The Boston Globe pushes papers nationwide to editorialize for vaccines

The Boston Globe on Wednesday published a deep, data-driven look at the facts and myths surrounding vaccinations called “The Last Best Shot.” In an accompanying editorial, the paper said:

It can sometimes be hard to recognize the magnitude of events as they’re happening. But in all of human history, no infection that kills so many has been conquered so quickly. It’s a staggering achievement. We have, not even two years after the disease first emerged, the kind of preventive measure that those who suffered through thousands of years of plagues and pandemics wished for in vain.

The project consisted of a vibrant digital presentation as well as a special section in the print edition. But who was this for? Massachusetts has one of the best vaccination records in the country. As I wrote on Twitter:

Well, I should have known, but today the Globe has unveiled a campaign to persuade newspapers around the U.S. to publish similar editorials. Nothing in Texas yet, but there’s one in Florida (the Miami Herald) as well as a few other states where shots are lagging.

This is similar to a push by the Globe almost exactly three years ago to the day to put together a coordinated effort by newspapers to push back against Donald Trump’s dangerous anti-press rhetoric, an effort that got quite a bit of national attention. We’ll see what happens this time.

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Yes, Delta is serious business — but the media need to cover it with context and nuance

Photo (cc) 2008 by André Luiz D. Takahashi

Previously published at GBH News.

Like most of us, I’m confused and concerned about the latest news regarding COVID-19 and the Delta variant.

Everyone in my immediate circle, including me, is fully vaccinated, healthy and, if no longer young, then not elderly yet, either. So I’m confident that if any of us got sick, we’d experience nothing more than mild symptoms.

But what about others? We all encounter people on a daily basis who can’t be vaccinated because they’re too young or have compromised immune systems. If we don’t mask up once again, are we all going to turn into carriers who fuel yet another surge of a disease that has killed 613,000 of our fellow Americans?

In addition, there’s the resentment we can’t help but feel toward those who resisted masking and are now resisting vaccines. Josh Marshall, writing at Talking Points Memo, put it this way: “Masking is coming back largely because of the actions of the unvaccinated and also largely for the benefit of the unvaccinated [Marshall’s emphasis]. The burden of non-vaccination is being placed on those who are vaccinated. That basic disconnect is our problem.

“That disconnect places no effective pressure on the voluntarily unvaccinated while sowing demoralization and frustration and contempt with public authorities among those who’ve gotten the vaccine,” he continued. “No good comes of that combination.”

So where does that leave us? More than anything, I think the media need to do a better job of communicating risk. Even with Delta, which is far more contagious than the original iteration of COVID-19, the vaccines are highly effective. No one died in the now-infamous Provincetown outbreak, and life there is already returning to normal. As President Joe Biden said recently, what we’re dealing with now is a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

There are all kinds of data that show Delta isn’t a problem for people who are vaccinated. For instance, Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina tweeted on Sunday that just 6,587 have been hospitalized among the 163 million people who’ve been vaccinated. That’s an almost unmeasurable 0.004%.

There’s good news on the vaccination front, too, as the number of people getting the shots has been rising since mid-July. Presumably there are several reasons for that, such as fear of Delta as well as a sudden burst of semi-responsible behavior by leading Republican officials and right-wing media figures. More good news: Walmart and Disney announced over the weekend that they’re going to require their employees to be vaccinated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t covered itself with glory, arguably sending the country into a panic over the Provincetown outbreak before all the data were in. But as scientists who are responsible for public health, they’re going to try to provide guidance in real time, and sometimes they’re going to get it wrong. Which means that the media need to do better by not obsessing over infinitesimal numbers.

“Scary, sensational headlines about P-town have sparked confusion this week, but the problem is much bigger than a single outbreak in a single town,” said Brian Stelter, the host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” in his Sunday commentary. “The problem starts with the CDC and its absolute failure to communicate clearly and effectively. Sloppy news coverage then makes a bad situation worse.”

