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Do They Give Pulitzers for Unearned Arrogance?

Alex Berenson and his former ‘New York Times’ colleagues use the coronavirus to compete for Most Obnoxious Award, as readers languish in the dark. A case study in media death.

Sean Cooper
April 27, 2020
Ramin Talaie/Getty Images
Ramin Talaie/Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic has poured barrels of gasoline upon the burning house fire of the American press. Certainly there was little to salvage from the flames before the outbreak, as over the past decade Google and Facebook have gobbled up 52% of all digital advertising while newspaper circulation has dipped to its lowest levels in 80 years and newsrooms have lost roughly half of their workforce. In the past five weeks, as the pandemic halted the global economy, 33,000 more media workers have been laid off, seen their salaries slashed, or been furloughed. One news industry analyst has concluded this will be American media’s “extinction-level event,” with not just a handful but rather hundreds of publications, print and digital, forced to close down.

Yes, so what of the American press post-virus? Ostensibly there will be at least a few left to gather news and disseminate information, the legacy news organizations and old magazine titles with just enough in the bank to continue publication. But anyone looking closely will find this version to be a lifeless hologram projected over the burned ashes of the 20th-century American press.

To get a sense of how the hologram wobbles, observe the recent dust-up over the heretical statements of the journalist turned mystery writer Alex Berenson, a respectably pedigreed desk jockey educated at Yale and then employed for over a decade at The New York Times. After a long stint reporting on the pharmaceutical industry, he wrote bestselling spy novels, along with a book last year linking violence and mental illness to the use of cannabis. Widely criticized by reviewers and medical experts from all quarters for making grand, simplified conclusions, such as marijuana use leads to “cases of schizophrenia that otherwise would not occur,” the book nonetheless found an audience among Tucker Carlson and the conservative-pundits class, who no doubt saw the ratings value in a former Times reporter sticking a finger in the eye of bougie weed enthusiasts.

Since March, Berenson has used his Twitter feed and appearances on conservative television broadcasts to vociferously criticize coverage of the pandemic by his former Times colleagues. Berenson’s very public outrage at the Times coverage, and the unusual counterresponses from those in the Times professional orbit, together reveal how American media and its presentation of the news has essentially bottomed out to the most crude and rudimentary worldview—a binary perspective that slices up reality into cartoonish conceptions of good and evil, the children’s storybook version of an ongoing national crisis.

For his part, Berenson has criticized the Times for what he sees as an exaggeration of the severity of the pandemic’s contagion—a frame that in turn substantiates the necessity of public lockdowns that Berenson argues have had a far more negative impact on the nation’s physical, mental, and economic well-being than warranted by the disease, particularly outside of hotspots like New York City. Former and current Times colleagues have responded in kind, taken to publicly insulting Berenson on social media with a weird mixture of bitterness and snobbery that conveys above all a sense of unearned entitlement. Neither posture seems particularly helpful to readers who are frightened about both their health and their livelihoods.

Last week, Berenson wrote on Twitter that the Times “continues to slide further into fiction this morning with this gem: the US needs ‘foreign doctors’ because hospitals ‘are scrambling to address a shortage of medical professionals ... (and keep) a full supply of health care workers.’”

Berenson’s critique here, like others he’s voiced, contains some actual merit.

What the Times represents accurately is that hospitals in pandemic hotspots like New York City are woefully understaffed to the point of flying in medical professionals to handle the surge of COVID-19 patients. (Indeed, the United States was already understaffed, previously on track to need a million more nurses alone, not including doctors and technicians, to maintain business as usual before the outbreak.)

What the Times misrepresents is that because of “travel restrictions imposed by President Trump,” foreign “nurses and doctors … ensnared by red tape and visa rules” have been unable to alleviate these pressing labor shortages.

