The journalists who give the profession a bad name

It was a tough time to be a journalist, even before the coronavirus outbreak began.

I’m not talking about the shrinking job opportunities within the industry, shifting business models, the notoriously low pay or any of the other factors that have ranked journalism among America’s worst careers.

I’m talking about perception. American journalists have a perception problem. Anyone who tells you they don’t is kidding you and themselves.

The perception problem predated President Donald Trump, but the war between the press and the president hasn’t helped. Conservatives who mistrusted the media years before Trump emerged as a legitimate contender for the White House were eager to carry Trump’s “Fake News” fight for him. The war of Donald vs. The Press is a war that the president is winning — convincingly.

Then along came the coronavirus. And nobody is happy with the way “the news” is being presented. I deal with it on the daily with our small newspaper. Numbers don’t lie, but a lot of people seem to be convinced they do. If you present coronavirus numbers that appear damning, you’re told that you’re creating a panic. If you present numbers that don’t look so alarming, you’re told that you aren’t painting a picture that’s stark enough to properly scare the public into heeding the warnings of the health experts.

Mostly, though, there are the stories of how people are tired of The Media stirring fear and telling them how to live their lives … as if The Media are telling President Trump, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the CDC, the WHO and state governors what policies should be put into place rather than informing the masses of the policies those individuals and agencies are implementing.

When a reader wrote recently to demand that we stop reporting daily coronavirus updates, my response was brief; the best advice I could give him was to unfollow our Facebook Page so he wouldn’t have to see those updates anymore. I don’t want to lose a reader, but I’m not going to stop doing my job.

I’ve been generally defensive of the mainstream news media through this crisis because, by and large, I’m convinced that the media has done a good job. But some things — like death, taxes and media bias — are inevitable. And as the coronavirus-inspired shutdowns in America enter their eighth week, we’re seeing more coronavirus coverage become more about politics and less about health.

There are plenty of examples out there, but this story by The Atlantic’s Amanda Mull caught my eye. She calls Georgia’s decision to reopen “an experiment in human sacrifice.” The Atlantic is a fiercely liberal publication, so the fact that they would take a Republican governor to task is hardly unexpected. But just read:

For weeks, Americans have watched the coronavirus sweep from city to city, overwhelming hospitals, traumatizing health-care workers, and leaving tens of thousands of bodies in makeshift morgues.

I was prepared for sensationalism, but that is — pardon my language, because I don’t know any other way to put it — utter bullshit.

In what cities, other than New York, have hospitals come anywhere close to being overwhelmed? In what city anywhere have “tens of thousands” of bodies been left in makeshift morgues?

If you answered “none” and “very few,” you win.

To be sure, the coronavirus outbreak was especially taxing in New York. Hospitals were filled to capacity, EMS personnel were worked to the point of exhaustion, the city was forced to pay exorbitant salaries to attract additional nurses from outside areas. NYPD and FDNY struggled with illness within their ranks. Funeral homes, cemeteries and crematoriums all struggled to keep up.

But hospitals weren’t exactly overwhelmed, even in NYC.

Elsewhere, hospitals haven’t even come close to being overwhelmed — not in Washington, the coronavirus’ original hotspot in the U.S., not in hard-hit California, not even in Louisiana, which has been the South’s own hotspot for Covid-19 deaths.

Nobody knows why New York City was hit so hard by the coronavirus outbreak. Some have blamed the city’s dense population, but NYC isn’t America’s only densely-populated city. Some have blamed mass transportation, but NYC isn’t the only American city with a mass transit system. We may never know why New York was so hard-hit, just as we may never know why Italy and Spain were so hard-hit.

But what happened in NYC has not been represented in other parts of the U.S.

Count me among those who thought that it would be. And, who knows, maybe if social distancing efforts hadn’t been put into place, maybe it would’ve been.

But they were, and it wasn’t. The temporary hospital tents that were being put up all over the U.S. are being taken down and packed away because they weren’t needed. In Nashville, Tennessee and Austin, Texas and Boulder, Colorado and elsewhere, the coronavirus resources demand — a requirement for ICU beds and ventilators — didn’t come close to what models predicted that it might.

In few places other than New York have “makeshift morgues” been needed … and even in New York, the number of bodies being temporarily placed in such facilities numbered in the dozens or the hundreds … not the thousands and certainly not the tens of thousands. New Orleans was forced to resort to makeshift morgues, but again, the number of bodies being placed in those refrigerated trucks numbered in the dozens — not the thousands or tens of thousands.

To be sure, the coronavirus impact has been real … and deadly. We’re approaching 60,000 dead in America. In less than eight weeks, we’ve lost more Americans than died in the Vietnam War. And remember how all the skeptics were saying early on that coronavirus is “just the flu”? Yeah, so, in eight weeks, coronavirus has killed more people than the flu kills in six months even in the worst of flu seasons.

And that’s if we’re counting the numbers properly. While some skeptics continue to claim that the number of coronavirus deaths is being over-estimated, there isn’t much to back up those claims. All evidence points to deaths being under-estimated.

Understating the toll the coronavirus is having is not only pointless but dangerous. I refuse to do it. And if the truth “scares” people, you can go ahead and accuse me of creating a panic if you like. People should be aware. I’ve never seen a time when more people are willing to bury their heads in the sand and demand that everyone else bury their heads in the sand, as well. Less information is never better.

But then you read stories like this drivel in The Atlantic, and you wonder … how the heck can you defend something like that? The answer is you can’t. It gives journalists everywhere a bad name, it continues to drive up distrust in the media, and for what? To score political points? To make the Georgia governor look bad because he’s a Republican?

It’s a shame. There are some writers who desperately need to find another profession.

Ben Garrett

Ben Garrett is a journalist from East Tennessee. He is publisher of the Independent Herald, a weekly newspaper serving the Big South Fork region of the Cumberland Plateau, with a sideline in website development and digital marketing. He is also an erstwhile blogger.

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