The International Society for Infectious Diseases, founded in 1986 and based in Brookline, Mass., is a global network of 90,000 scientists and health specialists from around the world. The Society facilitates the exchange of knowledge about dangerous diseases in people, animals, and plants. One of the celebrated projects undertaken by the society is its ProMed listserv that posts alerts of disease anomalies everywhere on the planet.
On December 30, 2019 ProMed posted an “urgent notice on the treatment of pneumonia of unknown cause” issued by the Medical Administration of the Wuhan Municipal Health Committee. The ProMed alert included details from a report by Wuhan’s City Health Commission that the “South China Seafood Market in our city has seen patients with pneumonia of unknown cause one after another.”
The Wuhan notice and the ProMed alert were the first details about the novel coronavirus made public in China and worldwide. Helen Branswell, an accomplished health journalist on the staff of STAT, a Boston-based news group that specializes in reporting on medicine, spotted the notice. “Hopefully this is nothing out of the ordinary, she tweeted on December 31. “But a @ProMED_mail posting about “unexplained pneumonias” in China is giving me #SARS flashbacks.”
Five days later, on January 4, 2020, Branswell posted the first article in the American media about the Wuhan outbreak, noting that Chinese officials were not being candid about what they know, and questioning the Chinese official assessment that the disease could not be transmitted human to human. ““I don’t find the comments [about human transmission] that I see spread throughout the internet as credible — unless they know what it is,” Ralph Baric, a coronavirus expert at the University of North Carolina, told her.
On January 6, the New York Times followed STAT with its own report on the Wuhan outbreak. “The cases have alarmed Chinese officials, who are racing to unravel the mystery behind them in a region where the memory of an outbreak of the dangerous respiratory disease known as SARS remains fresh,” wrote Times correspondents Sui-Lee Wee and Vivian Wang .
So began American mainstream media’s reporting on the Covid-19 pandemic, the most important story of our lifetime. Since the first of the year, coverage of the pandemic has displayed mainstream media’s capacity to translate complexity, accurately describe the novel virus’s behavior and spread, and report on health and medical conditions in the U.S. and around the world. Just as significantly, mainstream media penetrated the fog of denial, ideology, misinformation, and obfuscation laid down by the White House and its allies in Congress, Fox News, and other Trump-supporting media.
In sum, mainstream media is playing an essential role in informing Americans about the spread and risk of the novel coronavirus. It is carefully tracking conditions in China, Italy, and Spain and relying on epidemiologists to decipher essential clues about the virus’s behavior. Mainstream media reports resulted in the early and courageous decisions by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to alert the nation of the danger when he shut down the league on March 11, and for the NCAA to cancel March Madness the next day. Mainstream media broke through the president’s effort to politicize the pandemic and pushed him to begin reckoning on March 13 with the consequences, however ineptly, in a disastrous Oval Office address.
In sum, Americans should extoll the mainstream media’s work on the pandemic, the finest run of timely, accurate, necessary reporting on a crisis in memory, if not ever.
Now let me write this paragraph of full disclosure and evident caution. Obviously I’m a bit swayed. My career in journalism has been tied to and financially supported to a large extent by mainstream media companies. I’ve reported for the New York Times since 1982; over 1,000 bylines. I reported under contract in 2017 and 2018 for the Los Angeles Times. I’ve reported and helped produce programs for CBS 60 minutes and Frontline, for crying out loud, and appeared numerous times on CNN and NPR.
But I’m not an uncompromising acolyte. Mainstream media’s performance on other big stories of our lives has been miserable. Wrong-headed reporting by my newspaper, the New York Times, on WMD – weapons of mass destruction – helped George Bush justify the Iraq invasion. It overlooked the details and missed the telling financial trends that led to the 2008 Great Recession. It completely disregarded how Donald Trump’s personality and message inspired and energized white nationalist Americans. And it helped put Trump in office by obsessively reporting on Hillary Clinton’s emails, as if that issue was equal to Trump’s manifest misdeeds, bankruptcies, payoffs to women, and unpreparedness for office.
The list of grievances does not end there. Mainstream media is culpable for hyping to national attention stories that are insignificant. It too often sensationalizes the unimportant and avoids the complex. It dwells on ratings and clicks, and tends to ignore or minimize coverage of the hard, tough, difficult-to-report stories that cost money but secure the public good.
These weaknesses and errors opened mainstream media to attack by the anti-government, anti-science, anti-educated, liberty-loving, abortion-hating, gun-supporting, liberal-loathing legions of the religious and political right. Following Trump’s lead, they moved mainstream media to the top of the list of institutions they abhor. The flaws in reporting provided Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and Steve Bannon room to level the charge of “fake news” to mainstream stories they didn’t like.
Most significant, it allowed President Trump to run against mainstream media during the 2016 campaign. And with the help of sycophants at Fox and its friends in right wing media, it allowed Trump to establish an alternate fact-depleted reality for millions of Americans and a protective wall of political expediency through the first three years of his administration. Everything about Trump’s discordant and dangerous presidency — asking foreign nations for help on his campaigns, obstructing the Mueller investigation, praising the “very fine people on both sides” during the Charlottesville ordeal, and so many other events — was dismissed and amplified by Fox and its friends as “fake news.”
The novel coronavirus ruptured Trump’s artful ability to dodge responsibility for the administration’s shortcomings. It completely exposed Fox News as a willing purveyor of White House lies. Mainstream media did not anticipate that result when it opened its exceptional reporting on the pandemic at the first of the year. It’s plainly evident now.
Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham, and Rush Limbaugh willfully followed the president’s dissembling and denial and politicizing of the pandemic. Mainstream media relied on epidemiologists and physicians and virologists for the best information about the virus and its spread of global disease and deaths.
The White House sent the treasury secretary to Sunday talk shows to promote the completely false idea that the president had the virus under control. Mainstream media understood that governors and mayors, even sports league commissioners, were far more authoritative voices on practice and policy than the ideologues in the White House.
We know that Trump, in alliance with Republican Congressional lawmakers, committed the most grievous and dangerous act of governmental mismanagement in American history. Fox News supported it with unspeakably ugly journalistic malpractice, also the worst in American history.
It could have been worse. You can credit mainstream American media for breaking through the lies, and understanding the murderous behavior of the virus from its earliest days. Mainstream media elevated that story to national attention so that it could no longer be ignored. Thousands of Americans, maybe millions, won’t get sick and die as a result.
— Keith Schneider