There is an episode of the Fox animated series Family Guy where the family dog, Brian, is welcomed as a possible new contributor at the New Yorker. After he is shown around the publication’s opulent headquarters, he proceeds to the bathroom, where he sees no commodes. He asks, “Um, where are the toilets?” To which a top editor responds, “Oh, no one at the New Yorker has an anus.”
It sometimes feels harsh to treat a magazine that has often delivered stellar reporting that way, but New Yorker staff writer Emma Green’s profile (12/28/22) of the People’s CDC delivers the kind of elitist, out-of-touch pearl-clutching that inspires this imperious image of the magazine.
The PCDC was founded (Guardian, 4/3/22) during the Covid pandemic in response to the belief that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had become politically compromised, sanctioning a public health regime that prioritizes commerce over people. Indeed, the PCDC believes that the rush to return workers back to their offices defies research that tells us that Covid is still dangerous, especially for the disabled and other marginalized communities, and puts all who are infected at risk of “long Covid” (New England Journal of Medicine, 11/10/22; CNBC, 12/9/22; Bloomberg, 12/14/22).
Green casts doubt on the PCDC’s “grievances” that “come up again and again,” saying there are “varying degrees of scientific support to back them up.” But she doesn’t offer much in terms of rebuttal to the PCDC’s claims. For instance, she writes that the group “matter-of-factly reports that getting Covid more than once increases your risk of death and hospitalization, and of developing chronic conditions.” The “matter-of-factly” suggests that it isn’t a matter of fact—and yet the PCDC’s statement reflects a major peer-reviewed scientific study (Nature Medicine, 11/10/22).
When Lucky Tran, a member of PCDC, is quoted saying that anti-masking is an outgrowth of white supremacy, Green writes: “This kind of accusation is common for the” group, with its “unmistakable inflection of activist-speak, marked by a willingness to make eye-popping claims about the motivations of politicians, corporations, or anyone in power.”
Tran’s comment, which he explains more fully on Twitter (11/14/22), is based on real racial disparities and experiences (Nation, 7/9/20; Urban Institute, 1/13/22; PBS, 4/29/22; Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 6/17/22; Root, 9/1/22)—it’s not a random incendiary statement in the void. But Green seems less interested in evaluating the PCDC’s claims, and more intent on painting them as a “ragtag coalition” whose politics diminish their credibility.
While jabs at left-wing political culture might be expected in such a piece, Green takes it to an even greater level of naivete when the group accuses the CDC of eugenic policies. “Eugenic policies have a long and ugly history, commonly associated with the Nazis, white supremacists and others who advocate the racial purification of humanity,” Green wrote. She asked a PCDC member “whether she truly believes that the CDC is eugenicist, along these lines.” The member, a doctor, said, “Just because a charge is difficult or impactful doesn’t make it a wrong charge.”
Of course, the PCDC is far from alone here. As FAIR has covered previously (1/15/22), CDC director Rochelle Walensky infamously declared that it’s “really encouraging news” that the vaccinated people dying from Covid were mostly “people who were unwell to begin with.” Disability activists and science writers (Rolling Stone, 1/10/22) also slammed the CDC at the time, including Wired writer Erin Biba, who said (Twitter, 1/9/22) that “the CDC director admitted to eugenics policy.”
But Green could also use a refresher course about eugenics’ place in US history, especially in terms of forced sterilization (Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation, 9/23/20), “better baby” contests (Smithsonian, 1/17/19), immigration controls (NPR, 5/8/19) and a campaign of sterilization against Native American women (Time, 11/27/19). It shouldn’t be hard to believe that the country that gave us the Tuskegee experiment (Scientific American, 3/31/21) and still fails to protect people from contaminated water in Michigan (AP, 1/21/21) could be associated with such a nasty word.