As Stelter noted, COVID hospitalizations are up nationally because of the Delta variant. But they’re up far more in states with low vaccination rates like Louisiana than in states with high rates like Vermont. If you and your family have been fully vaccinated, the pandemic is largely over.

My attitude about COVID since the beginning of the pandemic has been to take it seriously and follow the guidelines and mandates, but not to exceed them. I taught two of my classes in person and took public transportation throughout — masked, of course. I was thrilled when the mask mandate was dropped, and I’m not eager to go back to it.

But I will if those are the rules. I’ve gone grocery shopping a couple of times during the past week, and I’ve pulled out my mask and put it on. I didn’t think it was necessary, but most of the other shoppers were wearing them, so I didn’t want to seem cavalier.

This week we’re going on vacation, and on our way home we’re going to visit my 92-year-old father-in-law in upstate New York. He’s fully vaxxed, but that presents a dilemma, doesn’t it? The vaccines simply don’t work as well among the elderly. Maybe we’ll mask up. Maybe it will be nice enough that we can sit outside.

The past 17 months have been a nightmare for the country and the world. Just a few weeks ago, it seemed like it might be over. It wasn’t.

But that doesn’t change the fundamental facts. We are in a far better place than we were during the height of the pandemic. Vaccines work. With some adjustments, life can return to normal. And the media need to report this ongoing story with context and nuance rather than sending everyone into a panic with each twist and turn.

Former Murdoch lieutenant states the obvious: Fox News is toxic and dangerous

Rupert Murdoch. 2011 photo in the public domain by David Shankbone.

What’s interesting about Preston Padden’s unburdening of himself with regard to Rupert Murdoch and Fox News isn’t in what he says. It’s that he said anything at all.

Padden, a former high-ranking executive in the Murdoch empire, wrote a commentary for The Daily Beast earlier this week in which he lamented the Fox News Channel’s devolution from “a responsible and truthful center-right news network” into what it is today: a propaganda arm of Trump Republicans who promote the Big Lie about the 2020 election, peddle deadly falsehoods about COVID-19, and stir up racial animosity by fear-mongering about Black Lives Matter and Antifa. (He should have mentioned climate change while he was at it.) Padden writes:

Over the past nine months I have tried, with increasing bluntness, to get Rupert to understand the real damage that Fox News is doing to America. I failed, and it was arrogant and naïve to ever have thought that I could succeed.

No kidding. Now, it’s true that Fox News wasn’t quite the toxic cesspool that it has become in the age of Trump. Prime-time talk-show hosts like Bill O’Reilly and Greta Van Susteren were reasonable and dealt for the most part with facts. Sean Hannity was paired with a liberal, the late Alan Colmes.

If you squinted, you could make a case that Fox was a right-wing version of what the liberal network MSNBC is today. But I don’t know that it was ever “a responsible and truthful center-right news network”; more like a hard-right outlet whose most outlandish outbursts were at least grounded in some semblance of truth.

Now, though, it’s nothing but lies, racism and conspiracy theories, especially during prime time, led by onetime rational thinker-turned-white supremacist Tucker Carlson. Padden attribute this to Murdoch’s “deep-seated vein of anti-establishment/contrarian thinking,” but he’s giving Rupe way too much credit. It’s money and ratings, and nothing more. That’s all it’s ever been.

David Baltimore says the Wuhan lab theory remains very much alive

Despite backing away from a quote in which he referred to evidence for the lab-leak theory of COVID-19 as “the smoking gun,” Nobel Prize-winning biologist David Baltimore remains convinced that the explanation remains viable. In an interview with the California Institute of Technology, reprinte in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Baltimore says:

Biologists have seen what evolution can create: the whole natural world around us. We believe that evolution can do anything. But the fact that evolution might have been able to generate SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t mean that that’s how it came about. I think we very much need to find out what was happening in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. I think that we can’t say for sure yet whether the SARS-CoV-2 virus came from natural origins or if it was genetically manipulated somehow.

