabling a different sort of toxicity by promoting a positive image of Nazism in the US.

“From 1927 through the mid-’30s, Hearst solicited and ran regular columns from Benito Mussolini and then Adolph Hitler,” noted Dana Frank, professor of history at the University of California/Santa Cruz in “The Devil and Mr. Hearst,” an article in a 2000 issue of The Nation (6/22/00). 

As investigative reporter George Seldes wrote: “The millions who read the Hearst newspapers and magazines and saw Hearst newsreels in the nation’s movie houses had their minds poisoned by Hitler propaganda.”

Remembering this ability to embrace the unthinkable helps place in context the spectacle of right-wing US media—led by Fox News, Donald Trump’s main press cheerleader—to join the Trump administration in minimizing the dangers of a global pandemic.

“There, for two crucial weeks in late February and early March, powerful Fox hosts talked about the ‘real’ story of the coronavirus: It was a Democratic- and media-led plot against President Donald J. Trump,” wrote Ben Smith, the media columnist of the New York Times (3/22/20):

Hosts and guests, speaking to Fox’s predominantly elderly audience, repeatedly played down the threat of what would soon become a deadly pandemic…. Fox failed its viewers and the broader public in ways both revealing and potentially lethal.

And it wasn’t that the Murdoch family, owners of Fox News, didn’t know early on the gravity of coronavirus. Lachlan Murdoch, executive chair and chief executive officer of the Fox Corporation, by January had been “getting regular updates from the family’s political allies and journalists in his father’s native Australia.”

And the family abruptly cancelled Fox Corporation co-chair Rupert Murdoch’s 89th birthday party at his California estate on March 8, “out of concern for the patriarch’s health,” reported Smith—while the network’s hosts continued to downplay the risk posed by the pandemic.

Fox News‘ Jeanine Pirro (3/7/20; CNN, 3/12/20): “All the talk about coronavirus being so much more deadly, doesn’t reflect reality. Without a vaccine, the flu would be far more deadly.”

Fox led the feverishly pro-Trump media cult, though it wasn’t alone. “As the coronavirus spreads around the globe, denial and disinformation about the risks are proliferating on media outlets popular with conservatives,” wrote Jeremy W. Peters and Michael M. Grynbaum in an article the Times (3/11/20) headlined “How Right-Wing Pundits Are Covering Coronavirus.” The subhead: “Following President Trump’s lead, many commentators have played down fears.” For example:

Sean Hannity used his syndicated talk-radio program…to share a prediction he had found on Twitter about what is really happening with the coronavirus: It’s a “fraud” by the deep state to spread panic in the populace, manipulate the economy and suppress dissent….

Fox Business anchor Trish Reagan told viewers…that the worry over coronavirus ‘is yet another attempt to impeach the president.’ Where doctors and scientists see a public health crisis, President Trump and his media allies have seen a political coup afoot.

Wrote Caleb Ecarma in Vanity Fair (3/11/20):

Fox News and Fox Business have long been the president’s safe spaces, where he is glorified nightly and his perceived enemies—whether Democrats, journalists, or so-called “deep state” actors—are pilloried. As with impeachment, sycophantic hosts provided daily defenses of the president’s actions, similarly dismissing the proceedings as a “hoax.” Now, as Trump has severely mismanaged the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, and repeatedly mislead the public, the networks’ hosts appear willing to do their part to deflect blame away from the president and toward the same recurring targets of Trump’s ire.

Rush Limbaugh (2/26/20; Washington Post, 2/28/20): “The Democrat Party, as it’s currently constituted, poses a much greater threat to this country than the coronavirus does.”

And the downplaying was having an effect. CNN reported on March 18:

Two polls released this week show the troubling effects that weeks of dismissive and conspiratorial coverage of the novel coronavirus from Fox News and other right-wing media outlets and personalities had on the American public…. Right-wing personalities—such as Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and talk radio host Rush Limbaugh—told their audiences that news coverage of the virus was hysterical and aimed at hurting Trump politically…. Polls from both Gallup and Pew Research revealed that Republicans…were much less likely to take the risks of the coronavirus as seriously as their Democratic counterparts.

Conservative pundits encouraged their audiences to join Trump in his denial in the face of a health disaster. But “the aggressive and deadly coronavirus is unimpressed by the bluster of a con,” wrote David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker (3/22/20):

For many weeks, the president resisted understanding the magnitude of the problems and the responsibilities of his office. In late January, he declared, “We have it totally under control…. It’s going to be just fine.”… A month later…“One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.” Was he doing a good job? He gave himself a “ten.” Those who raised concerns about the administration’s cuts in emergency preparedness or the outrageous failure to supply testing kits were promulgating “a hoax.”

This blithe unconcern for the looming crisis was hardly limited to Trump. His satraps in the “alternative fact” industry took their cues from him to rest easy in a warm bubble bath of denial. Rush Limbaugh, who received a Presidential Medal of Freedom at Trump’s latest State of the Union address, told his immense radio audience that the virus was “the common cold, folks.”

There was a brief exception to the Trump media chorus. The editors of the conservative National Review published an editorial on March 9 citing the “failure of leadership at the top” of the US government which shows “no sign of being corrected” in regard to coronavirus. “Trump so far hasn’t passed muster…. He resisted making the response to the epidemic a priority for as long as he could…downplaying the problem, and wasting precious time.”

But the National Review criticism didn’t last long. In recent weeks, the magazine has focused on blaming China. “Covid-19 Is the Chinese Government’s Curse Upon the World” (3/17/20) was the headline of a piece that declared: “The Chinese Communists, like all Communists, hide their societal problems.”

The right-wing Hearst media empire’s sympathetic stance toward Nazism decades ago was a horrible happening in the history of the press in the United States. So have been the deception and lies—and blind obedience to Trump—of today’s right-wing media concerning the coronavirus calamity.

Featured image: Sean Hannity downplaying the coronavirus (3/10/20; Media Matters, 3/10/20)

 

Limiting Trump’s Screen Time Isn’t ‘Censorship,’ It’s Journalism

 

“During a pandemic such as this, news organizations have an obligation to provide access to all of the information available,” writes the Chicago Tribune‘s Dahleen Glanton (3/30/20). “It then becomes the public’s responsibility to decipher it and decide what is useful.”

Last week, some news outlets—including CNN and MSNBC —made the decision to stop airing the entirety of Donald Trump’s daily press conferences on the new coronavirus. With the president’s statements veering more and more into fiction (“Nobody knew there would be a pandemic or epidemic of this proportion”—3/18/20), conspiracy theories (“Where are the masks going? Are they going out the back door? How do you go from 10,000 to 300,000?”—3/29/20) and miracle cures (“The hydroxychloroquine and the Z-Pak, I think as a combination, probably, is looking very, very good”—3/23/20), a growing number of journalists, including Rachel Maddow and Ted Koppel (New York Times, 3/25/20), had called for news outlets to, as James Fallows wrote in the Atlantic (3/20/20), “stop airing these as live spectacles and instead report, afterwards, with clips of things Trump and others said, and whether they were true.”

On Monday, the decision to cut away on occasion from the daily spectacles — CNN and MSNBC have interrupted them briefly for fact-checking (Daily Beast, 3/26/20), but only Seattle NPR affiliate KUOW (NPR, 3/26/20) appears to have stopped airing them entirely— drew an odd rebuke from Chicago Tribune columnist Dahleen Glanton (3/30/20), who called failing to air Trump’s press conferences in full not just a “mistake,” but one that undermines the entire purpose of journalism:

In effect, it’s censorship. News organizations shouldn’t be in the business of deciding what the public needs to hear and what it shouldn’t when the nation is in the midst of the biggest health crisis of our lifetime….

The public needs to hear everything Trump and his coronavirus task force have to say about the pandemic. It then becomes the public’s responsibility to decipher it and decide what is useful.

Glanton has been an editor and writer at the Tribune since 1989, so clearly she knows that “deciding what the public needs to hear” is precisely what news editors do. Choosing to keep cameras trained on the president necessarily means devoting less time to other stories that might actually inform viewers about the course of the pandemic and how to fight it—whether it’s talking to infectious disease experts on what measures are necessary to limit the death toll (MSNBC, 3/20/20), or reporting on other nations’ successes and failures (CNN, 3/23/20). It’s not “censorship” to limit the president’s screen time, any more than it is to decide not to devote 24 hours a day to interviewing epidemiologists and front-line medical professionals.

To her credit, Glanton wasn’t advocating for straight-up stenography journalism—the we-just-report-what-they-say position that once led NBC’s Chuck Todd to insist that it wasn’t the media’s job to tell viewers if politicians are lying (FAIR.org, 9/18/13). Instead, she tried to walk a narrow line, calling for news reporters to somehow hold politicians’ feet to the fire merely by the power of their presence at staged press briefings: “When politicians lie, journalists ask the tough questions that get to the truth,” but also must “understand that they are merely conduits for channeling information.” If Trump refuses to answer pointed questions or calls them “nasty,” journalists should “calmly repeat the question” — even if, Glanton acknowledged, this can sometimes allow for “the persistence of his obvious lies.”

It’s a troubling quandary: If journalists are limited to allowing politicians to say whatever they want on-air, then asking questions that are never answered, how to decide when this is less reporting the news than feeding the troll? Glanton’s answer, remarkably, was “ratings”:

Trump’s coronavirus briefings have been a TV ratings hit, according to the New York Times, drawing an average audience of 8.5 million cable news viewers—about the same number of people who watched the season finale of The Bachelor….

The public will let the media know without a doubt when it’s time to stop covering Trump’s press briefings. They’ll switch the channel and decide they’re better off watching reruns of The Simpsons.

The notion that news is whatever draws the highest ratings, of course, isn’t one that the journalism industry is totally unfamiliar with — even if it’s usually referred to in less high-minded terms. One might worry, of course, that it might encourage an unscrupulous politician to say the most outrageous things possible, in hopes of forcing news outlets to allow him daily access to the airwaves on the grounds that if people are tuning in, he must be popular. Good thing we don’t know anyone like that!

Media Need to Scrutinize Andrew Cuomo’s Record, Not Crush on His Words

 

As Donald Trump emits streams of false statements about the Covid-19 crisis and makes decisions that will lead to a tremendous number of unnecessary deaths in this country, New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo has emerged as something of a national media darling.

The right-wing tabloid New York Post (3/21/20) reported that “New York Women Are Crushing on Andrew Cuomo,” while other outlets run columns with headlines like “Help, I Think I’m in Love With Andrew Cuomo???” (Jezebel, 3/19/20) and “Why We Are Crushing on Andrew Cuomo Right Now” (Vogue, 3/22/20). (Answer: “There’s something nice about having someone in government whom you can actually trust.”) New York Times media columnist Ben Smith (3/16/20) argued that “Mr. Cuomo has emerged as the executive best suited for the coronavirus crisis.”

Why are we crushing on Andrew Cuomo right now? “There’s something nice about having someone in government whom you can actually trust,” says Vogue (3/22/20). (As usual, Teen Vogue does a better job—3/27/20.)

Some are even floating the idea of the Democratic Party nominating Cuomo, who did not enter the 2020 presidential race (but has long harbored presidential ambitions), as their candidate, even without him earning a single vote (e.g., Newsday, 3/26/20; Daily Caller, 3/24/20; Bloomberg, 3/29/20).

But how much can we actually “trust” Andrew Cuomo? And how well has he managed the crisis in New York?

Yes, he is projecting both empathy and competence in a way Trump never will, filling a leadership void that people desperately need filled at the moment. But particularly in times of crisis, when executive power tends to expand dramatically, media should be holding the powerful to account, not settling for “better than Trump.” And there is plenty to hold Cuomo to account for.

First, as Ross Barkan (City and State New York, 3/18/20) pointed out in a rare critical look at Cuomo’s response, the governor dragged his feet on shutting down the state, wasting precious weeks after the first local cases were identified that could have drastically reduced the spread of the virus. On March 18, Cuomo publicly declared he wouldn’t approve a “shelter-in-place” order for New York City, even as New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio suggested residents prepare for one, because “the fear, the panic is a bigger problem than the virus” (CNBC, 3/18/20). The governor reversed course two days later, but by then, identified cases in New York had grown to over 8,000, setting the state on the path to the crisis that is only beginning to unfold today.

Cuomo was not only slow to react to the growing crisis, he continues to make decisions that prioritize his neoliberal agenda over the lives and livelihoods of the most vulnerable: As he battles Trump with one hand, with the other he is continuing his longstanding efforts to cut healthcare and hospital funding and education support, roll back bail reform, and give himself the power to unilaterally slash government services rather than raise taxes on the rich to deal with budget gaps.

