Incredibly, many in the mainstream media are taking a serious run at revisionist history in regards to the coronavirus and how it was reported in the early days. Some “reporters” somehow seem to think that in the course of just a few weeks, people magically will have forgotten what they said on social media or on-air or in publications.
Take, for instance, the reporter who tweeted “I fundamentally don’t understand the panic: incidence of the disease is declining in China. Virus is not deadly in the vast majority of cases. Production and so on will slow down and will obviously rebound.”
That comment was posted on Twitter in late February. Not by someone at Fox News, mind you. After all, the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN have been haranguing us for weeks with claims about Fox spreading irresponsible and inaccurate information about COVID-19.
No, that tweet was from a New York Times reporter, Ginia Bellafante, the very same reporter who later wrote a story for the Times claiming Sean Hannity’s comments were responsible for someone’s death by COVID-19.
This Times story by Bellafante claimed a man (the father of a personal acquaintance of Bellafante), died of the coronavirus because, as his daughter said, he “watched Fox and believed it [COVID-19] was under control,” and thus it was safe to go on a cruise.
“Early in March,” Bellafante added, “Sean Hannity went on air proclaiming that he didn’t like the way the American people were getting scared ‘unnecessarily.’” Bellafante claimed that because of Hannity, the man saw it all “as like, let’s bludgeon Trump with this new hoax.”
There was one problem: this man sailed on March 1 and returned to New York on March 14. Hannity’s quote cited in the original article was made on March 9. No one at the Times bothered to check Bellafante’s claim. Why? Laziness? Perhaps. More likely, the column fit with the narrative Times editors have been pushing for weeks: blame Fox News at every opportunity, lie with impunity.
But it gets worse. After Bellafante’s article was published, folks online did what the Times would not. They fact-checked and notified the Times about the error. What did the Times do? They surreptitiously re-edited the article and never disclosed what they changed or conceded the original errors themselves.
Earlier this week, I filed a formal request with Dean Baquet, executive editor of the Times, for a full and transparent investigation and disclosure of how Times editors handled this specific story. Over two years ago, the Times eliminated its ombudsman position, the public editor. Now no impartial, in-house option exists to seek a resolution, which is convenient for the Times.
This specific column, of course, is not the only one where Times editors encouraged misinformation or ridiculed efforts to address COVID-19. Gail Collins, a long-time member of the Times’ editorial board and columnist, thought it funny on February 26 to call COVID-19 the “Trump virus.” The Times throughout February and into March routinely published stories with unchallenged quotes from New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo or Mayor Bill de Blasio downplaying the significance of the virus.
Just as troubling as the campaign of misinformation in the Times and Post is the lack of oversight these media outlets practice over their employees on social media. Bellafante, who actually uses “NYT” in her Twitter handle, just three days before the now-deceased man left for his cruise tweeted that she saw no great risk from the coronavirus. Using the Times, Post, and CNN standard, such social posts, along with all the social shares of Times and Post stories diminishing the virus’ risk had a much greater chance of influencing Americans’ perception of the virus.
But who will hold the media accountable? At the Times, who knows? In announcing her departure and the elimination of the public editor position, Liz Spayd wondered in 2017 whether the Times would institute anything to monitor and hold accountable their writers and editors. “We’ll find out soon enough,” she wrote.
And so we have.
Every day, the White House and President Trump stand before the American people and hold themselves accountable. They answer the inane and disrespectful questions of a media that feels empowered by their own self-importance. If the media will not hold themselves to account, it’s up to us to do it for them.