The coronavirus pandemic has changed virtually everything about American life, with one prominent exception: While business, the arts, and sports are all on hold, the hyper-partisan political warfare that afflicts our public square has continued at the same pace and intensity as before.
As the present crisis has developed over the past few weeks, the chattering classes have kept busy interpreting everything that happens through pro-Trump and anti-Trump prisms. Many in the mainstream liberal media are intent on settling scores with Trump’s cheerleaders in the conservative media, whom they have accused of fueling skepticism about the danger posed by the coronavirus. Yet in doing so, they are ignoring the fact that many on the left were just as confused about the pandemic at its start and just as eager to play politics with it as their favorite villains on the right.
A front-page story in the New York Times this week summed up the liberal indictment of the right. Focusing heavily on Fox News personalities such as Sean Hannity and right-wing talkers such as Rush Limbaugh, the piece took as its conceit that they had not merely gotten the story wrong but had badly misled their audience and helped encourage the most prominent consumer of conservative media — President Trump — to delay implementing measures to stem the pandemic’s spread.
There’s no denying that many conservatives were slow to realize the danger posed by the coronavirus, and stuck to talking points about its being no worse than the flu right up until the point in mid-March when it became apparent that we were facing a full-blown public-health disaster. Their knee-jerk reaction to the first calls for action on the issue from the White House was to assume Trump was covering his political bases rather than attempting to forestall a real emergency. And many of them saw panic over the virus as a liberal plot to establish a Hurricane Katrina-style narrative in which Trump would be declared to have been derelict in his duty.
As Times reporter Jeremy Peters details, Hannity, Limbaugh, and other conservative-media figures such as Candace Owens and Dennis Prager made statements in February comparing coronavirus to the regular flu and predicting its spread should not be a cause for alarm. Peters is also right to point out that, like Trump, many on the right turned on a dime in mid March, beginning to take the threat of the virus seriously.
But the underlying assumption of Peters’s thesis is that conservatives were alone in making these errors, and that assumption doesn’t hold up. Liberal media outlets, very much including the Times, were also slow to recognize the impending catastrophe. And at the earliest stage of the story, when the Right and the Left dueled over China’s responsibility for the pandemic, liberals’ instinctive desire to disagree with Trump on everything led many of them to downplay the threat in a different but no-less-dangerous way than the Hannitys and Limbaughs of the world.
Peters notes that although some at Fox News mocked the idea of being afraid of the virus, others such as Tucker Carlson were touting the coronavirus as a threat in late January, specifically as justification for Trump’s order limiting flights from China. While Carlson and a guest, Senator Tom Cotton (R. Ark.), were, according to the Times, merely spouting talking points to justify a prejudiced decision aimed at focusing hate on a foreign enemy, their counterparts on the left were taking the bait and downplaying the threat of the virus.
On February 5, the Times published an op-ed by global-tourism reporter Rosie Spinks under the headline, “Who Says It’s Not Safe to Travel to China?” The article, an argument against Trump’s restrictions on flights from China, took the point of view that the real problem with the virus was that it was promoting hate against Chinese people and hurting the travel industry.
The same intellectual reflex motivated politicians such as New York City mayor Bill de Blasio and his health commissioner, Oxiris Barbot, to spend February and part of March dismissing the pandemic. They urged New Yorkers to disregard any fears about the virus and attend the Chinese New Year celebrations and parade in New York’s Chinatown. House speaker Nancy Pelosi did the same thing while promoting the Chinese New Year festivities held in her native San Francisco’s Chinatown. In retrospect, such advocacy is hard to defend given the likelihood that the virus was already starting to spread. But at the time, the looming danger wasn’t yet clear, so the political needs of the moment took precedence.
Meanwhile, on January 31, the Washington Post published an op-ed by former Harvard professor David Ropeik that sought to dismiss fears about the impending pandemic as a figment of our collective imagination, mocking the notion of a “global health emergency.” A few days, later the Post ran another opinion piece by a pair of academics under the headline “Why we should be wary of an aggressive government response to coronavirus,” which claimed fears about the pandemic were merely an invitation to “harsh measures” that would “scapegoat marginalized populations.”
Peters can point to instances throughout the following weeks in which Fox News personalities, Limbaugh, and others on the right pooh-poohed the coronavirus as no more dangerous than the seasonal flu, highlighted those who survived the disease, and accused the media of trying to perpetuate a “hoax” against Trump. But a detailed look at what the Times published in its opinion pages during the same period shows that neither its editorial board nor its roster of 16 regular columnists were sounding the alarm while some conservatives encouraged Americans to ignore the danger.
