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Surrounded by Catastrophe? Maybe Less Than You've Heard.
Things are bad enough; we don't need to insist they are worse.
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
One thing that distinguishes serious newsrooms is their regular admission and correction of their inevitable mistakes. What happens, though, when the problem is not so much a particular error of fact but an entire story line that is, fundamentally, mistaken? I worry that we have, as an industry, fallen into a pattern of not owning up to this sort of misadventure.
As everyone knows, it has been a very hard two years.
The death toll from the pandemic is likely already more than one million Americans, and the official count will acknowledge this before too long—in many ways the greatest loss since the Civil War. The economy experienced its sharpest-ever contraction, with recovery not yet complete, and dislocations endure. What began as a collective “racial reckoning,” promising renewed progress of the kind we achieved in 1964-65, has, perhaps predictably, devolved into a new splintering, and an echo of the divisions and enduring disappointments of 1968-69. Democracy itself is under threat from within, with the attack being led by a former president, tolerated if not egged on by much of what was once the party of our greatest president. Parts of society are beginning to grapple meaningfully with climate change, but our government (and most others) is not.
Most damaging overall in the moment, perhaps, the lives of hundreds of millions of people have been darkened by less contact with those we love, and less time spent doing the things we love to do, while many work and seek to learn increasingly alone.
So, we have lots of very real, terribly serious problems. Catastrophes and possible catastrophes abound.
But what I want to talk about this week are some of the enormous challenges that have not occurred, notwithstanding seemingly endless journalism heralding their imminence—in short, not about additional catastrophes but about catastrophizing by many in our own industry.
Let me offer three examples:
Demand surges, “supply chain” problems and why Christmas wasn’t giftless
For months last year, we were told repeatedly that supply chain disruptions were about to bring the consumer economy to its knees, and would particularly affect the timely delivery of Christmas gifts. Only a comparatively much smaller number of pieces later acknowledged that this simply didn’t happen—and those that did often worked hard to justify previous coverage by claiming that the “warnings” had led to earlier buying, averting the worst.
In fact, much of the coverage of supply chain issues during the pandemic has been muddled at best. This began at the beginning, with the infamous toilet paper crisis of March and April 2020. That, of course, wasn’t a supply chain issue at all—it was a sudden burst of panic demand that overtaxed a functional supply chain. The same thing would happen with almost any product at any time if demand surged without warning.
Sure, there are real problems in some supply chains these days, most consequentially perhaps for some of the computer chips in automobiles, although that, too, is actually a demand-led problem, stemming from a decline in orders by manufacturers for such chips in the Spring of 2020 and a reallocation of chip supply to other goods for which demand simultaneously grew. In other words, neither the toilet paper nor the car problem has much, if anything, to do with the container ships on which “supply chain” stories seem to harp.
Partisan gerrymandering is awful, but not for partisan reasons
My own candidate for the worst Supreme Court decision of our time (at least until the Mississippi abortion case comes down this Spring) is the ruling three years ago giving a green light to partisan gerrymandering. In that case, the Court threw up its hands, saying it had no power to stop politicians from choosing their voters, rather than the other way around. In my view, this amounts to nothing less than a denial of the 14th Amendment guarantee of a republican form of government by the states.
In part because the Court’s Republican majority made the decision over the objections of its Democratic minority, we in the press have repeatedly cast the latest resulting decennial orgy of gerrymandering as a plot to entrench a Republican minority in power in House of Representatives.
It is not. (Although the real, much-less-reported story is actually worse than that.)
Now that redistricting after the census is approaching its conclusion, leading observers have noted that the partisan effect is fairly close to a wash, with the likelihood of more Biden 2020 and fewer Trump 2020 districts, and a new scheme that is closer to neutral on a partisan basis. Again, the reporting on reality has not come close to catching up to the catastrophe predicted.
The reason the Republican “plot” doesn’t seem to have come to fruition is because Republicans had engaged in most of their available misbehavior 10 years ago, and because this time Democrats behaved just as badly in reverse in many places where they could. So there will be more incumbent protection, fewer close districts, even more polarization—in short, more power for politicians of both parties, less for voters. That story remains to be powerfully told.
Hospitals aren’t collapsing with Omicron
The pandemic has been awful, in so many ways. And our doctors and nurses, among many others, have responded heroically, running metaphorically into the fire (even as, for instance, some teachers unions did the opposite). You might think that the story of the pandemic was sufficiently dramatic that depicting it in its realistic horror—again, a million dead—would be enough.
In recent weeks, however, we have been bombarded with stories about the incipient collapse of our hospitals. Yes, hospitals have been stressed and many on their staffs are exhausted and personally feeling overwhelmed; yes, Omicron has left many short-handed; some have even postponed procedures and diverted ambulances, although not nearly on the same scale as 2020 at the pandemic’s US epicenter. But I have seen no significant evidence of collapse—no widespread failure to attend to the seriously ill, no large-scale rationing of critical care. When will we tell our readers about this latest false alarm?
Beyond these specific examples, what is it about our time that causes so many in our business to find the genuinely tough news all around us not to be dramatic enough?
Franklin Roosevelt, the greatest communicator in the modern presidency, once wrote that
public psychology, and for that matter, individual psychology, cannot, because of human weakness, be attuned for long periods of time to a constant repetition of the highest note on the scale.
We need, in my view, a reset in the tone of many of our stories. We need it, not least, because catastrophizing runs the very significant risk that a real catastrophe—from climate change later or some renewed attack on democracy sooner—may not be recognized as such by readers who have become deaf to our incessant cries.
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