COVID-19 triggered lockdowns around the world never before seen. It isn’t the worst pandemic the world has seen, so why were government interventions so swift? There are really two reasons. One, broadband and laptops. Had there not been ways to continue working for the governments and remote learning to bridge education, we’d have not seen lockdowns beyond May 2020.
The second reason, tied to the first reason, is the media. The majority of the media coverage shamed any lockdown dissent and even drove it. Those that stood up to that, select states and even countries faced immense pressure from national and global media.
Within the United States, the role of the media within government policy is to critically analyze, to keep them honest. With COVID-19, open debate about risks and government interventions was shut down. For the first sixteen months of the pandemic, not only was the origination of COVID-19 not up for debate, it was suppressed and censored by major platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
As of June 2022 it’s considered more likely than not to have originated from the Wuhan lab, something even the WHO is now investigating. Reopen schools in 2020? The media put so much pressure to keep them closed that few politicians thought critically and acted to keep them open. Even with that, remote options were available and employed, fracturing education for a year and a half. In some states schools were closed for seventeen months.
A string of recent examples involve Dr. Deborah Birx. Along with Dr. Fauci, Dr. Birx promoted and drove the lockdowns in 2020. In 2022 Dr. Birx was on her book promotion media tour and repeatedly said we lost hundreds of thousands of lives due to poor federal actions (of which she was a part). How many interviewers pressed her for the math behind that? Zero.
After 24 months into the pandemic, fifteen months of that with vaccines and 14/24 months under President Biden, the daily COVID-19 death counts were materially identical between both administrations.
Below is an excerpt from the book COVID-19: The Science vs. The Lockdowns on how the media drove the lockdowns, gaining plenty of voter support to where politicians faced better polling by continuing lockdowns rather than opening up.
Social media has become the primary news source for more Americans than any other medium. Imagine if COVID-19 struck in the 1980s before cable television. Primary news sources were 1) network news, 2) major newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post and 3) local newspapers.
Those mediums covered COVID-19 in 2020 as if it were a category five pandemic and drove opinion that schools and restaurants should be closed and everyone should be masked, perhaps even at home and in the car. They constantly reported that hospitals were lined up over capacity with sick, dying patients. However, we’d be looking around our communities not seeing much activity. We’d know it was out there, but we’d see hospitals were empty and few we knew were getting sick.
Remember, other than the four to six weeks when a community got hit, you wouldn’t know COVID-19 was a pandemic. Outside those surge periods, doctors would have assumed it was a weird or strong flu or something. The symptoms were similar to the flu, just worse if you were vulnerable enough to be hospitalized. If COVID-19 struck communities it was like a few-week hurricane, and it left a vacuum of emptiness in hospitals.
In my home town of Dallas, some well-intentioned college kids visited Parkland Hospital downtown to take care packages to frontline workers when we were in tight lockdown in April 2020. The nurse at receiving thanked them and laughed. She told them that they had no COVID-19 activity and with non-COVID-19 patients kept away, it was empty [Parkland did get a large wave in late 2020]. She walked them down darkened halls free of patients, nurses and doctors. Their voices echoed as they talked in the silence.
Nearly all major media outlets were absent any COVID-19 information suggesting the risk didn’t support the lockdowns. Fox News’ primetime shows often reported on it. Newsmax and One America News did too, but their viewership was relatively low, less than a half million viewers combined. That left 99% of America without a view from the mainstream media that maybe the lockdowns were not the best path.
Nearly all data to counter lockdowns originated with Twitter users. It largely began with Alex Berenson’s constant pouring of data to counter the models that triggered the lockdowns. Berenson began appearing on Fox News weekly in April 2020. Other Twitter users like The Ethical Skeptic (don’t laugh, he stays anonymous but the guy is a genius) and contributors to Rational Ground provided nearly all hardcore data.
If Twitter did not exist, it’s hard to imagine where data to support stopping lockdowns would have come from. Hold your thoughts on the mention of Fox News if you’re not a conservative. We need open thought and debate on something as huge as worldwide lockdowns. It was a sad state of journalism that Fox News was the only major media company to offer this, though by summer 2020 the Wall Street Journal did some quality analysis on the lockdowns. Most media outlets were very selective on their reporting on the lockdowns.
Where We Get The News
ABC’s World News Tonight leads network news with about nine million viewers nightly, followed by NBC Nightly News’s seven million viewers and CBS Evening News’s five million. Fox News typically gets about three million viewers, followed by MSNBC’s 1.5 million and CNN’s one million viewers. It’s very fair to say that—and there may be some overlap—23 million television news watchers were getting pro-lockdown, closed school, and face mask support from all programming except Fox News primetime. Online news and media sites touch hundreds of millions viewers. Below is Statista’s breakdown of the most frequented online news sources based on unique monthly visitors:
|News Source||Monthly Visitors|
|Yahoo News||175 million|
|Google News||150 million|
|Huffington Post||110 million|
|The New York Times||70 million|
|Fox News||65 million|
|NBC News||63 million|
|The Washington Post||47 million|
|The Guardian||42 million|
|The Wall Street Journal||40 million|
|ABC News||36 million|
|USA Today||34 million|
|LA Times||33 million|
The Atlantic self-reported that they received ninety million unique online visitors in March 2020.