Before the Covid-19 crisis struck, New York faced a budget shortfall, due in part to rising healthcare costs. But rather than look for ways to raise funds to cover those costs, Cuomo put together a commission tasked to carve at least $2.5 billion out of state Medicaid spending. The commission’s plan, announced as the state healthcare system had already begun to stagger under the crisis, includes roughly $400 million in cuts to hospitals over the next year (Daily News, 3/27/20).

As local activists have pointed out, there are many other ways to close the budget gap that don’t involve cutting essential services—at least 14 concrete options for new taxes on, or an end to various subsidies for, the ultra-rich and corporations. But Cuomo is so committed to his corporate-friendly deficit-busting that when the emergency federal Covid-19 aid package to states (including $6.7 billion to New York) included a clause prohibiting changes to Medicaid programs, Cuomo declared that he couldn’t accept it (Politico, 3/27/20). Stop and think about that: Cuomo’s instinct is to forego billions of dollars of desperately needed aid because he is unwilling to give up Medicaid cuts which themselves will directly jeopardize the lives of those most at risk of dying from Covid-19.

Meanwhile, he is ignoring calls for rent suspension for residential and small business tenants, despite enacting a similar measure for mortgage payments (Gothamist, 3/24/20). And rather than working to reduce the incarcerated population in his state, as many other governors are doing, he is actually actively attempting to lock up more people by rolling back hard-fought bail reforms that went into effect in January (Rolling Stone, 3/25/20).

None of this should come as a surprise; Cuomo has never been a friend to the marginalized in New York. For years, he protected turncoat Democrats in the state legislature who caucused with Republicans, giving the minority party the ability to quash all progressive legislation (New Republic, 5/12/17). Even after the 2018 midterms finally gave Democrats full control over the state government, Cuomo put the brakes on popular initiatives that would have strengthened the social safety net, helping to kill the drive for single payer in New York (Nation, 5/2/19) and vetoing wage theft protections (LaborPress, 1/2/20).

CNN (3/24/20) accompanied Chris Cillizza’s praise of Andrew Cuomo with a video clip of Cuomo being interviewed by his brother, CNN host Christopher Cuomo.

But journalists and pundits appear either shamefully ignorant of or callously unbothered by Cuomo’s disregard for New York’s most vulnerable. In his own love letter to Cuomo, CNN‘s Chris Cillizza (3/24/20) declared that in contrast to Trump, Cuomo

is offering another path: To believe in all of us, knowing that by protecting the least among us we are showing ourselves and the world how America fights and wins these toughest of battles.

The same day on CNN.com (3/24/20), the headline to a column by Jill Filipovic announced, “Thank God for Andrew Cuomo.” In it, Filipovic argued that “In America, people do die because they’re poor, but that’s because of policy choices we make”—and presented Cuomo as the antidote, pointing to Cuomo’s tweets about not putting a dollar figure on human life, rather than investigating his actual record.

At the New York Times, columnist Maureen Dowd (3/29/20) wrote a lengthy column that featured in the paper’s Sunday edition about how “we’re feeling warm and fuzzy about the cold and calculating Andrew Cuomo.” In it, Dowd briefly noted that “progressives still have problems with Cuomo’s stances on Medicaid and the criminal justice system,” but spent much more time contrasting Cuomo to Trump, proclaiming that “Cuomo thinks what defines America is its humanity and its welcome mat for the globe,” and quoting admirers both begrudging and unreserved.

Meanwhile, at the Washington Post, Kathleen Parker (3/24/20) wrote that Cuomo’s “in-charge demeanor and straight talk remind us of what a leader looks and acts like,” and highlighted a speech in which he declared, “love wins, always, and it will win again through this virus,” while the paper’s editorial board (3/24/20) dedicated its day’s ink to praising Cuomo for his “effective, tough-minded, compassionate leadership.”

It’s hard not to grasp for heroic leaders in a time of crisis, but heroes don’t talk about love and compassion while sacrificing the most vulnerable—and it’s media’s job to expose that hypocrisy, not swoon under Andrew Cuomo’s spell.

New York state’s budget negotiations officially close April 1. Activists are calling on New Yorkers to put pressure on Cuomo and other state leaders to demand investments in healthcare and communities, rather than enforcing austerity.

ACTION ALERT: Dangerous Misinformation From AP

 

AP‘s report (3/29/20) on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s downplaying of Covid-19 called it a “life-or-death coronavirus gamble”—but AP‘s standard description of the disease, included in this and many other stories, offers similar false reassurance.

There’s a boilerplate passage that the Associated Press likes to insert into its stories on the coronavirus (e.g., 3/28/20, 3/29/20, 3/30/20). Under the headline “What You Need to Know About the Virus Outbreak” (3/30/20), it’s the first language after the heading “What You Need to Know.” And what AP thinks you need to know is this:

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death. The vast majority of people recover.

Well, that sounds reassuring, doesn’t it? Especially if you’re not an older adult or a person with existing health problems, you might even be thinking—what’s the big deal?

First of all, “existing health problems” are extremely common. Half of American adults have high blood pressure (American Heart Association, 1/31/18)—one of the most prevalent pre-existing conditions among Covid-19 fatalities, according to a study of Italian deaths from the disease (Bloomberg, 3/18/20).  Other common illnesses associated with coronavirus deaths include diabetes, which affects 9% of American adults (CDC, 7/18/17), and coronary heart disease, which affects 7% (CDC, 12/2/19). Altogether, according to the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, up to half of all non-elderly Americans have pre-existing health conditions. So the “some” that are liable to “more severe illness” may amount to “most.”

How does that work out in reality? A Centers for Disease Control report (3/26/20) looked at domestically acquired cases of Covid-19 in the US from February 12 to March 16—a total of 4,226 cases. (As of March 30, there have been 142,746 cases of the rapidly spreading disease in the US.)

Of the 2,449 patients whose ages were known, 70% were under 65. In this group, the hospitalization rate for patients 20–44 was at least 14%; for patients 45–54 and 55–64, it was at least 21%. Among the elderly, the hospitalization rate was about half again as high, rising to a minimum of 31% among those 85 and older. Only patients under 20 had a hospitalization rate comparable to that of influenza, with at least 1.6% of cases in this group going to the hospital.

Almost a quarter of the hospitalized patients required intensive care. Of these, nearly half were under 65, with 36% of the intensive care Covid-19 patients aged 45–64 and 12% aged 20–44. Only patients under 20, the report found, never needed intensive care. (Some of those who require intensive care may never recover full lung capacity—ABC, 3/28/20.)

These figures need to be understood in the context of the limits of the US hospital system, which has less than a million beds and less than 80,000 intensive care beds. Even a small fraction of adults—elderly or otherwise—catching the coronavirus would risk totally overwhelming US healthcare.

The CDC’s summary of its data sends a much different message than AP‘s boilerplate:

Covid-19 can result in severe disease, including hospitalization, admission to an intensive care unit and death, especially among older adults. Everyone can take actions, such as social distancing, to help slow the spread of Covid-19 and protect older adults from severe illness.

As for AP‘s claim that “the vast majority of people recover”—of the 142,746 US cases to date, 4,562 have recovered and 2,489 have died; the outcome of the rest has yet to be determined. In China, the only country where a major outbreak seems to have brought under control, 93% of 81,470 cases have been resolved, and of the resolved cases, 4% were fatal. By way of comparison—which AP‘s glib assurance to the “vast majority” fails to provide—the seasonal flu kills 0.1%–0.2% of people who come down with it.

It’s possible that the eventual death rate from Covid-19 will be considerably lower than 1 in 25; outside of the epidemic’s epicenter in Hubei province, where the healthcare system was initially overwhelmed, the Chinese death rate for resolved cases is 0.9%.

But in China, officials moved quickly to pause economic activity, and tested aggressively so asymptomatic carriers could be identified and isolated, thus preventing hospitals from being overwhelmed on a national level. The United States has so far failed to follow this example—and our major national news service lulling readers into a false sense of security delays the time when we will begin to do so.

ACTION: Please tell the Associated Press to include a serious warning about the dangers of Covid-19, based on CDC guidelines, in its standard description of the coronavirus.

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Featured Image: AP photo (3/30/20) of a hospital nurse in Bergamo, Italy.

Media Silent as Poll Workers Contract Covid-19 at Primaries That DNC, Biden Campaign Claimed Were Safe

 

Donald Trump is the single individual in US society most responsible for spreading dangerous misinformation about Covid-19 in the midst of a global pandemic. Anyone who echoes him, or his administration’s entreaties to not take going out in public too seriously, is engaging in public endangerment. Anyone who actively encourages people to gather in mass, and in close proximity, is doing so at a mass scale.

So why, in contravention of CDC guidelines and health experts’ urgings, did the DNC and Joe Biden’s campaign do just that at immense scale earlier this month, as major cities were already closing up public spaces?  And why have media that have deservedly taken Trump and his administration to task for their fatal failures not done the same with Democratic leadership?

If  a senior adviser to President Donald Trump falsely claimed on national television that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had declared that it was safe to vote in person, despite its actual recommendation to the contrary, the adviser and the president would be rightly condemned by much of corporate media as, at best, incompetent and ignorant, and, at worst, dishonest and reckless in encouraging people to put their lives at risk.

And if poll workers had contracted Covid-19 at locations which violated CDC recommendations, the adviser and the president would be rightly blamed for exposing them to the virus.

Yet after the CDC on March 15 advised the public to cancel all gatherings of more than 50 people, a senior adviser to Joe Biden, the current frontrunning Democratic presidential candidate, went on CNN (3/15/20) and claimed the CDC had deemed in-person voting safe. And not a single major media outlet reported on it.

Nor did they report on the actual dangerous conditions at multiple primary voting sites, and the exposure of trusting citizens to the coronavirus that the adviser’s reckless advice had encouraged. And it wasn’t just one irresponsible adviser that put people at risk: Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez made misleading statements, downplayed the dangers and exaggerated the preparedness of voting sites, and criticized and threatened states which wanted to postpone their primaries. The Biden campaign as well as the DNC put politics over people, exposing countless voters to a fatal virus.

We now know that at least two poll workers at locations described as safe by Perez and the Biden campaign have contracted Covid-19. It’s unknown how many more poll workers, voters and the people they came into contact with will also contract the virus.

Anderson Cooper asks Bernie Sanders (CNN, 3/15/20): “Should there by a primary on Tuesday?”

Senior Biden campaign adviser Symone Sanders made the dishonest statements during a post-debate interview on Sunday night, March 15. This was hours after the CDC released a statement (3/15/20) that advised canceling all gatherings of 50 or more people. The CDC advisory was mentioned at the very beginning of the debate, and also during Anderson Cooper’s post-debate interview with Bernie Sanders. When Cooper asked the Vermont senator, “Should there be a primary on Tuesday” in light of the CDC’s recommendation, Bernie Sanders responded:

That is a very good question, and as you know, Louisiana and Georgia and Puerto Rico have delayed their elections. Postponed them, they’ve got dates in the future. Look, election dates are very, very important. We don’t want to be getting into the habit of messing around with them. But you remember, and I just researched this, 9/11, you know there was a primary in New York City…. And it was canceled, for obvious reasons, in New York City, and it was rescheduled two weeks later.

I would hope the governors listen to the public health experts, and they’re saying … we don’t want gatherings of 50 or more people. And when I think about some of the elderly people sitting behind the desks, registering people and all that, does that make a lot of sense? I’m not sure that it does.

CNN’s Chris Cuomo referred to the CDC update, as well as to Bernie Sanders’ response to it during his interview with Symone Sanders, asking her:

CDC says no groupings bigger than 50, that’s like every polling station except in very small counties. The idea of delaying primaries, Senator Sanders seemed comfortable with that; we should listen to what the CDC says. We should delay the primaries if we have to. What are your concerns?

Unlike Bernie Sanders, however, Symone Sanders’ chief concern seemed to be making sure that the primaries were not postponed:

Our democracy is extremely important. Even in times of strife in this country, we have to do our duty. So the CDC and folks have said it’s safe out there for Tuesday. So I don’t know what Senator Sanders was talking about…. So I encourage people to get out there and vote on Tuesday.

Symone Sanders openly stated that Bernie Sanders’ public health concern was unfounded, even though Bernie Sanders had cited the CDC’s recommendation that gatherings of 50 people or more were unsafe—which, as Cuomo pointed out, would include voting at almost every polling station. Yet Biden’s senior adviser asserted that the CDC had assured the public that the elections were safe, urging people to vote based on a false promise of safety.

