The Virus, the Press, and the Comfortable Class

The Virus, the Press, and the Comfortable Class

The Virus, the Press, and the Comfortable Class

Liberal and conservative elites aren’t grappling with the pandemic’s toll on working-class people—and the impossible choices they’re forced to make.


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Even in normal times, the New York–centric nature of the national news media strongly shapes—and skews—national coverage. That has been especially true during the current crisis. In a remarkable and unhappy confluence, New York City—the nation’s news capital—is also the epicenter of the pandemic. Of the more than 1.4 million cases nationwide, about 350,000 have occurred in New York State and 140,000 more in neighboring New Jersey. Of the more than 80,000 deaths nationwide, about a third have occurred in New York.

These grim numbers have instilled a sense of fear and dread in everyone in the city, journalists included. Among the high-profile figures to have been stricken by the coronavirus are Chris Cuomo, Brooke Baldwin, Lesley Stahl, and George Stephanopoulos; Kate Snow chronicled for NBC viewers the challenges she faced in caring for her infected (and since recovered) husband.

Thirty-four states, meanwhile, have had fewer than 1,000 deaths; 12 have had fewer than 100. California, with more than twice the population of New York, has had about one-tenth the number of deaths (though the number in Los Angeles has been rising). San Francisco—among the first cities to be hit—has had fewer than 40 deaths. One might have expected its mayor, London Breed, to be a regular presence on news shows, offering guidance on how to combat the virus, but because she’s 3,000 miles from New York, she makes only cameo appearances. To find out what’s going on in California, one has to seek out the site of the Los Angeles Times or other news sources in the state.

Even within New York State, the impact has been starkly uneven, with New York City and its suburbs accounting for about 90 percent of all cases in the state and 95 percent of the deaths. About half of New York’s 62 counties have had five or fewer deaths. Regions like the Mohawk Valley, the Adirondacks, and the North Country (bordering Canada) look more like Iowa and Oklahoma than Queens or Long Island. Yet Governor Andrew Cuomo’s shutdown order has been applied uniformly throughout the state.

On April 22, a protest demanding a relaxation of that order was held outside the state capitol building in Albany to coincide with the governor’s daily briefing. It was a boisterous group. Some marched on foot; others blocked traffic in their cars. Some waved American flags and held signs declaring “poverty is more dangerous than a virus” and “my small business is essential”; a number wore pro-Trump hats.

Inside, the honking of the car horns could plainly be heard. During his presentation, however, Cuomo did not mention the protest. Nor did the first eight reporters recognized during the Q and A. Then the governor called on Anne McCloy, an anchor and reporter for WRGB, a local TV station. “These are regular people who are not getting a paycheck; some are not getting an unemployment check,” she said, citing the protesters. “They’re saying they don’t have time to wait for all of this testing, and they need to get back to work in order to feed their families. Their savings are running out. They don’t have another week.” Their point, she added, is that “the cure can’t be worse than the illness itself. What is your response to them?”

“The illness,” Cuomo replied, “is death. What is worse than death?”

“What if somebody commits suicide because they can’t pay their bills?” McCloy said.

“But the illness may be my death, as opposed to your death,” said the governor. “How can the cure be worse than the illness if the illness is potential death?”

“What if the economy failing equals death?”

“It doesn’t equal death. Economic hardship, yes, very bad, but not death…. I get the economic hardship—everybody feels it…. The question is how do you respond to it, and do you respond to it in a way that jeopardizes public health and possibly causes more people to die?”

McCloy referred to the many people unable to get unemployment benefits. Cuomo said they would be paid. But they can’t wait because “they’re out of money,” said McCloy, adding that the protesters were asking, “Is there a fundamental right to work if the government can’t get me the money when I need it?”

“You want to go to work,” said the governor, “go take a job as an essential worker. Do it tomorrow.”

“They’re not hiring.”

“You’re working—you’re an essential worker. So go take a job as an essential worker.”

Over weeks of watching the briefings, I had never heard a reporter press Cuomo so hard on the economic toll that the lockdown was taking on upstate New York. Others also noticed. The New York Times ran an item on the exchange, and a commentator on Fox News discussed it. (For weeks, Fox had been pushing the idea that the cure should not be worse than the disease.) On McCloy’s Facebook page, people expressed their gratitude. “Thank you for the tough questions,” one wrote. “Upstate New York needs to open earlier than downstate. By the way, 95% of the cases and 97% of the deaths in New York State are south of I-84. Something to consider.” (Some posts were less complimentary, charging McCloy with pushing an agenda and calling attention to herself.)

Most of the journalists who attend Cuomo’s briefings represent news outlets from New York City and—preoccupied with the contagion—seldom ask about the lockdown’s impact on shopkeepers and dentists, dry cleaners and construction workers. Cuomo’s remarks on economic hardship often have a pro forma quality about them, and his combative response to McCloy—including his off-handed suggestion that people go out and get an essential job—reflected the relative inattention he has paid to the economic distress of his constituents (except for essential workers, whom he regularly praises).

