The Virus Crisis Is Uniquely Designed for the News Media to Only Allow One Side of the Story
Back before the news media was fundamentally broken and real journalism had effectively died (sometime in the mid-1990s), one of the basic tenets of reporting was that most stories, especially very complex ones, have at least two sides. You would not know it by the overwhelmingly one-sided coverage of how we should be thinking about, and dealing with, the coronavirus crisis, but that is also the case here.
There are several key aspects to the coronavirus narrative, however, which have “conspired” (it is NOT an actual conspiracy) to essentially prevent the other side from being fairly heard. Instead, if you buy into the narrative of the mainstream media, the only way to rationally look at this situation is that all deaths/risk should be avoided at all costs, and that anyone who is not on board with that strategy is, at best, a Trump cult member, and, at worst, actively wants the virus to kill people (with once-respected conservative Bill Bennett’s very contrarian view aired on Fox News yesterday being widely viewed as a bit of both).
This column is not intended to argue which perspective is actually correct (I don’t believe we have enough reliable data to yet come to such a conclusion), but rather to explain why it is that only one side is being credibly promoted. There are at least eight primary elements contributing to the perfect storm of circumstances that have caused this.
Here they are:
The Story is About Innocent People Dying:
We are all built to fear death, and obviously no one wants people, especially those who had little or no choice in the matter, to die. Instinctually, the majority of people are always going to be in favor of whatever it takes to reduce anticipated death, and we don’t like to admit that there is at least some price point beyond which we stop being willing to endure the societal costs to do this (which is why we haven’t banned all automobile traffic, instantly saving about 40,000 healthy lives a year in the U.S.A.).
As a result, human nature is literally on the side of the mainstream media’s preferred narrative here.
This is the Type of Story a News Media Personality Could Get Fired Over:
In this era when ratings are nearly everything in the T.V. news media, and when it is so clear-cut that one take on a story is the popular side of the equation, you can be sure that the vast majority of coverage will give the people who want to believe in that perspective exactly what they want to hear. It is simply good business.
But when a story is this major and high stakes, there emerges another factor that puts this phenomenon on steroids. You see, a primary goal of any news media member is to do nothing that might jeopardize their increasingly difficult-to-replace gig, and, other than defending an unpopular #MeToo target, it is hard to imagine what might get a news personality of any great note fired more quickly than them daring to step outside the thundering herd on this narrative (HBO’s Bill Maher, once fired during a similar one-take-allowed environment following 9/11, put his big toe in the water this time around before quickly finding it way too hot to dive in. He has stopped publicly claiming we may have overreacted to all of this).
Trump is President:
Everything about this story is understandably seen through the prism that Donald Trump is president, that he is unfit to handle a crisis, and that all he is saying about the situation should be presumed to be a lie. So when his first of many stances on the virus was that it was not a huge deal (which, in fact, turned out to be wrong), it instantly discredited anyone who might be inclined to voice a perspective that could even be perceived to be in the same neighborhood.
The Conservative Media is Confused:
I am convinced that, if Hillary Clinton were currently president, and everything was somehow exactly the same, the “conservative” media would be speaking with one voice expressing outrage that our civil liberties are being violated, mostly without merit, all in a dangerous governmental power grab. However, because Trump has constantly changed his positions on this, his state-run media is completely unsure what their take is supposed to be on a daily basis (one Fox News host already lost her job for jumping too quickly on Trump’s original narrative that this was being exaggerated to harm him politically).
This is a Presidential Election Year:
There is no doubt the news media knows that Trump’s re-election bid will now rest, almost entirely, on how his response to this crisis is perceived. Therefore, they are further incentivized to not examine whether maybe Trump’s critics have overreacted here. It is also doubtful they will portray the actions of Democratic governors, who they have somehow made into the heroes of the response, through that same political lens when they inevitably try, surely by coincidence, to make it as difficult as possible for Trump to re-open the country’s economy.
New York City is the Epicenter:
Partly due to basic human nature, and partly due to the extreme narcissism of those in the mainstream media, the fact that New York City is the clear epicenter of all this is critically important to understanding the media coverage. Many of those covering the crisis are either directly living a horror show — or know people well who are.
Any story focused on New York City is always going to be portrayed as bigger than it really is, but in this terrible situation that reality is multiplied exponentially. There is just no way that the news media is capable of fairly considering the increasingly likely scenario that, if the inherently unique New York City had simply been in the statistically “normal” range here, this entire calamity would look dramatically different right now.
The Data is Easily Cherry-Picked:
I am unaware of a news story that was so data-driven but where the nature of the statistics made it so incredibly simple for everyone to believe whatever they wanted to in the first place. Because there is at least a 1-4 week gap from the time someone contracts the virus to when a case becomes a definitive data point, it is extraordinarily easy to cherry-pick the numbers to promote an agenda.
If someone wants to believe that numbers which ended up lower than projected did so not because those making these unprecedented projections (based on the always highly-improbable concept of never-ending exponential growth) were always going to be way off, but because the shutdowns worked even better than anticipated, that is very difficult to refute. The data just isn’t good enough and won’t be until at least long after all the critical decisions have already been made, and the media’s favored narrative has long been set in stone.
Everyone Is Very Invested:
Because the stakes here are so remarkably high, no one wants to be seen as having rushed to an incorrect conclusion (even though the inherently flawed nature of the data made that mistake easy to make). Consequently, everyone will be deeply invested in having been correct.
If there is one thing I have learned in about three decades of working in the media, it is that when the entire mainstream news media is devoted to a narrative being the truth, that is what the “truth” is going to be. At that point, reality no longer matters.
John Ziegler is a senior columnist for Mediaite. He hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.