There is obvious overlap of the same unique visitors to many of these news outlets. Within this breakdown, for a solid year into the pandemic, the only major news sources that were offering coverage against the lockdowns were Fox News and the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post. The Guardian ran a few pieces on lockdown damage, mostly harm from school closings, as did the New York Times. While the Times pushed many lockdown measures, they did some excellent reporting on school closings. In general, there’s a ratio of 845 million to 105 million, or better than 88% coverage driving continued lockdowns, school closings, and face mask mandates.
An enormous and growing source of news Americans receive is through Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Pew Research identified that 36% of U.S. adults get their news from Facebook; ninety million people of the 170 million Facebook users. About sixty million adults get news from YouTube and fifty million from Twitter. Now, most of the news on these social media platforms often originates from the news sources above. However, just like large news organizations demonstrated bias in what they reported, the social media platforms demonstrated bias in what they allowed to circulate.
Facebook has become a primary news resource for hundreds of millions of Americans and others worldwide. They did some good too. Facebook created a vaccine finder tool used by millions to help them secure vaccines more efficiently. They also became the arbiter of COVID-19 news and what they called misinformation. Facebook removed sixteen million pieces of information that they deemed inappropriate even if they did not violate their rules, like comments and articles discouraging wearing masks or getting vaccines. They removed the Great Barrington Declaration page. Do a quick search and find the GBD and read through it – it’s short. It condemns the one-size-fits-all lockdown measures like closing schools and businesses, and rather stresses the importance of those measurably at risk to be protected, whether in a long-term care facility or at home.
Are those crazy concepts that should not be open for discussion? Kang-Xing Jin was a college friend of Mark Zuckerberg and took the lead on COVID-19 information and misinformation for Facebook. KX has no medical background, but then neither do I; that’s no showstopper to analyze data, risk, and consequence. The stickiness comes in when the giant tech companies that shape our lives can’t draw the line between misinformation and healthy debate and discussion.
Facebook pages, messages, and posted articles that promoted that kids had zero COVID-19 risk, that discouraged masks, and argued that no requirement should be made to wear masks were all at risk of censorship. They banned “misinformation” related to theories ranging from saying SARS-CoV-2 was man made to posting that it’s safer to get the disease rather than the vaccine.
As for the latter, based on VAERS (vaccine adverse event reporting system), that may have been true for those under thirty years old and was definitely true for kids eighteen and under. At a minimum, debating the risk and benefit of an emergency use authorization vaccine is legitimate. Another banned opinion is that COVID-19 is no more dangerous than the flu. As discussed, for those older it was markedly more dangerous. For babies, to at least college age it wasn’t more dangerous than the flu.
Facebook also banned anything stating that the vaccines kill or harm people. Based on the VAERS reporting, Facebook was flat-out wrong. Vaccines did, in very small but measurable cases, cause death. They caused more side effects than all other vaccines over the past couple of decades combined. They absolutely made millions sick. The J&J vaccine I took made me very sick for two days. Having said that, if you were fifty or over or at risk, taking it could make sense. For kids, the encouragement when they were at no risk was also a no-brainer; the vaccines should not have been pushed in 2021 or today. The data doesn’t support the vaccines for healthy kids under five, as the FDA is recommending approval.
Very early on, YouTube took down videos that were critical of lockdowns or face mask mandates. YouTube took down a video interview with Dr. Jay Bhattacharya in the spring of 2020, as well as many others that discussed overcounting of COVID-19 deaths or lockdown harms. In March 2021 Florida Governor Ron DeSantis hosted a roundtable discussion with Dr. Scott Atlas and the Great Barrington Declaration doctors Jay Bhattacharya, Martin Kulldorff, and Sunetra Gupta. The triggering comment made was their condemnation of masking children. YouTube took down the video. Bhattacharya, who really is a gentleman, kindly made a comment that he’d love to debate the 24-year-old YouTube employee making that decision. YouTube responded to taking down the roundtable discussion with the following statement:
“We removed this video because it included content that contradicts the consensus of local and global health authorities regarding the efficacy of masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We allow videos that otherwise violate our policies to remain on the platform if they contain sufficient educational, documentary, scientific, or artistic context. Our policies apply to everyone, and focus on content regardless of the speaker or channel.”
The problem was the consensus of local and global health authorities were not following the science. These were not public health officials, they were zero-COVID-19 officials.
Nearly all original content and data in challenging school closings, hospital capacity, face mask efficacy, closed restaurants and the rest of lockdown measures can be traced back to Twitter. Organized media, a good 90% of it, was driving fear through on-screen graphics and reporting. Very rarely did media outlets contextualize that: 1) the models were wrong, 2) kids were at ~0 risk, 3) mask efficacy was very iffy based on pre-COVID-19 science and the data in the U.S., 4) closing businesses didn’t do anything measurable and 5) not fully reopening schools in the fall of 2020 was insane. The data and critical thinking on these topics originated on Twitter.