Green saves most of her bite for a member named Rob Wallace, once again showing her distaste for how the group sounds, calling him PCDC’s “saltiest spokesman.” She wrote:
In August, when the CDC announced an internal reorganization to address its pandemic failures, Wallace observed that “the whole affair has an air of rearranging the chairs on the deck of a sinking ship.” He added, “The US is on the far side of its cycle of accumulation and its high point in building empire. Its political class is now in the business of helping its financial supporters cash out, turning capital into money.” All the talk about empire-building and capital accumulation—a key component of Marxist economic theory—made me wonder whether “the people” in the People’s CDC are those people. When I asked Wallace this on Zoom, he gruffly denied that the members are all communists. “There’s certainly an edge of Red-baiting on your part,” he said.
It is a depressing feature of US media—sculpted by decades of corporate ownership, McCarthyism and Cold War rhetoric—that economic observations from anything other than a free-market standpoint, no matter how empirically grounded, are seen as beyond the pale. It’s a way of discrediting scientific research, as if a desire for wealth redistribution clouded one’s scientific judgment.
‘Can’t quit lockdown’
The New Yorker’s main gripe is that the PCDC’s goals are far too utopian—things like zero Covid policies (which, for the record, appear nowhere on the group’s website) just aren’t possible, we are told.
For a counterbalance to the PCDC, Green looks to Leana Wen, the former health commissioner of Baltimore and a medical analyst for CNN and the Washington Post, whose leniency on masking has won her deserved criticism (Daily Beast, 2/25/22). Most recently, Wen provided cover for right-wing critics of vaccine mandates for the military (Washington Post, 12/9/22). She has often received criticism for her militant “return to normal” position on Covid (Politico, 4/22/22), as she is a prominent mask contrarian (Washington Post, 8/23/22).
But Wen isn’t just loosey-goosey on Covid. She left Planned Parenthood after a tumultuous time there where she “wanted to significantly reorient the group’s focus away from the abortion wars and more toward its role as a women’s health provider” (New York Times, 7/17/19).
That might sound like an innocuous desire to simply serve people rather than to play politics, but it’s the kind of flawed thinking that leads to Green’s inability to understand why Covid policy has also become politicized. If you’re going to be a women’s health provider in the United States at a time when attacking reproductive rights is a central feature of the US right-wing movement, then you’re going to have to engage in political struggle in order to simply deliver medical care. Similarly, the PCDC hasn’t made Covid a political battle—our political leaders and right-wing Covid deniers have.
This piece engaged very little with the substance of what the People’s CDC does, focusing more on the personalities involved and reactions to them than their actual work, message, context, arguments, criticisms or reasons for organizing. It wasn’t really even about the People’s CDC, more about the author’s own feelings on the state of the pandemic, and her judgements about what behavior she feels is appropriate.
For about a year, the author, Emma Green, has a clear ax to grind regarding non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs). Even the most cursory, superficial assessment of her other writing on the pandemic makes this quite obvious, for example: Green’s Atlantic piece (5/4/21) called “Liberals Who Can’t Quit Lockdown” accused people of being addicted to pandemic drama to the point that it prevented them from seeing the truth according to Green (that the pandemic is over, and masking/isolating when sick or exposed is overkill—dangerous, even—compulsive, irrational, crazy, etc.).
Note that since Green’s Atlantic article was published mocking “very liberal people” for being “very concerned” about getting sick from Covid, more than half a million more people in the US have died from the disease.
Dampening Covid’s severity
Green is not alone among corporate journalists who want to dampen the severity of Covid, and to paint health justice activists as howling utopians who let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The New York Times advocated for reopening New York City schools as Covid cases were spiking before vaccinations came online (FAIR.org, 12/9/20), and corporate media coverage of school Covid policy often neglected to get real input from educational workers (FAIR.org, 5/28/20). The New York Times has repeatedly thrown shame on China’s recently abandoned “zero Covid” policies (FAIR.org, 9/17/21, 1/20/22, 9/9/22), which, when in place, kept the Covid death toll in China far lower than it has been elsewhere.
