COVID 19 and the Decline of the American Narrative

Americans can't even agree on where to begin

By: John Berthelsen

Across Asia and indeed across much of the world, developed or not, as the Covid-19 coronavirus escaped China and began to ravage economies, there has been a widespread agreement in every country but one that there was an approaching health crisis. Watching from Asia has been akin to watching tragedy unfold because of stupidity as the United States, led by the President, dithered on whether the virus was even dangerous. 

Then, as Washington finally began to move sluggishly toward action, someone named Nate Lane posted this message on Facebook: “Congratulations people – you have behaved exactly the way the Media and the Government wanted you to. They now control you!”

In the deep red zone, there were thus some like this Nate Lane, who continued to believe the coronavirus was a hoax engineered to control the population. This is deeply concerning because of the need for widespread testing and careful tracking and isolation of potential cases, which is essential to controlling the virus. Without full public participation, it is inordinately difficult to achieve success. 

But the controversy over the global virus isn’t alone. There is the notorious divide over major issues including climate change; the belief that undocumented migrants are responsible for a preponderance of crime; that pharmaceutical companies are hiding the connection between vaccines and autism, which has almost cost the US its measles elimination status with the World Health Organization; that Monsanto and other agribusiness companies are hiding the cancer-causing effects of genetically modified foods.

The fact is that global temperatures have been rising for 16 of the past 17 years. Climate change is real. A 36-year study of crime statistics by the Marshall Project found there is no appreciable increase per capita in violent crime in areas heavily populated by undocumented migrants and that property crimes actually decrease. Illegal immigration is not a threat to the nation. Fifty years of studies have yet to find evidence of cancer-causing properties in GMO foods. GMO foods are actually safe. The US Center for Disease Control confirmed 1,249 cases of measles between January 1 and October 4, 2019, the greatest number of cases since 1992. Vaccines do not cause autism. The coronavirus has the potential to kill more than 1 million people in the United States.

Each of these five cases – climate change, illegal migrant crime, vaccine safety, GMO foods, the threat of the coronavirus – is based on indisputable facts, or would be unless people use pseudoscience and outright lies to dispute them. If indeed these facts are indisputable, the other sad fact is that they have become so politicized that significant segments of the country discard them outright, putting at risk solutions to social problems and even reversing past progress. 

This is the collapse of the national narrative. This is what can impel Nate Lane, whoever he is, to believe that the media and the government have used the virus to subjugate 320 million people, the vast majority of whom – unlike him, apparently – are too dumb to see what’s going on. It is what impels Lane’s opponents on the other side of the political spectrum to believe the Central Intelligence Agency brought down the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001.

“In general, the less disputable a fact is, the harder it is to politicize the fact in the news,” according to a study by Ad Fontes Media, a US-based press watchdog. “For example, stories about the weather report, a sports score, or a natural disaster don’t usually register much detectable left-right bias.” Those types of stories, according to the group, would ordinarily fall in the middle of the media bias chart they have developed. And one would expect the snowballing story of the coronavirus to also fall into the minimally biased category. 

But somehow, Nate Lane and his allies, led by President Donald Trump, dominated the debate in the early weeks of the crisis while even sometimes sensible suggestions by the president were met with scorn. 

It is difficult to know where this is going. There is the media, and then there is the media. The chart at the top of this story, prepared by Ad Fontes Media, seems a fair representation. At the bottom of the chart, on both the left and the right, are unfortunately where far too many Americans get their news, if they get it at all. On the right, they are helped out by Trump, who has been described accurately as the conspiracy theorist in chief.

The onset of the Internet was greeted by both the left and the right as a godsend for truth. Consumers could get their news raw, without it being filtered through the prejudices and prejudgments mostly of middle-aged, middle-class white males who ran the news desks of the world, of which I was one during much of my career as an editor and correspondent.

But a funny thing happened. Without those gatekeepers, who by and large adhered to an admittedly imperfect ideal that news judgment should be impartial and dedicated to objectivity, the system collapsed. There admittedly is no such thing as objectivity, but that doesn’t mean professional journalists shouldn’t strive for it, much as the poet T.S Eliot’s conversion to Anglicism famously was said to have been an acknowledgment that the need for belief was more important than belief itself.

In the 220 years since George Washington was elected the nation’s first president, the common wisdom was that the winners had the legitimacy to govern until they were tossed from office, then the other side would govern – with the consent of those now in the minority. In this era, as the idea of a fact-based world suffers from political polarization and fragmented information sources, consent and common sense are in tatters. Since 2016, the Democrats have refused to grant legitimacy to an admittedly flawed Donald Trump, the master of the new media fragmentation. The previous eight years saw Republicans refuse to grant legitimacy to Barack Obama as they demonized whatever he did. 

Now we are in a massive global crisis. And Americans cannot even agree on where to begin.