Twitter began censoring like crazy after the November 2020 election. Thousands of accounts were blocked, as were millions of tweets questioning mask efficacy, vaccine safety, and anything else not aligned with the CDC. Here’s what this means. The CDC director could tweet out something like “Hospitals are overflowing in California. Please do not leave your house except when necessary.” Someone could reply with “Hospitals are not overflowing; ICUs are only at capacity at 30% of hospitals and half the hospitals don’t have 20% COVID-19 occupancy.” Bam! That tweet could be flagged or cause an account to be suspended.
Let’s suppose you think the social media companies should have suppressed lockdown criticisms. Go back to 2003. After the U.S. sent troops to Afghanistan, the U.S. decided to invade Iraq. The two justifications were an affiliation to al-Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction residing in Iraq. There was a near-unanimous consensus within Washington D.C. that it was the right move. “Experts” said it was the right move.
In that moment my dad and I sat around watching the news and shaking our heads. At his salty near-80 years of age and a veteran of Korea, he said, “Those bastards are going to send these kids to war and they’ll get killed and for what? Iraq is no threat to America and there’s no proof they were involved in 9-11.” He never again considered himself a Republican and never looked back.
The Iraq War was a huge event in American history. Nearly every politician supported it and there was universal media support. Sound a little like the lockdowns? A huge public policy based on sketchy risk and consequence data. Now imagine if media companies banned criticism of the war – eliminating any healthy debate on something history proved to be a disaster. History will not remember the lockdowns as a proportionate response. This isn’t about freedom of speech. It’s about healthy debate on policies that have enormous consequences.
Puzzle Pieces Connected
This is why the media bias supporting mask mandates, school closings, closed restaurants and the rest of the interventions was so devastating.
COVID-19 was unlike other controversial political issues like gun control or climate change. Everyone had the same starting point, and information was on a level playing field. In this one instance more than any other, we saw how enormous the power of the media is in influencing people’s opinions and the effect that had on policy. Media coverage out of the gate condemned any thinking that closed schools were a bad idea, that open schools were not a risk. The idea that face masks did not work was condemned, and even things like criticizing the closing of indoor dining. There was no open debate.
It’s still hard to understand why most media outlets were so motivated to drive panic. Many said it was over the November 2020 election. If they could convince voters President Trump did a poor job handling the pandemic, they might vote for a change. There was something to that and it probably worked, but it continued far beyond the election. Two months after the election the CDC was promoting double masking. The first media break in the dike was a shift in February toward opening schools, and in-person learning did go up significantly in the spring of 2021, too little too late for the school year.
While Yahoo News and Google News were the largest online media sources, they were not material originators of content. You can trace media influences to the large outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post, and to a lesser degree the Atlantic, Fox News, Huffington Post, The Guardian, and others. Their content then cascaded to larger mediums on Yahoo, Google, Facebook and Twitter.
The New York Times
The Times’ writers published thousands of articles on COVID-19 beginning in early 2020. The Times, and The Washington Post, set the narrative for news. They are foundational media sources because their writings cascade into other analyses from other writers, podcasts, and of course posts on Twitter. The Times drove enormous panic porn in 2020, energizing lockdown policies. Below are some examples.
Tom Friedman is a writer for the New York Times; he’s an A-lister. In 1989, Friedman wrote a very comprehensive and terrific book called From Beirut to Jerusalem. I read it as a college student and loved it, you should check it out even now. Friedman had nothing but disdain for President Trump.
As an opinion writer, it’s fine, healthy, and fair to offer his point of view. During the discussions of reopening the country, he made some reckless commentary about the president and the associated risks of reopening. In an April 18, 2020 column in the New York Times, the headline read “Trump Is Asking Us to Play Russian Roulette With Our Lives.”
In the piece, Friedman wrote:
‘LIBERATE MINNESOTA!’ ‘LIBERATE MICHIGAN!’ ‘LIBERATE VIRGINIA.’ With these three short tweets last week, President Trump attempted to kick off the post-lockdown phase of America’s coronavirus crisis. It should be called: ‘American Russian roulette: The Covid-19 version.’’ What Trump was saying with those tweets was: Everybody just go back to work. From now on, each of us individually, and our society collectively, is going to play Russian roulette. We’re going to bet that we can spin through our daily lives — work, shopping, school, travel — without the coronavirus landing on us. And if it does, we’ll also bet that it won’t kill us.
The flaws in Friedman’s argument are numerous. Russian roulette, strictly speaking, is when you load one bullet in a revolver, spin the chamber and pull the trigger, with a fully equal one in six chance of dying. There is a haunting scene depicting this in the classic film The Deer Hunter. Russian roulette gives everyone an equal probability of dying.
COVID-19 did not give everyone an equal probability of getting sick, much less dying. With the economy on fire, hospitalizations and deaths declining and knowing who was at risk, requiring vast testing and tracing was not a reasonable requirement for opening up the country. Washington Governor Jay Inslee required just that (on May 18, 2020) to open up Washington. Apoorva Mandavilli is a medical and science journalist for the New York Times. She was one of two primary writers for the Times on the pandemic. Mandavilli wrote hundreds of articles and opinion pieces for the Times and participated in many interviews on COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021. Her reporting erred on the side of pandemic pessimism and maintaining lockdowns throughout. Headlines of articles she wrote included:
- “Six Months of Coronavirus: Here’s Some of What We’ve Learned” on June 18, 2020. In this commentary, Mandavilli asserted two things that science and data wasn’t showing: that masks work and that natural infection does not result in achieving herd immunity. Herd immunity became a toxic thing to talk about in 2020, never mind that it is exactly how every historic pandemic ended. In June she also wrote that airborne transmission (versus through large droplets) isn’t a significant thing, something common sense showed couldn’t possibly be true knowing what we knew a few months into the pandemic.
