That same article we read every May, the one where we talk about the record number of travelers who are about to hit the road, the quote from the AAA expert, the mention of gas prices, that article will be different this year. More importantly, underneath the numbers we’ll read are a thousand points of darkness, anecdotes of pain and loss. We’re still not yet fully awake to that reality, we’re still operating in the gap between the economic actions we’ve taken and the true and coming economic fallout.
However, to those service industry workers that keep our cities the adult playgrounds that we love, and the resort employees who would be ready and waiting for our families in a few short weeks, it’s front and center. This isn’t about accepting some collective pain for a few more months. It’s May 2020. Imagine the fear of a beach town bar owner knowing that her revenue may not return to normal for another 14 or 15 months. Think we’ll still be funding relief packages a few weeks at a time then? Do you think the process for small businesses to get relief will be much improved?
Similar fears and calculations are being made within so many of our communities: Will there be karate lessons? Will culinary schools survive? How do you socially distance at a Tough Mudder? Has the final nail been put in the coffin of Black Friday? Which beach towns will go the way of Atlantic City, and how is Atlantic City doing? Will any Mom and Pop ski resorts survive, and is it OK to ask about them given that skiing is largely a pursuit of the wealthy?
What we’re missing from the discussion, what we’ve been able to delay just a bit longer and in an unsustainable manner, is this: the economic pain is real, and it will shape far more of this debate than we recognize. Like a timed-release pharmaceutical, there’s a lapse between the actions we’ve taken and the disorienting effects on the way. Our relative expectations are still behind the reality of the choices we’ve made. That hit to the American psyche, combined with our processing of a breathtaking curtailment of civil liberties, is still coming. Few of us have experienced this kind of pain before, and all our lives will be worse than they were before.
What we have seen reflected in the media so far, not unreasonable for a public health crisis, is the health-related toll: the lives lost, the grocery store workers making careful movements at checkout, the nursing home residents pushed further to the edges of society. Through no fault of their own, our media elite are simply not sufficiently exposed to the economic risk described above for them to appreciate and cover that aspect of this new era yet with due weight. While some newsrooms themselves are struggling with layoffs, for the opinion creators this is indeed a boom time.
But let’s look out a bit further. At some point we’ll move our way out of this crisis, and much like George Bush warned us in the wake of 9/11, there likely won’t be a VE-Day celebration or an easily encapsulated moment where we can collectively celebrate or rest. Instead, small victories, steady and often private: the grandparent who hugs you even longer the first time you can go see them, the person who smiles from seat 24F as you approach the row, nervous but excited to regain their mobility, as a nation of tentative travelers begins its annual Thanksgiving migration. We’ll also have gained a keen understanding of what generations past already know: that the people who most deserve to hear our applause are rarely around to hear it.
Another realization will echo loudly, again similar to what we discovered after 9/11, that those heroes who are with us and who bear the brunt of our response are often concentrated in specific economic classes. For those of us wearing white collars and sweatpants while safely at home remote working, who prefer to be called not workers but professionals, we are beginning to realize that the well-earned populist moment our country is in the midst of will not spare us scrutiny. And the roil of this Fall will have begun to show us what that looks like.
With that lens it seems unlikely that the ability of multimillionaire TV anchors and Meet the Press-ready journalists to point up disapprovingly at the point-one-percenters and continue to satisfy their audiences will persist. That façade is too thin to endure. It’s similarly easy for them to look down and spike the football on the protestors and red-state governors whose behavior they find, well, deplorable, when their jobs are not threatened. It’s easy for them to not worry about elected officials threatening church gatherings when their Sunday morning routine of NPR and Peloton looks pretty much the same.
What I did in the paragraph above is paint the media elite with as little charity as possible. To assume bad faith intentions or moral failing and presume a blinkered outlook on behalf of their class. It doesn’t need to be this way. Even with the treatment of the Biden allegations serving as point-of-no-return evidence of the corruption of the fourth estate, a better journalism can still add value to an America that needs it. There are valid arguments worth grappling with on every side of the liberty/public health/economic carnage debate – a debate that should be lively, by the way. By failing to provide that nuance, in this time that matters most, the fourth estate isn’t just continuing to fail. It’s fanning class and cultural resentments that will linger and that cannot be divorced from the ways that we’ll memorialize and write into history this pandemic.
Our holidays serve as shared rallying points, and Memorial Day kicks off a season of gathering that won’t occur, and rest and comfort that we will not receive. What we need from the media right now, and I mean need as a matter of national importance given the gravity of the choices we confront, is to understand the pain and fear everyone is facing, and to grant a bit more charity to the viewpoints bubbling up organically across our diverse, continental political union.