While Bernie Sanders had mentioned that some states had already postponed their primaries, and hoped that other governors would follow the CDC guidelines, Symone Sanders pointed to the governors who had not:

Governors across the country, Ohio, Arizona, Florida, Illinois, they have said that they feel comfortable, and are confident that not only will the elections be safe, but that they can carry them out. So I am looking to these governors… to abide by the CDC guidance, and if they say that they can administer this process, we believe them.

She went on to name one governor in particular: “Governor DeWine said it was safe in Ohio, so I encourage people to get out there and vote on Tuesday.” Notably, the Republican governor she singled out would announce less than 24 hours later, “We cannot conduct this election tomorrow, the in-person voting for 13 hours tomorrow, and conform to [CDC] guidelines,” and recommend moving the primaries to June. By the end of the day, Ohio’s health director Dr. Amy Acton ordered the polls closed as a health emergency.

Florida Gov. Rick DeSantis (CBSMiami, 3/13/20): “They voted during the Civil War.” But could you catch Civil War by going to the polls?

Symone Sanders found herself on the same side as Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick DeSantis, who has been roundly condemned for his slow and insufficient response to the virus, including his initial refusal to close beaches. (DeSantis is also known for urging Floridians to not “monkey this up” by voting for his opponent for governor, Andrew Gillum, who happens to be African-American.)

Symone Sanders  and DeSantis even made similar points to justify voting on Tuesday. DeSantis told reporters, “We’re definitely voting. They voted during the Civil War. We are going to vote.” Sanders told Cuomo:

In times of war, in times of strife, our country has always upheld our need to uphold our democracy. We have voted in wartime, votes were held many times in this country after times of strife…. So I just encourage folks to use your voice, your vote is your voice, and our democracy is extremely important even in times of strife in this country; we have to do our duty.

Neither DeSantis nor Sanders pointed to a historical precedent for voting during a major pandemic.

While Sanders’ lie was egregious, DNC chair Tom Perez showed a similar reckless disregard for public health. Not only did he urge people to vote, ignoring CDC guidelines, but he threatened to punish states for trying to comply with them.

Tom Perez to Chris Hayes (MSNBC, 3/16/20): “I don’t think it’s for me to second-guess those [governors’] judgments”—unless, of course, I disagree with them.

When Perez appeared on MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes show on Monday night (3/16/20), the host asked the DNC chair to comment on an Ohio judge’s rejection of the governor’s request to postpone the primary:

It is your view that this can be safely conducted tomorrow? Who have you been consulting to come to that view? Your position as Tom Perez, the head of the DNC, my understanding is you are saying you agree with the states that are going forward?

Perez responded:

We respect what they’re doing…. And I was in contact today with people in a number of these states,  including but not limited to Arizona. And, again, asking them if, do they believe they have the systems in place that enable them to put the elections on tomorrow? And they do. And Republican and Democratic governors have made that judgment that they can do that. I don’t think it’s for me to second-guess those judgments, Chris.

Less than 24 hours later, however, when Ohio’s health director ordered polling locations to be shut down, Perez was all too happy to second-guess the judgment of not only the Ohio governor, but the health director, who happens to be a physician with an MD and a master’s in public health; the first and only woman to hold this position; and, by the way, a former Obama volunteer. In a statement, Perez blasted the postponement:

What happened in Ohio last night has only bred more chaos and confusion, and the Democratic Party leadership in Ohio is working tirelessly to protect the right to vote. Eligible voters deserve certainty, safety and accessibility.

He discouraged other states from moving their primaries:

That’s why states that have not yet held primary elections should focus on implementing the aforementioned measures to make it easier and safer for voters to exercise their constitutional right to vote, instead of moving primaries to later in the cycle when timing around the virus remains unpredictable.

States that delayed primaries past June 9 “could be subject to penalties,” the DNC warned (Guardian, 3/17/20).

Those were public statements, but an internal DNC memo sent to members of the Rules and Bylaws Committee on Wednesday night, and obtained by the Guardian (3/17/20), went further, threatening to punish states that moved their primary beyond a cut-off date of June 9 by reducing their number of delegates by half. (Louisiana and Kentucky scheduled their elections to take place on June 23.) It’s hard to reconcile Perez’s statement that the “timing around the virus remains unpredictable” with a firm cut-off date.

The head of a party that is positioning itself as the science- and reason-embracing alternative to the Republicans ignored the advice, recommendations and pleas of trained experts. “Deeply disappointed that the DNC is willfully choosing not to listen to scientists during one of the most critical moments in recent history,” tweeted molecular biologist and March For Science organizer Lucky Tran. Over 2,500 people, including over 100 doctors, scientists and public health professionals, signed an open letter to “Extend Mail-in Voting and Reschedule March Primaries Amid Pandemic”:

We have seen long lines of voters in states like Texas and Michigan. The amount of time standing in line with hundreds or even thousands of other voters substantially increases the likelihood that someone will get sick. By postponing primaries, state governments will be able to keep resources focused, and they will not need to worry about the distraction of running primaries while responding to this pandemic. This will also give time for the states to implement alternative voting mechanisms, such as vote-by-mail, at a sufficient scale if the pandemic continues to be an emergency for these states. Furthermore, polling place workers, who are generally retired volunteers over 65 years old, should not need to be exposed to the risk of contracting the coronavirus while managing precinct locations.

The letter also clarified:

We do not believe that a public health crisis or a state of emergency should ever be used as an excuse to cancel elections. The Democratic primary season concludes in early June; the party has full flexibility to schedule state-level races at any point before then.

The conditions found at polling stations were exactly what the people who signed the letter, the governor of Ohio, the director of health, and everyone who urged the Democratic Party to put human life over political expediency feared. Bernie Sanders coordinator Abshir Omar spoke to me on my podcast (Katie Halper Show, 3/20/20) about the violations of CDC guidelines he observed and documented on video and through photographs.

“Thousands of people were put at risk and possibly exposed to deadly pathogens,” Omar said:

The CDC put out guidelines to the election board to try to conduct safe elections: have six-foot spacing, wipe down all voting equipment after each use. And out of all the voting locations that I visited—I visited nearly 15 sites—not a single voting location was in compliance with the CDC’s health advisory for this election. Not a single site. Reasonable health accommodations are not being made.

At the Thurgood Marshall Library, in a predominantly African-American senior community, people were sitting shoulder to shoulder in this lobby for two and a half hours.

At the Thurgood Marshall Public Library a predominately black senior population is waiting on average 2 hrs to vote in crowded rooms. This is not safe! #COVID19 #IllinoisPrimary pic.twitter.com/q4Fav9h1nW

— Abshir Omar (@AbshirDSM) March 17, 2020

At an early voting site in Gage Park, Illinois’ second-largest Latino district, Omar said, “In the basement of an unventilated building, I saw 200-plus people standing in hallways less than a foot apart from each other.”

Currently in a poorly ventilated basement of the Gage Park early vote site, the second largest Latino district in Illinois. The current wait time here is just over an hour. Folks have already started to leave saying they aren’t willing to risk their health. #IllinoisPrimary pic.twitter.com/jAxoI6mkcG

— Abshir Omar (@AbshirDSM) March 17, 2020

The voting equipment needs to be wiped down after each use. They barely had enough cleaning supplies to maintain every couple of sessions. It was not after each person. I was watching literally as people would walk up, use the same voting equipment, handle the same pens, touch the same screens, and nothing was done about it.

Scene from the polling location at Truman College after polls officially closed. This doesn’t look like it’s up to CDC standards. #IllinoisPrimary #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/8l3BmQMgKK

— Abshir Omar (@AbshirDSM) March 18, 2020

What happened was a clear and present danger to the folks in the country. What I saw was thousands of people coming out to vote, and, sadly, some of these people will die.

Hundreds are currently waiting to vote at Chicago city hall in a line the stretches out the building and down two blocks. The person at the front of the line has been waiting 3 hrs to vote. #IllinoisPrimary #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/qDrvYH7NwE

— Abshir Omar (@AbshirDSM) March 17, 2020

Omar spoke to a voter volunteer who explained that the elections supplies never arrived, so they had to turn away voters and send them to an overcrowded “super polling place.”

Ward 44 – Precinct 33 was not provided ballots or voting machines, yet we still call this an election. #IllinoisPrimary pic.twitter.com/WgswmB1Mrj

— Abshir Omar (@AbshirDSM) March 17, 2020

Omar also spoke to Deborah Colins, who was standing outside of the Thurgood Marshall Library, who said:

There are senior citizens sitting in there, they’ve been there two or three hours waiting. There are too many people smashed together in there. It’s too close in there… I’ve been standing out here hours myself. Too many people in there. None of the seniors citizens are being waited on they’re just sitting there and waiting. And a lot of people are leaving, they’re not voting because they’re having to wait so long…. Something is wrong, somebody needs to do something.

Just spoke with Deborah Colins at the Thurgood Marshall library about the horrendous conditions inside. She’s been waiting an hour already and decide to step out to avoid the crowded room.

“Something is wrong, someone needs to do something” #IllinoisPrimary pic.twitter.com/JhrW7wsfNo

— Abshir Omar (@AbshirDSM) March 17, 2020

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker did something, but not until it was too late. On Friday, three days after he insisted it was safe to vote, the governor issued a stay-at-home order after consulting with “some of the best medical experts, epidemiologists, mathematicians and modelers” in the country. Three days earlier, he couldn’t be bothered to listen to CDC guidelines. Pritzker’s order bans gatherings of more than 10 people, yet three days before, he allowed for gatherings of hundreds of people at polling stations.

“The Biden campaign came under fire on Sunday for spreading ‘dangerous’ misinformation about the coronavirus,” Paste (3/17/20) reported.

All of this seems incredibly newsworthy and urgent. Yet, despite the preponderance of documentary evidence, to my knowledge, the only published piece on the CDC violations that occurred at polling sites was by Jake Johnson in Common Dreams (3/18/20). The only outlets we saw writing about the comments made by Symone Sanders were Paste magazine (3/17/20) and the Intercept (3/16/20). The Young Turks’ Emma Vigland (3/17/20) discussed Symone Sanders’ quote in a video.

Neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post has said anything about what should be front-page news. Neither CNN’s Chris Cuomo nor MSNBC’s Chris Hayes did any follow-up reporting on the questions they posed to their guests. When CNN’s Jake Tapper (3/22/20) interviewed Pritzker about his tough decision, he didn’t ask the governor about his earlier decision to go forward with the primaries.

To his credit, MSNBC fill-in host David Gura (3/22/20) asked Chicago Mayor Lori Lighthouse if she had “any second thoughts about Illinois continuing with that in-person voting… just a few days ago? I know hindsight is 20/20, but you did have folks going to the poll across the state of Illinois this week.”  The mayor responded that “hindsight is 20/20,” but claimed

the Board of Elections did a good job to make sure that all the voting machines and the areas in which people voted were sanitized and that social distancing was in place. Very tough circumstances to hold an election. But we got through it.

They got through it by having people closer to each other, failing to provide precincts with voting supplies, and failing to wipe down pens or voting machines.

Brian Williams tells Rachel Maddow (MSNBC, 3/17/20) she is “so right” to say that Bernie Sanders withdrawing from the race would make the entire primary process unnecessary.

But MSNBC’s star anchor Rachel Maddow (3/17/20) did not question the wisdom of Tuesday’s primaries. Unlike Chris Hayes, she did not question Tom Perez’s position on the elections. Instead, she put the blame on Bernie Sanders:

One of the things that is a really serious public health consideration is what is going to happen with these primaries that are being held throughout the country. And if one of the two remaining candidates in the race has what amounts to a de facto insurmountable lead, if the race is going to continue all the way until the convention because the guy who is never going to catch up just wants to stay in the race just because he’s got his reasons of his own, it has a different weight now…. Because these primaries are only gonna continue to happen because Senator Sanders is going to stay in the race…. So it will be his decision that forces these very difficult health decisions on all of these states.

Brian Williams chimed in: “You’re so right to say that.”

But Maddow was not “so right.”  While Williams might not be aware of this, Maddow, a Rhodes scholar and self-described political “geek,” surely knows full well that our primaries are not just for candidates running for president, but for thousands of people running for Congress, mayor, governor and countless other local offices. In other words, these primaries are going to occur independently of the presidential race, barring some nationwide cancellation of democracy. Should all candidates in all races drop out if their opponents are leading in polls?

You don’t have to cancel democracy because it’s hard to have safe elections; you find safe ways for people to take part. And if  Maddow and Williams think the public health risks are big enough to justify canceling a primary, why wouldn’t they justify postponing the scheduled ones? If canceling a primary is justifiable and doesn’t subvert democracy, surely postponing the scheduled ones is too.

