New York Times health reporter Donald McNeil deserves accolades, not a scolding

Veteran New York Times health reporter Donald McNeil has been covering the hell out of the novel coronavirus since it first emerged. His articles are must-reads, the product of an incredible depth of knowledge and multitudinous interviews with top scientists across the globe.

In a wide-ranging 15-minute interview with Christiane Amanpour on CNN on Tuesday (here’s the video; here’s a rough transcript), McNeil spoke freely about what he has learned.

He did it with authority, passion and alarm.

He warned of terrifying spikes if governors reopen their states too fast. “When your curve is bending upwards, you have no idea what the top is. You don’t have a handle on the virus,” he said. “When their voters start to die, their voters are going to get angry, angrier than the donors are. And I — why governors don’t see this, I don’t understand.”

He despaired over the lack of testing, saying we need “millions and millions, as in 5 million a day. Otherwise you have no idea where the virus is and your only indicator is that your emergency rooms are getting overwhelmed. And when that happens: too late.”

And he rendered some harsh judgments on Donald Trump, Mike Pence and Centers for Disease Control director Robert Redfield.

“We completely blew it for the first two months of our response. We were in a headless-chicken phase, and yes, it’s the president’s fault, it is not China’s fault,” McNeil said. “So we lost two months there, and that was because of incompetent leadership at the CDC, I’m sorry to say — it’s a great agency, but it’s incompetently led, and I think Dr. Redfield should resign.”

He called Pence a “sycophant.” As for Trump, he said, “The real cover-up was the person in this country who was saying, you know, ‘This is not an important virus, the flu is worse, it’s all going to go away, you know, it’s nothing.’ And that encouraged everybody around him to say, ‘It’s nothing, it’s nothing, it’s nothing.'” McNeil added, “This is the same guy who said, ‘Inject yourself with disinfectant, stick ultraviolet lights into your lungs.’ This is not somebody whose grasp of the science is even third-grade level.”

McNeil didn’t mince words. He didn’t attribute his own informed views to sources. He didn’t engage in both-sides-ism.

In my view, he did exactly what more journalists desperately need to be doing right now. This is no time for complacency in news coverage. Journalists should use every opportunity at their disposal to sound the alarm about the extraordinary threat to the nation posed by the federal government’s continued failure to effectively respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

Has the New York Times commended him? Quite the opposite: The paper’s management publicly scolded McNeil for what he’s done.

Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha released a statement in which she said, “In an interview with Christiane Amanpour today, Donald McNeil, Jr. went too far in expressing his personal views. His editors have discussed the issue with him to reiterate that his job is to report the facts and not to offer his own opinions. We are confident that his reporting on science and medicine for The Times has been scrupulously fair and accurate.”

New York Times guidelines on appearing on broadcast media state: “Generally a staff member should not say anything on radio, television or the Internet that could not appear under his or her byline in The Times.”

Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple cheered the Times on, writing that the “mild brushback seems appropriate” — although he suggested they could have gone a bit further, with a “specific mention of McNeil’s call for Redfield’s resignation.” Wemple’s conclusion: “Such activism, after all, is extreme even for a veteran newsman exercising his analytical muscles in a freewheeling cable-news interview.”

But when times are so dire, news organizations should worry less about activism and more about covering up the truth with the mealymouthed language and normalized framing they so often use to write about the federal response – and about Trump himself.

McNeil was telling it like it is. His voice should not be gagged. It should be liberated, and amplified. McNeil’s informed opinions and judgments are not just valuable but essential right now.

News organizations, in other words, should loosen up to speak the truth.

Another role model

As it happens, another role model emerged on Tuesday — in this case under a byline, and evidently with the full support of the organization’s editors — on the front page of the Washington Post.

White House correspondent Toluse Olorunnipa weighed in with a blistering take on Trump’s Twitter tantrums. It felt to me like something finally broke in the Post newsroom, and Olorunnipa was suddenly free from the both-sides dispassionate strictures that typically inhibit members of the political press corps.

