News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy

Telling the Story of the Weight of the World

There’s a saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and for good reason. Graphics can be a powerful representation, somehow distilling down what is otherwise complex and difficult to process.

This Sunday morning – on the eve of Memorial Day, when we honor our fallen – readers found The New York Times’ front page free of graphics. Yet, the image of 1,000 printed names, a mere fraction of the American lives stolen by a global pandemic, is shockingly graphic.

You may read about the Times’ editorial decision to publish this stark and poignant representation here.

As of this writing moment, an estimated 342,000 people around the world have perished from COVID-19-related illness. Here in the United States, where everything must be politicized nowadays, the figures are undermined. You’ll hear plenty of pundits trying to shirk government’s blame for its slow response, its dragging of feet when mitigation was critical.

They say things like, “If a person has a heart condition or is dying of old age and they contract the virus, are they really dying of COVID-19, or are they dying of those preexisting conditions?” Dr. Deborah Birx was asked to address this at one of the maddening press briefings. She clarified that, in cases of this kind, it is the virus that’s the acute cause of death.

This is not a controversial medical opinion. If a patient is hospitalized for an injury or illness, and while in the hospital contracts an infection and dies, it is the viral infection that kills the person, not the condition that put them there.

But there is good reason to question the figures, which are flawed and fluid, and may, in fact, be conservative estimates at this point. It is unknown how many Americans during these past few months have been sick and died in their residences, in their workplaces, or in the streets, who were never afforded a post-mortem test for COVID-19. The disease is so wildly unpredictable and adept at subterfuge, with symptoms ranging from fever and the obvious respiratory ailments to neurological and vascular breakdowns. Even younger people with no underlying conditions have died of heart failure and massive stroke.

We still have so much to learn and to understand about this virus – known to be exponentially more contagious than flu-like viruses that have proceeded it. We don’t really know how it so effectively spreads. We don’t know why those symptoms vary widely. We can’t even say with certainty that those who have contracted the virus and lived to see the other side of it cannot be re-infected.

This story is not yet written.

Because everything is so politicized and polarized in the nation today, it is not surprising that pundits have stoked the anti-media flames, accusing the Press of somehow manufacturing the story, of inflating it, and causing people to fear for their lives.

I’m of the opinion that a virus that potentially makes you so sick that you feel that you’re drowning – not for minutes, which is what it usually takes for a person to die by drowning – but hours, days, weeks, deserves a perfectly rational level of fear. But if that’s not enough to give all Americans pause, to consider the seriousness and solemnity, certainly the number of deaths should.

97,426.

Our culture relishes comparison.

Those trying to diminish the virus like to compare it to annual flu deaths. Various strains of flu virus are to blame for 24,000 to 62,000 American deaths each year, measured over the course of 12 months. Nearly 100,000 people have died from COVID-19 in fewer than four.

It is true that more than 600,000 people died from cancers in the U.S. last year. But can you imagine if we simply gave up the quest for answers and cures?

An estimated 58,200 American soldiers died fighting the Vietnam War, a gut-wrenching statistic that erupted the country in protest. Can you imagine if the Press never reported on it, or never published the Pentagon Papers?

Nearly 3,000 people were slain on 9/11. Our government used those dead as opportunity to invade two countries. Can you imagine if the Press merely shrugged it off? Can you imagine if politicians and their “fans” told grieving, frightened Americans to “just move along, nothing to see here?”

I’m in the midst of writing a 2,000-word piece for Editor & Publisher magazine about how news organizations are covering the pandemic, for which I’ve spoken to a number of news organizations – from large national newspapers and broadcast companies to small community and non-profit digital publications. It has flipped newsrooms upside down, shaking them like snow globes, with more stories than they can tell falling down all around them.

Every single story today is colored by COVID-19, because the effects are far-reaching and disturbingly influential: Economics, business, labor force and unemployment. Critical public health and safety. Long-term healthcare. Education and schools. Parenting and caretaking. The food chain and food banks. The supply chain. Personal interest stories, and on and on.