- “Older Children Spread the Coronavirus Just as Much as Adults, Large Study Finds; The study of nearly 65,000 people in South Korea suggests that school reopenings will trigger more outbreaks” on July 18, 2020. Headlines like this drove media, politicians and parents alike to resist reopening schools. The assertion was patently false. By the time this was written, data showed older kids were not equal spreaders, and very few had become seriously ill from COVID-19. Summer camp data showed this as discussed earlier.
- “Children may carry high levels of the coronavirus, up to 100 times as much as adults, new Lurie Children’s Hospital study finds” on July 31, 2020. Not even sure what to say about this one, other than this was never happening.
- “C.D.C. Calls on Schools to Reopen, Downplaying Health Risks” on July 24, 2020 with Mandavilli contributing. The analysis suggested CDC Director Robert Redfield should not have said schools should reopen fully in the fall. The writers criticized President Trump for driving home that schools should reopen and said this line of thinking was putting kids and teachers at risk. That was false; data in the moment made this obvious.
- “A Parent’s Toughest Call: In-Person Schooling or Not?” on September 1, 2020. The takeaway was to not send kids back to school without elaborate precautions and interventions. The focus was on cases rather than illnesses to kids and teachers that could be at-risk. Illnesses would have been statistically zero for kids and over half the teachers.
- “The coronavirus mostly spares younger children. Teens aren’t so lucky” on September 29, 2020. No headline in the fall was more reckless, misleading or infuriating. Teens were incredibly lucky. Maybe it depends on how we define lucky.
- “The Price for Not Wearing Masks: Perhaps 130,000 Lives. The pandemic death toll could be lowered by next spring if more Americans wear masks, a new analysis finds” on October 23, 2020. The journalist took a shot at Dr. Scott Atlas, as well as the president, for saying masks don’t work. You saw earlier the data comparing heavily masked areas and less masked areas. That data was obvious by summer, and suggesting masks could have such an impact was taking the lead from “experts” without any independent analysis. The data showed otherwise.
There were many more articles like these that Mandavilli wrote. There were also many articles that she wrote that were fair to the data at hand with a balanced outlook. With a trickle of panic-inducing articles resisting herd immunity and keeping kids masked and out of school, it rippled into other media and policy makers. Mandavilli displayed many times on Twitter that she preferred the lockdown culture.
Why on earth so many politicians and media figures in influential roles feel the need to vent on Twitter is a bigger mystery than COVID-19 ever was. On Saturday, March 20, 2021, Madavilli, who lives in Brooklyn, tweeted this: “We were out of house today for six hours, probably half of them in the car, and I am utterly spent. Reentry is going to be brutal.” Perhaps there’s a different perspective of what “utterly spent” means to someone that lost their job and had to bridge a learning gap with their kids that were cratering behind. Elites that kept their jobs, had resources and got to work from home embraced the lockdowns.
Jeffrey Tucker leads the Brownstone Institute and wrote Liberty or Lockdown in the summer of 2020. He observed the media playbook that was true for over a year:
- Attribute economic fallout not to the lockdowns but to the virus
- Deliberately confuse readers about the difference between tests, cases and deaths
- Never focus on the incredibly obvious demographics of COVID-19 deaths
- Dismiss any alternative to lockdown as crazy, unscientific or cruel, while acting as if Dr. Fauci speaks for the entire scientific community
- Above all, promote panic over calm
The Atlantic is a left-leaning print and online publication that has been around since 1857. The online COVID Tracking Project (CTP) was run by the Atlantic and provided excellent data on COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. It became the single best resource to get state-by-state data, and much of the data cited here is from there. The CTP did some excellent work. It would be easy to cite anti-lockdown reporting by the Hill or the Blaze, but we’re looking at what was impacting the thoughts of a wider group of Americans and politicians. The Atlantic did their share of reporting that supported lockdown mentality, but they also published some quality commentary on the damage of the lockdowns. If you’re a centrist or right-leaning and can get past the often-political commentaries, the Atlantic often produces some thoughtful work.
The Atlantic published pieces with high politicization, such as “How Trump Closed the Schools,” suggesting the president’s mishandling resulted in the pandemic getting out of control, thus rendering schools unsafe to reopen. It was a major hit piece blasting the president when so many countries did worse than the U.S. with huge societal damage. Another one was “Why Republicans are Ignoring the Coronavirus.” Were they ignoring it or balancing risk and consequence policy? You can decide, but Republican-led states were less restricted, kept more kids in class and did no worse than Democrat-led states. That’s not as much fun to write about if you’re left-leaning though.
“Teachers Know Schools Aren’t Safe to Reopen” came out in August 2020. Maybe teachers all over the rest of the world were clueless compared to American teachers, but they fared no worse than those staying at home.