Earlier coverage:

 

An argument for why the lab-leak theory of COVID’s origin remains unlikely

David Baltimore. Photo (cc) 2014 by Bob Paz.

Last week I wrote an analysis for GBH News on why the media dismissed the Wuhan lab-leak theory as the origin of COVID-19. I argued that the lab explanation got caught up in Donald Trump’s anti-Chinese racism and multifarious lies about the pandemic, compounded by some botched reporting of comments by Sen. Tom Cotton.

So I want to share with you two recent columns by Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times, someone whom I really respect. The Times has a tight paywall, but you should be able to access both of them by switching browsers after you read the first.

About a week ago Hiltzik examined the theory itself and concluded that, though it couldn’t be ruled out entirely, the scientific consensus remains that COVID almost certainly jumped from animals to humans outside the lab. He writes:

No one disputes that a lab leak is possible. Viruses have escaped from laboratories in the past, on occasion leading to human infection. But “zoonotic” transfers — that is, from animals to humans — are a much more common and well-documented pathway.

That’s why the virological community believes that it’s vastly more likely that COVID-19 spilled over from an animal host to humans.

Then, earlier this week, he reported that Nobel Prize-winning biologist David Baltimore was backing away from a quote he gave to former New York Times reporter Nicholas Wade in which he referred to genetic evidence that had been found as “the smoking gun for the origin of the virus.” Wade’s May 5 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists helped move the lab-leak theory to the center of the conversation. Hiltzik writes:

Baltimore told me by email that he made the statement to Wade, also by email, and granted him permission to use it in print. But he added that he “should have softened the phrase ‘smoking gun’ because I don’t believe that it proves the origin of the furin cleavage site but it does sound that way. I believe that the question of whether the sequence was put in naturally or by molecular manipulation is very hard to determine but I wouldn’t rule out either origin.” [Pardon me for not explaining “furin cleavage site,” but it’s related to the genetics of COVID.]

I think we have to regard both the lab-leak theory and animal-to-human transmission as possibilities, and we may never know the truth. But Hiltzik makes a powerful case that the animal-to-human explanation remains considerably more likely, and that it would be a mistake to regard the two explanations as equally plausible.

Why it matters: Tracking the media’s dismissal of the Wuhan lab theory

Illustration by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Previously published at GBH News.

Howard Kurtz was in high dudgeon. The Fox News media critic opened his Sunday program, “Media Buzz,” this past weekend by blasting the press for dismissing the possibility that COVID-19 had its origins in a leak from a lab in Wuhan, China. That possibility is suddenly very much on the table, and President Joe Biden has ordered an investigation.

“It was a whack-job theory, right? It was Looney Tunes. It was trashy Trump talk, surely not worthy of serious journalistic attention,” Kurtz said. He added: “If President Trump said it, the media dismissed it. If conservatives embraced it, liberal pundits mocked it. This just speaks volumes about our media establishment. Now, nothing’s been proven, but the circumstantial evidence is growing. Will there be any soul-searching about what amounted to media malpractice? Don’t hold your breath.”

Kurtz’s monologue oversimplified what we know, but he was largely correct. In fact, the media sloppily mashed together two different stories about Wuhan — a legitimate line of inquiry that the virus had accidentally escaped from the lab and a conspiracy theory that Chinese scientists at the lab were developing COVID-19 as a bioweapon.

As a result, with just a few lonely exceptions, the mainstream press over the course of the past 15 months has dismissed any suggestion that COVID-19 came from the lab as so ludicrous that it was unworthy of coverage. The media’s credibility is taking yet another hit — this one entirely legitimate — at a moment when it is already at an all-time low. And their “shameful dereliction of duty,” as conservative Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen put it, may make it that much harder to persuade Trump supporters to get over their skepticism about vaccinations.

