I got a note from a reader seeking to explain why previous pandemics did not result in the same level of panic brought about by the coronavirus.
“Maybe, just a wild guess, we did not hear from our media folks wall-to-wall 24/7 coverage blaring at us every day, …” he wrote. “Just saying.”
My first thought was to send him a note saying I hoped he was right. Wouldn’t it be great if this crisis had been blown entirely out of proportion, if all of our worst fears were unfounded?
The fact is, though, that journalists aren’t making this up. They’re reporting what government officials and medical experts are telling them.
Still, my skeptical reader isn’t alone. Republican Congressman Devin Nunes of California offered similar sentiments in a talk radio interview several days after the president declared a national emergency.
“The media is absolutely responsible for this, …” he said. “Ninety percent of them are working for the Democrats, working for the left. … There’s no reason to be in this panic.”
In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin agreed that steps aimed at minimizing the crisis might have gone too far.
“We don’t shut down our economy because tens of thousands of people die on the highways,” he said.
He stopped short, though, of saying the danger had been overblown.
“I’m hoping when all is said and done, maybe we have overreacted,” he said. “But the fact that we’re acting the way we are, I think, will really increase our chances of dropping that growth curve of this.”
All of this serves to illustrate our nation’s partisan divide.
A survey carried out from March 10 to 16 by the Pew Research Center found that 62% of respondents believed the news media had at least slightly exaggerated the risks presented by the coronavirus. Among Democrats, that number was 49%. Among Republicans, it was 73%.
On the other hand, 41% of Democrats thought the media had gotten the risks about right, while only 17% of Republicans offered that assessment.
Overall, respondents gave news coverage relatively high marks. Seventy percent said journalists were doing at least somewhat well in their coverage of the crisis. Still, almost half said they had seen at least some news they thought had been made up.
These views seem to be shifting, though.
In interviews conducted on March 10 and 11, 42% of respondents saw the virus as a major threat. That number had risen to 55% in interviews carried out between March 14 and 16.
And it’s worth noting that the survey ended on the same day President Donald J. Trump seemed to change his tone about the crisis, acknowledging for the first time that it might extend well into the summer.
“If we do a really good job, people are talking about July, August, something like that,” he said.
In contrast to some of his earlier remarks, he urged older Americans and those with chronic health conditions to stay home. He also encouraged all Americans to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, and he acknowledged for the first time that the virus was far from under control.
“It’s not under control for any place in the world,” he said.
Of course, the president is unlikely ever to admit he might have played a role in our nation’s lack of readiness.
“We were very prepared,” he said. “The only thing we weren’t prepared for was the media. The media has not treated it fairly.”
In the end, of course, the facts will speak for themselves, and history will be the judge.