Reached by phone, McCloy told me that she was surprised that no reporter at the briefing had mentioned the protest before her. (As a local TV reporter, she’s low in the pecking order.) In the weeks before the briefings, she had twice interviewed a hairdresser in Schenectady about her experience filing for unemployment benefits; despite repeated calls over many days, the woman had been unable to get through, and her savings were evaporating. In addition, said McCloy (who grew up in Arizona and attended the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University), her station has run many stories over the past year about how most Americans lack emergency savings. She also knows many people who run small businesses, and, she said, “they don’t know how long they can take it.”

Every day at the press briefings, McCloy added, “I feel a strong obligation to be a voice for the people upstate. Every day, I pray I ask the right question.”

None of this should be taken to imply that the national press has neglected the economic cost of the virus. The New York Times, for one, has run countless stories on overwhelmed food pantries, people struggling to pay the rent, farmers forced to let their crops rot, and retailers worrying about losing their stores. On May 1, the paper offered a long report (by Jesse McKinley and Jane Gottlieb) about the spike in unemployment in upstate New York “as thousands of businesses, from florists to flooring, have shuttered,” forcing “paycheck-to-paycheck families” to visit food banks and farmers to pour “unwanted milk into the ground.” (The article also noted that even upstate the governor’s cautious approach enjoys strong support.)

Yet liberal columnists, talking heads, and scholars often downplay, minimize, or ignore altogether the economic despair so many are feeling. They seem unable to identify or empathize with people who have been laid off, can’t pay their utility bills, and have had trouble reaching unemployment offices. When anti-lockdown protests broke out around the country, there was a rush to dismiss and discredit them. “The Quiet Hand of Conservative Groups in the Anti-Lockdown Protests,” ran the headline atop a long piece in the Times. The protests, it reported, were being organized by “an informal coalition of influential conservative leaders and groups, some with close connections to the White House,” with key contributions from the Tea Party Patriots and FreedomWorks, a libertarian advocacy group.

“The anti-quarantine protests seem spontaneous. But behind the scenes, a powerful network is helping,” The Washington Post declared. The rallies, the paper stated, “represented one salvo in a wide-ranging and well-financed conservative campaign to undermine restrictions that medical experts say are necessary to contain the coronavirus.” The story described the involvement of Trump officials like Ben Carson and conservative think tanks like the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and it quoted a Drexel University sociologist as saying that “the blowback against the coronavirus precautions carries echoes of efforts to deny climate change, both of which rely on hostility toward government action.”

CNN’s Miguel Marquez, covering a rally of hundreds of protesters in Harrisburg, Pa., told Anderson Cooper that it had the feel of a “Donald Trump reelection rally.” “Logically,” Cooper said, “I don’t understand.” The protesters were not practicing the social distancing guidelines issued by the Trump administration. They “seem to be in favor of the president and yet believe that the guidelines he himself has been pushing are too onerous. ” Apparently, Cooper could not conceive that these protesters might diverge from the president.

Among columnists, the protests have been dismissed as exclusively right-wing affairs by the Post’s Dana Milbank (“Trump’s Gun-Toting Supporters are Firing Blanks”), The New Yorker’s John Cassidy (“Fringe Protests Can’t Distract from Trump’s Failures”), and the Times’ Paul Krugman (“The Right Sends in the Quacks”) and Jamelle Bouie (“The Anti-Lockdown Protesters Have a Twisted Conception of Liberty”).

Almost none of these reports cited actual protesters. One reporter who did seek out their views is Molly Olmstead of Slate. In a piece headlined “What the People Organizing ‘Reopen the Businesses’ Protests Are Thinking,” she described the protesters as falling into two camps. One consisted of people interested in preserving local businesses. Among them were small proprietors facing financial ruin from an extended lockdown; many pointed to rural communities in which conditions differed significantly from those in New York, Detroit, Atlanta, and other large cities. The other camp rejected the lockdowns as infringements on personal liberties and were far more stridently political. Those focusing on the economic toll expressed discomfort with the presence of more extreme voices peddling misinformation and conspiracy theories.

Many journalists, however, seem to hear only those more extreme voices.