And the Press must cover all these angles. To ignore them is a dereliction of duty.

It more than pains me – it makes me irate – when I see and hear people suggest that the Press shouldn’t cover this virus, that we shouldn’t even tell the stories of the individuals who died – people who lived and loved and contributed to the society in some way.

How completely selfish and vulgar it is to look at Press coverage and find it to be inconvenient and uncomfortable because it doesn’t fit into a preconceived, politically crafted narrative.

It’s insensitive, to put it mildly, to suggest that we shouldn’t tell the stories about the aftermath for their families, of grieving from afar and then alone. It’s foolish to ignore the challenges and burdens it has placed upon us, not just on commerce and businesses, but literally on every single one of us – here and around the world.

Pandemic is profound.

I think of what yet has to be told, what will be written in the weeks, months, years, and decades to come.

This morning, I look at the image of that Times’ front page, and I feel the weight of it all.

That image – the picture of a thousand words. A thousand names x 100.

NYT-front-page-05-24-20-superJumbo-v2

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

The President’s “Keyboard Warriors” Take to the Streets

I saw this clip when the reporter first posted it — taken at some of sort of a rally. I can’t be sure whether it was a gathering just to celebrate the President or to make some sort of statement about the state of affairs on Long Island, within reach of the COVID-19 hotbed zone, New York City.

I’ve come to expect this kind of vitriol. It’s not new. Some years ago when I was dispatched to photograph a protest/counter-protest of Trump’s speech at the Coast Guard Academy commencement, I took some of this kind of flack myself from several individuals who walked alongside the protest marchers and screamed at the group. To me, they yelled “fake news” and some misogynistic nonsense that I shrugged off at the time. It’s gotten much worse in the years since, with reporters harassed, doxxed, physically assaulted, their gear ripped from their hands and destroyed.

The Constitutionally protected Free Press no longer feels very free. It feels like targets have been painted on their backs.

When this clip first published on Twitter, I had a couple of thoughts: First, note how brave the local TV reporter is as he walks through the frothy-mouthed crowd. See his calm as he navigates individuals/superspreaders yelling in his face and refusing to respect any physical distancing.

I thought, look at how they scream at him, even in front of their young, impressionable children. Look at how they seem to have lost their damned minds, becoming people I doubt they are in everyday situations. I bet they don’t behave like this at family reunions, nor at the workplace, nor in their neighborhoods, nor in their PTA meetings.

I was also hyperaware of the irony of this. Here, we have a reporter dispatched by the local Long Island TV station, to report on their event. Had he and others not been there, they would have been accused of ignoring their plights, blackballing their voices. How many times have you heard from the President’s most ardent supporters, “You won’t hear this on the mainstream media …”

And yet, this is about as MSM as you can get, the guy I bet everyone in the crowd knew by name and face, because he’s on their TV screens every weeknight. Local TV news is about as close to the community as you can get outside of a small-town paper. It’s not just “mainstream,” it’s “Main Street.”

Here he was to capture their moment, to take their story to the airwaves, to interview them and get their perspectives.

And what do they do? They threaten him, scold him, verbally shit all over the guy. They terrorize him.

I shared the clip on social media, and I blamed the President for this vitriol and hate. After all, it’s his words, verbatim, that they practically spit at the TV newsman. Listen carefully, and you can hear them parrot our President.

Turns out, I was right to put the blame at the President’s feet, because in the middle of the night — when the President should either be sleeping, meeting with his entourage at Camp David, or thinking long and hard about how to save lives in the throes of pandemic — the President shared this clip, too. Not once, but twice. That tells me he’s quite proud of these people, this behavior, and his ability to manipulate masses of his “keyboard warriors,” to the point that they have become something other than themselves.

Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

A Parable: Moose Hunts and Pandemic

Long before we found ourselves sequestered in the wilds of northern Vermont, I became concerned about moose. Though a friend who lives in Vermont describes them as “the dumbest animals to walk the earth,” I find them quite intriguing – their fortitude, their height and weight, their ability to adapt to harsh conditions, to navigate treacherous forest floors. I appreciate how the mothers care for their young, how they bed down in the snow, and I’m fascinated with how the males annually grow their awe-inspiring racks. The new antlers are covered with a soft velvet as they emerge in the spring, which the moose violently scrape during by September, rubbing them against trees until the bloody velvet falls to the ground, often taking a tree’s bark with it.

I’m intrigued by the annual rut – when hormones are on high – and how the males battle for territory. Men!

I eagerly await the first sound of a moose mating call and would likely squeal with glee if I ever stumble upon a cow and her new calf.

My husband’s coworker is stationed up in Maine. He’s a hearty sort, who spends time at a seasonal camp, hunts, and knows just about everything you need to know about living and surviving in the woods. He’s been a wellspring of information for us this year, as we learn to navigate the forest and coexist with the animals that have now ousted us from the top of our local food chain, as they say on survivalist shows.

A few years back, he bemoaned Maine’s tick problem and reported that the local moose population was being decimated by them. He said the moose up there are literally covered in ticks. Here, too.

I looked into this, and read an article about one account of a moose emerging from the forest with an estimated 80,000 to 90,000 ticks on it. I suppose math was involved in that estimation. I doubt they were picked off and counted, one by one.

Ticks are bad here, too. We have to take extra precautions – for us and for our dog – when we return from time spent outdoors.

The moose population in northern Vermont is reportedly not as plentiful as it once was. Locals here tell us that a decade ago you couldn’t drive around the region without spotting them, and that every landowner had at least one moose roaming the acreage. They were everywhere, and the signs along Vermont’s roads and highways are a testament to that bygone era. I see plenty of signs of moose out on the property – horseshoe-shaped hoof prints in the snow and mud, mounds of almond-shaped scat. But I have yet to spot one for myself. Those that remain in our forest are quite adept at keeping a low profile.

The decrease in the moose population concerned me, and even more so when I heard that Vermont was going to allow a rather generous number of moose-hunt licenses this year – 55 licenses are expected to harvest 33 moose this year.

You might wonder why a person would want to hunt a moose. It’s not for sustenance. Mounted bull moose heads do fetch a pretty penny. In St. Johnsbury, we discovered a place that specializes in all sorts of taxidermy – everything from full-standing bear to kitschy raccoons paired up and placed in little birch canoes, like they’re out for a paddle on a river.

Standing beneath a mounted moose head is humbling perspective, and well-done mounts can cost tens of thousands of dollars. But how many people have that kind of money, room, or the desire to have a moose mount on their living room walls? Is there a market for 33 of them of this year alone, I wondered?

It turns out that the reason for the hunt has nothing to do with big-game prizes, and everything to do with the tick population. If ticks can’t find a host, they move along to where they can. In theory, thinning out the moose also thins out the ticks.

As much as I don’t like the idea of gunning down a beautiful, regal, elusive beast – just out loping around in the forest, minding its own damn business – I can understand this countermeasure. If you think about it, it’s not unlike stay-at-home orders during the time of pandemic. The only way COVID-19 continues to thrive and perpetuate is if it finds readily available hosts.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not anxious to be a human-equivalent tick-covered moose, nor a dead moose. Things may be “opening up” around the country, as the idea of “herd immunity” and “culling the herd” – the sacrificing of vulnerable Americans* – seems to be gaining popularity, but I’m going to stay put for now.

How about you?

 

*Vulnerable Americans refers to both the elderly and people with pre-existing, co-morbid conditions. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 50 to 129 million NON-ELDERLY Americans have some form of pre-existing health condition.

Politics & Public Policy

Ted Cruz misses the point, while never missing an opportunity for political stunt

You may have heard about the Texas salon owner who recently defied the State’s shutdown restrictions and opened her salon. She was arrested and brought before a Judge who referred to her actions as “selfish.” Shelly Luther explained to the Judge, who threatened her with imprisonment, that she was merely trying to put food on the table for her family by operating her business. She claimed she didn’t want to be perceived as a political martyr.