The media’s dismissive attitude toward the lab-leak theory was grounded in their distrust — often warranted — of anything that came out of President Donald Trump’s mouth. After all, during the course of the pandemic Trump dismissed the seriousness of COVID-19 repeatedly, pushed unproven, potentially dangerous remedies like hydroxychloroquine, and even suggested at one memorable press briefing that injecting bleach might help.

So when Trump would use racist terms like the “China virus” in referring to COVID-19, the media were already primed to accept the consensus view touted by Dr. Anthony Fauci and the World Health Organization that the disease had, in fact, jumped from bats to humans in China and from there spread throughout the world.

Indeed, the possibility that COVID-19 had its origins in a Wuhan lab came to be seen as so thoroughly discredited that Facebook began taking down posts about it on the grounds that it was misinformation. The social-media giant reversed itself recently.

A few journalists, including Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin, kept the lab-leak theory alive. Rogin exploded on Saturday with a bitter tweet complaining that most mainstream reporters “actively crapped all over it for over a year while pretending to be objective.”

The tide finally started to turn when a pair of former New York Times reporters, first Nicholas Wade and then Don McNeil, wrote several weeks ago that they had come to regard the possibility of a lab leak as being as plausible as the bats-to-humans theory.

“I now agree with Nick’s central conclusion: We still do not know the source of this awful pandemic. We may never know,” McNeil wrote. “But the argument that it could have leaked out of the Wuhan Institute of Virology or a sister lab in Wuhan has become considerably stronger than it was a year ago, when the screaming was so loud that it drowned out serious discussion.”

Matthew Yglesias, a prominent member of the Substackerati, has offered what I think is the most useful and detailed analysis of what went wrong from a journalistic point of view. He traces much of it to inept reporting about U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, who made some provocative statements early on about the possibility of a lab leak. Cotton is well-known as a China hawk, and pretty soon the media were falsely claiming that Cotton had touted the bioweapons fantasy, starting with a sensationalized account in Business Insider and then spreading from Politico and into the mainstream.

“At this point,” Yglesias wrote, “Cotton had achieved what’s really the greatest achievement possible for a Republican Party politician — he was unfairly maligned by the MSM.”

Also getting at an important part of what went wrong is Jonathan Chait of New York magazine, who points to Twitter as the place where mainstream journalists reinforced their views, making it that much harder to re-examine the lab-leak theory.

“Media coverage of the lab-leak hypothesis was a debacle, and a major source of that failure was groupthink cultivated on Twitter,” Chait said, calling the platform “a petri dish of tribalism and confirmation bias.”

So where does all this leave us? I’ll end where I began — with Howard Kurtz. Yes, he’s a conservative, and yes, he’s on Fox News. But he’s also a serious observer of the media who spent years at The Washington Post and CNN. His analysis can’t be easily dismissed. And I think he’s correct that animus toward Trump played a huge role in the media’s consensus that the lab-leak explanation for COVID was propaganda put out by the Trumpist right to deflect attention away from Trump’s numerous failures.

There’s a context that can’t be ignored, of course. Trump lied constantly. His horrendous mismanagement of the pandemic might go down as the greatest failure of any American president — unless you want to count his failure to abide by the results of a democratic election. It’s not difficult to see why journalists decided to accept Fauci’s word on the origins of the pandemic.

But they were wrong. The reality is that we don’t know where COVID-19 came from. The bats-to-humans explanation might be right. The lab possibility might be right. There’s a good chance that we’ll never know.

The whole point of journalism is to seek truth and report it. We failed to do that in this instance. And it ought to remind us of why we need to go about our jobs with humility and an open mind.

The news about COVID is good and getting better. It’s time to celebrate.

Photo (cc) 2020 by Province of British Columbia

Previously published at GBH News.

The end of the pandemic in the United States isn’t going to be marked by a solemn announcement or a celebrity-studded fundraising event on TV. There are too many uncertainties.