What Trump said in those tweets was outrageous, and Olorunnipa called it out:

On a day when coronavirus deaths passed 80,000 and top government scientists warned of the perils of loosening public health restrictions too soon, President Trump used his massive public platform to suggest a talk-show host he has clashed with committed murder.

His baseless charge capped a 48-hour stretch in which he accused scores of perceived opponents of criminal acts ranging from illegal espionage to election rigging.

Since writing “HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY” at 8:10 a.m. on Sunday, Trump has used his Twitter account to make or elevate allegations of criminal conduct against no less than 20 individuals and organizations. Since Sunday, he has tweeted more often about alleged crimes by his perceived opponents than he has about the pandemic ravaging the country with mass death and unemployment.

If you haven’t read the whole piece already, do so now. It is exemplary.

The McNeil interview

McNeil’s appearance on CNN wasn’t an embarrassment. It was a master class.

It’s worth the time to read some extended excerpts. Trust me.

Amanpour started off by asking McNeil about Tuesday’s epic congressional hearings, which were undeniably the biggest news story of the day, and which required expert analysis to fully appreciate. Here’s how he responded:

I think it was terrifying, some of the things I heard today. I mean, Rand Paul sort of pushing to say that, you know, we could get away [without] a vaccine for the kids, we’ve got to get to schools open… .

And Tony Fauci very correctly pushed back on him saying, look, do not be cavalier with the health of America’s children. … We are discovering that this disease has effects that we didn’t know about from China because they ended their epidemic so quickly that they weren’t able to do the kind of comprehensive studies that we’re doing.

But it’s not just that some children sicken and die from this rather bizarre disease where the virus attaches to the inside of their blood vessels, but you also have to remember, kids live in houses with the rest of the families. And so, even though the children may be fine, they’ll take the disease home to their families. And, you know, you can teach a high school student not to — you know, not to hug his grandmother and to stick with social distancing but you cannot teach, you know, a five-year-old to stay away from his grandmother.

On states that are reopening while their case counts are still climbing:

States like Florida, states like Texas — are doing something that all public health experts say is an invitation to disaster. When your curve is bending downward, you know where the bottom is. When you get back to the same number of deaths you had, you know, back six weeks ago, you kind of know what zero is. When your curve is bending upwards, you have no idea what the top is. You don’t have a handle on the virus. So opening up when your situation is getting out of control is just inviting the virus to spread that much faster.

And the scary thing is, it’s all going to look quiet for two or three weeks because we’ve all been in lockdown, the virus will just begin to spread.… Usually, the first alarm is going to be a flood of people coming into hospitals unable to breathe because they’ve got pneumonia and they’ve suddenly had pneumonia for several days now and they’re desperate. By the time that happens, which is about three weeks from now, if it happens, you may have an unstoppable flood coming in. You may have 10 patients the first day but then 20 patients the second day, 30 patients the third day. And if you’re a rural hospital infected somewhere and you’ve got two ventilators, it’s goodbye to patients…. It’s quite a dangerous situation, and governors are not paying attention.

They’re also not paying attention to the political consequences. When their voters start to die, their voters are going to get angry, angrier than the donors are. And I — why governors don’t see this, I don’t understand.

Here’s where McNeil talked about the federal response:

We completely blew it for the first two months of our response. We were in a headless-chicken phase, and yes, it’s the president’s fault, it is not China’s fault. The head of the Chinese CDC was on the phone to Robert Redfield on Jan. 1, again on Jan. 8, and the two agencies were talking on Jan. 19. The Chinese had a test on Jan. 13; the Germans had a test on Jan. 16. We fiddled around for two months. We had a test on March 5 and it didn’t work. We didn’t have 10,000 people tested until March 15. So we lost two months there, and that was because of incompetent leadership at the CDC, I’m sorry to say — it’s a great agency, but it’s incompetently led, and I think Dr. Redfield should resign.

And suppression from the top: I mean, the real coverup was the person in this country who was saying, you know, “This is not an important virus, the flu is worse, it’s all going to go away, you know, it’s nothing.” And that encouraged everybody around him to say, “It’s nothing, it’s nothing, it’s nothing.”