If this were about public health and safety, Williams and Maddow would have been imploring governors and the DNC to postpone the primaries until a safer date. But they didn’t. If they cared about saving lives, they would have covered the documented CDC violations. But they didn’t.

If they cared about the conduct of presidential candidates, they might have mentioned that after the CDC advisory, one candidate, Bernie Sanders, said he was “not sure” if it made “a lot of sense” to hold the primaries on Tuesday and ceased his Get Out The Vote operation. The other candidate did not cease his GOTV operation, and did not issue a correction when his senior adviser falsely claimed the CDC declared it safe to vote on Tuesday.

Coronavirus roundtable (3/20/20) with Bernie Sanders and Saru Jayaraman.

Since the primary, one candidate has been holding teach-ins and roundtables with medical professionals and members of Congress and has raised over $2 million for charities involved in Corona relief. The other candidate was literally nowhere to be found between Tuesday night and the following Monday. Time and time again, Maddow, Williams and the network for which they work have demonstrated such a strong bias against Sanders that it literally gets in the way of facts like numbers and polling.

Public Health Enemy No. 1 at this moment is Donald Trump. As such, one of our most urgent tasks is accurately informing the public about Covid-19 to counter his lies. Instead, the chair of the DNC and the Biden campaign decided to amplify Trump’s message that Covid-19 was no real impediment to public gatherings, and endangered millions of their own voters. And instead of reporting on this urgent story, the media have enabled this dangerous behavior.

How Corporate Media ‘Factchecked’ Biden’s Calls for Social Security Cuts Into Oblivion

 

Throughout this election cycle, FAIR has documented how corporate media view it as their mission to protect the status quo and corporate profits by lauding centrist and right-wing Democrats like Joe Biden, as well as serving as an anti-Bernie Sanders attack machine. It seems the latest tactic in corporate media’s  crusade to undermine the Sanders campaign—and the progressive movement supporting him—is to bleed them dry with disingenuous “factchecks,” serving as a form of death by a thousand nuances.

At the start of the Democratic primaries, the Sanders campaign utilized Biden’s long history of supporting cuts to popular entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security to devastating effect, so it’s no surprise that corporate media worked overtime to nullify one of the Sanders campaign’s strongest arguments. On the campaign trail and in the latest CNN debate, Biden himself used these corporate media “factchecks” to discredit Sanders’ accurate attacks on his record:

My Lord, Bernie. You’re running an ad saying I’m opposed to Social Security that PolitiFact said is a flat lie and that the Washington Post said is a flat lie.

Politifact (3/12/20): “The reality is that Biden’s position has changed over time.”

PolitiFact stands out for its extreme parsing of details to distort reality. Before the March 15 debate, Politifact (3/12/20) rated Sanders’ claim that Biden “has supported cutting Social Security for 40 years” as “Mostly False,” because the “record is much more nuanced than that,” stating that it’s more accurate to describe Biden’s position as having “changed over time.”

As part of its denial of Sanders’ claim, Politifact itself listed numerous instances in the past 40 years when Biden has advocated cuts to Social Security:

  • “In 1984, Biden co-sponsored a proposal with two GOP senators to broadly freeze federal spending. The proposal would have meant no Social Security cost-of-living adjustments for one year.”
  • In 1996, Biden suggested cutting the cost-of-living adjustment by one percentage point.”
  • “When he ran for president in 2007, in an interview with NBC, Biden said the retirement age and cost-of-living adjustments had to ‘be on the table’ in negotiations on stabilizing Social Security.”

Politifact seemed to be disputing Sanders’ claim because it doesn’t reflect Biden’s current position, as though there would be any point running ads pointing out Biden’s former stances on Social Security if they weren’t inconsistent with what he espouses now.

Politifact’s rating also neglects how language is conventionally used. For example, no one would find it unreasonable for me to claim that I lived at a certain address for ten years, even if I also spent several weeks away from home on vacation at multiple points during that time period. Likewise, just because Biden frequently changes his positions, and has occasionally expressed opposition to cutting a highly popular social program when it suited him, doesn’t mean that a “plain reading” of Sanders’ claim about Biden having supported Social Security cuts over 40 years isn’t true.

After the CNN debate, Politifact continued its role as a PR surrogate for the Biden campaign with its latest factcheck (3/15/20) holding that Sanders’ statements were not only wrong, but also dishonest. Politifact criticized Sanders’ remarks for leaving out “context,” and ignoring “Biden’s subsequent positions in opposition to such cuts.”

Astonishingly, Politifact asserted that “Biden’s focus has changed to protecting Social Security from cuts since he became vice president in 2009.” That would be news to anyone who remembers the Obama administration famously pursuing a bipartisan “grand bargain” with Republicans to cut Social Security under the pretext of “deficit reduction,” most notoriously through the Simpson/Bowles Commission (Intercept, 1/25/20; FAIR.org, 5/21/12; Extra!, 6/1/16).

I earlier (FAIR.org, 1/22/20) criticized Politifact’s obtuse attempt (1/9/20) to echo the Biden campaign’s dismissal of his 2018 praise for Paul Ryan’s attempts to cut Social Security as “sarcastic,” thus rendering Sanders’ criticism “False,” and for failing to highlight Biden’s very next words claiming that Social Security/Medicare needed “adjustments”:

FAIR (2/4/15, 6/25/19) has noted that euphemisms like “solution” and “adjustments” are frequently used to describe what are more accurately called cuts to Social Security. As Ryan Grim noted on Twitter (1/9/20), “‘Adjustment,’ in Washington, is a euphemism for ‘cuts.’ That’s just a basic fact of congressional lingo that can’t be disputed.” Particularly when Biden says of the retirement programs, “It still needs adjustment, but can stay,” it’s hard to see how you can read it other than as a call to “save” the programs by cutting them.

Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic (1/22/20) pointed out the absurdity of corporate media’s attempts to spin away the straightforward interpretation of Biden’s remarks:

Watch the video for yourself, read the transcript, or read any of the fine journalists who have taken on the tedious task of explaining Biden’s 2018 words for those mysteriously struggling with basic reading comprehension. If Biden was truly being “sarcastic” about agreeing with Paul Ryan, why would his next sentence hint at the desirability of means-testing Social Security (“I don’t know a whole lot of people in the top one-tenth of 1% or the top 1% relying on Social Security when they retire”)? Why would he repeat, moments later, in a tone that cannot remotely be construed as “mocking” or “sarcastic,” that these major entitlements “still needs [sic] adjustments” to “stay”?

The Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler (3/8/20) says it’s “misleading” for Sanders to criticize Biden for supporting an increase in the retirement age because “this was not a controversial position at the time.”

You’ll remember the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler as the “factchecker” who claimed that Sanders’ saying three oligarchs had more wealth than the bottom half of the US was wrong because “people in the bottom half have essentially no wealth, as debts cancel out whatever assets they might have” (The Nation, 9/3/19). Kessler (3/8/20) continued in that vein by asserting that Sanders “offers a misleading portrayal” and is “missing important context,” because Biden’s attempts to cut Social Security through the “raising the retirement age” scam in the 1980s was “not a controversial position at the time.” It’s “misleading” to claim that Biden wanted to cut Social Security since both Democrats and Republicans wanted to cut Social Security, as both parties bought into the austerity mindset during the Reagan era (as they still do). Makes sense.

Kessler also lambasted Sanders’ criticism of Biden’s attempts to cut Social Security by freezing all government spending as misleading because it “was not aimed at Social Security specifically.” This resembles the obtuse logic behind corporate media’s euphemistic descriptions of racist actions and policies as “racially charged” or “race-related” if perpetrators don’t explicitly announce they’re trying to harm people of color: So long as deficit scolds like Biden don’t specifically target and denounce Social Security when they try to cut it, it’s “misleading” to say they tried to cut it.

Kessler also treated Sanders’ accurate description of the “chained CPI” scam as a way to cut Social Security as a he-said, she-said situation, even though Kessler admitted that calculating increases in the costs of living through chained CPI would result in benefits for Social Security growing at “a slower rate” than the traditional CPI. That would be more clearly and concisely described as a “cut.”

Setting aside the ridiculous logic of arguing that it’s inaccurate to claim Biden was trying to cut Social Security because he was merely supporting austerity in general, it’s simply silly to pretend Social Security has anything to do with the deficit, or that there are no alternatives to “saving” Social Security besides cutting it. Not only are there simple solutions to increase Social Security’s solvency that don’t require reducing benefits (like scrapping the payroll cap), but as Dean Baker pointed out, Social Security is a self-financed program, which would draw on its trust fund if it’s unable to pay out full benefits collected through payroll taxes, and would reduce benefits—rather than contribute to the national debt—if the trust fund were allowed to run out. In this, Kessler not only misses the forest, but also the trees.

AP (1/29/20) painted Sanders as a hypocrite because he too had said Social Security may need “adjustments”—without mentioning that he offered as an example “making the tax system more progressive.”

Epitomizing false balance, Kessler’s factcheck also echoed the Associated Press’s earlier factcheck (1/29/20) that tried to paint Sanders as a hypocrite by noting Sanders’ use of the term “adjustments” in a 1996 op-ed that ran in the Burlington Free Press (10/23/96). Although CNN also borrowed from the AP’s factcheck when it asked Sanders about his 1996 op-ed during the most recent debate (3/15/20), even CNN’s problematic factcheck (3/15/20) acknowledged that the op-ed explicitly “opposed proposed cuts by the Republican-led Congress to entitlement programs,” and that 1997 op-eds and press releases made clear that Sanders “opposed any cuts to Social Security,” and that the “adjustment” Sanders had in mind was “making the tax system more progressive.”

Although Kessler derided Sanders for criticizing Biden for “supporting a deal that Sanders himself had praised” during a 1999 press conference referencing bipartisan Social Security cuts in 1983, the executive director of Social Security Works, Alex Lawson, argued that any attempt to frame Biden and Sanders’ record on Social Security as similar is misleading. While it was a mistake for Sanders to have used the ambiguous term “adjustments” in 1996, in 1997, Sanders called for “adjusting” the “artificial ceiling” on the payroll cap so that the wealthy could contribute more towards the program, and sponsored bills to block cuts and expand benefits throughout the ’90s and his entire career.

The Post’s post-debate “factcheck” (3/15/20) of Sanders’ criticisms continued its hand-wringing over details by claiming that “Sanders’s point rests on how one defines a ‘cut.’” If the Post acknowledged that freezing spending would make those funds “worth less” because of inflation, why not just call them “cuts” to Social Security, rather than offering pedantic quibbles like “Technically that’s not a reduction”?

Whatever clever dodges politicians propose for cutting Social Security, whether through “raising the retirement age,” “chained CPI” or “freezing” spending, it’s important for media outlets to cut through the jargon and inform citizens by accurately labeling what they want to impose on the US’s most successful anti-poverty program: cuts. Otherwise, these “guides” to Social Security debates should be understood by readers as apologies for austerity (Extra!, 5/99).

Mary Grant on Water & Covid-19, David Cay Johnston on the Last Bailout

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(iStock Image)

This week on CounterSpin: No directive has been more repeated during the Covid-19 pandemic than “wash your hands”—a simple act, but a powerful intervention to stop the spread of disease. But: What if you can’t? That’s the reality faced by millions of Americans who have their water shut off because they’re not able to pay for it. Along with many other things, Covid-19 has underscored the individual and communal harms of a water affordability crisis in this country that usually remains hidden. We’ll hear about the problem and responses to it from Mary Grant, Public Water for All campaign director at Food & Water Watch.

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Business Insider (3/17/20)

Also on the show:  “GOLDMAN SACHS: Buy These 13 Stocks Poised to Dominate in a Market Where Everyone Is Paralyzed by Fear” …was a real headline I read recently. The cravenness of capitalism is center stage right now. But that doesn’t necessarily translate to critical press coverage of how that worldview shapes legislative response to economic shocks. As media consider the $4.5 trillion corporate bailout that’s part of the coronavirus stimulus package, we’ll consider media’s own track record on asking the right questions. During the bailouts of 2008, we talked with reporter and author David Cay Johnston. We’ll revisit that relevant conversation today.

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at scapegoating China and voting under the coronavirus.

