Why Media Coverage of COVID-19 Has Been So Bad
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In my lifetime, I never have seen anything dominate news coverage like the COVID-19 virus and how federal, state, and local governments have dealt with the death, illness, and uncertainty it has created. That is a lifetime that has included the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War, the moon landing, Watergate, and the 9/11 attacks.
Suffice it to say that these were big events, yet I cannot say that I have seen anything quite like it, even in this modern media age. But although news coverage clearly has been extensive, I cannot say much for it except that with just a few exceptions, the coverage has been uniformly bad. When I mean bad, I mean that I as a reader, and especially as a reader who also is an academic economist and economic journalist, cannot trust it to be accurate.
For example, when Neil Ferguson of Imperial College in London more than two months ago reported his model that predicted up to 2.2 million coronavirus deaths in the United States, the New York Times accepted the predictions as near reported fact, both in its news and editorial coverage. Despite the fact that Ferguson has a long record of making wild exaggerations in his death-from-disease models, the media treated his dire predictions as Oracles from the Gods and demanded radical measures to counter this alleged threat.
Those of us who are skeptical of many apocalyptic claims from progressives—from Paul Ehrlich’s false predictions in The Population Bomb to Al Gore’s fabricated claims that sea ice was supposed to disappear from the Arctic fifteen years ago—wondered aloud if we really were to see a reprise of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic and concluded that we were not. However, whenever so-called experts predict doom, members of the press eagerly await the next oracles. What always follows is the demand that government, with its stable of experts, step in and save us.
This is not just the mainstream media such as the New York Times or the network news stations running the gamut from CBS News to CNN to Fox News. This also includes the more ideological publications such as The Nation or the American Conservative. For example, if one were to read both the news and editorial sections of the New York Times on any day, one would find the coverage to be one sided and slanted toward what is a progressive view of society and governance, a viewpoint that is highly critical of the legal and social tradition of limitations upon state power. At the same time, one can read on the pages of TAC that the government should not only regulate consumer prices during the pandemic, but that the government should arrest anyone accused of “price gouging.”
A broad-brush view of progressivism, which today really is the dominant governing philosophy in the United States, is that constitutional limits upon government power are inadequate in a complex society like ours and that we should not be governed by bumbling politicians, but rather by experts. For example, a progressive would tout the difference between Anthony Fauci and Donald Trump; one is a public health expert, and the other is, well, Donald Trump, which goes without saying.
Given that most American journalists, both print and electronic, would proudly call themselves progressives, we should not be surprised when news coverage follows progressive narratives that hold to the view that expansion of state power is also the expansion of civilization itself. When I was in journalism school nearly a half century ago, my professors drilled into all of us that it was the press—the free press—that protected the rights of Americans from predatory government. Of course, the professors also happened to teach that maybe corporations might be more dangerous than government and that, well, you know, progressive government is really a good thing and should be encouraged, since progressive government is not the same as predatory government.
If one wished to probe my professors’ thinking even more, they really believed that the media really should be in the business of promoting “good government,” which was, in their minds, government by “experts.” What they meant by “good government” was not government that operated within strict constitutional limits, but rather progressive government, a government that could do things well, from providing medical care to building homes for the poor and providing food for hungry people. They wanted a competent government, the kind of government that to the generation that gave us the Progressive Era dreamed of occupying Washington, DC, and the rest of the country, the kind of government that they fervently believed that FDR had created with the New Deal.
Although my journalism professors didn’t teach me The Narratives in the classroom, over the years while I worked as a newspaper reporter and in my years as an academic economist, I have found that most journalists work according to what one might call narratives. We see them in spades whenever we watch network news. On Fox News, Democrats in power always are weak in national defense. On MSNBC, you will hear that anyone who espouses free markets really wants black people to be thrown back into slavery and poor people to starve to death. Narratives are sets of beliefs that one holds that explain how things work in the world. Journalists forever are shaping their coverage to fit those narratives, and often they turn into just plain caricatures.
Perhaps the strongest narrative of all is informed by the belief that experts hold everything we need to know and that when there are emergencies we need experts to tell us what to do. As Ryan McMaken recently wrote, so-called progressive governance is what one would call a technocracy, a government by the Competent Ones:
Over the past several decades—and especially since the New Deal—official experts in government have gradually replaced elected representatives as the primary decision-makers in government. Public debate has been abandoned in favor of meetings among small handfuls of unelected technocrats. Politics has been replaced by "science," whether social science or physical science. These powerful and largely unaccountable decision-makers are today most noticeable in federal courts, in "intelligence" agencies, at the Federal Reserve, and—long ignored until now—in government public health agencies.