In August 2020 the dike broke and this strong opinion piece came out written by Chavi Karkowsky, a doctor and mom from New York, called “What We’ve Stolen From Our Kids. School provides so much more than an education.” It was a powerful and needed insight into the cost of closed schools. Seeing a major publication offer up a point of view like this felt like a real step forward. That same month the Atlantic published “We Flattened the Curve. Our Kids Belong in School.” The curve was destined to spike up seasonally in the fall, but they were right on kids belonging in school.
Other similar articles were sprinkled in throughout the rest of 2020. In January 2021 they published “The Truth About Kids, School and COVID-19.” Where the Atlantic gets some credit is that for being left-leaning, where for some reason liberals were mostly against reopening schools, the Atlantic not only demonstrated some actual journalism, they also influenced other liberal media.
Emily Oster is an economist and professor at Brown University. She is also a writer and contributor of several op-eds to the Atlantic. She wrote ““Schools aren’t Super-Spreaders: Fears from the summer appear to have been overblown,” “Parents Can’t Wait Around Forever, “The ‘Just Stay Home’ Message Will Backfire,” and the big controversial one: “Yes, You Can Vacation With Your Unvaccinated Kids.” Oster is not a conservative, embraced face masks, ran a school/COVID-19 database and is pretty darn level-headed. Check out some interviews with her on YouTube.
Her point was that unvaccinated kids are at about the same risk of getting sick or spreading COVID-19 as vaccinated adults, and that parents should get their kids out and normalize. She was right. Then she got blasted by people who knew much less than she does about the science and data. Good for her for moving us forward, and for the Atlantic for publishing good content in support of open schools that went against the liberal dogma.
Finally, the Atlantic published a very powerful piece that should be required reading for every person still embracing lockdowns and closed schools in 2021. Emma Green wrote “The Liberals Who Can’t Quit Lockdown. Progressive communities have been home to some of the fiercest battles over COVID-19 policies, and some liberal policy makers have left scientific evidence behind.” This was one of the strongest analyses in the first half of 2021, because it came from a left-leaning publication. Opinions that deviate from a traditional ideology carry more weight. Highlights from Green’s masterpiece:
- “For many progressives, extreme vigilance was in part about opposing Donald Trump. Some of this reaction was born of deeply felt frustration with how he handled the pandemic. It could also be knee-jerk. “If he said, ‘Keep schools open,’ then, well, we’re going to do everything in our power to keep schools closed,” Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco, told me.”
- “Even as scientific knowledge of COVID-19 has increased, some progressives have continued to embrace policies and behaviors that aren’t supported by evidence, such as banning access to playgrounds, closing beaches, and refusing to reopen schools for in-person learning.”
- “In Somerville [MA], a local leader appeared to describe parents who wanted a faster return to in-person instruction as “white parents” in a virtual public meeting; a community member accused the group of mothers advocating for schools to reopen of being motivated by white supremacy. “I spent four years fighting Trump because he was so anti-science,” Daniele Lantagne, a Somerville mom and engineering professor. “I spent the last year fighting people who I normally would agree with … desperately trying to inject science into school reopening, and completely failed.” [might be worth mentioning as a percentage, the kids of “white parents” were less affected by closed schools than those of black or Hispanic kids]
To support Green’s observation, even after the CDC stopped recommending face masks for those vaccinated on May 13, 2021, A-list media figures could not let go. MSNBC’s Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski said, “If you want to follow the science,” you should follow my lead and “still wear the mask” despite being vaccinated when you’re around possibly unvaccinated people. It’s not clear what science she was referencing.
Rachel Maddow is MSNBC’s highest-rated anchor and was reluctant to embrace the CDC recommendation. Her initial comment to CDC Director Walensky was “How sure are you because this was a really big change?” No such comment came from Maddow when kids were prevented from going to school in 2020. Maddow then shared, “I feel like I’m going to have to rewire myself so that when I see someone out in the world who’s not wearing a mask, I don’t instantly think, ‘You are a threat, or you are selfish or you are a COVID denier and you definitely haven’t been vaccinated. I mean, we’re going to have to rewire the way that we look at each other.”
The View host Whoopi Goldberg said on air, “What is it going to take you think for people to get comfortable following not just the science, but their [the CDC] own science, what is comfortable for them?” CNN’s chief political correspondent Dana Bash called the decision “very scary.” Time magazine said it was a “baffling, whiplash-inducing decision.” Politico called it “a bitter disappointment to unions and other safety advocates.” Newsweek warned of “deadly new variants” under the cover headline of “WINTER IS COMING.” CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, criticized the recommendation as well, saying the CDC “made a critical error here in surprising basically everyone with a very significant change. [Masking] is so effective and it’s not that hard to do in most situations — just to put a mask on.”
The COVID-19 Media in Summary
Were many of the pieces above cherry-picked? Was there actual balanced coverage by the networks? Did I selectively choose to pick on the Times, Post, Atlantic, Twitter, and Facebook? And you may wonder why it matters, that the press has the freedom to write whatever they choose. They do have that freedom, and that should always be supported. Most people lack critical thinking, either in natural ability or laziness preventing exploration of thought and ideas. The media knows this and catered to it. It’s no different than advertising. If you advertise something enough, you will reach critical mass awareness and eventually adoption.
