NYT: Covid is not a referendum on virtue. Amen. Plus, kudos to Bezos as WaPo pounds away.

Gary Abernathy

NYT newsletter: Covid is not a referendum on virtue

David Leonhardt writes and compiles the New York Times’ main daily newsletter called “The Morning.” I recently cited the newsletter for acknowledging that many of our do-it-yourself remedies, such as “social distancing,” don’t necessarily have the impact some claim on controlling or altering the behavior of covid-19.

(A small aside: The Washington Post, where I write columns, does not capitalize the “c” in covid. Other outlets do capitalize it. That’s why it seems to go back and forth here — I usually follow the Post’s style when I write about covid, but when I copy direct quotes from others I leave it as they do it according to their respective styles.)

In his Friday newsletter, Leonhardt again addressed covid and again hit the nail on the head. In a piece headlined “The Covid Fable: When we treat Covid as a simple morality play, we can end up making bad predictions,” he notes how most high-profile forecasts of covid spread this fall have turned out to be wrong. In fact, covid is receding right now. Here’s a passage from his piece on where things actually stand.

The best measure of U.S. cases (a seven-day average, adjusted for holiday anomalies) peaked around 166,000 on Sept. 1 — the very day that seemed to augur a new surge. The number of new daily cases has since fallen almost 40 percent. Hospitalizations are down about 30 percent. Deaths, which typically change direction a few weeks after cases, have declined 13 percent since Sept. 20.

Leonhardt notes that one reason covid reporting goes astray is the media’s penchant for telling stories as though everything is a morality play. He writes, “People are attracted to stories with heroes and villains. In these stories, the character flaws of the villains bring them down, allowing the decency of the heroes to triumph. The stories create a clear relationship between cause and effect. They make sense.”

Then he writes this:

In the case of Covid, the fable we tell ourselves is that our day-to-day behavior dictates the course of the pandemic. When we are good — by staying socially distant and wearing our masks — cases are supposed to fall. When we are bad — by eating in restaurants, hanging out with friends and going to a theater or football game — cases are supposed to rise… The main determinants of Covid’s spread (other than vaccines, which are extremely effective) remain mysterious. Some activities that seem dangerous, like in-person school or crowded outdoor gatherings, may not always be. As unsatisfying as it is, we do not know why cases have recently plunged. The decline is consistent with the fact that Covid surges often last for about two months before receding, but that’s merely a description of the data, not a causal explanation.

Leonhardt adds:

In coming weeks and months, it is possible that the virus will surge again, maybe because of a new variant or because vaccine immunity will wane. It is also possible that the population has built up enough immunity — from both vaccines and previous infections — that Delta will have been the last major wave. We don’t know, and we do not have to pretend otherwise. We do not have to treat Covid as a facile referendum on virtue.

I love that last line: “We do not have to treat Covid as a facile referendum on virtue.” In other words, quit demonizing people for how they choose to live their lives in regard to covid, be it social distancing, masking or (and these are my words, not Leonhardt’s) getting vaccinated. As I’ve noted many times, I’m fully vaccinated and I encourage people to strongly consider getting vaccinated. But vaccination is a personal decision, and one that shouldn’t be dictated by threats from the government and/or businesses to take the vaccine or lose your job. That goes too far.

I’m glad that the mainstream media is beginning to acknowledge that covid will pretty much do what it’s going to do, and only the vaccine really makes much of a difference. Again, Leonhardt doesn’t go quite that far. He hedges his comments with nods toward social distancing, masking etc. having some impact; I almost get the feeling he feels obliged to add such qualifiers to appease the powers that be, but I could be wrong. Either way, some honest reporting, rather than feeling compelled to obediently repeat the government’s talking points with no variation (or fear of being banned from Facebook, Twitter, etc.) is a welcome development.

After my Post column last week on how we unnecessarily crashed the economy, several readers responded that it was easy to reach those conclusions now because hindsight is 20/20. To be clear, I’m not Monday morning quarterbacking on covid. I’ve been consistent from the start:

These surreal times require many sacrifices — but how much is worth it? — March 13, 2020.

The coronavirus shows Bernie Sanders won — March 25, 2020.

The economy wasn’t devastated by the virus. It was devastated by our response. — April 2, 2020.

Our elected leaders need to reclaim control from the doctors — April 14, 2020.

And many, many more after those. Disagree with me on how we’ve responded to covid. That’s fine. But I’ve said the same things from Day One, as did others.

To Bezos’s credit, WaPo often bites the hand that feeds it

I have to say this for the Washington Post: Its editors and reporters don’t seem to hesitate to go after the man who owns their newspaper.

Headline today: “Inside Blue Origin: Employees say toxic, dysfunctional ‘bro culture’ led to mistrust, low morale and delays at Jeff Bezos’s space venture.”

A passage, referencing Bezos and Blue Origin chief executive Bob Smith:

This account is based on interviews with more than 20 current and former Blue Origin employees and industry officials with close ties to the firm, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. The interviews and documents obtained by The Post reveal wide-ranging employee concerns about Smith’s leadership style, a bureaucracy that hampered innovation, and a lack of intervention from Bezos, who employees said was not giving the company enough attention during a crucial period. “It’s bad,” said one former top executive. “I think it’s a complete lack of trust. Leadership has not engendered any trust in the employee base.

I wonder how the Post divvies up negative stories about Bezos. Maybe drawing straws — short straw has to write the hit piece on the boss. Or maybe they line up to volunteer. Who knows.

It’s also to his credit that early on, Bezos told Post staff to cover him as they would even if he was not the owner. Contrast that to Bloomberg News announcing it would not investigate owner Michael Bloomberg during his 2020 presidential race.

When he bought the Post in 2013 — yes, it’s been that long ago — Bezos issued a letter to Post employees. He commended the Graham family, which had owned and operated the Post across four generations, and especially had kind words for the late Katherine Graham, legendary Post publisher, and her son, Don Graham, with whom he had been dealing. In the letter, Bezos said:

Journalism plays a critical role in a free society, and The Washington Post -- as the hometown paper of the capital city of the United States -- is especially important. I would highlight two kinds of courage the Grahams have shown as owners that I hope to channel. The first is the courage to say wait, be sure, slow down, get another source. Real people and their reputations, livelihoods and families are at stake. The second is the courage to say follow the story, no matter the cost. While I hope no one ever threatens to put one of my body parts through a wringer, if they do, thanks to Mrs. Graham’s example, I’ll be ready.

He’s had to be ready many times since owning the Post. All kidding aside, it has to be tough to pick up a newspaper that you own — where you pay the salaries and benefits and keep the lights on — and read negative stories about yourself. Good for him for letting the coverage take its course, even when it hurts.

October is the best month for movies

Since I was a kid growing up on TV reruns of the old Universal Studios horror films, Halloween has been my favorite holiday, and October my favorite movie month, since stations tend to roll out the scary stuff, both old and new.

Throughout the rest of the month at the end of future newsletters, I’ll offer some reviews of the best of classic horror, which I define as the films from Universal (and RKO and a couple of others) in the 1930s and 1940s and the Hammer Studio (and American International Pictures and a couple of others) from the 1950s through the early 1970s. I know you can’t wait.

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