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Biden and the Media Have Very Different Goals

President Joe Biden speaks to reporters outside the White House in Washington, D.C., July 30, 2021. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

On the menu today: A lot of conservatives see the Biden administration and the national media as steadfast allies, but they actually want to achieve different goals, and sometimes that friction flares up into open conflict, such as with the coverage of the current state of the pandemic; wondering if teachers are as widely vaccinated as their unions claim; and throwing cold water on the suggestion that a vaccine mandate could be coming to your local elementary school.

The Differing Needs of the Biden Administration and the Media

The morning headlines:

From coast to coast, the situation sounds awfully grim! Now, look at some of the most recent items in the “briefing room” portion of the White House website:

That doesn’t sound like a country in dire straits! That sounds like an administration presiding over a calm, even prospering country, whose biggest problem is that the federal government is just not spending enough money.

The Biden administration thrives, at least by the metrics of television ratings and web traffic, when most Americans feel like the state of the country is good and improving. The media thrives, in the metrics of television ratings and web traffic, when most Americans feel as if things are going wrong and they need to follow the news to stay informed about the problems. Most conservatives think of Democrats and the national news media as allies, and no doubt, they see the world similarly and have a generally symbiotic relationship. The media are much easier on Democratic officials than they are on GOP ones. But the fundamental difference in what those two entities need periodically flares up into conflict.

That’s what spurred some Biden administration officials to gripe to CNN that the media were overhyping the threat of the Delta variant:

The White House is frustrated with what it views as alarmist, and in some instances flat-out misleading, news coverage about the Delta variant. That’s according to two senior Biden administration officials I spoke with Friday, both of whom requested anonymity to candidly offer their opinion on coverage of the CDC data released that suggests vaccinated Americans who become infected with the Delta coronavirus variant can infect others as easily as those who are unvaccinated.

They’re both right — in the sense that each side’s criticism of the other is valid. The Biden administration’s criticism of media fearmongering is a fair one, while the media can more than defensibly argue they’re generally accurately reporting about real problems that the administration would prefer to sweep under the rug.

In the administration’s mind, the story of the pandemic is their success story. It was the relentless focus of Joe Biden and his team upon taking office. More than 165 million Americans are fully vaccinated, and more than 192 million Americans have received at least one shot. If Americans feel as much fear of the Delta variant now as they did of “regular” COVID-19 before they got vaccinated, it would mean that the administration accomplished very little.

The Biden team has good reason to worry, as the president is losing ground on what was, for a long while, his strongest issue:

Biden maintains a positive grade on his handling of the coronavirus response as Americans approve 53 percent 40 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University national poll of adults released today. However, this is a double digit drop from a Quinnipiac University poll in May when Americans approved 65 percent to 30 percent of Biden’s handling of the coronavirus response.

The media can justifiably contend that the Biden administration is using them as a scapegoat for its own confusing, contradictory messages.

Nobody in the media made President Biden go out on July 4 and sound like the pandemic was in the rear-view mirror: “We are emerging from the darkness of years; a year of pandemic and isolation; a year of pain, fear, and heartbreaking loss. . . . We’re closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus.” The media didn’t strong-arm the CDC into drawing sweeping conclusions from new data drawn from a week of partying at gay bars in Provincetown, Mass. The media didn’t force National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins to go on television and declare that parents should wear masks in their homes around their unvaccinated children. Releasing 1,500 COVID-infected migrants into McAllen, Texas, is an administration policy, not a media one.

The Biden administration can point out that this isn’t happening in a vacuum. Yes, it is the middle of summer, but cable-news ratings are down a lot from the Trump years. Some publications that thrived during the relentless circus of the Trump administration are in serious slumps. The Atlantic “had lost more than $20 million and was on track to lose another $10 million this year, according to slides of the presentation shared with NBC News.”

Media coverage declaring that “The 165 million vaccinated Americans are going to be fine, and the vast majority of the unvaccinated will survive, but they ought to get their shots anyway to avoid a severe reaction or hospitalization” wouldn’t generate much interest.

A headline such as “Nearly 8,000 Breakthrough COVID Cases Reported in Mass.; 100 Have Now Died” from the NBC Boston affiliate could easily leave the impression that the vaccines don’t work. The smaller sub-headline notes that’s out of 4.3 million vaccinated people!

And some reporters are . . . er, well out of the mainstream in their approach to these issues, and hand-wave away the Constitution when it bars what they want. The former New York Times science and health reporter Donald McNeill Jr. wants America’s unvaccinated to be confined to their homes and compares them to mass shooters. “Sometimes the unwilling must be given a stark choice: whether you are suffering from a sense of murderous rage or from a communicable disease, you can either abide by the law meant to protect your fellow citizens from you — or you can stay in your house. If you do come out and endanger others, you go to jail.” Oh, and he wants to eliminate religious exemptions, declaring, “We do not permit human sacrifice on religious grounds.”

On top of all that, it seems reasonable to conclude that the people who are following coronavirus news the most closely are the people most worried about the virus, regardless of their vaccination status:

A Northern Virginia child psychiatrist reports finding more parents than kids are concerned about returning to in-person learning, and she has advice for students and guardians who may be anxious.

“What I’m seeing, a lot, is that parents have concerns about the what-ifs of school and is a full-day, in-person, learning environment really going to happen. And if it does happen, is it sustainable,” said Dr. Asha Patton-Smith, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in Burke, Virginia.

Patton-Smith said the children she sees professionally are excited and ready to go back to school.

“And a lot of them are prepared for the fact that it’s not absolutely certain what school is going to look like, but they’re ready to try,” Patton-Smith said. “They have been such troopers, and really have tried to make the virtual learning experience work last year, and have really embraced, at the end of last year, the hybrid experience.”

There are two demographics who love to hear any report or analysis which suggest that COVID-19 vaccines may not be as fully protective as we hoped. The first group is anti-vaxxers, who want to believe that the vaccines are worthless or even harmful. And the second group is vaccinated anxiety addicts who don’t feel comfortable unless they’re feeling fear. They’ve acclimated so thoroughly to the crisis environment of March 2020 — and have put their previous way of life on hold — that they don’t want to go back to normal and grab onto any hint or signal that the pandemic is going to stretch on into the foreseeable future.

And remember, social media allows users to effectively vote on what news they think is most important, or most worthy of being “shared” with Facebook friends and Twitter followers. These two groups — vaccine doubters and anxiety addicts — love to share stories of bad news regarding the vaccines. (They’re never quite as interested in sharing the fact that the Chinese vaccines might as well be made from actual snake oil.)

ADDENDA: Are more than 90 percent of America’s teachers really vaccinated, as the country’s two largest teachers’ unions claim? I’m skeptical that the figure is that high. If it were, the few state and local teachers’ unions that have released percentages would be telling us it’s around 90 percent — instead of 60 percent to 80 percent.

Are vaccine mandates coming to America’s elementary schools? Not for a long while, because we’re not getting a vaccine for kids until midwinter, and full FDA approval probably won’t come for another nine months. Then again, maybe some state legislatures will want to have that fight, mandating a vaccine for kids that doesn’t have full FDA approval.

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