One can see the endorsement such a regime clearly by visiting the editorial page of the New York Times, which is not only the standard bearer for progressive America, but also is called “the Newspaper of Record” and a media mecca for most American journalists, print and electronic. What the NYT chooses to put on its editorial and news pages matters, because whatever the paper’s leadership selects ultimately is what is covered by the rest of the mainstream media. Yes, there are independent journalists, and once in a while something from outside progressive political circles that the NYT would rather ignore becomes so public that the paper cannot ignore it. Not surprisingly, it is the NYT and like media outlets that have turned Anthony Fauci’s every word into fulfilled prophecy (even if what he said actually was not true), and if Fauci is cautious about allowing people to reopen their businesses and go back to work, then we should all remain self-quarantined.
But why Fauci? For that matter, why would the “Newspaper of Record” take Neil Ferguson seriously when none of his vaunted models have been even near-accurate? Why do mainstream journalists still believe that Paul Ehrlich is an authority on population?
There are two reasons. First—and this is standard for any news outlet—bad news and especially sensational bad news always will get the headlines as long as it fits within the narratives of that particular outlet's leaders. For example, the NYT and mainstream media reported every sensational accusation of sexual assault against Supreme Court then nominee Brett Kavanagh, because it fit the liberal left’s narrative that Republicans don’t care about women being sexually assaulted.
Likewise, when Tara Reade recently said that presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden sexually assaulted her in 1993, Fox News reported it in part because its reporters live by the narrative that Democrats are hypocrites. (True to form, the NYT refused to report on the accusations for nearly three weeks, giving fuel to the conservatives’ beliefs about that paper.)
Second, although bad news sells, how journalists define bad news is even more important. Most journalists fall into the category of being progressives and have worldviews in line with such an ideology. As noted earlier, progressives are far more likely to defer to so-called experts, and experts have found that people are far more likely to listen to them when they predict doom than when they say all is (nearly) well. For most of their formal education, journalists have been taught that we are running out of resources, that overpopulation of the planet is a dire threat, and that environmental catastrophe (this time with climate change) is always around the corner. Most journalists I know have not even developed the intellectual capacity to believe otherwise, even when time and again the dire predictions that they have come to religiously believe don’t actually occur. Thus, in 1989, the New York Times editorialized that acid rain was destroying the forests of New York State even when extensive scientific research at that same time demonstrated otherwise. The editors had come to believe that the environmentalist narrative was true and were not about to be confused by facts, even if legitimate scientific inquiry pointed in another direction.
Something like the COVID-19 saga fits into nearly every narrative from progressive journalists that one can imagine.
First, it is easy to blame Donald Trump given that it seems that journalists employed by the NYT, CNN, and other media outlets have made it their collective mission in life to have him ousted from the White House—and Trump’s “leadership style” in something like a pandemic makes him an easy target.
Second, given that progressives are more likely to believe in all things apocalyptic when it comes to the environment and health issues, they are less likely to be skeptical when the Neil Fergusons of the scientific world predict millions of deaths.
Third, because of their reflexive belief that experts have all of the answers, they are more likely to frame the story as one of the experts versus the uneducated (who want to go back to work or open their shuttered businesses). Anyone who contradicts such wisdom is treated as an ignorant pariah, even if that person is a scientist with an elite background in higher education.
Last, journalists can clearly see that politicians are much more likely to act on what seems to be certain catastrophe, and in return journalists heap praise on those politicians that take the most extreme measures. Take Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, for example. Despite the fact that Cuomo ordered nursing homes to admit COVID-19 patients—despite the vulnerability of elderly people to the coronavirus—with his directive leading to numerous deaths, the media coverage is largely positive precisely because he is seen as “doing something.”
Conversely, South Dakota governor Kristi Noem has received scathing national news coverage, because she refused to force businesses and individuals to lock down and “shelter in place.” Much of the coverage insinuated that the death toll there was likely to skyrocket as a result, yet at this date South Dakota has suffered thirty-four COVID-19 deaths, hardly a hot spot.
It would be nice if we could count on the mainstream news outlets to give reliable news on the coronavirus, but that will remain unlikely. Most journalists are wedded to the progressive narratives, and even if for a moment they are swatted by a reasonable interpretation of the facts at hand, they quickly recover and go on preaching doom and more doom.