But that’s what Senator Ted Cruz created in Luther, when he alerted the media and tweeted about his trip to her Salon a la Mode today. Masked up and surrounded by Luther’s staff – all themselves in masks – Cruz sat cloaked in her stylist’s chair and got spritzed with a water bottle to make his salt-and-pepper hair amenable to scissors.

Cruz was trying to make a political point, of course – that people should defy the law and get back to work. A slick Harvard Law-educated lawyer and politician, Cruz wraps his incitement in words that speak to anecdotally Libertarian minds – “patriotism, liberty,” you know the buzzwords.

Earlier in the day, Senator Cruz had taken to Twitter to poke fun at the notion the Federal Government should pay Americans upwards of $2,000 a month until the country can safely return to some semblance of commerce and normalcy. His disdain for the idea seemingly was at odds with his prior support for the stimulus monies already approved by Congress – the $1,200 per person in exchange for a 2021 tax credit Americans would’ve gotten.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnunchin infamously said the $1,200 payments should help families stay afloat for several months. Mnunchin has a pattern of out-of-touch and tone-deaf comments and actions. Who could forget his notorious trip to Ft. Knox, his taxpayer-funded romantic excursion with his wife to view an eclipse, and that now iconic photo of the couple practically jizzing all over a freshly printed sheet of currency?

I tweeted back to Cruz, asking if he was being prematurely dismissive of this idea. How many months could the Federal Government afford to pay Americans simply by rolling back a fraction of the bloated defense budget? Why are we always so quick to prop up businesses that don’t bank some of their profits for rainy days? Why are we so quick to condemn people and States and Cities for lacking the same rainy-day funds?

Isn’t a pandemic — already sinking the nation into Recession, and by some economists’ accounts, leading to a likely Depression – the perfect time to rethink our nation’s priorities?

I felt great empathy for Shelly Luther when she pleaded with the Judge, expressing that she was trying to make ends meet and had no choice but to defy the stay-at-home orders. I imagine she’s in the company of hundreds of millions of Americans facing the same dilemma. The unemployment numbers today are staggering.

Ian Bremmer offered this perspective on social media:

“Largest ever one-month job loss on record was 2 million (in 1945). 20.5 million jobs lost this past month.”

That is not a hole we’ll climb out of with a hasty reopening of business that have somehow endured.

But what struck me about the Senator’s stunt today and other politicians? They are being disingenuous about framing this dilemma as a two-pronged debate: Feed your family or not.

Or, Liberty versus Tyranny.

Cruz entirely missed the “elephant” in the dilemma – COVID-19.

I’ll use a personal experience to illustrate why it’s disingenuous to suggest this is a binary choice.

Without going into detail here, let’s just say that back in the late 1990s, I had a traumatic experience at a hair salon. That, combined with the fact that I never really had $75+ every month or so to get a ‘do done right, caused me to become pretty good at cutting my own hair for two decades. When I had brain surgery and patches of my hair fell out and I had to wear soft-knitted hats and scarves for two seasons, I became even less concerned with vanity and how my hair presented itself.

But just before pandemic descended upon us, my husband encouraged me to go to a salon. I suppose he’d grown tired of me complaining, “I can’t do anything with this mop,” as I brushed and ironed and inevitably piled the mess into a ponytail every day. I decided to take him up on the suggestion, and I made an appointment at a salon one town over.

I had to laugh when I went in for my first appointment with the stylist who was kind enough to work me in on a busy Saturday. The place was hopping, mostly with women in the 70s-and-up category – blue-haired beauties getting their “sets” and buying their curls. Definitively middle-aged, I was the youngest patron in the place. Debbie introduced herself and took me to get a wash, which felt heavenly. I showed her some hairstyles on my phone, and she got right to work.