Why the media so unanimously covered the pandemic like Dirty Laundry is still a mystery. Much of it was political, to keep viewers and readers addicted to [fear] porn, and because the media knew so little about what was actually happening they reported what everyone else reported. In March 2020, Bruce Sacerdote, Ranjan Sehgal and Molly Cook authored “Why Is All COVID-19 News Bad News?” Sacerdote is an economics professor at Dartmouth College, and Sehgal (Dartmouth) and Cook (Brown University) are students. What a great experience for these two students to participate in such a groundbreaking study. They uncovered what we all knew anecdotally: media coverage in COVID-19 was heavily biased promoting depression, fear and polling that resulted in maintaining lockdown measures much longer than needed.
At a time when the data showed kids were at practically no risk from COVID-19 and school reopenings were no riskier to kids and teachers than remote learning and circulating in their off time, 86% of the American media reported negative news on school reopening. 54% of the media in other English-speaking countries reported negatively on schools reopening. When looking at all COVID-19 stories since the pandemic broke, the fifteen major media players were 25% more likely than their international counterparts to disseminate negative information. This shows the majority of the media worldwide did not understand what was going on, or chose to ignore it, though much worse in the United States.
The researchers analyzed 43,000 articles associated with “vaccines, increases and decreases in case counts, and reopenings (of businesses, schools, parks, restaurants, government facilities, etc.).” Below are trends they uncovered:
- “Among the U.S. major media, 15,000 stories mention increases in caseloads while only 2,500 mention decreases, or a 6 to 1 ratio. During the period when caseloads were falling nationally (April 24-June 27, 2020), this ratio remained a relatively high 5.3 to 1.” [the period of analysis for their study was 2020; anecdotally their findings certainly continued through May 2021]
- No bias or negative-outlook correlation between traditional “conservative” or “liberal” media.
- U.S. media was 3-8 times more likely to promote social distancing or wearing face masks than their international counterparts.
- U.S. counties that relied less on national news were more likely to reopen schools in 2020. This follows some logic because higher in-person learning occurred in less urban communities.
- They concluded “that there is little evidence that the negativity of the national news media causes a reduction in school reopenings.” That seems hard to believe logically. If the media were pounding on 1) the psychological impact and learning deficiency associated with remote learning, and 2) the data from what we’ve previously reviewed on kids and COVID-19 risk, polling would have driven more reopening support, politicians would have yielded to the polls and teachers unions would’ve buckled.
- “The U.S. Federal Communication Commission eliminated its fairness doctrine regulation in 1987. This regulation required broadcasters to provide adequate coverage of public issues and to fairly represent opposing views. In contrast, the U.K. and Canada still maintain such regulations. On the surface, the fairness doctrine would appear most relevant to partisan bias as opposed to negativity. It may be that profit-maximizing U.S. news providers realized that they should provide not only partisan news to serve their consumers’ tastes but also negative news which is in high demand.” That’s probably true. It’s definitely a sad state of journalism.
For the context of the media serving Dirty Laundry, consider this. There were a total of 2.6 million articles scrubbed. Of those, look at the weighting of some of the reporting in the first seven months of 2020:
- 88,659 articles included a comment about “Trump and Masks,” “Trump and Hydroxychloroquine” or “Hydroxychloroquine”
- 87,550 articles mentioned “Decreases” for the whole study period
- 33,000 articles mentioned “Decreases” between April 24 – June 27, 2020
- 325,550 articles mentioned “Increases” for the whole study period
More media articles chose to comment on President Trump and his COVID-19 comments versus the very positive news when COVID-19 cases/hospitalizations/deaths were decreasing. Four times more articles were written about COVID-19 activity increasing versus decreasing.
Within their study period, between March 15 and July 31, 2020, there were 138 days of measurable pandemic case and hospitalization data. Of those 138 days, 61 had decreasing hospitalization days. Four times more articles citing increases over decreases were published while 44% of the days had a decrease. Case and death trend data was far too loose to include in this daily breakdown for two reasons. One, cases were in large part a product of testing, particularly with rapidly growing seroprevalence in the country. Two, deaths began to include probables and up to half the deaths reported any given day were backdated. By the second quarter of 2021 well over half of the reported deaths were backdated as far as summer 2020.