In a notable dig at his own news organization, McNeil said:

I had the same problem at the Times — I was trying to convince my editors, “This is really bad; this is a pandemic.” It took a while to get them, it took a while to get anybody to believe this.

McNeil continued:

Getting rid of [HHS Secretary] Alex Azar was a mistake — he was actually leading a dramatic response and then … in February he was replaced [as task-force head] with Mike Pence, who’s a sycophant.

And nobody would push hard to get the tests out there, because we need to test the way Germany is testing now. We need to have kids tested every four days when they go back to school. And we’re not going to be close to that when the fall comes.

Amanpour showed a clip of Trump bragging about how “Germany and the United States are leading the world” in lives saved. McNeil responded:

Look, this is the same guy who said, “Inject yourself with disinfectant, stick ultraviolet lights into your lungs.” This is not somebody whose grasp of the science is even third-grade level. So, the idea that he could be quoting epidemiological statistics and expected to get them right is terrifyingly wrong.

We need a lot of tests. Harvard’s estimate was probably at least 5 million tests per day. Admiral Giroir today was talking about — I think it was 40 million tests per month. So, that’s a little more than 1 million per day….

If you’re going to use them for surveillance, that means you need to test a lot of healthy people … so you can catch the asymptomatics and you know where the disease is popping up.

You have to have a lot of tests — and millions and millions, as in 5 million a day — otherwise. you have no idea where the virus is and your only indicator is that your emergency rooms are getting overwhelmed. And when that happens: too late.

McNeil also spoke about our nation’s massive underspending on public health compared to medicine:

Medicine — the medical system is all about me. Is my treatment great? Am I going to get the best medical care? Am I going to get the best doctor? … But public health is all about us. You know, can we control mosquitoes? Do we make sure that all children have all the shots they need? Do we make sure that all of our water is safe and clean? Do we make sure that our air is safe and clean?

And also, that includes: Are we prepared for epidemics from outside the country? I mean, we took away the money from the Wuhan lab that does testing for bad coronaviruses in China. To me, that is as crazy as turning off the early warning systems that look for Russian missiles coming over the North Pole because you don’t like the electric bill, it’s too high. We just shut off our ability to see bad things like this virus coming to kill us….

The big powers of the world are spending their money on the wrong thing. They’re spending their money on missiles and submarines and on fighting terrorism. You can negotiate with your foe who also has missiles. You can change your policies so that Muslim terrorists are not as mad at you. You cannot negotiate with a virus. And we are spending pennies on viruses. And the virus is going to come get you if you don’t stop it, and we’ve done very little to either detect them or stop them.

I mean, if we’d spent several billion dollars on vaccine platforms before now, we might have a vaccine … that we could roll out in a matter of months rather than a matter of a year or two years, which is what we’re looking at.

McNeil has also been a regular guest on MSNBC over the last few months, where Rachel Maddow has praised him as both an authority and a seer.

On Maddow’s March 12 show, McNeil warned:

We are in a headless-chicken phase of our approach to the pandemic, and we have a president who appeared to me terrified on camera while he made his speech and who gave an approach that made no sense.

On March 23, he told Maddow:

Something’s going to have to wake the president up to the realization that this is a very serious danger, including to him and his family, and being cavalier about it in order to save your 401(k) is probably a short-term good with really bad long-term consequences.

McNeil was also on Maddow’s show on April 20, right after the Times published a hugely influential article he wrote based on in-depth interviews with more than 20 experts in public health, medicine, epidemiology and history about their thoughts on the future.

Maddow quoted from one paragraph from the article:

Some felt that American ingenuity, once fully engaged, might well produce advances to ease the burdens. The path forward depends on factors that are certainly difficult but doable, they said: a carefully staggered approach to reopening, widespread testing and surveillance, a treatment that works, adequate resources for health care providers — and eventually an effective vaccine.

McNeil pulled the curtain back a bit and explained:

My report was so gloomy that my editors wanted it made a little more optimistic. And you just read one of the more optimistic paragraphs that was inserted in it. You know, a sort of belief that everything will work out thanks to American ingenuity and scientific advancement. We’re in for some tough times, which is kind of the point of that piece.