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‘There’s Never Been More Attention on the Ills of Profit-Motivated Pharmaceutical Production’ - CounterSpin interview with Dana Brown on medicine for all

On the March 20, 2020, episode of CounterSpin, Janine Jackson reaired an interview with The Next System Project’s Dana Brown about medicine for all, originally broadcast September 20, 2019. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Business Insider (3/16/20)

Janine Jackson: What’s depraved, but not surprising? If you guessed “Donald Trump’s maneuvering around a COVID-19 vaccine,” well…no points, really. German media reported that Trump tried to bribe German scientists into giving him exclusive rights to a potential vaccine they were working on, while Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was making clear that they try to make vaccines affordable, but “we can’t control that price because we need the private sector to invest.”

Perverse as that is, it fairly reflects the setup of our pharmaceutical system, where we rely on patent monopolies and the profit motive to support public health. And, as Institute for Policy Studies’ Josue De Luna Navarro noted recently, if you think companies profiting off coronavirus is bad, buckle up for more climate crisis, with exacerbation of other health threats, because “a sick planet…means a sick public.”

There are alternatives. We talked about one in September of 2019 with Dana Brown, director of The Next System Project.

***

Dana Brown: The incentives and the fiduciary duty of corporations is to maximize profit for their shareholders. And I guess the question is, is that in the best interest of the public? Especially when we’re talking about health?

Dana Brown: “We see high prices, recurring shortages and declining innovation, but also these issues about drug safety and mass marketing, as the natural outcomes of an industry that is oriented around the singular goal of maximizing profit.”

So we see high prices, recurring shortages and declining innovation, but also these issues about drug safety and mass marketing, as the natural outcomes of an industry that is oriented around the singular goal of maximizing profit.

So I think that to get different outcomes, we actually need a different design. And that’s why we’ve been working on a model for a structural alternative, which is public ownership in the pharmaceutical sector across supply chains. And as you say, the idea of turning Purdue into some sort of public trust has come up in this litigation. But it’s a little odd; it relies on the company continuing to operate and continuing to make profits off opiates, which, of course, some people need, right, but they can’t make the same profit if we’re going to try to stem the tide of the epidemic. And then we’re going to somehow use that profit to make things right. And I guess the question is, there’s never been more momentum on this issue of holding drug corporations to account; can we use this opportunity to really transform the industry, and make sure that it works for us?

JJ: So you’re talking about, really, a public option. How would that work, a public option in pharmaceuticals?

DB: I think there are probably several different structures that it could take here in the United States. We’ve done some work in collaboration with others, and proposed one way for that to work, with publicly owned enterprise at the national, state and even local level, that span research and development, manufacturing and wholesale distribution.

And a lot of this work comes from other countries, looking at case studies of other countries where they’re already doing this. There are a number of countries around the world, from Brazil to Argentina, India, China, Thailand, Sweden, that have public companies in some or all of the parts of the pharmaceutical supply chain.

So this can be done, and people have been talking about it a bit for the United States. And I think it really brings home the point that there are alternatives, and that when something is in the public interest, and when it has to do with public health, there is a way that we could provide for that from the public sector. And it could even spur further competition with the private sector when that’s needed.

JJ: We always hear from media, and media channeling other folks, when it comes to why we can’t have generic drugs, or why we need to have private companies making billions of dollars, we hear, “Well, without that profit incentive, no one’s going to be inspired to do the research and to create new drugs.” But that doesn’t hold water, does it?

DB: It’s an interesting argument, and it makes sense on the surface. But I say two things. One is that the National Institutes of Health, a public entity, already funds the vast majority of the basic scientific research that underpins pharmaceutical drug development, and has for quite a long time.

JJ: Right.

DB: In fact, it’s one of the largest funders in the world of pharmaceutical drug development. But also, looking at places like Europe, there are a lot of countries in which it was illegal to patent drugs and medical products and even chemicals until fairly recently, but they had thriving pharmaceutical industries anyway. So, yeah, I don’t quite buy that argument anymore.

And I think that when we have public companies into which we’re funneling those public dollars, there are a lot of efficiencies, there are a lot of gains that we could get, because we wouldn’t be negotiating rebates, and the outcomes would really be better for all of us.

JJ: And it’s not about “sticking it to the rich guy,” or damping down innovation. We’re talking about health and humanity here. Whatever you think we should do, I don’t see how you can maintain the idea that the “system is working fine” when we have people dying from trying to ration their insulin, because they can’t afford it.

DB: Absolutely. And insulin is a really excellent example, because insulin was developed in a public lab in Canada. And the scientists who discovered it sold their US patents for $1 apiece, and stated explicitly at the time that they wanted to maintain affordability forever. So it’s a drug that while developed by public dollars, has somehow been captured, and now is feeding corporate interests, as you say, to such an extent that we have 20-somethings dying in the richest country in the history of the world because they can’t afford to fill their prescriptions.

But there are also classes of medication, like antibiotics, for example, which you’re supposed to take for a short period of time and which are curative, where the industry has said, we have no incentive to develop new antibiotics. But as a country, we know that we’re going to need new antibiotics. So, again, there are places where I think the public can and should intervene for the public good, where industry has already shown, both in action and in their word, that they are not best-placed to play the role.

New Republic (9/16/19)

JJ: You note, in a recent piece that you co-authored with Isaiah Poole, that the 1998 tobacco settlement, which folks might think is kind of an analog to this Purdue bankruptcy thing—you don’t think that tobacco settlement should be the model here at all, do you?

DB: Well, I think there are some positive things that came from that settlement. But I think we also live and learn, and should also, as a country, always be striving to do better. Again, we have an unprecedented opportunity here, because there’s never been more attention on the ills of profit-motivated pharmaceutical production and the multiple issues that we have. And we have an opportunity here to really transform the industry, we have an opportunity to assure long-term, affordable access to all essential medication, if we take action now.

Again, we’re the richest country in the history of the world. We can do this. We effectively provide an awful lot of services from the public sector. I took public transportation to work this morning. We have a lot of public electricity and water, right? We know that this can be done. And I think it’s about not letting this opportunity slip past us.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Dana Brown, director of The Next System Project. They’re online at TheNextSystem.org, where you can find the full report Medicine for All: The Case for a Public Option in the Pharmaceutical Industry. Her piece on the issue, co-authored with Isaiah Poole, can be found there, as well as at NewRepublic.com. Dana Brown, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

DB: Thank you.

 

Canadian Media Advocate Continued Domination of Indigenous Peoples

 

RCMP arresting Freda Huson, founder of the Unist’ot’en healing center, to clear the way for building a gas pipeline on Wet’suwet’en land (Narwhal, 2/10/20). (photo: Amber Bracken/Narwhal)

Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) began raids on the territory of the Wetsuwet’en Indigenous nation on February 6—arresting as many as 80 Indigenous land defenders in the first days of the incursion—to dismantle camps that the Wetsuwet’en had established on their land to prevent construction of a $6.6 billion liquid natural gas pipeline being built by Coastal GasLink, which is owned by TC Energy.

The police were enforcing an injunction from the British Columbia (BC) Supreme Court, though the Wetsuwet’en have never ceded control of their land to Canada. Under Wetsuwet’en law (Canadian Observer, 2/7/20), hereditary chiefs have authority over their territory. They opposed the pipeline, though it has support from the elected Wet’suwet’en band councils that were created under the Indian Act, which Canada unilaterally imposed on Indigenous peoples in 1876.

Coast-to-coast solidarity actions by Indigenous peoples and their supporters began in response to the RCMP raids, most notably in the form of road, highway and rail blockades, including a shut-down of the country’s principle east-west rail link. Blockades led to significant service halts by VIA Rail, Canada’s main rail passenger rail service, and disruptions in the operations of CN Rail, a major freight railway and the country’s only transcontinental railway.

A pickup truck with a Confederate flag on its dashboard drove through a highway blockade in BC (Global, 2/11/20). In Saskatchewan, a man drove into people blocking a highway (Global, 2/12/20). Indigenous peoples faced a deluge of racism (Al-Jazeera, 3/2/20), including death threats (Al-Jazeera, 3/1/20)

I looked at every editorial that the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star, Canada’s two highest-circulation English-language newspapers published on the issue since the RCMP encroachment on February 6: The center-right Globe ran five, and the liberal Star published four.  The editorials omitted crucial information about the status of Wetsuwet’en territory and United Nations positions on Indigenous self-determination, cherry-picked aspects of Canadian law that serve their arguments, and endorsed state repression of land defenders and their supporters irrespective of the violence this would entail.

What’s missing

“The Maritimes, nearly all of British Columbia and a large swath of eastern Ontario and Quebec, which includes Ottawa, sit on territories that were never signed away by the Indigenous people who inhabited them before Europeans settled in North America,” the National Observer (1/24/20) reported.

The Wetsuwet’en, like almost all Indigenous nations in BC, and many from across the lands that Canada claims for itself, have never ceded their territory to Canada. While Canada has failed to honor many of the treaties that it has signed with Indigenous peoples, and while these agreements don’t necessarily entail the latter giving Canada sovereignty over Indigenous land, at no point have the Wetsuwet’en signed away their territory to Canada (National Observer, 1/24/20).

This fact is absolutely central to the Wetsuwet’en issue and the blockades resulting from it, because it undermines the notion that Canada has a right to send the RCMP into Wetsuwet’en to enforce a Canadian court order: It takes extraordinary intellectual contortions to imagine that one nation, Canada, has the right to enforce its will by sending police into another nation, the Wetʼsuwetʼen First Nation, when the Wetʼsuwetʼen have never surrendered their sovereignty to Canada (Now, 1/19/19).

Yet none of the Globe and Star editorials from the relevant period mention that Wetsuwet’en land has not been ceded to Canada. The publications’ editors are opting not to pass along this vital information to their audiences, large portions of whom are unlikely to be versed in the details of Canadian treaties. The papers’ editors simply take for granted that Canada has the right to enact its will on Indigenous people, thereby treating Canadian colonialism as a natural and thus unchangeable condition.

Nor do any of the pertinent Globe and Star editorials make any reference to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) that Canada became a party to in 2017—after 10 years of Canada being one of the few countries in the world to object to it—and which BC passed legislation to legally implement in October. To give only a small sample of the many provisions in the UNDRIP that speak to the Wetsuwet’en question:

  • Article 3 says: “Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”
  • Article 4 is: “Indigenous peoples, in exercising their right to self-determination, have the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.”
  • Article 5 reads: “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions, while retaining their right to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the State.”
  • Article 32, Section 2 says:States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.”

Dispatching Canadian police into Wetsuwet’en territory to enforce Canadian court rulings clearly infringes on the Wetsuwet’en “right to self-determination,” to “freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic…development,” their right to “self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, and their right “to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal [and] economic . . . institutions.” It was the second consecutive year that Wetsuwet’en people set up a blockade to prevent construction of the pipeline, which makes it abundantly clear that a significant portion of the nation does not “consent” to a “project affecting their lands or territories.”

Yet the editors of the two most widely read newspapers in Canada declined to inform readers that the country in which they live was violating a United Nations resolution.

Less than three weeks before the police invasion of Wetsuwet’en territory, the Globe did run an editorial (1/16/20) on the UNDRIP, though it was to say that Canada should not incorporate the resolution into its legal system, criticizing the view that “free, prior and informed consent” amounts to “endors[ing] a veto for a single [Indigenous] opponent” of pipelines such as Coastal GasLink’s.

According to the editors, Canada does not need the UNDRIP, because it supposedly “already has a rigorous and well-developed Indigenous legal framework.” But the Calls to Action put forth in 2015 by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission—which focused on the genocide Canada carried out against Indigenous peoples through the residential school system—said that all levels of government in Canada should “fully adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation,” and called on corporations like Coastal GasLink to obtain “the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples before proceeding with economic development projects.”

Similarly, in December the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination criticized Canada for proceeding with the pipeline without the “free, prior and informed consent of impacted Indigenous groups,” and recommended (CBC, 1/7/20) that

Canada establish a legal and institutional framework to ensure adequate consultation to obtain free, prior and informed consent, and freeze present and future approval of large-scale development projects that don’t meet that level of consent.

But none of the Globe or Star editorials in the relevant period mention this point, evidently concluding that the findings of a UN committee charged with eliminating racism are irrelevant to the discussion.

Law and order

Two-thirds of the editorials under consideration—four of the Globe’s five and two of the Star’s four—applied a law-and-order frame to their coverage of the blockades. The one Globe (2/27/20) and two Star editorials (3/3/20, 2/24/20) that did not center around law and order were published when police had dismantled the most impactful rail blockades, or had begun doing so.

The Globe and Mail (2/13/20) editorialized that “the rule of law must be enforced”—which did not include Wet’suwet’en law, or international law.

The Globe (2/13/20) said of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs that “a minority voice can’t be allowed to…use blockades to prevent a company from going about its lawful business.” Corporate interests, for the Globe and Mail’s editors, supersede Indigenous peoples’ right to govern their land.

