Brad and Megan stopped by. They were on their way from Brooklyn to Brad’s parents’ house in Somerset County. They stood on one side of the fence in our small front yard, and we stood on the other. Hilary gave them two avocados and a bottle of hand sanitizer. I tried to give them a copy of a CD that we’d accidentally double-ordered from Saddle Creek, but they don’t have a CD player. Gift-giving is a vexed and complicated act in 2020. No hugs or handshakes were exchanged. Still, it was nice to see them. It was the first real social interaction we’ve had with anybody since March.
Brad expressed his frustration with the mainstream newspapers. Why were they so fascinated by Confederate battle flag-wavers protesting stay-at-home orders? He’d marched for peace with thousands, and their movement had barely ever gotten above the fold. Editorial priorities seemed scrambled. As a newsroom veteran I could only nod. The long answer to his question is in this piece, which I wrote at the end of 2017, and which I strongly encourage you to read if you haven’t. The short answer is that these ugly stories receive saturation coverage because they sell. They provide editors with a developing angle. The protests are irresistible to mainstream news outlets because they’re the latest leading edge of the larger strategy that has been keeping the news business afloat for the past four years: the one that makes Donald Trump the embattled protagonist-villain of every story.
I can feel sympathy for those editors and publishers. They’re in a tighter spot than it probably seems like they are. There’s a lot of demand for news, but telling this story in a way consistent with the expectations of the news audience is tricky. You can’t interview a virus. This adversary cannot be psychologically modeled. Human-interest stories of perseverance in the face of illness and hardship are inspiring, but they soon become redundant; more importantly, they don’t compel a reader to click on the next article to soothe or exacerbate his outrage. Mainstream news requires a heavy, and for four years, the current President has been reliable in that regard, if in few others.
The trouble is that Donald Trump is not the protagonist of this story. The coronavirus has exposed him as a marginal player with very little understanding of risk or crisis management. Even his press conferences are providing declining news value. In some desperation, editors have decided to make heavies out of some of those making apologies for the President. An angry white man in militia gear screaming at a nurse — that’s ideal, and probably irresistible. In an unguarded moment, the publisher would concede that he understands that running that picture amplifies the rage of the militiaman and gives it a much wider platform than it deserves. But who has an unguarded moment anymore?
Brad has responded by taking the mainstream news and social-media applications off of his phone. That seems reasonable to me. The best sources of information about the pandemic have been local journalists and science writers, who are findable and followable for those who want to put in the extra effort needed to dodge the news algorithms. I would also like to acknowledge the efforts of Stephen Stirling, who has been supplying New York and New Jersey with a well-researched and sober newsletter. Erin Brodwin and Sharon Begley at Stat, a medical spinoff of the Boston Globe, have been tigers on testing. I feel like I owe these people a personal note of thanks, and maybe a box of cookies.
The real revelation, at least for me, has been Dr. John Campbell, a nurse and teacher from the UK who has been posting lengthy, well-sourced videos to YouTube every day, and sometimes several times a day. If you’ve ever had a good nurse explain a medical procedure to you, you know how thorough they can be, and Dr. Campbell is very thorough and very clear. He goes through the numbers, country by country, slowly and evenly, and refrains from making speculative claims; often he’ll say something is “concerning”, and raise an eyebrow, but he’s plainly not doing this to advance an agenda. There are things he believes: he thinks that widespread Vitamin D deficiency has contributed to the spread of the virus and spikes in mortality rates. But he gives the impression that he’d revise his opinion at once if he felt that there was contradictory evidence. He’s been letting the science lead him, rather than pushing the science into the shape of his beliefs. That, alone, has been refreshing.
Campbell is one of an increasing number of people who have studied the limited numbers we’ve got, and hazarded the guess that the infection rate is far higher than what has been reported. In a way, that’s comforting: if there are more asymptomatic people out in the street, that means that the case fatality rate is lower than we’ve assumed it is. But it’s also stupefying. There are already more than ten thousand confirmed cases in Hudson County. That’s at least one for every Jersey City block. Last night the ambulances were back on this block. I’ll keep trying, as hard as I can, to duck the sirens.