Politicians are driven by three things: their party; their ideology; polls. What people think is largely driven by their experiences, their beliefs and the knowledge they acquire. It’s not likely a plethora of articles for or against abortion will change a lot of minds; they’re much more likely to reinforce beliefs. If there were 300,000 articles in a given year for gun control, it’s still very unlikely that gun owners and Second Amendment supporters would change their minds. The issues have been too ingrained for too long. COVID-19 was very different. Everyone in the world started off on the same block in 2020. In this one instance more than any other for anyone alive during the pandemic, the media had the power to shape thought. Before the pandemic, Americans’ trust in the media was only 41%. That was lower than President Trump’s approval rating. In March 2020, this was the approval rating for several stakeholders during the pandemic:
|Your state government||82%||17%|
|Government Health Agencies||80%||17%|
In the summer of 2020, 1,000 citizens from several countries were polled on the pandemic. Below is the mean percentage that the sampling showed people thought the COVID-19 death tallies were after three months of the pandemic:
|Country||Population Percent that died from COVID-19||That Absolute Population Number||Actual Number of COVID-19 deaths at the time|
Now, do an online search with date parameters of July 20 – August 30, 2020 and see how many news articles featured this polling result. It’s fewer than the number of your fingers. Mean percentages of respondents thought that 9% of Americans had died of COVID-19 in three months. That’s equivalent to everyone in Texas. Isn’t that alarming? Even if the polling result was 1%, that’s over three million COVID-19 deaths, about the number of people that die in the United States each year from all causes. That’s also 50% more pandemic lives lost than the Spanish Flu caused, adjusted for population.
If we had a virus that killed 9% (or even ½ %) of the population in three months, the lockdowns would not be like what we saw. Everyone would embrace the quarantining we saw in the movies Outbreak or Contagion. This type of general understanding of the pandemic, or lack of, is why we did not see protests throughout 2020 and 2021. One, liberals are more likely to protest than conservatives and liberals were generally much more supportive of lockdowns than conservatives. Two, most people regardless of politics don’t study data beyond headlines and don’t understand the context of the COVID-19 risk.
Franklin Templeton Poll
In July 2020, Franklin Templeton published polling that showed the sad and disastrous perception Americans had of COVID-19 risk. As you view the following charts, consider there was very little coverage in the media from the CDC, and from state health agencies to level-set understanding of the pandemic. Ask yourself: if the media was giving a proper explanation of what was happening, if the CDC communicated factually what was happening, how could results like this occur?
Respondents clearly did not know the extent how age-stratified COVID-19 deaths were skewed to the elderly. They surely would not have known that a third of all excess deaths were not caused by COVID-19 but rather the lockdowns.
This poll result closely connects to what we saw earlier: the highest stress was associated with younger age groups. They were about as stressed with ~0 risk as older Americans that were at very measurable risk. Franklin Templeton commented on their findings, calling it “stunning.” Americans believed that people over 55 were about half the death victims, while it was actually 92%. They thought people under 45 years old were almost 30% of all deaths; they were less than 3%. They overestimated the risk to those under 24 by a factor of fifty.
It’s not far off from the earlier poll where respondents on average thought 9% of Americans had died from COVID-19 after three months. Poll results like this should have driven Dr. Fauci, Dr. Birx, and Dr. Redfield and the CDC to shout from the rooftops to educate Americans on what was happening. It should have caused responsible journalists to do special fact-based segments on COVID-19 risk and the data we had. What we heard was the sound of silence.
Gallup conducted weekly polls on sentiment around the pandemic from the beginning in March 2020 well into 2021. Never fewer than 65% of respondents felt staying home was the appropriate thing to do from the beginning and for thirteen straight months.
|Dates||Better to Stay Home||Live Normal Life||What Was Happening|
|Mar 23-29, 2020||91%||9%||COVID-19 first hit, Imperial College projection of 2.2 million lives lost|
|Jun 1-7, 2020||65%||35%||Southern states were reopening, cases were decreasing|
|Jul 13-19, 2020||73%||27%||Sunbelt states were peaking in COVID-19 activity|
|Sep 14-27, 2020||64%||36%||Summer swell was over, low COVID-19 activity, most schools still closed|
|Dec 15, 2020 – Jan 3, 2021||69%||31%||Peak COVID-19 hospitalizations; vaccines were rolling ou|
|Apr 19-25, 2021||55%||45%||COVID-19 cases/hospitalizations/deaths had all hit one-year lows; vaccine supply outpaced demand|
A majority of Americans did not support returning to normal life at any time since the pandemic began and into the spring of 2021. Polling after the CDC lifted indoor mask recommendations on May 14, 2021, for those vaccinated finally began to tilt the scale. COVID-19 hospitalizations began cratering in January 2021, and the pandemic by definition as we knew it was over by February. Had the media reported that, Americans would have felt more comfortable getting back to normal.
There was a potentially great segment on MSNBC in March 2021 where Chuck Todd was asking “experts” why Florida, with very few restrictions, had near-identical results to strictly locked down California. It was going great until they introduced an analysis by the LA Times that said had Florida locked down hard they would have saved 3,000 lives, and had California relaxed its restrictions they would have had 6,000 more deaths. The analysis was practically made up with no reasonable science and data behind it. Reporting like this was why America was not yet ready to move on.
On April 25, 2021, with the pandemic virtually over, the respondents were asked, “How long do you think the level of disruption occurring to travel, school, work and public events in the U.S. will continue?” 95% answered with either “a few more months,” “through 2021,” or “longer than that.” That did drop from 98% in February 2021. In April 2021 a majority of remote workers and a plurality of the rest of the workers said their preference was to work remotely, not because of fear of COVID-19 but because of preference. Read: many loved lockdowns if they had a job.
MIT Student Studies
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is one of the premier math, science and engineering universities in the world. In 2021 they released two studies around social media and “COVID-19 Skeptics.” Students from MIT and Wellesley College reported on many people I know and followed. How they viewed analytical points of view that condemned strict lockdowns were emblematic of how the media failed to report balanced context and why Americans were reluctant to return to normal life.
