Not content to accuse Donald Trump of killing Americans with his incompetence during the coronavirus pandemic, Democrats and their allies in the media have turned their fire on the president’s supporters as well. Those with “blood on their hands,” to use the smear du jour, range from Republican governors reluctant to issue quarantine orders to Michigan autoworkers protesting being locked out their jobs. And, of course, Fox News.
The latest salvo came in the form of a New York Times column with a blaring headline: “A Beloved Bar Owner Was Skeptical About the Virus. Then He Took a Cruise.”
Accompanied by a family photograph, the story recounts the sad fate of Joe Joyce, a popular 74-year-old family man and proprietor of a Brooklyn saloon who died on April 9 of COVID-19. So why did he and his wife travel to Spain on a cruise ship? According to the Times’ piece by Ginia Bellafante, they sailed to Barcelona because President Trump and Sean Hannity assured them it was safe:
On March 1, Joe Joyce and his wife, Jane, set sail for Spain on a cruise, flying first to Florida. His adult children -- Kevin, Eddie and Kristen Mider -- suggested that the impending doom of the coronavirus made this a bad idea. Joe Joyce was 74, a nonsmoker, healthy; four years after he opened his bar he stopped drinking completely. He didn’t see the problem. “He watched Fox, and believed it was under control,’’ Kristen told me.
Ginia Bellafante is friends with Eddie Joyce, which explains why she wrote in the first-person, and also why she is angry about this man’s death. She feels for his children. She is grieving his loss. Her feelings are genuine and should be honored, not censured. She is also a columnist, not a straight news reporter, and is allowed some latitude in tone. But not granted unlimited leeway -- and none at all with the facts.
Her narrative included the Times’ obligatory virtue-signaling, complete with phrases such as “right wing hate,” along with a presumption that Republicans are less tolerant people than Democrats. Adhering to the old courthouse rule about not impeaching your own witness, however, she pointed out that Joe Joyce was the opposite of a racist. Joyce was also supportive of a gay patron of his bar who had AIDS, Times readers were told. And that’s not all: “He supported groups that raised money for food banks and organizations that helped battered women. He worked helping disabled children.”
If it wasn’t for the headline, a reader might have thought this was going to be a column about how the liberal media unfairly stereotypes conservatives. No such luck. Joe Joyce is the protagonist because he’s the good man who died because he found Fox News more credible than his own children. But the evidence in support of that story line is thin. His children “suggested” the timing of the trip was problematic? That’s fairly weak tea. Also, as the column acknowledged, it’s unknown whether Joe Joyce contracted the virus on the cruise ship or in Barcelona -- or in New York. He returned to Brooklyn on March 14 and spent March 15 at his bar. New York’s lockdown went into effect at 8 p.m. Monday, March 16.
Eleven days later, while at his weekend place in New Hampshire, Joyce was very sick. He died on April 9, the day before one his bartenders also succumbed to the virus. Searching for answers, his daughter focused on Trump and his favorite network.
“He watched Fox, and believed it was under control,’’ his daughter told The Times, citing as an example a complaint from Sean Hannity that the Americans were being “unnecessarily’’ frightened. She added, “If Trump had gone on TV with a mask on and said, ‘Hey this is serious,’ I don’t think he would have gone.”
His daughter’s emotions are understandable, but the timeline is off. For one thing, Hannity made his observation the first week in March, after the Joyces’ cruise was at sea, so it had nothing to do with their decision to leave. Their ship left port in Fort Lauderdale on Sunday, March 1; Joe and Jane had flown to Florida over the weekend – the last weekend in February. So, yes, if Trump had given a national address wearing a mask in late February, that would have been impressive leadership. It also would have been at odds with what the nation’s top infectious disease experts -- not to mention leading Democrats in New York and elsewhere -- were advising. It wasn’t even what the New York Times, or Ginia Bellafante were saying.
Here is a timeline for the week leading up to Joe Joyce’s ill-fated vacation:
Feb. 24: Appearing in San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood to alleviate tourists’ fears, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stands at close quarters with city leaders and says, “To everyone: You should come to Chinatown! Precautions have been taken by our city. We know there’s a concern for tourism – throughout the world – but we think it’s very safe to be in Chinatown and hope that others will come.”