Maddow assured him: “Well, that comes through, don`t worry. They didn’t rosy it up too much.”

What you think

When I posted a tweet Wednesday morning asking for views of McNeil, the response was overwhelmingly (but not unanimously) supportive.

Among the observations:

And, alternately:

Which is better?

Wemple, the Post media critic, imagined what would have happened if McNeil had filed his comments to Amanpour as a news story, to appear under his byline:

Had McNeil attempted to write in a New York Times story that “we blew it,” his editors might have inserted: As coronavirus wended its way around the world, the Trump administration missed several critical opportunities to blunt its impact in America, according to interviews with 56 experts and current and former administration officials.

Had McNeil attempted to write that the CDC was “incompetently led,” his editors would have inserted: Decisions reached by Dr. Redfield over several weeks in January and February have drawn criticism from public health experts, who point to a slow-footed response that resulted in unnecessary deaths across the country.

Had McNeil attempted to write that Pence is a “sycophant,” his editors would have inserted: The White House swapped Azar for Pence, a leader more attuned to the president’s preferences and sensibilities, not to mention his taste for official praise.

Wemple was obviously being a bit arch. But honestly, which approach better serves the public? As far as I’m concerned, it’s no contest.

 


A note from Dan Froomkin:

I’ve written a lot about Trump’s response to the pandemic, and here is what has been clear all along: He has no real plan to restore the country to health other than to peddle false hope, predict a quick end, adopt fake deadlines and shift the blame to others. The most urgent need is to test, test, test, and either he doesn’t get it or he doesn’t want to know the results because they “look bad”. The media has blown its coverage of the federal response by letting political reporters lead instead of health reporters. Political reporters pay way too much attention to whatever Trump says, such that whatever it is makes headlines. They let Trump set the agenda instead of letting knowledgeable people do it. Political reporters also give Trump way too much credit for trying, which he is not. They cover up for his incoherence, ignorance, cluelessness, gaslighting, and yes, just plain stupidity. They generally fail to properly exploit their rare access to him by confronting him with facts and piercing his bubble. They remain complacent in the face of a massive death toll, instead of relentlessly demanding more forceful action.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. I agree that the straight talking of Donald McNeil is essential and should be honored, not diminished. If the NY Times cannot handle the unvarnished truth about Trump’s complete failure at managing this crisis, then they may as well merge with Fox News and just give us pablum. I do not want any more euphemisms. I do not want the truth to be soft-peddled. Give me the facts, and share your analysis, Mr McNeil, you have earned the right to speak your mind. Your two cents is worth a fortune to me. Should we allow Hannity, Ingraham, and Tucker Carlson to be making policy for Trump, and handing out quack medical advice to the public, and then expect the men and women who have the scientific facts, a global perspective on the scale of this tragedy, and the wisdom gleaned from a lifetime of accurate reporting to just “tone it down” and leave the analysis to FoxNews, or to us, the armchair medical experts? I do not want a Hallmark card version of the Coronavirus-19 pandemic. My life, and the lives of my husband, children, and four grandchildren are at stake here. I demand facts and seasoned, expert opinions. Make me proud of the NY Times again.

  2. When it comes to the important news — the big example now covering and reporting on Trump as if he was fit and qualified for office — the Times fails. The more important the issue, the worse the coverage. As such, they engage in providing disinformation and, given the tolerance if not implicit support for Trump, makes them complicit in the deaths he and his party (sycophants all) are causing.
    God knows, it’s not because the reporters are inept. Rather, neither the current publisher nor his predecessor nor Dean Baquet care. It’s obvious. And in Baquet’s case, his CV is heavy on acting in his own interest and and awfully light on journalistic excellence. Then again, “Pinch” Shulzberger’s preference in his editors was personally liking them (Keller) being more important than journalistic excellence (Abramson). I mean, Keller and Iraq: talk about literally deadly disinformation…
    As for McNeil’s “opinions”, they were conclusions flowing from undisputed facts. Shame on the Times for refusing to support him.

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