Politics & Policy

Stop Dancing on the Graves of Trump Supporters Who Die of the Virus

The New York Times building in New York City (Gary Hershorn/Reuters)
‘They had it coming’ is a shameful sentiment to broadcast. That doesn’t stop the New York Times.

The latest installment in the ghoulish ongoing effort to use coronavirus deaths as a tribal red-vs.-blue bludgeon can be found in a column by Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times, and in the reaction to that column on the left.

The column is framed around the death of Joe Joyce, a bar owner from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Joyce was a Trump supporter; his son, a friend of Bellafante’s, “was at odds with his father politically.” Bellafante admits that Joyce was not the pro-Trump monster of media caricature: “He was not going to make the Syrian immigrant who came in to play darts feel as if he belonged anywhere else. . . . In his bar Joe Joyce had set the tone for what evolved into an incongruously progressive place. From the beginning there had been a quiet gay presence.” But his death is too politically useful, it seems, to resist. And with Joyce gone, his Ivy League–educated kids get the last word. Bellafante writes:

On March 1, Joe Joyce and his wife, Jane, set sail for Spain on a cruise, flying first to Florida. His adult children — Kevin, Eddie and Kristen Mider — suggested that the impending doom of the coronavirus made this a bad idea. Joe Joyce was 74, a nonsmoker, healthy. . . . He didn’t see the problem. “He watched Fox, and believed it was under control,’’ Kristen told me. Early in March Sean Hannity went on air proclaiming that he didn’t like the way that the American people were getting scared “unnecessarily.’’ He saw it all, he said, “as like, let’s bludgeon Trump with this new hoax.”

March 1: Remember that date. It was the day of the first confirmed coronavirus case in New York, a day after the first report of a U.S. death. Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio held a press briefing about the city’s first confirmed case. Governor Cuomo reassured New Yorkers: “Once you know the facts, once you know the reality, it is reassuring, and we should relax. . . . What happened in other countries versus what happened here, we don’t even think it’s going to be as bad as it was in other countries.” De Blasio went further: “This is not, so far, something that you get through casual contact. There has to be some prolonged exposure. And I think it’s really important to get that information out to all New Yorkers.”

Ten days later, de Blasio was still insisting that “if you’re not sick, you should be going about your life,” and he was still balking at closing schools. Large gatherings were still permitted. The densely packed subways were carrying over 5 million riders a day. As a recent MIT analysis noted, “the parallel between the continued high ridership on MTA subways and the rapid, exponential surge in infections during the first two weeks of March supports the hypothesis that the subways played a role.”

On the other hand, it is also highly unlikely that Joyce was influenced to take a cruise, on March 1, by something Sean Hannity said on his nightly program on March 9. Bellafante really had an obligation to level with her readers about the date of the quote from Hannity’s show.

March 1 was two days before the Super Tuesday Democratic primaries. Nobody in the world of liberal commentary was talking about delaying them. Peter Kafka of Vox, in a postmortem on how much mainstream/liberal media outlets were still getting wrong as late as early March, noted:

While President Trump has been correctly pilloried for describing the coronavirus as less dangerous than the flu, that message was commonplace in mainstream media outlets throughout February. And journalists — including my colleagues at Vox — were dutifully repeating exhortations from public health officials not to wear masks for much of 2020. . . .

I first started poking a few weeks ago at the idea of whether the mainstream media should have been more alarmist about the coronavirus sooner. When I talked to Brian Stelter, CNN’s media reporter, on March 10, he told me he didn’t want to cause “undue fear” in his coverage, and that extended to the way he edited the on-air chyrons that ran during his Reliable Sources show. For instance, Stelter said at the time that he was stripping out the word “deadly” whenever he saw the phrase “deadly virus.” “Everyone knows it’s a deadly virus,” he said. “You don’t have to call it ‘deadly virus’ every time. It’s a virus. We don’t call the flu the ‘deadly flu.’”

Bellafante herself, on February 27, tweeted about the stock market dropping on fears of the coronavirus’s economic impact, “I fundamentally don’t understand the panic: incidence of the disease is declining in China. Virus is not deadly in vast majority of cases. Production and so on will slow down and will obviously rebound.”

If you got your news from the mainstream media and Democratic politicians, you were still not getting anything like a consistent message at the end of February and early March that this was something to cancel your plans over. And if you did cancel them, you were probably safer on a cruise ship than in Brooklyn, which became a center of coronavirus outbreaks.

In fact, Bellafante concedes that she doesn’t even have any basis to say that Joyce got the virus from the cruise:

On March 14, they returned to New York from Barcelona, and the next day, before bars and restaurants were forced to close in the city, Joe Joyce went to work at JJ Bubbles for the last time. He and his wife then headed to their house in New Hampshire. . . . On March 27, when Kristen got off the phone with her father, she called an ambulance. He was wheezing. . . . On April 9, he died of Covid-19. The following day, Artie Nelson, one of his longtime bartenders at JJ Bubbles, and also in his 70s, died of the virus as well. It is possible, of course, that Joe Joyce did not contract the coronavirus on a trip to Spain. . . . Although the combination of being on a cruise ship — a proven petri dish for infections — and visiting a country with a full-blown outbreak is hard to ignore. [Emphasis added.]

Let’s walk through this one. Joyce is described as showing severe symptoms 13 days after returning from the cruise. In the interim, he went to work at a bar in Brooklyn. Another of his bartenders got the virus, too; we are not told whether anyone else on the cruise also got it. Brooklyn, every bit as much as Spain, is in the midst of “a full-blown outbreak.” There is nothing here to suggest that Joyce would have avoided the virus by staying in Brooklyn, and there’s significant reason to believe it is likelier that what killed him was going to work while the city was still open. That wasn’t Sean Hannity’s doing.

Joyce’s daughter complains that her dad might have taken this more seriously if Trump had worn a mask on television, but the governor and the mayor somehow escape her notice. Joyce’s kids are grieving, and grieving people say overwrought things sometimes; I don’t blame them for that. But printing this entire thing is shoddy and shabby.

Worse, Bellafante had to know exactly what narrative role this article would serve. Consider a sampling of the reactions from high-profile liberal and progressive pundits on Twitter:

Jonathan Chait of New York magazine:

David Corn of Mother Jones:

Molly Jong-Fast of The Daily Beast:

Feminist author Amy Siskind:

Can we please stop doing this sort of thing? Joe Joyce was, we are told, a good man, beloved by family, neighbors, and patrons of his bar. He’s not here to defend himself. Do we really need to ridicule his political opinions and his TV-watching habits just to score some points against Fox News and Trump? How many of the people doing this would want the same article written about them and their opinions?

You know the answer. They do, too. Shame, shame, shame.

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