As is the custom at beauty salons, Debbie was the chatty sort, and we talked about this and that. We really hit a conversational stride when we spoke about what it’s like to be a caregiver of an elderly parent. I told her the still-raw story of my father-in-law who’d passed away the prior spring, and how difficult it was to find resources and services – let alone pay for them – for our aging or infirm loved ones.

Debbie told me that she was the primary caregiver for her mother – elderly and in the throes of dementia. They shared a two-bedroom apartment nearby in town. Though her mother required full-time care, Debbie admitted that she wasn’t able to provide it for her mother, because the salary and tips she made doing hair – the only thing she knew how to do, she said – was barely enough to keep food on the table and that rented apartment’s roof over their heads.

Debbie herself had no healthcare coverage, but was grateful that her mother was able to see doctors, courtesy of Medicare. There was no possibility to have in-facility care nor in-home care. Medicare and Medicaid alone would condemn her mother in a facility that no one’s mother should have to endure. Trust me. I’ve seen them.

Instead, Debbie had to rely on the generosity of dear friends to stay with her mother while she worked or went out to run errands. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d done anything social. There were no dinners out with friends, no trips to the theater, and forget about leisure travel. She’d resolved that she’d never live out her dream to see Europe.

I thought about Debbie who has likely been out of work since shortly after cutting my hair – beautifully, I might add. She’s quite talented. I wondered how she and her mother must be getting by. I wondered if they were still able to cover the rent or if they had food on the table. I wondered what would happen if her mother’s dementia might require full-time nursing care and what that decision would look like in a time of pandemic, when more than 10,000 of our loved ones have died in nursing homes across the country.

I thought about Debbie and her mother, in context to Shelly Luther in Texas, and that binary choice that Ted Cruz was championing.

If it had been so easy – to work or not – I’m confident that Debbie would’ve been at that stylist’s chair, cutting old ladies’ locks and standing on her feet for 10-hour shifts, only to go home to bathe and feed her mother, to try to get her to sleep, when sleep eluded her.

I’m certain Debbie would’ve gone right on doing what she’d been doing for years. But now, Debbie would’ve also had to take into consideration this deadly virus, and whether it would kill her and her aged mother if she brought it home with her at the end of the impossibly long day.

To Ted Cruz and other politicians who make this seem like a simple choice, maybe try sitting in Debbie’s chair next time and listen to her risk-benefit analysis – when the risk is the death of your family.

 

 

 

 

 

News & Publishing, Politics & Public Policy, Uncategorized

The White House Task Force Briefings Should No Longer Be Televised

Since the creation of the White House task force, and the President’s naming of his Vice President, Mike Pence, as its mealymouthed leader, there has been a steady drumbeat from media critics who think the Press should tune out.

They’ve argued that the President has done more harm than good by holding these nearly daily on-camera events. I wholeheartedly disagreed, primarily because he’s the President, and without a functioning Press Secretary – the new one refuses to work with us, like her predecessor – these are precious opportunities to carry the President’s messages to the American people, allowing them to judge for themselves the content, and to question him, challenge him, and speak truth to power, as is our role and responsibility.

I have held that belief for all these exhausting weeks, even when the President missed every opportunity to express genuine, sincere empathy for those who are sick, the tens of thousands who have died horrific deaths, or to their families who are forced to grieve in silence, alone.

I believed we had to cover the briefings even when it became clear that the President’s posturing would always be to deflect criticism, to shirk responsibility, and to pick petty fights with Governors who have been desperate for information, gear, equipment and financial aid – desperate to try to save their constituents lives.

I felt we should still cover the briefings even when the President would openly question his own appointees to the task force – infectious-disease experts who come equipped with data and analyses that he flippantly disregards in real time.

Even when critics cried, “He’s using these as substitute campaign rallies,” I still felt we have to cover them. To ignore them would be irresponsible and a dereliction of our duty, right?

I, along with so many of my colleagues in news, have cringed when he’s used the precious time to admonish journalists, especially women reporters, accusing anyone who asks a pointed, legitimate question of being “fake news” or worse. The tough-guy act feels like a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, it’s textbook Orwellian; if you can convince people not to believe anything, they won’t believe the truth about you. The other purpose, I believe, is to create audio and video clips for conservative media outlets to run, showing the President “fighting back” – macho and chest thumping.