Feb. 25: Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, raises the specter of cities and towns beginning to plan for social distancing measures such as “dividing school classes into smaller groups of students or closing schools altogether.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, adds that “these are the kinds of things you want to think of” – but not do just yet. “You need to do nothing different than you’re already doing,” he says.
Feb. 26: Trump puts Vice President Mike Pence “in charge” of coordinating the administration’s coronavirus response (while claiming inaccurately that “we have quarantined those infected and those at risk”). In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo says, “I want to keep the perspective right. Yes, we’re preparing, but [it’s] not a situation that should cause undue fear.”
The same day Mayor Bill de Blasio reassures the citizenry that hospital beds would be plentiful even if the epidemic hit New York. “We’ve got a long time to ramp up if we ever had anything like that,” he said. “So, the capacity we have right now is outstanding given the challenge we’re facing right now.”
Feb. 27: De Blasio appears on “Morning Joe” to boast that New York City has “literally 1,200 hospital beds that we can turn on if we need to if it turns into something bigger,” adding, “I think this country is going to be good.” The same day, he appears with Billy Idol as part of a campaign against drivers who idle their engines in the city. At the event, the 1980s rocker worked the rope line, shaking hands.
Feb. 28: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer lambastes Trump for focusing more on political rallies than on seeking “solutions to combat the spread of coronavirus.” Schumer is responding to Trump’s claim during a South Carolina rally that Democrats are “politicizing” the epidemic – efforts he labels their “new hoax.” Some wags quickly reprise an earlier Schumer tweet characterizing Trump’s ban on flights from China as “just an excuse to further his ongoing war against immigrants.”
Feb. 29: Cuomo says trying to predict the impact of the coronavirus is “like looking at the weather map when they have different tracks for a hurricane [that] could hit Florida or could hit Washington or could hit New York or miss everybody and go out to sea.”
March 1: First case of COVID-19 is confirmed in New York.
Misdiagnosing the Threat
That timeline is only a snapshot. The full picture is more complex. But if you lived in New York City in 2020 and paid attention to this burgeoning story you were subjected to a steady barrage of misinformation -- especially from your own mayor -- throughout January and February. Actually, Hizzoner sounded eerily like another blustery native New Yorker.
“We have it totally under control,” President Trump assured his fellow Americans on Jan. 22. “We pretty much shut it down coming in from China,” he added on Feb. 2. “Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away,” he said on Feb. 10. “I hope that’s true, but we’re great in our country.” The next day, Trump told Geraldo Rivera, “In our country, we have basically 132 cases and most of those people are recovering and some cases fully recovered. So, it’s actually less.” In Feb. 24, Trump tweeted, “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health [Organization] have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!”
Yes, Trump often sounded foolish. But this not the fault of Fox News any more than MSNBC can be blamed for the cluelessness of Bill de Blasio and his administration during the same period. On Jan. 24, the mayor assured New Yorkers that they could be infected “only through prolonged exposure” to someone with the virus. On Feb. 2, he said it was “clear” that “you don’t get it from a surface.” That same day, his health commissioner tweeted, “As we gear up to celebrate the Lunar New Year in NYC, I want to assure New Yorkers that there is no reason for anyone to change their holiday plans, avoid the subway, or certain parts of the city because of coronavirus.” On Feb. 9, de Blasio attended the Lunar Festival, mingling among the crowd with other leading Democrats, including Schumer, with hardly a mask in sight. “We know in China, so many of our loved ones are facing the challenges of the coronavirus, but we stand together,” de Blasio said. On Feb. 13, in an appearance on “Morning Joe,” he said the virus “should not stop you from going about your life.” The mayor added, “It should not stop you from going to Chinatown and going out to eat. I am going to do that today myself.”
This tenor didn’t really change on March 2, when de Blasio and Gov. Cuomo held a joint press conference to discuss the first confirmed case in New York. “In this situation, the facts defeat fear, because the reality is reassuring,” said Cuomo. “It is deep-breath time.”
