If we have learned anything from the coronavirus, it’s that science and statistics are now political. What is now considered science is based on the feelings of those using it. While the average American may see little merit in weighing the politics of each state as the world contends with a global pandemic, the media care for nothing else.
Indeed, the media first look at the political affiliation of local officials before evaluating the COVID-19 response success. The media then uses their own bias-based prism for evaluation, ignoring empirical evidence. Their coverage depicts Democrat-run states as logical and resilient, while residents of Republican-led states are portrayed as science-denying troglodytes more concerned with reopening their economy than caring for the sick and immunocompromised.
The narrative-setting took place in real-time on social media, as reporters echoed commentary from their peers with frightening predictability. Democratic leaders are logical and resilient, tireless in their advocacy for their constituents against a hapless Republican president bumbling through a pandemic. Residents in those states, they’d say, happily wear masks because they actually cared about other people and believed in science. Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers represent states whose residents were so desperate to reopen their local economies that they’d endanger the sick and elderly to make it happen. Their constituents are selfish, science-deniers who care not for the common good, but instead, their own comfort and privilege.
To achieve such a narrative, the media ignores empirical evidence demonstrating these preconceptions are false. There is perhaps no greater example than the water-carrying they have done on behalf of Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY). Despite accounting for just 6 percent of the U.S. population, New York is responsible for a staggering 1 in 4 coronavirus deaths in America. The media have dutifully excused Governor Cuomo’s woefully inadequate response – a response made worse by the incompetence of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who apparently waited longer to sanitize subway cars than he did to keep Hasidic children from playing in city playgrounds.
As merely a victim of President Trump’s incompetence, they implied, Governor Cuomo was simply doing the best he could – and he could do no wrong at that. After calling the president’s response to coronavirus worse than Watergate, he quipped that “No one died in the Watergate scandal,” ignoring his own role in the deaths of tens of thousands of at-risk New Yorkers.
When it was uncovered that his decision to cram elderly and sick patients in nursing homes created a petri dish of coronavirus primed to infect the most at-risk New Yorkers and those who cared for them, the press uncritically regurgitated a widely-debunked report from the governor’s office insisting they weren’t responsible for nursing home deaths. At least 6,600 nursing home residents died of COVID-19, while 37,500 caregivers contracted coronavirus from serving these patients. If, according to Governor Cuomo, he is not responsible for the decision he made to group in close quarters elderly and sick people who were at the highest risk for contracting and dying from coronavirus, how then is President Trump?
As the narrative of Cuomo victimhood plays out on network television and newspaper stories, so, too, does one about how “red states” like Florida, Arizona and Texas are seeing COVID-19 spikes due to Republican negligence. Because these states suffered fewer cases than the rest of the country at the height of the pandemic, they opted to begin reopening incrementally and earlier than states who peaked earlier. For the first month or two, this yielded no significant upticks in cases or deaths. But, eventually, cases began to rise.
The media pounced. GOP-led states like Texas, they argued, were “out of control,” opening too early and allowing people to resume daily activities too quickly. They happily ignored that while positive cases were on the rise due in part to greater testing accessibility, local health care systems aren’t overwhelmed as they were in New York. In an interview with CNN, Houston Methodist Hospital CEO explained that patients admitted to his acclaimed health care system have been younger with less severe symptoms, stay in the hospital for less time and are far less likely to die from COVID-19. He also says that despite media claims of bed shortages, hospitals are operating at normal capacity.
As of this writing, Texas, home to 29 million people, has fewer than 7,700 coronavirus deaths. New York, with a total population of 19.45 million – much smaller than Texas – has 32,413. Indeed, Texas has benefitted from increased knowledge, better supply access and greater time to prepare than New York did. But, surely, this does not entirely explain why the Empire State has 420 percent more fatalities than the Lone Star State.
Then, there is Florida, led by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis. In addition to being a popular vacation destination, Florida’s 21.48 million residents welcome hundreds of thousands of part-time Floridians each year who own homes in the Sunshine State. At the pandemic’s peak, this made Florida the next anticipated hotspot.
Yet, it wasn’t. To date, Florida has seen 7,401 COVID-19 deaths, despite the state being partly open for the past few months. In fact, Florida accounts for just 4.8 percent of the nation’s coronavirus deaths, despite being the country’s third most populous state with 27 percent of its population older than 60.
CNN host Chris Cuomo, brother of New York’s governor, has made it a personal mission to cheer on the coronavirus’s spread in Florida in apparent efforts to deflect from criticism of Governor Cuomo’s COVID-19 response. “Can we trust the data from [sic] florida’s governor?” Cuomo asked on Twitter last week, setting aside journalistic standards of impartiality to imply without evidence that De Santis was misrepresenting the severity of COVID-19 in his state. Perhaps most galling of Cuomo’s statements was the assertion the White House Coronavirus Task Force chief “prais[ed] the gov who mishandled the pandemic,” referring to encouraging remarks from Vice President Pence directed toward Florida officials.
Cuomo’s politically prejudiced criticism is remarkably tone-deaf, given the broad admonition he and his brother endured for their variety show-styled daily interviews on CNN, where the television host provided an open forum for the governor to tout his administration’s coronavirus successes and lambast President Trump. Their giggle fest, complete with phony debates over who is their mother’s favorite child, happened night after night as tens of thousands of New Yorkers succumbed to the disease, with thousands dying due to overcrowded nursing home exposure at the governor’s direction.
To the political press, none of this matters. Because far fewer people are dying in conservative states, the media have shifted their focus from the number of deaths to the overall number of cases. This number tells us very little about the current state of the virus, as it doesn’t demonstrate the severity or likelihood of death associated with contracting to it. Instead, it simply obscures the human toll in states that fared worse in the pandemic.
Even as late-hit states have voluntarily enacted measures that would roll back some of the reopening and enforce masking in public spaces, the media continue to fan the flames of hysteria, with The Daily Beast characterizing Florida hospitals as being “in the thick of New York-level chaos” whose health care workers fear the “worst is yet to come.” Thankfully, COVID-19 in Florida bears little resemblance to New York, whose worst daily death rate was eight times that of Florida, despite having 2 million fewer people.
So far, little mention has been made of how the virus is now spreading to areas that hadn’t yet seen widespread transmission. Their outbreaks aren’t worse – and if anything, they’re not as severe and are better managed. They’re just coming later. The media have also neglected to cover how the states currently experiencing outbreaks are among the hottest in the U.S., driving residents into packed indoor facilities, like bars, to escape the heat. Meanwhile, places that had already experienced their peaks had seen individuals indoors in the colder months, where residents could shield themselves from the cold and snow. From an epidemiological perspective, it’s clear that densely occupied indoor spaces for long stretches pose the greatest exposure threat, while risks from outdoor activities remain very low. Apparently, the media’s hyper-politicized coverage leaves no room for scientific insight reporters should be sharing with the public.
Lawmakers and health officials should still maintain reasonable COVID-19 measures for their states. In places where coronavirus spiked later than others, special care should be paid, especially to those who are older or face health challenges. Coronavirus is serious, and we must heed all public health guidance.
We don’t have to buy a media narrative that’s meant to disparage entire states simply because of who their elected leaders may be. For the sake of sound public policy, we must educate ourselves not only about how to secure public health, but also on what strong local leadership in a global pandemic really looks like. Unfortunately, that now involves doing our own research, since the media are more interested in protecting their narratives than protecting us.
Jay Shepard is a member of the American Center for Education and Knowledge Board of Directors.