Neatly fitting in with the Times’ often histrionic coverage of immigration issues over the past three years, this article acutely overstates the actual relationship between immigrant experience and the larger national context. The blunt, ideologically driven subtext here gives unearned credit to the Trump administration’s longstanding xenophobic voter prodding, suggesting that Trump’s populist nativism has stymied the noble immigrant workforce that would otherwise fix the hospital “backlog that sometimes forces people to wait hours to be admitted … potentially with life-threatening consequences.”

Yet Berenson does not bother to unpack the Times’ problematic—even crudely propagandistic—presentation. Rather, he responds with his own surface-level polemic, optimized for social media:

“Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, hospitals are desperately laying off employees because they’re so empty,” Berenson writes, alongside screenshots of headlines from four local news outlets reporting hundreds of hospital workers laid off in their regions.

Berenson, who did not respond to Tablet’s request for an interview, seems intent on showing that the Times is beating a drum on the severity of the pandemic, painting apocalyptic shortages in New York City as representative of conditions in all American hospitals, while ignoring the fact that tens of thousands of U.S. health care workers have actually been laid off or furloughed.

Berenson doesn’t address how much the Times is warping the extent to which the “1.5 million immigrants employed in health care” constitute the workforce as a whole, or how they could save strained hotspot hospitals. Indeed, the 1.5 million, per the latest figures from the U.S. Labor Department, is a fraction of the total 6,313,800 health care workers who could be tapped to fill these shortages.

Berenson avoids more complicated analysis to launch an oversimplified critique of an oversimplified news article, zeroing in on what he describes as the “narrative about the lockdowns that is increasingly divorced from reality.”

It was this point that appeared to activate Scott Shane, a longtime national security reporter who ended his 15-year tenure at the Times this past winter. “Somebody ruined your @nytimes theory,” Shane replies to Berenson’s thread, with a link to a Times story that 11 days prior described how “plunging revenues from canceled nonemergency medical appointments have forced hospitals to furlough or cut the pay” of staff across the country.

Shane’s dig was meant to show that the paper had in fact covered the story that Berenson claimed it had ignored. Yet Shane’s retort actually substantiates Berenson’s thesis, since it shows that the Times is reconfiguring the public record, as documented by its own reporters, in order to spin a new and different kind of story about medical facilities denied essential personnel by Trump administration immigration policy.

“Yeah, Scott, apparently whoever wrote that today didn’t bother to read that story. Which, as you point out, was in @nytimes. Maybe you should ask why,” Berenson writes.

“Alex, have you written anything other than tweets on COVID19? … I’d be interested in seeing your overall analysis,” Shane replied, adding, dutifully, as someone writing from the Twitter handle @ScottShaneNYT, “Personally, I think the NYT coverage has been excellent.” There, with perfect posture, his chin high, Shane pledges allegiance to the Times while sidestepping a discussion of the critique in favor of addressing the mode and manner of Berenson’s delivery.

The retort follows a pattern by others in the Times professional orbit who’ve struck back against Berenson’s Twitter crusade over the past several weeks. Michael Powell, a sports journalist at the Times, lodged his complaint against Berenson earlier this month on Twitter, suggesting Berenson didn’t understand how “appallingly obnoxious [he is],” adding that Berenson’s code of conduct amounts to “Frat Boy snarky bullshit. As I noted, there is a way to raise questions, and to critique, and to talk about how to reopen the economy.”

Yes, right, of course ... as noted, the proper way to raise questions, top of page 2, the Good Journalist’s Handbook … Whence critical of State Power be sure to abstain from trampling upon the flowers of civility …

Running two pieces on Berenson within the span of 10 days, Vanity Fair—which may become one more legacy title turned content-marketing blog for the ascendant class by the summer, as Condé Nast fires hundreds more from its skeleton magazine operation—cataloged the demerits Berenson has earned from the liberal media and their carefully manicured stable of experts. In the lengthier of the two pieces, Vanity Fair quotes a public health professor to dispute Berenson’s “analysis, such as COVID-19 presenting little threat to young people.”