Even as the situation improves in Massachusetts, the numbers are much higher — though dropping — in Michigan, Minnesota, Colorado and elsewhere. And, of course, the virus is causing unimaginable suffering right now in India and South America. We need to do all we can to help.

But even though there won’t be a clearly defined endpoint, I’m declaring an end to COVID-19 this week. Just about every adult in the U.S. who wants to be vaccinated has now done so or will be able to soon. Masks are coming off outdoors. Schools are filling up again — safely. Indoor restaurant dining is coming back. Our long national nightmare isn’t over, but we’re slowly beginning to wake up.

We’re all going to have our own end-of-COVID story. Mine — and probably yours — begins with family. This Thursday will mark two weeks since my second Pfizer shot. By Memorial Day, my wife, son and daughter will all be at full immunity. We are incredibly lucky. Even though three of us have been regularly working outside our home, we’ve all stayed healthy.

To put a punctuation mark on it, I’m writing this column inside a local coffee shop for the first time in more than a year. The last column I wrote here was published on Feb. 26, 2020. Ironically, it was about a newspaper in Texas that had built a café next to its newsroom so that people could come in and order a burger and beer. It was an experiment in journalism and civic engagement that could help ease the local news crisis — and exactly the sort of activity that had to be put on hold once the virus began raging. Now it looks like it’s back.

Despite the increasingly upbeat feeling many of us are enjoying, the pandemic has taught us humility. Remember when we thought the shutdown would last two or three weeks? It would have been unfathomable back in March 2020 to think that it would take more than a year to begin reopening without putting everyone’s health at risk.

More than 576,000 Americans have died, and the death toll continues to rise, though at a much slower rate. And as The New York Times’ Apoorva Mandavilli reported earlier this week, the goal of achieving herd immunity is starting to look like a fantasy. Rather than eliminating the coronavirus, we’re going to have to learn to live with it. We didn’t eradicate the flu after the great pandemic of 1918, either. What we can hope for is that continued vigilance and annual vaccines will keep COVID-19, like the flu, at a manageable level.

For the foreseeable future, we’re also going to be held back by the anti-intellectualism of the Republican Party. A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 29% of Republicans say they will “definitely not” get vaccinated against the coronavirus, compared to 5% of Democrats and 9% of independents. It’s stunning that highly effective vaccines, like masks, have become a tribal signifier. But that’s where we’re at in a country in which one of the two major political parties has slipped into a hermetically sealed universe of alternative facts.

Disturbing as this is, though, it can wait for another day. Right now, the COVID-19 news is better than it’s been since the start of the pandemic — and it’s only going to keep improving.

This weekend, I’ll put on a cap and gown for the first time in two years and attend Northeastern University’s commencement activities at Fenway Park. Everyone will be masked and socially distanced, regardless of whether we’ve been vaccinated. But we’ll be together, in person, celebrating the success of our students as their families — well, OK, one guest per graduate — cheer from the stands.

It’s going to be great.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine announcement and the limits of journalism

The suspension of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine over concerns about a vanishingly small number of blood-clotting issues is a perfect illustration of the limits of journalism.

My Twitter feed is filled with admonitions to the media saying that we should remind our audience of how rare this side effect has been — six total cases out of nearly 7 million vaccines. That’s much lower than the risk women face using birth control pills or, for that matter, much rarer than the risk of dying or becoming seriously ill from COVID. Just one example:

Fair enough. We should always strive to be responsible. But it was the government, not the media, that made this announcement. And if people become unnecessarily frightened into rejecting the J&J vaccine, or any vaccine, that’s on the government, not the media.

We get many things wrong. But we’re actually pretty good at passing along frightening announcements from official sources.

The ‘60 Minutes’ report on DeSantis is an unusually clear case of liberal media bias

It’s a rare day when we encounter as blatant an example of liberal media bias as in the “60 Minutes” report last Sunday on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. It’s not that the mainstream media aren’t broadly liberal — they are. But such bias normally affects things like story selection and tone, and does not interfere with a fair presentation of the facts. Unfortunately, the botched story on DeSantis, a Republican, will be cited by conservatives for a long time as evidence that you just can’t trust the media.