In discussing when to reopen, it seems critical to weigh the health risks against the economic pain; clearly, trade-offs are unavoidable. Yet many liberal politicians and commentators are reluctant to acknowledge that. Overwhelmingly, they cite epidemiologists, infectious disease experts, food and drug specialists, and public health commissioners. And they incessantly invoke “science”—a term that has become a signifier of superior intelligence and integrity. At his press conferences, Cuomo asserts over and over that he is making decisions based not on emotion or politics but on facts and science. “You’re entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts,” he never tires of observing, quoting Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

But the coronavirus is so novel that our knowledge of it keeps changing. At first, antibodies were assumed to provide immunity—now we’re not so sure. Children, it was initially believed, are not affected—it’s now clear that some are. After a long period in which everyone was said to be equally susceptible, we now know that low-income African Americans and Latinos are especially vulnerable. It’s also been found that more than 90 percent of those hospitalized for the virus have one or more underlying conditions. At his May 7 briefing, Cuomo acknowledged that the data about the virus keep mutating, yet he continues to cite “the facts” as if they’re as fixed as the laws of thermodynamics, and, based on them, he has continued to keep the entire state on a strict lockdown. And he rarely refers to the more than 1.8 million nurses, bartenders, construction workers, and other New Yorkers who in recent weeks have filed unemployment claims.

A similar indifference prevails on CNN and MSNBC. It is exasperating to watch Anderson Cooper, Wolf Blitzer, Jake Tapper, Chris Hayes, and the crew at Morning Joe—all participating via webcams from their comfortably upholstered apartments and country homes—snobbishly tut-tutting all those benighted souls who, facing bankruptcy, shrunken savings, and food insecurity, want to get back to work. Covid-19 seems to be widening the gulf between entitled white-collar professionals and blue-collar working people that emerged during the 2016 presidential campaign and that remains such a discouraging and self-defeating feature of the liberal establishment.

On Fox, meanwhile, you hear nonstop cheerleading for reopening without any regard for the potential risks. Public-health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci are routinely denigrated while constitutional rights and civil liberties are loudly extolled. Shelley Luther, the Dallas salon owner who was briefly jailed for refusing to apologize for keeping her business open despite a statewide stay-at-home order, was hailed as a freedom fighter. On May 7, Texas Congressman Dan Crenshaw appeared on Fox & Friends to denounce “so-called leaders and judges” who are “arresting moms and dads” and “using the full force of the law” to “take away your freedom.”

“Why can’t you go to a car wash ?” cohost Brian Kilmeade complained. “Why can’t a jewelry store open up on Mother’s Day?… Why can I go to a supermarket but I can’t go to a sports store? Why can’t I sit on a beach? How dare I sit on the beach!”

“They’re drunk on power,” Crenshaw explained. “They think we’re stupid. This is why you’re seeing people rise up.” Retired Marine bomb technician Joey Jones came on to second President Trump’s praise for America’s “warrior culture” in fighting the pandemic. “You have to defend your livelihood, your civilization, so you put on your armor, you sharpen your sword, you stay on guard, and, most importantly, you go live your life.” Jones expressed disdain for journalists who question the use of such martial language. “I think there is a certain amount of pacifism in this country now,” so that “the mere thought of sacrifice scares people to death.”

All very stirring. Yet Jones, Crenshaw, and Kilmeade were all calling in from remote locations. The same is true for Tucker Carlson (who regularly mocks social distancing guidelines), Sean Hannity (who compared Shelley Luther to Braveheart), and Laura Ingraham (for whom Governor Cuomo is a favorite whipping boy). While clamoring for Americans to go back to work, they themselves refuse to go to the studio. In contrast to liberal commentators, who like to show off their bookcases behind them, most Fox anchors use virtual backdrops so as conceal their unwillingness to expose themselves to the same risks they are encouraging others to take. They are home-office warriors, sheltering-in-place patriots.

Where liberals seem oblivious to the economic suffering of working Americans, conservatives seem indifferent to the grim choices confronting many of those they are urging back to work. On Fox, you see few stories about immigrant meatpackers forced to work shoulder-to-shoulder on conveyor belts despite the contagion raging around them, restaurant waiters and servers who fear returning to work but who know that if they stay home they can lose their unemployment insurance, undocumented workers who pick the lettuce and tomatoes that we consume but who can’t get health insurance, Amazon workers reluctant to complain about unsafe working conditions out of fear of being fired, the people of color on the front lines in Queens and the Bronx who will no doubt continue to die in disproportionate numbers as the economy reopens, or the decisive majorities of the public who, polls show, support a go-slow approach.

In short, the comfortable class, both left and right, remains insulated from the concerns of the working class.

At his March 11 press conference, Governor Cuomo unveiled a plan for reopening New York, with upstate regions permitted to loosen restrictions earlier than the NYC metropolitan area. The plan, he said, was based on data and science.

Meanwhile, people throughout New York remain in distress. After Anne McCloy’s exchange with Governor Cuomo, a Facebook group posted her number, and ever since, she told me, her phone has been ringing. “People from all over the state have been contacting me about unemployment,” seeking help in getting through. “Even people from Manhattan and Queens have been calling.” One person was so desperate that he called 20 times before she picked up. “He thought I could help him.”

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