I suppose with some people who are firmly planted in the President’s corner, no matter his egregious unforced errors, it works to get their blood boiling, their anger stoked. It juices up the base.

A hard-boiled German who’s been around, even I welled up the day the President boasted about how great the ratings were for his briefings, as New York City and other communities across the nation zipped up hundreds of body bags in that single day. The lack of empathy was shocking, gutting really. It made me question if we’ll live through this – as individuals and as a nation.

Admittedly, as the time has passed, I have questioned the approach of the Press sitting before him. I believed that if they could simply target their questions to the experts and keep them keenly focused on the public health and safety information Americans need to know, that it would somehow keep these briefings from veering off course.

I suggested to broadcasters that they factor in a longer delay so that they could digitally filter out anything that was overtly false or potentially harmful to the viewing public. None of that has worked.

The President went on to use the briefings to recklessly promote a drug that hadn’t been rigorously tested through clinical trials as a treatment for COVID-19 infection. Despite warnings across the globe that its use was linked to heart failure and stroke in these cases, he continued to promote it. Lupus patients suddenly couldn’t get their prescriptions filled for the drug, putting their very lives at risk while the President continued to promote it. We later learned that he has a financial stake in the pharmaceutical company that makes it.

Donald J. Trump also used taxpayer dollars to produce a campaign video, which he shamelessly played during one notorious briefing, perking up the ears of watchdog agencies. He’s defied social/physical distance rules established by the White House Correspondents Association, designed to keep the Press and the President himself safe from infection during these daily meetings. He’s repeatedly invited pet network OANN into the room in defiance of these very rules, allowing its “reporters” to pitch him softball, seemingly planned and scripted questions designed to stroke the President’s ego and disparage political opponents. It’s right out of the Authoritarian Playbook.

I have been hyperaware of the lack of real leadership on display here. A leader, even in cases of notable accomplishments and success, reflects back and thinks: “How could we have done even better?” There’s no introspection by the President of the United States. He is incapable of it.

And still – even with all this in our wake – I was of the mind that the Press had to broadcast and cover these briefings, because he’s the President of the United States, and it is our duty to shine lights on him whenever we have access, and especially when we don’t.

But that’s all changed for me now. I have come around to the position the critics have taken – that we should no longer broadcast these briefings in real time. My professional opinion changed when the President used last weeks’ time before the American people to encourage the protesters who have taken the streets – some dressed as if they’re going to war, some sporting swastika and other antisemitic symbols, others with Confederate flags – to defy the very orders his own task force established. For weeks, the President, the Vice President, the doctors, and other members of the Administration have stood before us preaching the importance of following the guidelines and reading from lists of things that the President said we should all be grateful for – Federally supplied personal protection equipment, respirators, financial aid, military vessels and personnel, field hospitals, short-lived testing sites, and more.

Now, the President and the Vice President are lauding the protesters, empathizing with their “cabin fever,” and refusing to admonish their reckless disregard for the health and safety of not just “the others” – their fellow American citizens – but their own health and that of their own families. It overtly demonstrates that the President and the Vice President have not taken their roles seriously, that they haven’t even bought into the guidelines they’ve established, and that they do not care how many Americans will die as a result of their politicking.

There’s a Willie Nelson song that goes, “Turn out the lights; the party’s over. They say that all good things must end.” The White House Task Force briefings had the potential to do some really good things – to inform the public, to help keep us all safe. They haven’t risen to the occasion.

Legitimate news organizations should shut off the lights and remove the cameras from the briefing room. Send in your reporters, but cover the briefings straight, giving no room for the President to make an on-camera mockery out of them and us.

The public-servant doctors on the task force should take a different approach, too. It’s time to “go rogue” and speak directly to the American people without the President’s political filter. It’s long overdue. Our nation is depending on you.