So what happened? “60 Minutes” reported that DeSantis awarded a contract to the supermarket chain Publix to distribute COVID vaccines after Publix had made a $100,000 campaign donation to the governor’s political action committee. The governor refused to give “60 Minutes” an interview. But in a confrontation at a DeSantis news conference, “60 Minutes” reporter Sharyn Alfonsi asserted that the vaccine contract was a “reward” and asked him: “How is that not pay to play?”

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There are two problems here. First, the story accurately describes the quid but never manages to nail down the quo. It would be strange indeed if Publix did not make campaign contributions to DeSantis, as he is a major political figure. Large businesses do what they have to do to get along. Moreover, Publix stores would be obvious, logical places for administering vaccines.

The system was far from perfect. The report points out that, in some cases, Publix markets are far from communities of color, requiring two bus rides in one example. But that doesn’t prove DeSantis acted as he did because Publix had given him money. As media ethics expert Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute puts it:

In the story, there was a direct line between the campaign contribution and the rewarding. And they never proved that. I think they owe it to everybody — they owe it to the governor, they owe it to Publix, they owe it to the public — to explain to us how they came to that conclusion.

Second, having watched the news conference confrontation as edited for broadcast and compared it to the full, unedited version (above), I think it’s clear that DeSantis’ remarks were edited to cast him in the worst possible light. Journalists are free to use as little or as much as they like of an interview or, in this case, remarks at a news conference. But they are not free to edit those remarks in a way that changes their meaning or leaves out important context.

Among the people who have come to DeSantis’ defense, according to The Palm Beach Post, is Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner, a Democrat. “They are hellbent on dividing us for cheap views and clicks,” Kerner said in a written statement. “‘60 Minutes’ should be ashamed.” (Not every elected Democrat agrees with Kerner, including County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay.)

I doubt the problems with this story were the result of liberal bias in the sense of deliberately making things up in order to make DeSantis look bad. Nor do I think it was the only form of bias at work. There is the bias for confrontation and controversy, which is the most pervasive type of media bias that there is. There is the bias in favor of producing a “gotcha” story.

As for how liberal bias figures into this, I would say — and this is only guesswork, of course — that “60 Minutes” decided DeSantis had done a bad job of managing the COVID pandemic in Florida, and that he had been getting undeserved praise for reopening the state at a time when numbers are continuing to rise. So when Alfonsi confronted DeSantis with the revelation about Publix’s campaign contribution, she and her crew had already come to a conclusion and were simply looking for some good video to go with it.

Which brings us to another form of bias. As one of my graduate students said, the story also looks like an example of confirmation bias. “60 Minutes” didn’t take the necessary steps to verify its story because no one could see any problems with it. And that may be the most pernicious effect of all when it comes to having a newsroom that is populated almost exclusively by liberals.

Trust in the media is scraping the bottom, especially among Republicans. The “60 Minutes” report on DeSantis certainly doesn’t help.

The day classes were canceled, the NBA shut down and Trump freaked us out

Office building in Minneapolis. Photo (cc) 2020 by Chad Davis.

When was the first day you realized that COVID-19 was going to disrupt our lives — even though we didn’t know until later how long and hard that disruption would be?

In its anniversary package, GBH News decided on March 10, 2020, the day that Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency. I wrote about covering a COVID news conference in Mendocino County, California, on March 5.

For me, though, the real anniversary is today. On Wednesday, March 11, 2020, we learned at a faculty meeting that classes would go remote the following day. That evening, the NBA shut down and Tom Hanks announced that he had COVID.

And in what would prove to be our final in-person meeting, my graduate ethics students and I watched Donald Trump deliver an Oval Office address that night about the coronavirus that was so unnerving it sent the Dow futures tumbling.