The Washington Post (8/25/20) and the Atlantic (10/31/22) have given a huge platform to Brown University economist Emily Oster to push her questionable theory that early school closures were a mistake (Daily Kos, 10/31/22). In addition to support from the Walton Family Foundation (funded by the anti-union Walmart fortune), “Oster has received funding from far-right billionaire Peter Thiel,” a grant that “was administered by the Mercatus Center, the think tank founded and financed by the Koch family” (Protean, 3/22/22).
Most recently, the Wall Street Journal (1/9/23) blamed the intransigence of pro-vaccine advocates for Covid-fueling vaccine skepticism (Rasmussen, 12/7/22), as opposed to the enormous amount of anti-vaccine misinformation generally (Translational Behavioral Medicine, 12/14/21). The Journal has also shamed mask-wearing as social conformity (3/14/22) and dismissed the notion of mask mandates for air travel (4/21/22), essentially framing public health solutions as individual choices.
‘Time to move on’
Adler-Bolton sees this New Yorker piece as just the latest episode in a larger problem:
The most harmful thing about Green’s piece is not that she did not fairly/properly engage with the work People’s CDC is actually doing. It’s that her piece (and the many others like it that we often dissect on Death Panel) reinforces the individualization of public health, reducing it to a matter of individual behavior, political preference, or “personal choice,” which both obscures and undermines recognition that the pandemic and public health are collective phenomena shaped by policy choices (e.g., US lack of sick leave and Medicare-for-All, or changes in isolation guidelines from 10 to five days driven by economic priorities not virus, disease, changes in ways treat or stop spread of infections, etc.) and our political economy (ableism, racism, devaluation/dehumanization of poor people built into capitalism, etc.).
Like most of the rest of corporate centrist media, Green is not pushing right-wing Covid denialism, which centers on conspiracy theories about vaccines and virus origins. Rather, corporate media’s overarching message is that it’s “time to move on,” and that radicals holding on to masking and other precautions are impeding economic recovery. Getting people back to the office, and encouraging them to spend money on airplane travel and indoor sporting events, is about addressing the needs of commerce over the needs of public health.
The New Yorker piece quoted former CDC director Tom Friedan saying that the PCDC’s idea that the agency “is beholden to big business—this is just nonsense.” This appears to be a response to the group’s belief, as Green reports, that “the CDC’s data and guidelines have been distorted by powerful forces with vested interests in keeping people at work and keeping anxieties about the pandemic down.” She quotes one person with the group, “The public has a right to a sound reading of the data that’s not influenced by politics and big business.” That’s a level of critique that the New Yorker can’t stomach.
Recall Naomi Klein’s theory of “disaster capitalism”—the idea, outlined in her book The Shock Doctrine, that after Hurricane Katrina, for instance, the private sector took advantage of the chaos to remake New Orleans in its image, often for the worse when it came to the poor (Guardian, 7/6/17).
Covid gave us a different possibility: “disaster socialism” (Philadelphia Inquirer, 3/12/20). Free Covid testing and vaccine sites, the Paycheck Protection Program, eviction moratoriums, expansion of the child tax credit, the increased leverage of workers in the labor market, the use of the Defense Production Act to make ventilators and the National Guard to administer vaccines: All this was proof that the reason the United States doesn’t have robust government intervention into healthcare in normal times isn’t that it’s not possible, but that it’s a political choice.
The longer a crisis goes on, the more Americans become used to an alternative to “free-market” healthcare, and a new model becomes more and more normalized. PCDC is not just a response to the pandemic, but a movement that is using the crisis as a way to reimagine both healthcare and the economy. For the profiteers in this country, that’s a bad thing.
“The harm has been done, and a lot of work is going to be required to counter this narrative,” Adler-Bolton said of mainstream coverage of the PCDC and other activists, adding that this kind of coverage “serves to bolster the Biden administration against any criticism of its pandemic response.”