The first mention of the virus in the Times opinion section came commendably early, on January 29, and seemed to warn of what was to come. But even then, the paper’s editorial board praised the Trump administration’s foresight and offered reason for cautious optimism:
To its credit, the administration has managed to keep some of the world’s leading infectious disease experts in key roles at top agencies, including the C.D.C., the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration. If those professionals are given the resources and authority to respond to the crisis as their experience and the science dictate . . . the worst-case scenarios may yet be averted.
Though Peters’s article complains that right-wing pundits remained insufficiently alarmed about the virus throughout February, the Times didn’t seem too concerned about it either: After January 29, its editorial board didn’t mention it again for a full month. When it picked up the issue again on February 29, in an editorial entitled, “Here Comes the Coronavirus Pandemic,” it expressed mild concern about Trump’s belief that the situation was well under control, but, like many conservative-media outlets, hedged bets about what would happen next. “There is still a chance that COVID-19 will be more fire drill than actual fire,” the Times’s editors wrote. “The vortex of fear and market-tumbling anxiety may yet pass.”
The Times’s op-ed columnists did no better than its editorial board. The first Times op-ed column on the issue was even more dismissive of the pandemic than anything being said on Fox News. On January 29, Farhood Manjoo’s “Beware the Pandemic Panic” argued that alarm about the virus was unwarranted. Citing false assurances from the World Health Organization, Manjoo said the real concern was “not the illness itself but the amped-up, ill-considered way our frightened world might respond to it.”
Like many on the right whom Peters singles out, Manjoo compared the virus to the flu and other diseases that didn’t pose such a catastrophic danger to American society. He claimed that, “fear of a vague and terrifying new illness might spiral into panic, and that it might be used to justify unnecessarily severe limits on movement and on civil liberties, especially of racial and religious minorities around the world. . . . We should keep this sense of caution in mind in case American politicians begin pushing for travel bans, overbroad quarantines or other measures that might not be supported by the science.”
To his credit, Manjoo eventually walked this back in a column published on Feb. 26. But the qualifying excuses he offered with mea culpa could just as easily be used to justify similar mistakes made by right-wingers:
To be totally fair to myself, my reasoning in that column was mostly on point: At the time, the new coronavirus appeared to be a far less worrisome danger than the flu, which kills hundreds of thousands of people around the world annually. The illness, since named Covid-19, had then killed fewer than 200 people, and the Chinese government’s late but immense efforts to contain it looked as if they might work.
Manjoo at least had something to say about the virus early on, however wrong it turned out to be. The other 15 op-ed columnists employed by the paper that would subsequently excoriate conservatives for their lack of early alarm remained completely silent until almost the end of February. After January 29, the virus wasn’t mentioned in the Times’s opinion pages until February 26, when Gail Collins chose to attack the Trump administration for its lack of urgency in dealing with the problem.
And even at that late date some of the Times’s influencers were still considering the possibility that the pandemic would blow over soon. On February 29, Nicholas Kristof wrote that, “Nobody knows if the coronavirus will be a ‘big one,’ for it may still fizzle. As of this writing, only one person is known to have died from it in the United States, while thousands routinely die annually from the seasonal flu. But increasingly, experts are saying that we should get ready just in case.” In the following weeks, Kristof, too, would excoriate conservatives such as Limbaugh for expressing similar skepticism.
The bottom line is that the Times didn’t get consistently interested in the coronavirus until the full extent of the crisis became apparent in March, at which point its writers believed they’d found a stick with which to beat the president and his supporters. While this does not excuse the mistakes made by conservatives and the administration in the critical months before the crisis hit, it does validate right-wingers’ beliefs that Trump’s opponents were, like the president, reacting to the pandemic primarily as a political controversy rather than a public-health threat in those months.
Predictions are a perilous business for any pundit, and much of what both liberals and conservatives published and broadcast about the coronavirus in the weeks leading up to the middle of March turned out to be wrong. Both sides made these mistakes not out of a willful desire to mislead but because they knew little about the subject, much of what they did know was wrong, and they were, as is their deeply ingrained habit, apt to interpret the latest developments as confirmation of their preexisting political biases. Neither side should now attempt to rewrite history so it casts all the blame for those early failures on the other.