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The Invincible Ignorance of Pandemic-Era Journalists

Here's an expert secret from inside the industry: reporters don't know what the hell they're talking about.

“Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.” — Henry David Thoreau

The American people have spent the last month thinking of new and creative ways to kill time until the government lets them go outside again. Some methods have been entirely wholesome: thousands have rediscovered the dying art of baking bread. Even here in rural Michigan, it’s easier to find toilet paper than dry yeast. Others have preferred to simply kill themselves by swilling some homemade COVID remedy made of fish tank cleaner and bleach.

For the most part, though, our countrymen are spending their days swigging vodka and refreshing CNN.com. We can’t go more than five minutes without checking for the latest COVID “updates.”

Yes, we’re living through a particularly frightening time. Right now, there are almost 800,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States. More than 26 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits in five weeks. There are going to be serious, long-term effects to our economy. That’s nothing to pooh-pooh.

Yet we’re only now beginning to realize the secondary effects of COVID: the emotional damage being wrought as a result of the virus. Instances of domestic abuse are surging. Suicide hotlines are inundated with calls. Alcohol sales are skyrocketing, which means rates of alcoholism probably aren’t far behind. We’re worrying ourselves to death.

But why? Why put ourselves through all this needless anxiety? Why not simply tune out?

Much of it, no doubt, is just morbid curiosity. Facebook is now putting out an interactive, color-coded map breaking down confirmed cases of COVID state by state and county by county. Yes, it’s hard not to look. It’s like that stupid game Plague Inc. we all played in high school, except it’s not a stupid game, but a stupid social media plugin.

Partially, it’s a frantic—and in many ways noble—need to give some purpose to this vast, random catastrophe. We see an article about a nursing home in rural Idaho where 75 percent of residents have died of the virus. They lived through the Great Depression; they fought the Nazis, the North Koreans, and the Viet Cong; now they’re succumbing to the Wuhan Flu. What does it mean? Is it a heartening symbol of America’s exceptional resiliency or a humbling reminder of our mortal fragility? Does it teach us to revere our elders or to put our youth to better use? We don’t know, but we desperately want to.

Mostly, however, I suspect it’s just a naked and very dangerous ploy by the Fourth Estate to monetize this tragedy.

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I’m going to let you in on an industry secret. I’ve worked in the media since I was 22. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: journalists lack absolutely all sense of proportion. They think that, because they have a byline in a newspaper or a blue checkmark on Twitter, they’re an expert in every subject that appears in their blog roll. They really do think they’re smarter than you are. They think they’re entitled, not only to an opinion, but to an audience. But that’s demonstrably false.

From the beginning, commonsense folk knew exactly what kind of precautions they should take. Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. Avoid restaurants, malls, etc. Go shopping less, and then only for essentials.

But as usual, the media has set itself squarely in the path of common sense. Take the debacle about face masks. First, journalists were sneering at those peasants who wore them—because, clearly, when dealing with a highly contagious respiratory virus, a hands-free apparatus that covers one’s mouth is totally useless. Well, that was nonsense. So a few days later, they told us that face masks were somehow only useful for doctors, and that all those peasants who dipped into Amazon’s dwindling supply were effectively murdering old people. That was even more patently ridiculous. Now, those very same people are publishing guides to making your own cute, eco-friendly face masks—and if you don’t like and share the article on Facebook, you may as well smother a bunch of asthmatics with their pillows, because you will give them acute respiratory failure. Peasants.

Again, why? Why would they do this? The most obvious reason is also the most despicable: because they have to talk about something. They can’t go whole weeks—let alone months—without telling the hayseeds what to think and how to act. That’s the way the media works. Journalists get paid to report on events, and columnists get paid to opine on them. So if there aren’t any stories, they’ll just make something up.

Think about it. These should be the slowest months for news in living memory, because…well, nothing’s happening. The country is on lockdown. People are sitting on their couches, drinking Coors Lights, playing Psych!, and binging on The X-Files. But the daily papers still have their 40 pages to fill, and major news websites are expected to crank out over 100 articles every 24 hours. If they don’t want to lay off their employees or cut their pay, they need to keep churning out content.

And of course, the articles can’t be about just anything. They all have to tackle the Big Story. That’s the way journalism works in our digitized, 24/7 news cycle. The fact that even our presidential election has given way to the coronavirus should be proof enough that the media has become 100 percent clickbait. And as anyone who’s ever worked in publishing will tell you, fear sells 10 times better than hope. People want good news, but they need bad news.

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These days, the juiciest clickbait goes by the name of “expert opinion,” and media hacks can find an “expert” to support whatever novel, bizarre, or terrifying theory will draw readers. Truth be told, though, these scientists really have no idea what they’re talking about. In late February, when President Trump was still being castigated by the media for his “racist” China travel ban, Dr. Anthony Fauci went on NBC to assure America that “the risk [posed by coronavirus] is low” and “you don’t need to change anything you’re doing.” Then in late March, when The New York Times asked him about Trump’s optimistic statements about new coronavirus treatments, he said: “I don’t want to embarrass him. I don’t want to act like a tough guy, like I stood up to the president.” Sure, Doc.

Over at The Atlantic, staff writer James Hamblin wrote a story titled, “A Vaccine Won’t Stop the Coronavirus.” Dr. Hamblin is also a lecturer at Yale School of Public Health—he’s his own quotable notable!—so we’re expected to bow to his superior wisdom. In fact, he has no idea what effect a vaccine will have, because it doesn’t exist yet. So the title should actually read, “Why I Don’t Think a Vaccine Will Stop the Coronavirus.”

As it happens, Dr. Hamblin’s thesis isn’t that a vaccine will be ineffective. His point is that, even if we develop one, it may be harder to finance than we expected, and the trials may take longer than previously assumed. So the title should actually read, “Why I’m Concerned That Our Expectations of the Coronavirus Vaccine Are Too High.”

That might be interesting for people with a working knowledge of the pharmaceutical industry and public health policy. But it would fail as clickbait, which is his employer’s stock and trade. So The Atlantic goes for the title that makes it sound like COVID will lead to the sixth extinction and President Trump is just fiddling while Rome burns.

What’s truly sick about all this is that the stress generated by our collective, media-fueled anxiety attack compromises our immune systems, and self-medicating with alcohol only weakens it further. This over-reporting actually makes us more susceptible to the coronavirus. And as I wrote in these pages last month, economic downturn is often a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we believe these reports that a new Great Depression is “inevitable,” then it certainly will be. The media is only encouraging Wall Street brokers to dump their stocks and ordinary consumers to hoard goods and capital. If these business closures and shelter-in-place orders don’t short out the supply chains, that will.

Again, I probably shouldn’t be giving away trade secrets here. But the truth is that no one in the media has any idea what’s going on—not the reporters, not the columnists, and not their “expert opinions.” If you followed their advice, you missed out on your chance to stock up on medical masks and didn’t begin sheltering in place until after your governor shut down all the bars and gyms. If you’re still listening to them, all you’re doing is driving yourself to drink.

So here’s what you do: just tune out. That’s my expert opinion as a professional journalist. Stop listening to journalists. We have no idea what we’re talking about. Our only goal is to scare you into reading our articles so advertisers will pay us for the clicks.

You already have all the information you need. Do the social distancing thing. Wear a mask when you go grocery shopping. Make sure your elderly family members have all the supplies they need. Wash your hands and don’t touch your face. Be moderate in your drinking. Take as much exercise as you can. Get plenty of sleep. That’s all you can do.

Michael Warren Davis is the editor-in-chief of Crisis MagazineHe is the author of The Reactionary Mind (Regnery, 2021).

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