comScore NYT Writer Who Blamed Fox for Man's Death Under Fire for Tweet

NYT Story Rebuking Fox for Coronavirus Coverage Written by Reporter Who Tweeted ‘Virus is Not Deadly’

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New York Magazine writer and Twitter hot-taker Jonathan Chait shared a New York Times article over the weekend, describing it as a “portrait of a man killed by Fox News.”

That tweet got around quite a bit, quote retweeted by dozens of blue check media personalities, ratioed by Twitter users at large, and ultimately becoming a de facto headline for the article, which was actually written by New York Times columnist Ginia Bellafante.

The article, about a man who died of the Covid-19 coronavirus, has an on-site headline that reads “A Beloved Bar Owner Was Skeptical About the Virus. Then He Took a Cruise.”

The subhead is “Joe Joyce oversaw JJ Bubbles, a welcoming tavern in a conservative corner of Brooklyn, for 43 years until he died of Covid-19.”

It is a portrait of a well-liked bar owner from a city currently being devastated by the pandemic but, according to updates today from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, is seeing signs of regaining control.

Fox News comes up in the discussion of the man, his life, and his death. It is ultimately an essay about the wages of doubt, the picture of someone who would be alive and still beloved, were it not for his disbelief in science. Or the media. Or both.

Or were it not for his belief in Fox News, Chait tweeted.

Pains were taken by Bellafante to highlight the ways in which the object of this lesson, a figure to be pitied and lamented but not scorned, was not a typical Fox viewer; the better to make the case for sympathy.

“Joe Joyce was a Trump supporter who chose selectively from the menu of current Republican ideologies, freely rejecting what didn’t suit him,” she wrote. “He didn’t want to hear how much you loved Hillary Clinton, as one regular at his bar put it to me, but he was not going to make the Syrian immigrant who came in to play darts feel as if he belonged anywhere else.”

“In his bar Joe Joyce had set the tone for what evolved into an incongruously progressive place,” she said.

But unorthodoxies aside, he was still a viewer of the bad channel. And its main bad guy, Sean Hannity.

“He watched Fox, and believed it was under control,’’ Kristen told me.

Early in March Sean Hannity went on air proclaiming that he didn’t like the way that the American people were getting scared “unnecessarily.’’ He saw it all, he said, “as like, let’s bludgeon Trump with this new hoax.”

Eventually, Fox changed course and took the virus more seriously, but the Joyces were long gone by then. A spokeswoman for Fox News said that Mr. Hannity made statements taking the spread of coronavirus seriously early on, and that his comment about the public being scared by the coverage happened after the Joyces had left on their cruise.

But not before their negligence had killed him, is the implication. Or at least it has become the implication after the weekend’s Chaitvents.

The article describes Hannity “proclaiming” that he didn’t like people being scared “unnecessarily” by the coronavirus, in early March.

Here is what the article’s author said on Twitter before that:

“Fundamentally don’t understand the panic” is the key sentence.

This tweet was screenshotted and shared extensively on Monday, particularly as a response to, or in contrast to, Chait’s summary of Fox News as the man’s killer.

Some of the responses have weighed the relative impact, suggesting that because Fox News has more reach, theirs is a guilty act while that of Bellafante, merely earnestly tweeting about the issue, has done no harm. That objection seems to miss some important points, including that her tweet was sent prior to the cruise, while Hannity’s described commentary was after the cruise had departed.

And of course, Bellafante’s tweet was of a piece with much of the coverage from the press and the general mood of the public back in February, during which time less was known, there were fewer models and projections circulating, and the actual impact on American lives was much less than it was to become later.

It is nevertheless an obviously incongruous statement. News figures routinely talk about the danger posed to Americans by their lack of faith in the press. Doubting the media is, in fact, a key feature in the blame aspect of Bellafante’s article.

In describing the disparate but generally Trump-aligned interests represented among patrons of the victim’s bar, she wrote that, “where these kinds of voters align is not in the right’s hatred of the marginalized but in its distrust of the news.”

“If the ‘liberal’ media was telling us that a plague was coming and that it would be devastating, why should anyone believe it?” she wrote. “Joe Joyce had his skepticism.”

And yet the article’s author had her own doubts, shared them in public, and then fails to disclose that in the very article where she is pointing the finger at distrust of the media. Fails to show her own worries about panic while shaking her head ruefully at Hannity’s worries about needless fear.

There is certainly a lengthy op-ed waiting to be written about media failures during the pandemic and the lead-up to it, which will no doubt count among them Fox News Channel’s downplaying of the virus (even if they sometimes also cautioned about it), and their opinion hosts raving about how the reaction and the lockdowns are some concoction of the media and Democrats to get Trump. But those are not the only failures, and Fox is not the only party.

One hopes that whenever that op-ed is written, and whomever it is written by, it is not as un-self-aware and careless as this New York Times article.

Chait was right that this is a portrait of a man. Perhaps not a loving portrait, but not a hateful one either. It was a tribute, in its way, and cautionary, too. The bartender who loved and was loved, and who died tragically, is a story worth reading despite the package.

But the sensationalizing of the circumstances of his doubts, and death, as a culpable act of negligent homicide on the part of a news network is, in a word: deplorable.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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