As for the rail blockades, the paper wrote:

Patience is a virtue but, at some point, it becomes incumbent on the police to remove protesters who defy the court…. Given the fraught history of their relations with Indigenous people, the police in Ontario have been wise to tolerate illegal blockades while trying to negotiate a resolution, or waiting for the protests to peter out on their own. But at the end of the day, the rule of law must be enforced.

When a publication call for the rule of law to be “enforced”—only, of course, the laws that are convenient to the papers’ case—or for the police to “remove” land defenders and protesters, the paper is advocating violence: People are not “remove[d]” and the law is not “enforce[d]” against land defenders and their supporters without physical coercion. Alternatively, the editors could have stressed the need for negotiation, or—better yet—upholding the UNDRIP and building de-colonial relations for all who inhabit these lands.

The paper (2/19/20) also said that the Trudeau government cannot “allow Canadians to feel…that the rule of law is something they are overly willing to bend,” because an “indefinite rail blockade…involves legal questions not in dispute. There is nothing to negotiate.” When a vigilante group describing itself as “supporters of Alberta oil and gas,” which was “vowing to not stand idle for one day while our country is being taken over” dismantled a rail blockade in Edmonton, the Globe (2/20/20) described this  as a case where

an act outside the law was met with a response beyond the law. That is not how things are supposed to go in Canada, but peace, order and good government are never givens. They risk evaporation if the people responsible for them do not act to preserve them.

Another Globe editorial (2/21/20) decreed:

Barricades on minor roads can run indefinitely. Shutdowns of arterial rail lines cannot. The economy can’t take it, and neither can Canadians’ sense of law and order.

There’s a major problem with prioritizing the alleged need to treat the law as something that can only be minimally “ben[t],” to approach anti-colonial resistance in terms of there being “nothing to negotiate,” to have the laws that supposedly “ensure peace, order and good government” be “preserve[d]” by those “responsible for them” (i.e., the police), and to protect “the economy” and “Canadians’ sense of law and order”: As the editors of the Globe—and the Star—know, both long-term and recent historical precedents show that Canadian police use life-threatening violence in these scenarios, particularly against Indigenous land defenders.

In 1990, Quebec police launched concussion grenades and tear gas canisters in an attack on an encampment of 30 Mohawks resisting expansion of a golf course and construction of luxury condos on a Mohawk burial ground, initiating an exchange of gunfire that left one Quebec police officer dead and a 78-day confrontation during which Canada deployed 3,700 troops and racist mobs hurled rocks at unarmed Mohawks (Montreal Gazette, 7/10/15).

Amid a 1995 armed standoff, the RCMP blew up an Indigenous land defender’s truck and fired 7,000 bullets at them in a single day at Gustafsen Lake (The Tyee, 10/20/09). That same year, an Ontario Provincial Police sniper murdered Dudley George, an unarmed member of a group of people from the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation trying to get the Canadian military to return Indigenous land it expropriated in 1942 to build the Canadian military base Camp Ipperwash on territory that contains a cemetery with graves belonging to First Nations people (CBC, 9/20/15).

Like the Globe, the Star (2/13/20) wrote of the Wet’suwet’en land defenders that it’s not acceptable for “some groups [to] be allowed to ignore the courts indefinitely.” The editors went to assert that “in the end…the rule of law must prevail.”

There’s evidence of what not “allow[ing]” the Wet’suwet’en to exercise their right to self-determination, and of what ensuring that “the rule of law . . . prevail[s],” looks like in practice: In January 2019, RCMP officers carrying assault rifles and dressed in military attire conducted a militarized raid on Wetsuwet’en land defenders and were prepared to kill them, even as police intelligence indicated that there was “no single threat indicating that [land defenders] will use firearms” (Guardian, 12/20/19); the RCMP’s February 2020 attack on the Wet’suwet’en included a tactical squad equipped with rifles (The Tyee, 2/7/20).

The Star (2/18/20) declared that “the government’s patience must not go unrewarded.”

Another Star editorial (2/18/20) warned that

the clock is ticking loudly on this crisis, and the government’s patience must not go unrewarded…. Those behind the protests must recognize that there are limits, and they should not expect to be allowed to continue indefinitely.

The editorial acknowledged that “any injury or death would further inflame an already poisoned relationship [between Canada and Indigenous peoples]. We’ve been down that road many times before, and it always ends badly.” But the editors quickly moved on from their apparent concern to endorsing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s position that “this situation must be resolved not only ‘peacefully’ but ‘quickly’ as well,” without acknowledging that there might be a conflict between those two aims.

Such law-and-order framing is entirely unsuitable for the defense of Wet’suwet’en territory and the rail blockades. When land defenders and their non-Indigenous supporters are cast as criminals rather than as people struggling against colonialism, the message is that their actions are illegitimate and they must be stopped, forcefully if necessary. This method of coverage entails presenting Canadian police and governments as heroes ensuring that divinely ordained Canadian law goes unviolated, stopping the bad guys from inflicting further harm on their victims: corporations and Canadians citizens.

For the Star (2/13/20), the Wet’suwet’en

seem to be operating under the rule of “heads I win, tails you lose.” I get to use the legal system when convenient, and ignore it when it doesn’t give the results I like…. No one has the right to hold the country’s vital transportation links hostage to make a political point.

To Star editors, “There is, understandably, a lot of anger across the country, and it would surely be more satisfying to talk tough and demand that protesters stand down immediately—or else”; for the Globe (2/19/20), Canadians are at risk of feeling “powerless.” These are obscene inversions of power dynamics where, this past summer, for the second time in five years, a feature of Canadian society—this time, the widespread murder and disappearance of Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people—was found to constitute genocide (Maclean’s, 7/7/19).

Moreover, the law-and-order framing of building the pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory depends on a colonial framework wherein Canadian law counts but Wetsuwet’en law does not, which is convenient, since the latter says that the hereditary chiefs who oppose the pipeline have the authority to make that decision about their traditional territory (Globe, 2/27/20). The frame even depends on applying Canadian law selectively, considering that BC brought the UNDRIP into legal force, and considering that, in the 1997 case of Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, Canada’s Supreme Court recognized Wet’suwet’en hereditary governance, and said that Indigenous title and rights exist even if they have not been established in Canadian court (Ricochet, 2/5/20).

For the editors of the Globe and the Star, however, Canadian colonialism and the right to violently enforce it are beyond question.

 

Media Struggle to Defend Washington’s Cruelty Toward Venezuela and Iran as Coronavirus Spreads

 

AP (New York Times, 3/17/20) accepts the IMF’s excuse that lack of “clarity” over Venezuela’s “rightful leader” prevents it from giving the country coronavirus aid–even though in 2002, the IMF rapidly offered aid to a short-lived coup government.

An Associated Press article (New York Times, 3/17/20) headlined “IMF Rejects Maduro’s Bid for Emergency Loan to Fight Virus” declared:

The request is an about-face for Maduro, who for years refused to share economic data with the Washington-based lender and just last month condemned it as a tool of US imperialism. In the past he has called the IMF a blood-sucking “assassin” responsible for plunging millions of people into poverty across Latin America.

The request was not much of an “about-face” for Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro, because it was the same type of disaster relief loan the International Monetary Fund (IMF) gave to Ecuador in 2016 under former President Rafael Correa, another blunt IMF critic, after a massive earthquake. The loan was not one of the IMF’s infamous “structural adjustment loans” that impose a menu of right-wing economic policies such as tax cuts for the rich, privatization of state assets and public sector lay-offs.

The IMF’s rejection of the $5 billion emergency loan for Venezuela is, all by itself, justification for Maduro’s “assassin” and “tool of US imperialism” charges against the fund.

The IMF said that it refused the loan because “there is no clarity” on whether the “international community” recognizes Maduro’s government. This legalistic excuse is reprehensible, because Maduro’s government is in power and is therefore the only entity positioned to actually respond to the pandemic with life-saving action. But there are two other huge problems with the excuse, neither of which were mentioned by the AP.

First of all, contrary to what the IMF claims, there is tremendous clarity that the “international community” recognizes Maduro’s government. Five months ago, the United Nations General Assembly voted Maduro’s government onto the Human Rights Council with 105 votes. That’s about double the number of countries that go along with the US in refusing to recognize Maduro (“more than 50,” according to the AP article). As Reuters (10/17/20) reported at the time of the General Assembly vote, Venezuela won the seat despite “fierce lobbying” against it by Washington. The AP and other western outlets routinely report the number of countries that do not recognize Maduro’s government (i.e., that go along with Trump), but never that the majority of UN member states clearly do recognize Maduro–and even accord it the status of a seat on an influential international body.

Another big problem with the IMF’s excuse for rejecting the loan was that in 2002, when Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was briefly ousted in a US-backed military coup, the IMF rushed forward to offer loans to the coup-installed dictatorship. The dictatorship led by business leader Pedro Carmona was recognized by almost no other country in the world except the US. Carmona was only in power for two days, but the IMF managed to get out a statement saying that it was “ready to assist the new administration in whatever manner they find suitable.” The IMF spokesperson who said that, Thomas Dawson, is also a former US State and Treasury Department official. In fact, even the AP article about the IMF’s rejection of Maduro’s request says that the US is its “biggest shareholder and has a veto over major decisions.”

Washington’s ‘about-face’ on aid

Last year (CBC, 2/16/19), Western media pretended that Washington was eager to help Venezuela, but Maduro stubbornly rejected assistance.

While the request for aid was not a big “about-face” for the Maduro government, the refusal was a dramatic change from the Mafioso-like “take our aid or else” stance the US government took towards Venezuela only a year ago (FAIR.org, 2/9/19). On February 23, 2019, Washington attempted to smash “humanitarian aid” into Venezuela through its border with Colombia.  At the time, Reuters, like many Western outlets, produced headlines like “US Looking for Ways to Get Aid Into Venezuela: Envoy” (2/14/19), “Venezuela’s Maduro Starts Shutting Borders to Block Humanitarian Aid” (2/21/19) and “After Venezuelan Troops Block Aid, Maduro Faces ‘Diplomatic Siege’” (2/24/19). A CBC headline (2/16/19) to a Reuters report read, “Aid for Venezuela Arrives at Border as Maduro Vows to Block Entry.”

Washington’s aim was to use this aid stunt to overthrow Maduro. The hope was that Venezuela’s military would defy Maduro’s order to stop the “aid” delivery, or that some act of violence at the border would incite a rebellion. Top US officials at the time made absolutely no secret of their aims. One of Trump’s top advisers, the now-fired John Bolton, tweeted:

Any actions by the Venezuelan military to condone or instigate violence against peaceful civilians at the Colombian and Brazilian borders will not be forgotten. Leaders still have time to make the right choice.

US Sen. Marco Rubio opted to obliquely threaten the families of Venezuela’s top military officers as well (Twitter, 2/20/19):

.@Ivanr_HD you should think very carefully about the actions you take over the next few days in #Venezuela. Because your actions will determine how you spend the rest of your life.

Do you really want to be more loyal to #Maduro than to your own family?

Four big lies were used to depict this coup attempt as a humanitarian aid mission, and Western outlets like Reuters and the Miami Herald sold all of them (FAIR 2/12/19):

  1. Maduro was not, as alleged, blocking international aid. He had requested it as far back as 2017 and been turned down, but, months before the aid stunt, Venezuela was receiving aid from the UN and the Red Cross.
  2. The destructive impact of US sanctions on Venezuela’s reduced the Maduro government’s ability to import food and healthcare related items by billions of dollars. That  dwarfed the value of the “aid” (an estimated $20 million) that the US wanted to steamroll into Venezuela.
  3. Maduro’s re-election in 2018 was not fraudulent (FAIR.org, 5/23/18). Hence Washington’s recognition of Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s “interim president” was preposterous. Guaidó, an opposition legislator, has never even been a candidate in a presidential election.
  4. It was far from unreasonable for Maduro’s government to suspect that US-backed “aid” deliveries could be used to smuggle arms into Venezuela. Trump‘s special Venezuela envoy, Elliott Abrams, was involved with doing precisely that to arm terrorists in Nicaragua during the 1980s.

A study by US economists Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs showed that Trump’s imposition of broad financial sanctions in 2017 may have caused 40,000 deaths by the end of 2018 alone (FAIR.org, 6/14/19). Trump has repeatedly intensified the already lethal sanctions since recognizing Guaidó as interim president in January 2019 (Reuters, 1/28/19, 6/6/19, 2/18/20).