“We have a lot of information now, information that is actually showing us things that should give us more reason to stay calm and go about our lives,” added the mayor -- who then reiterated his idiosyncratic theories about the communicable nature of COVID-19. “This is not, so far, something that you get through casual contact,” he asserted. “There has to be some prolonged exposure. And I think it’s really important to get that information out to all New Yorkers.”
For some reason, De Blasio kept talking this way even into the second week of March, telling New Yorkers on March 9 “to go about your business,” and assuring them in another “Morning Joe” appearance, this one on March 10 -- as the Joyces’ cruise was nearing its end -- “For the vast majority of New Yorkers, life is going on pretty normally right now. We want to encourage that.” He added yet again that there was a “misperception” that the disease “hangs in the air waiting to catch you. No, it takes direct person-to-person contact.” As late as March 16, hours before gyms, bars, and restaurants closed, de Blasio worked out at his local YMCA.
Let’s be fair: It’s easy to criticize in hindsight. Who knew in late February that within two months, the United States would be closing in on 900,000 confirmed cases of the virus, with nearly 50,000 Americans dead, and the U.S. economy in free fall during an unprecedented lockdown that closed everything from auto manufacturing to Major League Baseball? I certainly didn’t. But neither did the New York Times.
As others have noted, the Times greeted the president’s order curtailing travel from China by publishing columns opining that travel bans do more harm than good. Skepticism that the threat was real extended to other established media outlets -- and to Ginia Bellafante herself. On Feb. 28, a day before Joe and Janet Joyce left for their cruise, the Times published a piece she wrote with a headline that predicted, accurately, that the virus was coming to New York and asking the question: “Should We Panic or Shrug?” That column was nuanced and thoughtful. Her tweet the night before was less prescient: “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.”
It was the unearthing of that tweet that made Bellafante a target, her detractors’ point being that if Joe Joyce had listened to her, instead of Fox News, he still would have left on his cruise. It’s a fair criticism, but there are broader principles at play here.
The first is that the “war on Fox News,” which is not new and was always troubling, has metastasized into something quite dangerous, which is a well-funded and highly organized effort at systematic censorship of conservative views. It was first launched in its present form after Barack Obama moved into the White House. You’d think that a freshman senator with no executive experience who won the presidency by 9 million votes would be more magnanimous to the lone major media outlet that didn’t fawn over him. But you would be wrong. Liberals ranging from Louis Menand of The New Yorker to Kirsten Powers (now with CNN) tried to give the new administration – and its fellow progressives – a remedial course in the beauty of the First Amendment. It didn’t take, and a decade later significant portions of the mainstream press are among the anti-free speech vigilantes. This is not merely incongruous, it’s a threat to free speech and to self-government itself.
There is a second troubling aspect to the ongoing “war on Fox News,” and it’s this: The legacy media is so hostile to Donald Trump it has trouble getting the basic facts right, let alone paint a complete picture of his presidency. Some no longer even try. This failing, this open partisanship, is more to blame than Fox News for conservatives’ mistrust of what they read and hear from traditional news outlets. In his crude way at that South Carolina “hoax” rally, the president said what millions of Americans were thinking: They tried to get him on Russia. Then on Ukraine. Now they’re after him on this.
We in the media have fed that cynicism. While there are many valid reasons for the press to judge this president harshly -- including for the uneven and self-indulgent way he’s handled the current crisis -- the “Resistance” brand of journalism veers into uncharted territory. By openly disparaging the 63 million Americans who voted for Trump, these news organizations are begging those people not to watch or read them. They are essentially writing them off as customers. They have embraced a different business model: In the parlance of politics, they are appealing “to their base.” It’s a model, ironically, borrowed from Fox News. Personally, I think it’s an odious way to cover the civic affairs of this country, unpatriotic even.
Perhaps this approach makes fiduciary sense, but if that’s the way they choose to play it, news organizations should have the decency not to blame the customers they’ve deliberately alienated for their own deaths.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.