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Thoughts on the Pulitzer Prize for Covid Coverage

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What a way to top off a year-and-a-half-long collapse of public confidence in once-respected institutions!

The Pulitzer Prize committee has given its award for “public service” to the New York Times for its team of reporters working on COVID-19. Stunning. As much as I’ve doubted the credibility of the Pulitzer (certainly since the Walter Duranty days), this is more egregious than I would have expected.

That team was headed by reporter Donald J. McNeil, who is now fired from the paper. Fox News has revealed that assuring that the paper would get the prize was a major motivation for his termination: the Times feared the accusations that McNeil used in racial slur in 2019 would derail the prize. They fired him. The tactic worked, and the prize was won.

When a friend texted me that McNeil had, in absentia, won the world’s most coveted journalism award, I didn’t believe him. I had to look it up. It was true, but I’m still astonished.

I’ve followed McNeil’s work since his February 27, 2020 podcast for the New York Times. Keep in mind that the virus had already been circulating in the US for three months. A new study reveals that there were already cases in five states as early as December 2019. It was already here and essentially unstoppable. We know that now, and this knowledge undermines the whole basis of the policy response.

There was no more need to panic on February 27 than there was on January 15, 2020 – or December 2019. There were no lockdowns at all. Life was normal. The virus spread as viruses do. No one was speaking publicly about panic. Most of the center-left press was saying rational things.

McNeil changed all that with this podcast, followed up by several more, plus many articles. “This one reminds me of what I have read about the 1918 Spanish influenza,” he said on the podcast. McNeil predicted millions dead, letting the host sum up: “2% lethality rate of 50% of the country.” Doing the math comes to 3.3 million.

The McNeil podcast was massively influential. So far as I can tell from my research, it was the first prominent presentation of full-on disease panic. It set the tone, not only for the Times but for the entire American and then world press. Within two weeks, nearly the entire media machinery jumped on board. And did not stop. Even to this day.

McNeil’s claim took no account of the 1,000 times difference in risk between the old and young. It drew not at all on what we already knew at the time about the danger in nursing homes. It said not a word about the 99.9% survival rate or that for most everyone under the age of 70, COVID-19 would be a minor annoyance that conferred long-lasting and robust immunity.

He pushed a widely extreme policy response. In his ideal, he said: “You can’t leave. You can’t see your families. All the flights are canceled. All the trains are canceled. All the highways are closed. You’re going to stay in there. And you’re locked in with a deadly disease. We can do it…”

Yes, he actually said this on the air. It was McNeil who started it all. On his own? On someone’s behalf? Was he merely a spokesman for a deeper agenda? We know now from the Fauci emails that McNeil had a correspondence with Fauci in the previous week. “I always answer your calls and emails,” Fauci wrote to him on February 21, 2020. We know that a week later, Fauci himself shifted his stance on lockdowns.

I do not doubt McNeil’s personal sincerity: he is a dedicated lockdowner, having pushed lockdowns in 2009 for H1N1. In 2020, he became even more strict than the worst of US stringencies: he later wrote an article calling for the grounding of all flights. The New York Times didn’t run it. He still favors doing that today.

The day after the podcast, he struck again, this time with an article that seems like dystopian science fiction. His article was “To Take On the Coronavirus, Go Medieval on It.” “Close the borders, quarantine the ships, pen terrified citizens up inside their poisoned cities,” he exhorted. “Harsh measures horrify civil libertarians, but they often save lives, especially when they are imposed in the early days.”

The New York Times found McNeil, with his deep baritone voice and authoritative way, to be irresistible in the search for more traffic or for a new experiment in totalitarianism. He was a main rhetorical driver of the lockdowns in the United States.

And yet today, the Times gets to hang a plaque on its wall, certifying its wonderful work in driving a policy agenda that wrecked freedom and prosperity in America for a disease with a 0.05% infection fatality rate for everyone under 70. Most deaths attributed to COVID-19 are 85 years and older.

Now a word about the “woke” hypocrisy of the Times itself. They fired the guy that they knew for sure would likely gain them what they want more than anything else, another addition to its Pulitzer arsenal. And they did it for shady reasons: they knew that McNeil did not utter the racial slur with malice. It was all about public relations, throwing their most valued reporter to the dogs so that it would thrive institutionally. Such astonishing cowardice.

It was my hope this time last year that profound regret would kick in even among political and media elites. They would see their errors, express some degree of remorse, and life would return to more-or-less normal. That’s nowhere near true. The Pulitzer award is about more than rewarding journalism; it is about codifying a narrative that the lockdowns were good and should be repeated again for the next crisis.

Much of the trends today in the US are about refusing to come to terms with the catastrophic policy response of 202. At 450 colleges today, students are not being allowed to return to campus without having been vaccinated, a policy that takes no account of natural immunities, the paucity of severe outcomes for this demographic, or the sketchy medical ethics of forcing kids to subject themselves to an experimental medical technology. Both California and New York are inches away from mandating vaccine passports that invade people’s privacy.

That eventually historians and others will come to see the grotesqueries of 2020 for what they were and still are. Of this I have no doubt. But we are a long way from that. The elites who gave us lockdowns are motivated more than ever to make good on their revolution against freedom. This is why they push vaccine passports, segregation based on medical status, continued masking in airports and on public transit.

It is also why there is so little discussion about the growing reports of vaccine side effects. I’ve been reluctant to raise this topic, but there will be no suppressing this if problems continue to worsen. Already we’ve seen 31,475 cases of myocarditis/pericarditis among people under 30 who have taken the jab. If you think the side effect reports are nothing but hype, check out this piece by Alex Berenson on his blog.

News reports keep telling us that the vaccine is still safer than getting the virus but the experts have been so wrong about so much for the last 18 months, it’s hard just to acquiesce to the latest promises.

The human unwillingness to admit error is a powerful force. People will inflict unthinkable harm on the world, especially the most vulnerable, rather than admit that they were wrong all along. They are right now rushing in a panic to entrench their policies before a possible political upheaval in 18 months.

Meanwhile, we are left with amazing carnage, among which is economic. The spending, printing, and debt are continued side effects of lockdowns that will slowly do their damage. How much and with what results is a matter for guessing right now, and most of us toggle between thinking it won’t be so bad and realizing it could be worse than anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes.

But, hey, at least the Times has a Pulitzer Prize to show for it.

Author

  • Jeffrey A. Tucker is Founder and President of the Brownstone Institute and the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press and ten books in 5 languages, most recently Liberty or Lockdown. He is also the editor of The Best of Mises. He writes a daily column on economics at The Epoch Times, and speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.


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