All of this made clear that the US government’s concern was the opposite of what it claimed: It always wanted Venezuela’s humanitarian situation to get worse, not better. The IMF loan rejection as the deadly coronavirus spreads puts a few exclamations points on that fact. But don’t look for a flurry of Reuters headlines screeching that “Trump Blocks $5 Billion Emergency IMF Loan From Reaching Venezuela During Pandemic.” Reuters appears to have not even reported the loan rejection in English, as of March 24. One Reuters article (3/19/20) mentioned Venezuela’s request, but not that the IMF had already rejected it.

The Washington Post editorial board (3/20/20) scolded Maduro for asking the IMF for a loan that “he must have known would be turned down.” Yes, how terrible of Maduro to expose the boundless hypocrisy and cruelty of a foreign government that’s trying to overthrow him. The Post then pretended that Maduro is somehow forcing Trump to maintain “sanctions that are strangling Venezuela’s vital oil industry” by rejecting “compromise” with Guaidó.

A global pandemic is no reason to cease destroying the economy of a nation that “remains defiant” (Bloomberg, 3/22/20).

Iran’s government has also requested an IMF emergency loan to fight the virus (Reuters, 3/12/20). No response yet from the fund as I write this, but the New York Times reported (3/21/20) that Trump officials had been debating whether to bomb Iran as it struggles with the virus and crippling US sanctions. That’s reason enough to applaud the Maduro government’s request to have the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigate the US government for crimes against humanity over its use of sanctions.

For now, the odds of success in bringing US officials to justice are very remote. US Secretary of State Pompeo has openly threatened to deny visas to the families of ICC judges if they try US soldiers over war crimes in Afghanistan. Apologists for the US in Western media have their work cut out for them, but history shows that they will descend to the task. Proving that Hell should exist, Eli Lake wrote a Bloomberg op-ed (3/22/20) headlined “The Coronavirus Is Not a Reason to Lift Sanctions on Iran.”

Featured image: Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro wears a facemask (Venezuelanalysis, 3/23/20).

 

 

 

‘We Need to Not Just Slow Down the Disease, but Stop It’ - CounterSpin interview with Jim Naureckas on COVID-19

Janine Jackson interviewed FAIR’s Jim Naureckas about COVID-19 for the March 20, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: A public health crisis will bring many things to light: It sinks in how important just having a doctor is, or a computer at home, or neighbors to check on you; it highlights the interwoven nature of our lives, and our utter reliance on people not generally accorded much social capital. If you’re looking, you see the need to protect all of us in order to protect any of us.

For others, a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic means an opportunity to grab something or to blame someone. Some seem to feel that they can fit the reality of the crisis to suit whatever ideological point they’d like to make. In New York, the mayor and the governor can’t decide who’s in charge of the city.

Meanwhile, people want—not a guarantee that every piece of information they’re getting is perfect; people understand what an evolving story is—but they would like to feel that the space where this life-or-death conversation is taking place is free of concerns other than getting up-to-date, health-protecting information, from people who have reason to know, not just reason to talk.

So how are news media handling their responsibility in this critical time? Jim Naureckas is editor of FAIR.org and FAIR’s newsletter Extra!. He joins us now in studio. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Jim Naureckas.

Jim Naureckas: It’s good to be here.

JJ: We’re recording on March 19. Things are changing all the time in terms of the pandemic, our knowledge of it and the responses to it. Everyone’s learning on their feet, and we can expect that what we heard a week ago might not hold. But reporters, as we say at FAIR, should not be gamblers. Their job is not to bank on things going a certain way, report from that assumption, and then just change course if they don’t go that way, and act like nothing happened. It matters too much, to put it simply, for people to be speaking beyond their actual knowledge, shall we say, offering what sounds right to them, or what some are saying.

You see some of that confusion affecting the core data, if you will, about what the US should be doing right now.

Our World in Data (retrieved 3/24/20)

JN: Yeah, this is a brand new disease. We are still learning about it, and there’s a lot we don’t know. But there are things that are apparent from the course that the disease has taken so far, and I think we do know enough to make some assumptions about what kind of danger we’re in.

We do know that the disease spreads exponentially. We know that you can give it to people even before you have symptoms. And so far, it looks like about 20% of people who catch it need to be hospitalized.

And when you put this information together, you quickly see that you can’t allow a disease to keep spreading exponentially, because we don’t have hospital beds for 20% of the population; we don’t have hospital beds for 1% of the population. So we need to not just slow down the disease, but stop it, if we’re not going to have a health crisis like we haven’t seen in our lifetimes.

And yet, that advice, that we should try to slow down the course of the epidemic, is the advice that a lot of media outlets have been trying to give people, what they seem to think is reassurance.

ProPublica (3/14/20)


JJ: Yeah, Charles Ornstein, a longtime health reporter, had a piece saying, “Stop comparing it to the flu.” People keep saying, it’s kind of like the flu. He said no public health experts are saying that, but that seems to be a go-to media analogy. I understand the need to have a frame of reference, but sometimes you just have to say, “This is a new thing. This is just itself,” and we need to pay attention to what it actually is.

JN: Yeah, the flu puts 0.05% of people in the hospital, and this puts 20% of people in the hospital.* So yeah, it is quite more serious.

JJ: Well, we’re seeing Democrats refusing payments to folks, being outflanked on the left by Republicans. It’s not just this deficit obsession. There’s this idea of wasting effort, of wasting largess. It’s like a magical thinking: If we keep our response small, maybe the problem will be small. Like, let’s just be moderate about it. And it’s just not appropriate, right?

JN: I think that a lot of the advice that is being issued about the epidemic, and a lot of the assumptions that are being made about how the epidemic can be fought, are based on the idea that you just can’t shut down the economy, that the economy must go on, that business must go on, no matter what. And you start from that assumption and then, well, what can we do?

That’s why people are talking about slowing down the epidemic, is that unless you keep nonessential people from going to work, there is no way to keep the bulk of the population—there does not seem to be any substitute for physically separating people to keep the epidemic from multiplying and multiplying and multiplying.

JJ: It’s just too big an answer. It’s like they’re working backwards from what they’re comfortable doing…

JN: Right.

JJ: …to what they will do.

I did want to say, you don’t have to be corny to think how far some leadership could go right about now—not paternalistic sanguinity, but a sense from officials of calm and of compassion.

What we have instead is Trump (no surprise) lying, denying, looking out for No. 1, and you have the surgeon general admonishing the press to have “no more bickering. No more partisanship. No more criticism or finger-pointing” in news coverage. So obviously the White House is not going to be the gold standard for information on coronavirus, or even a clearinghouse for useful information.

How do we think about sources? What are you looking at, or what are you looking for, as all these various reports come at you?

JN: I’ve been trying to look at reports from places like the CDC, from the World Health Organization, from medical journals that are trying to keep on top of this, looking at the Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, to see what they’re saying.

It’s very difficult to do solid, double-blind research in the face of a global health emergency. But I think that the people who are on the front lines, they have to try to get a handle on this. They have to know what they’re dealing with. And we can look at their tentative answers, and make some decisions about what we have to do as a community in order to stop this pandemic.

JJ: We heard that in Italy, along with grocery stores and pharmacies, they’re keeping newsstands open, because information is seen as a staple. I have mixed feelings about that with regard to US media, but no, no, there’s been some excellent reporting, we should acknowledge.

But I think it’s showing us, this crisis again is showing us, how media, outside establishment media, are sort of getting in front of the press corps in some ways. You know, Italians uploading videos to themselves 10 days prior, as well as videos to other countries, including the US.

It seems like another reason, were one needed, to care about Facebook and Twitter‘s weird management and censorship rules, and our ability—which we see at times like this—how crucial our ability is to talk to one another around the establishment media.

JN: Yeah, I do think that it’s been very valuable to have social media, which is why it was so disturbing when Facebook started informing people that their posts about the coronavirus were spam, and pulling them down. Then it seemed like this was a result of the social media companies’ being short-handed, because they’re largely based in the Bay Area or in Washington State, places that have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus and have imposed shelter-in-place rules. And so they’re short-handed, and have had to turn over their moderation systems to autopilot, and the autopilot is making some weird decisions. Though then Facebook‘s vice president for “integrity,” as he’s called, announced that that wasn’t it, but he didn’t explain what it was; he said it was a bug. A weirdly timed bug, I guess.

It does point to the vital necessity of these systems of communication that we’ve developed, and the danger of putting control of these systems in a few private hands.

JJ: Just finally, there’s so many stories here beyond even the science of it. When you see Jeff Bezos telling Whole Foods workers to share their medical leave, you realize, these capitalists really mean it; this is the system they support all the time, this is what that system looks like at a time like this. And I kind of wonder how people are going to go back to accepting, like, “Well, OK, you can die in the street, as long as you’re not contagious.” You know, “Paid sick leave? What’s that?” “Debt forgiveness? Who told you that?”

That’s assuming we come out the other side, but I do think problems are showing up that aren’t going to disappear, and reporters are going to have their work cut out.

Jim Naureckas: “The economic system has got to shut down. It is not an option to leave the economy running while we fight this virus; that is not a possibility.” (cc photo: Eden Naureckas)

JN: I feel like part of how modern capitalism works is creating an artificial sense that everyone is on the edge of disaster, and that you had better show up for work, because otherwise you’ll lose your healthcare, you won’t be able to make your mortgage payments or your rent payments. And that is how  salaries are kept low, wages are kept low, and profits are kept high.

And now, faced with a real disaster, we’re going to have to feed people and we’re going to have to leave people in their shelter, we’re going to have to provide medical care, regardless of whether people have jobs or not, because unemployment is going through the roof.

The economic system has got to shut down. It is not an option to leave the economy running while we fight this virus; that is not a possibility.

And so we’re going to have to provide food for people; we’re going to have to provide medical care for people, and the demonstration that that can be done, without the handholding of the business owners, I think will send a powerful message to people that maybe those business owners are not so crucial as they would like us to believe.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Jim Naureckas. He’s the editor of FAIR’s newsletter Extra!, as well as our website FAIR.org. Jim Naureckas, thank you for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

JN: Thanks for having me on.

* This is actually an apples-to-oranges comparison: The 0.05% figure is for the entire population, not for people who have the flu. Coming down with the flu gives you between 1–2% chance of being hospitalized. —JN return

In Pursuit of Chinese Scapegoats, Media Reject Life-Saving Lessons

 

We are barely a few months into the year, but it is already clear that the coronavirus will be 2020’s defining event in media and politics. For weeks, conservative media echoed the explicit Trump line that the reaction to COVID-19 was a liberal “hoax” weaponized against the White House. Recent  Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Rush Limbaugh has been pouring scorn on the media “hysteria”: Extolling how the market was “roaring” (Rush Limbaugh Show, 3/2/20), he claimed it was nothing to worry about. “This virus is the common cold,” he confidently predicted (3/11/20).

Fox News was similar; host Jeanine Pirro (3/7/20) pronouncing that “all the talk about the coronavirus being so much more deadly doesn’t reflect reality. Without a vaccine, the flu would be more deadly.” (The flu kills between 0.1%–0.2% of people catch it, according to the CDC; so far in Italy, 9% of recorded cases have been fatal.)

Sean Hannity (Fox News, 3/9/20): “The coverage we are seeing from the media mob is beyond disgusting.”

While posing beside a “Coronavirus Hysteria” graphic, Fox’s Sean Hannity (3/9/20) told viewers, “This scaring the living hell out of people—I see it, again, as, like, let’s bludgeon Trump with this new hoax.” Fox’s medical contributor told Hannity (3/6/20) that, “at worst, worst case scenario it could be the flu.” Host Pete Hegseth (Fox and Friends, 3/8/20) summed up the network’s message: “The more I learn about this, the less there is to worry about.”

Yet, as the bodies piling up across the country became impossible to ignore, the White House—and therefore conservative media—suddenly changed their tone, Pirro (3/22/20) now telling viewers, “We are facing a seemingly incomparable enemy virus inflicting sickness and, in some cases, death as it washes across the world,” and Hannity (3/18/20) outright lying: “This program has always taken the coronavirus seriously. We’ve never called the virus a hoax.” This, while he also complained (3/17/20) about “fake news” and “irresponsible” media spreading disinformation.

The damage has already been done, however; only 47% of Americans (and barely a quarter of Fox viewers) see the virus as a major threat to the country, according to a Pew survey conducted March 10–16, and the necessary generalized lockdown is occurring far too slowly.

The Washington Post (3/19/20) photographed the text of a Trump speech where “coronavirus” was replaced with “Chinese virus.”