The first study was called “Viral Visualizations: How Coronavirus Skeptics Use Orthodox Data Practices to Promote Unorthodox Science Online” (January 2021), and the second was “The Data Visualizations Behind COVID-19 Skepticism” (March 1, 2021). The first study looked at a half million tweets that used visualization of data to support removing nonpharmaceutical interventions governments around the world had instituted for over a year.
The students enveloped people on Twitter that they perceived as viewing the pandemic as exaggerated and believed schools should be reopened (which the CDC maintained as far back as August 2020) as “anti-maskers.” You should really check out the study from undoubtedly very bright students from one of the most elite universities in the world. The lack of impartial thought, the lack of a quest to learn and be open-minded, and mostly, the inability to analyze data without predisposition is disappointing. It’s indicative of prevailing college thought all over the country, but this one hit home.
As the study classified those using charts to illustrate their cases, they broke out the following categories:
- American politics and media
- American politics and right-wing media
- British news media
- Anti-mask network of Twitter users
- New York Times centric network
- WHO and health-related news organizations
The two classes of media are “media” and “right-wing media.” Does that mean there’s “impartial journalistic media” and then “conspiratorial right-wing media?” The bias is that there is normal media and crazy right-wing media and then anti-maskers tweeting about the harm of lockdown interventions. This is how over 80% of the media, the CDC, and most state health agencies portrayed the environment, which made it an Everest-climb to reach an open debate.
The Twitter anti-mask network was led by Alex Berenson, the Ethical Skeptic, and Rational Ground founder Justin Hart. This is consistent with my premise that nearly all original thought condemning lockdowns as an unscientific approach were sourced on Twitter. They asserted that “anti-maskers value unmediated access to information and privilege personal research and direct reading over ‘expert’ interpretations.”
Everyone should support unmediated access to information even if they disagree with “anti-maskers” on this one. You never know when you’ll be on the other side (see Iraq War).
They grouped the anti-maskers as representing that COVID-19 was no worse than the flu. Knowing most of the high-profile Twitter users mentioned, that is flat-out false. There is a gulf between thinking COVID-19 was no worse than the flu (it was much worse for those over 50 years old) and believing lockdowns didn’t work and were unscientific. It may be that students at elite universities and those in the elite media were too detached from middle to lower class Americans and were out of touch with the consequences of the lockdowns. It may also be that they saw it as a power grab. It may mean they just weren’t that bright.
Critics of “anti-maskers” feel that processing data around excess deaths was conspiratorial. Many excess deaths were from the lockdowns. They then batched the anti-maskers as politically conservative. The face of lockdown criticism was Alex Berenson, and Berenson spent more of his life left-leaning than right-leaning. David Zweig, who wrote dozens of pieces supporting open schools, is no right-winger.
The students then wrote that “anti-maskers” argued there was an outsized emphasis on deaths rather than cases. It was quite the opposite. Everyone following this knew that the case data was fantastically overreported, that there were many times more cases, as well as hundreds of thousands of false positives, and backdated dumping. In short, the margin of error of cases on any given day had a solid 50% margin of error, though it was directionally useful. Deaths too were unreliable for reasons discussed. The “anti-maskers” usually found COVID-19 hospitalizations as the best data point to measure what was happening, and that was the most reliable metric, not cases or deaths.
The Best Ad Campaign in History
The prolific critics of the lockdowns were apolitical before COVID-19. They were as critical of Republican leaders as Democrat leaders if they supported closed schools, closed restaurants or masks outdoors (probably masks indoors too). You have to give it to the media though. They ran the most effective advertising campaign in history. They accomplished something extraordinary and it should be studied in every advertising class forever.
- The media was able to convince over 50% of the people under thirty that they were at serious risk of getting sick or dying from COVID-19.
- They were able to trigger more anxiety in young people than any other age group.
- They were able to convince people that putting face masks on two-year old’s made sense.
- They convinced parents that keeping their kids out of school for a year and a half was a good thing.
- They convinced people they should wear a face mask when alone in their car, walking their dog, or hiking up a mountain.
- They convinced enough of the world that they could control the spread of the virus like a dam.
If you’re sick, you should listen to your doctor. If you climb a mountain you should listen to your guide. If you need to defend your country, you listen to your generals. But if a policy is suggested that has a balance of risk and consequence, something that happens consequentially by following one direction, stop and give it thought and research.
It’s healthy to question the media, politicians, healthcare experts, or military experts. They are people like you and me, no smarter. In some cases, more informed on their specialty, but that breeds myopia. Sometimes they can get so close to something that they can’t see it clearly. Sometimes they can see it but don’t want to.
Sometimes they have an agenda. History needs to remember the lockdowns as the most harmful, ineffective public policy America and the world had ever seen. Study the data for yourself next time and reconcile any one opinion you hear with another that gives an opposing view. And anytime we get passionate about a policy, we all need to be open-minded to the consequences of a policy, as if it may be a zero-sum game.
As we move through 2023 and into the next election cycle, The Prickly Pear will resume Take Action recommendations and information.