“If the death rate is .04 for people under 50, that means tens of thousands of people could die if nothing was done,” the professor says. Yet Berenson has not advocated for “nothing” to be done. Likewise missing from the piece is that Berenson had been highly critical of this professor’s statements on the pandemic on his Twitter feed—a missing fact that sours the journalist’s already questionable inclusion of the professor’s personal attack: “He is somebody with a messianic complex,” the professor said of Berenson.

The article includes another professor, Dr. Joseph Vinetz, who Vanity Fair described as someone who “disputed Berenson’s contention that the health care system in the U.S. isn’t under strain.”

“People are under-using the system in terms of … elective procedures, so we don’t overwhelm the hospital system,” Vinetz said. “The fear of getting COVID-19 [is] why people are not coming into the hospitals.”

We might then ask, how has Joseph Vinetz reached his conclusion? Are hospitals nationwide undercapacity because people are staying home, or because they’re not getting sick enough to go to the hospital, or both? Initial studies have shown a much larger population might already be infected and not showing symptoms, though absent more rigorous testing no one yet knows for sure, which is to say, the good doctor speaks with premature confidence about the true rate of infection.

But there’s nothing like this kind of nuance in the article, which is written in the same Twitter crank vernacular that Berenson has himself relied upon to launch his critiques. “Why is this guy even getting any oxygen?” Vinetz said. “He should stick to his novel writing. He should go back to school to learn some science.”

Go do novel writing. Learn science.

In addition to revealing how woefully unprepared federal and state governments were to handle any kind of public health crisis, the coronavirus has confirmed that the rot of our media institutions is fatal—and not only to the journalists and the public officials who earn their stripes by participating in this media circus.

For many who’ve attacked Berenson, the latent issue is that he’s willingly discarded his media elite bona fides, trading in the value of his professional credential of a decade at the Times to slum it as a regular commentator on Fox. Berenson’s continued appearances on the conservative news circuit, and the sustained outrage to those appearances from the left, speak above all else to the anxiety seeping through a media ecosystem keenly aware that the trust and credentials so long inherently possessed by places like the Times are fast losing value with a general audience as well as the members of the media themselves. That anxiousness is expressed every time a former or current Times staffer or legacy magazine piece makes a focus of their critique the manner in which Berenson has scrutinized the public record.

“Friends going back years told me they are mystified at this most recent turn. Not at the cause, which could be a worthwhile one, but at the tone,” wrote Vanity Fair, quoting one friend who said, “I am completely mystified that he has taken this tone.”

The tone, the tone! Lucian, fetch the hounds, that tramp is back in the drive, and this time he’s pissing in the fountain!

What Vanity Fair means by tone, actually, is a deviation from the default behavioral deference a Times reporter should heed toward the media system that bestowed upon him a pass to the club. No doubt snide ostracization is a technique one learns early in their initiation, from page one of The Good Journalist’s Handbook: practice loyalty to the herd above all else …

The system that Americans still rely on for information in times of crisis is plainly broken. Simply put, the reporting and analysis should have always been above reproach. If dissent has any merit it should be taken up and reflected upon—regardless of who says it or how it is spoken.

Times reporter brain power might have gone toward rigorous investigations into why, for example, Sweden’s casual social distancing guidelines have flattened their curve while Japan’s own soft-touch approach has largely failed, and led to the rapid implementation of more stringent social movement restrictions. Instead, journalists and pundits function as team players for partisan political causes while using a pandemic as an excuse to peacock on social media and while trafficking in simplistic good versus evil nonsense. The safe sad bet here is that by the time the coronavirus has passed, media audiences will have become ever more disillusioned about supporting any journalistic enterprise, and soon there won’t be anyone left to ask questions.

Sean Patrick Cooper is a journalist who has contributed narrative features and essays to The New Republic, n+1, Bloomberg Businessweek, and elsewhere. His first book, The Shooter at Midnight: Murder, Corruption, and a Farming Town Divided will be published in April 2024 by Penguin.