Trump has begun deflecting blame away from his administration’s mishandling of the crisis, calling it the “China virus” multiple times (e.g., Twitter, 3/16/20, 3/17/20)—and even being photographed with a script in which he had crossed out the “corona” in “coronavirus” and replaced it with “Chinese” (Washington Post, 3/19/20). Professor Ian Haney Lopez, author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, told FAIR that:

Labeling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” is entirely in keeping with Donald Trump’s pattern of dog-whistling. The term is designed to trigger racist fears (foreigners as disease-carriers), while preserving plausible deniability (defensible as merely a statement about geography).

If Trump’s statement was not clear enough, Chinese-American CBS correspondent Weijia Jiang reported that a White House official referred to the virus as the “Kung Flu” in front of her.

As one would expect when the president directs the anxieties of a terrified nation towards foreign scapegoats, the US is in the midst of a wave of anti-Asian racism (New York Times, 3/23/20). A Korean woman was punched in the face in Midtown Manhattan by another woman shouting, “You’ve got coronavirus, you Asian [expletive].” Two Hmong men were refused service by multiple Indiana hotels on the grounds they were likely diseased. Meanwhile, images of Vietnamese-American students being bullied at their California school by other kids yelling “coronavirus” went viral. Given the current environment, it was therefore probably not a good decision by the Sacramento Bee (3/19/20) to publish an article directing readers to where the city’s Asian population live, entitled  “Where Are Sacramento’s Asian and Pacific Islanders Populations? There’s a Map for That.” They have since deleted it.

A Hill op-ed (3/17/20) argued that China must be “held accountable” for its “gross mismanagement of the highly contagious disease,” although it is to date the only country to bring a widespread outbreak of COVID-19 under control.

While there was a good deal of condemnation for the obvious racist undertones in Trump’s speech in “Resistance” media (e.g., New York Times, 3/18/20; CNN, 3/20/20; Washington Post, 3/10/20), many of those same outlets had been using the same or similar phrases for weeks (e.g., New York Times, 1/15/20; CNN, 1/20/20; Washington Post, 1/21/20). Worse still, corporate media have accepted Trump’s premise that China is uniquely to blame and must be “held accountable” for its sins (The Hill, 3/17/20; Fox News, 3/20/20; National Review, 3/21/20). At the March 16 Democratic presidential debate, CNN directly parroted neoconservative deflection tactics, asking both Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden to describe the “consequences” China should face.

Much of corporate media has played upon Orientalist tropes that the Chinese are inherently sneaky and untrustworthy, and are ruled by an incompetent, authoritarian government that is the “sick man of Asia” (Wall Street Journal, 2/3/20). China appears to be one of the few countries to get a grip on the virus, reporting barely a handful of new local cases this week. Indeed, Chinese-Americans are flying back to China for treatment that is inaccessible in the US. In contrast to the United States, who reportedly attempted to bribe a German pharmaceutical company into giving it exclusive control, access and supply of any coronavirus vaccine it created, making sure it would be available only on a for-profit basis, China has begun sending doctors and huge quantities of medical supplies to other countries.

CNN (3/19/20) reported that China was “possibly trying to curry favor” by sending desperately needed equipment “after lying about the virus.”

But much of the media present this action as further proof of the scheming Chinese mindset. On a story about the People’s Republic donating medical personnel, nine pallets of ventilators, tens of thousands of masks and other medical supplies to Italy, CNN (3/19/20) described the action as merely trying to “rehabilitate its image” and “deflect blame,” with correspondent Melissa Bell telling the audience: “But it’s not just Italy. China is also trying to curry favor by helping Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Iran, Spain as it locked down, and also France.” Those dastardly Asians, currying favor by saving their lives!

On the same story, the Guardian (3/19/20) saw this as China’s “propaganda machine” trying to “rewrite history” by using aid as “soft power” and “a propaganda tool,” warning that the aid has “political ends that deserve attention.” The official US propaganda outlet Voice of America (3/19/20), meanwhile, wrote it off as “mask diplomacy” from the “home” of the disease. Thus, an extraordinary lifesaving gesture is written off as more proof of inherent nefariousness. The idea that the Chinese might genuinely wish to stop the rest of the world from dying appears almost unthinkable, so strong is the Sinophobia in much of the reporting.

Bear in mind that “China’s incompetence” (Foreign Policy, 2/15/20) is the only force that has brought an outbreak of COVID-19 fully under control.

In its apparent success in bringing a halt to new infections originating within China, it is looking increasingly like China passed the COVID-19 stress test with flying colors. The World Health Organization has heaped effusive praise on China’s total “commitment to transparency” in identifying the virus and sharing information with the world. “I have never seen the scale and commitment of an epidemic response at this level in terms of all of government,” said WHO’s chief executive director for health emergencies, Michael Ryan of Ireland:

The challenge is great, but the response has been massive and the Chinese government deserve huge credit for that response and for the transparency in which they have dealt with this.

Corporate media, on the other hand, have put forward a set of alternative facts, describing Beijing’s response as “slow,” “hesitant,” “sluggish” (Financial Times, 1/25/20, 2/5/20), “bungled” (Atlantic, 3/19/20), “incompetent” (Foreign Policy, 2/15/20) and “botched” (National Review, 3/17/20). Others (Atlantic, 2/22/20) claimed that Beijing’s “blindness” to their problem “revealed authoritarianism’s fatal flaw,” arguing that censorship and government surveillance made their response ineffective.

Still others believed China did too much. Describing China as a “top-down bureaucracy that brooks no dissent,” the New York Times (3/18/20) argued that Beijing’s “sledgehammer approach” resulted in huge “human trauma” and “public mistrust and resentment toward the government,” and repeating long-debunked narratives (FAIR.org, 3/6/20) about supposed whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang being silenced. The Guardian (1/23/20) appeared of two minds, unable to decide if China was “botching” its response or “crushing this disease as firmly as it crushes dissent.”

Meanwhile, Slate (1/24/20) claimed that China was pursuing an “overly aggressive and ineffective” campaign that needlessly “violated people’s rights,” instead confidently recommending a purely “voluntary” system of restrictions would be far more effective, a prediction that seems tragically antiquated two months later.

In sum, media are unsure whether China is doing too much or not enough, but they do agree that, whatever it is doing, it is bad.

The idea that whatever China does must be wrong is especially troubling, considering the fact that their tactics appear to have gotten to grips with the pandemic, while at the same time, COVID-19 is on the brink of tearing through the United States with a fury unmatched even in China. While we at FAIR constantly critique corporate media, pointing out how their ownership, structure, funding models and agendas are antithetical to the well-being of the majority of the population, rarely does terrible media coverage so directly threaten human lives. In the interest, first of scoring partisan points and then of finding a scapegoat to blame, the press are ignoring their role as providers of information and refusing to learn the lessons of what techniques work in controlling a pandemic.

 

Presenting Trump and Science as Equals Isn’t Balanced, It’s Dangerous

 

With more than 32,000 COVID-19 infections and 400 deaths in the US to date, and Surgeon General Jerome Adams predicting that “this week, it’s going to get bad,” as hospitals prepare for the eventuality of rationing treatment for patients least likely to survive, the president of the United States hit his caps lock key and typed out a tweet:

WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 23, 2020

The next day’s news coverage (Bloomberg News, 3/23/20; New York Times, 3/23/20) confirmed what the tweet implied: At the end of March, the White House will consider lifting recommendations that US residents stay at home and engage in “social distancing,” in order to get the economy rolling again.

This would, public health experts agree, be a disaster, both in terms of death toll and as far as having any chance of eventually bringing the pandemic under control. The Imperial College London’s projections (3/16/20) of the consequences of an unmitigated epidemic are 2.2 million dead in the US alone, and likely a lot more after taking into account the impact of overwhelmed hospitals making it impossible to get care for other health needs.

Meanwhile, public health experts say it’s now too late for short-term measures to work (New Yorker, 3/20/20), with at minimum eight weeks of social distancing and other closures needed to bring infection rates down to less immediately dangerous levels, with repeat shutdowns likely necessary in the summer and fall until a vaccine can be tested and made available (New York Times, 3/17/20); Hong Kong has already had to restore more stringent measures just two weeks after it first lifted restrictions (CNN, 3/23/20).

Unfortunately, thanks to some of the same journalistic pitfalls that have undermined news coverage of early phases of the crisis (FAIR.org, 3/19/20), reporting on Trump’s statements ended up soft-pedaling the dangers of the economy-first approach, and denying readers important information on what will likely happen if the White House tries to lift restrictions too soon.

The ratio of politicians to coronavirus experts quoted in this New York Times piece (3/23/20) was 5 to 1.

As is common in breaking news coverage, most reports took a just-the-facts approach to the matter, pairing Trump’s statements with disease experts’ warnings, and leaving it to readers to decide whom to believe. The New York Times (3/23/20), for example, led by reprinting Trump’s tweet, then countering it with the opinion of infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, who serves on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, that “it would take several more weeks until people can start going about their lives in a more normal fashion.”

That kind of journalistic balance is problematic enough when it presents elected officials’ opinions as equally important as those of public health experts, in the middle of a public health crisis. But as the Times article (by Maggie Haberman and David Sanger) continued, it tilted even further toward the words of politicians, not scientists: Those quoted included former Trump homeland security advisor Thomas Bossert (who called social distancing “imperative”), Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin (who described talk of a “complete shutdown of the economy” as “fake news”), Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham (who said the US shouldn’t “back off aggressive containment policies”), and anti-tax advocate and Reagan White House advisor David McIntosh (who said the government must “put an end to the social distancing some time in the near future to restore economic activity”). No actual scientists other than Fauci were cited.

Even on the numbers themselves, the Times skewed its coverage toward fears of an economic downturn: Its article twice cited the millions of job losses that would result from a long shutdown, but never mentioned the millions of deaths likely if the US chooses to lift restrictions too soon.

CNN‘s claim (3/23/20) that there are “potentially hundreds of thousands of lives at stake” is a gross understatement.

CNN (3/23/20), meanwhile, presented some coronavirus projection figures, though they were almost certainly too low, and framed as a question of exactly what monetary value to place on human lives:

The dynamic has led to a robust internal debate over how best to balance the actual health of the country—with potentially hundreds of thousands of lives at stake—with its economic health.

CNN likewise didn’t cite any public health experts, though it did quote Graham as a critic of Trump’s position, and Fox News hosts Laura Ingraham and Steve Hilton, plus unnamed Twitter users, as supporters.

Other coverage took a similar he-said-she-said tone: The Hill (3/23/20) noted that Trump’s tweet came “as the number of coronavirus cases in the United States grows and grows,” but as social distancing policies “are also having devastating effects, with some projections of 20% or 30% unemployment in the second quarter.”

Bloomberg News (3/23/20) likewise balanced Trump’s position against that of “the government’s top health authorities” (and the ubiquitous Graham)—though it at least cited one scientist, Yale School of Public Health epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves, who said calling for abandoning social distancing to save jobs was dangerous “zero-sum” thinking:

Epidemiologists are aware of the tradeoffs because they are thinking about them in their own lives. But to do a knee-jerk response by removing these measures is short-sighted, short-term thinking that’s going to get us into deeper trouble.

Economic downturns can be devastating, no doubt—especially if the consequences fall the hardest on those with the least resources, as is already being predicted in this case (Atlantic, 3/20/20). That’s one reason that experts in poverty and employment—another group oddly missing from news coverage of Trump’s missives—have called for immediate government aid to provide housing, healthcare and cash to low-income Americans (US News, 3/19/20). In fact, there’s excellent evidence that concerted government action following an economic crash can prevent a human toll on the scale that would result from an unchecked pandemic: Death rates during the Great Depression did not measurably rise (Smithsonian, 3/28/11), despite widespread unemployment.

At the Columbia Journalism Review (3/23/20), Jon Allsop has suggested that the problem is that pandemic reporting is forcing news outlets to seek a balance between two contrasting journalistic roles:

Increasingly, journalists interacting with public officials must strike a difficult balancing act—between aggressive scrutiny of missteps and misstatements, which is always our job, and the effective communication and amplification of government public-health guidelines, which has rarely, if ever, felt so urgent.

Yet those two tasks—reporting on public-health warnings, and factchecking elected officials—aren’t really at odds: They’re both part of the same core journalistic responsibility of informing readers on what’s true and what’s not. (And, when the exact truth can’t be determined, at least making clear which sources are more qualified to know better.) But in the middle of a public health crisis, the beliefs of elected officials and those of disease experts shouldn’t be presented as if they carry equal weight. Stopping the coronavirus pandemic from taking millions of lives may require news organizations to take sides—but if it’s on the side of science, that’s the kind of bias that journalism needs.

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