When journalists make mistakes, their editors typically address them by appending a correction to the original article or, in extreme cases, issuing a full retraction.
Such formal notices are all well and good, but they do little to solve a growing problem in mainstream media: the creation and defense of narratives, often ideologically motivated, that deliberately mislead readers over time in numerous articles and opinion pieces, often in service to some perceived greater good. For the damage these narratives cause, we need a more effective statement than a mere correction: We need a journalistic mea culpa. The mea culpa goes further. It is a statement of fault, an admission that one should have known better.
Consider the narratives promoted in the mainstream media about Covid-related school closures and mask mandates since early 2020. In articles and opinion pieces in major newspapers and magazines, and on nearly every cable-news network, the singular message was that schools should remain closed as long as possible to “protect” children (who were, it was clear from the very earliest days of the pandemic, the least vulnerable to Covid-related complications and death), and once schools reopened and vaccinations were widely available, even the very youngest children should mask and maintain Covid protocols that would do little to protect them from the minimal risk they faced.
Anyone who spoke against this narrative and pointed to the serious harm such policies inflicted on children was dismissed as a science-denier, a grandma-killer, or a kook.
Strange, then, that in a recent piece in the New York Times, reporters explored the devastating emotional and educational consequences of extended school closures as if they were somehow just discovering them for the first time. “American schoolchildren’s learning loss in the pandemic isn’t just in reading and math. It’s also in social and emotional skills—those needed to make and keep friends; participate in group projects; and cope with frustration and other emotions,” wrote Claire Cain Miller and Bianca Pallaro. They noted: “Nearly all the counselors, 94 percent, said their students were showing more signs of anxiety and depression than before the pandemic. Eighty-eight percent said students were having more trouble regulating their emotions. And almost three-quarters said they were having more difficulty solving conflicts with friends.” Other stories in major outlets have documented the sharp increase in drug- and alcohol-related deaths among children during the pandemic years.
It’s a horrible story, and the negative long-term consequences for America’s schoolchildren couldn’t be clearer. And yet there is no mention in these articles of the many parent groups and activists and red-state politicians who had consistently challenged the forced isolation of children. Indeed, you must wade nearly to the end of the story before you will find mention of “one factor” that might have had something to do with the current pediatric mental-health and educational crisis: “One factor associated with more issues, the survey suggested, was how long a school was closed; other research has shown similar findings.” The reporters observed: “At schools closed to in-person learning for a year and a half or more, three-quarters of the counselors said children were physically fighting more often, compared with less than half at schools that were open longer.”
There’s been a similar tone shift on mask mandates. After arguing for the necessity of mask mandates for two years, the New York Times recently acknowledged, almost as an afterthought, in a daily newsletter written by David Leonhardt, that they do not work.
In fact, states that had restrictive mask mandates did no better with regard to Covid case rates and death rates than states that did not have mandates. “The evidence suggests that broad mask mandates have not done much to reduce Covid caseloads over the past two years,” Leonhardt noted. “Today, mask rules may do even less than in the past, given the contagiousness of current versions of the virus.” He added: “In U.S. cities where mask use has been more common, Covid has spread at a similar rate as in mask-resistant cities. Mask mandates in schools also seem to have done little to reduce the spread.”
It is now even permitted for reporters to add the context that was sorely lacking from so many pieces about masking and schools and children over the past two years—namely, as Leonhardt notes, that “for young children, who are not yet eligible for the vaccine, Covid is overwhelmingly mild, similar in severity to the flu.”
If you had posted something to that effect on social media just a year ago, you risked being banned from platforms such as Twitter. When parents protested before school boards in places such as Virginia against continued mask mandates for school children, they were labeled domestic terrorists and threatened with investigation from the Department of Justice. Now here comes the New York Times casually stating the same thing as if this has just now become newsworthy.
Those in positions of power in the mainstream media refused to listen to critical voices, including medical professionals who warned them of the dangers.
And happy that President Donald Trump was defeated for reelection, they failed to hold Joe Biden to account when it became clear that he came into office beholden to the teachers’ unions, who wanted to extend school closures long past the point of any even remotely defensible public health argument. As a result, media downplayed or ignored evidence that Joe Biden’s people at the Centers for Disease Control allowed the unions to dictate policies, including extending school closures and harmful masking, social distancing, and quarantine policies that had made the education of America’s young all but impossible.
As Alex Gutentag wrote recently in Tablet about the role the medical and public health establishments played in promoting these harmful policies: “To many doctors and scientists, the damage to kids caused by Covid-19 panic was neither inevitable nor surprising. Rather, it was the result of the public health establishment’s conscious choice to eschew rational cost-benefit analysis in favor of pet cultural theories and political gamesmanship.”
Physicians and public health professionals who challenged the dominant narrative were attacked as right-wing conspiracy theorists. “What happened to the United States’ kids was not the result of an innocent mistake,” Gutentag notes. “It was the product of a concerted campaign of censorship and demonization of dissenting voices in support of premises that turned out to be wildly harmful to children.”
And it didn’t matter that the reasons they cited had nothing to do with science. Recall that Cecily Myart-Cruz, the head of the Los Angeles teachers’ union, claimed that reopening schools was “a recipe for propagating structural racism,” or as the Chicago Teachers Union tweeted, “the push to reopen schools is rooted in sexism, racism, and misogyny.”
They could not have done any of this without the assistance of a mass-media establishment that pushed that narrative. But the recent spate of mainstream pieces stating what many non-mainstream sources have been writing about for years does not have the tone of a reckoning. Instead, they sound like an effort to memory-hole the knowingly false narrative that they propagated. As one physician told Tablet, the media’s recent “discovery” of the harm that school closures inflicted is “the height of gaslighting.”
It was not Covid but the poor policymaking decisions of those in power that led to these ill effects. Prestige media refused to do its job and question those decisions, while also attacking the medical professionals and politicians who did. It failed to subject to any serious critical scrutiny the public health bureaucrats whose claims conflicted with the evidence before parents’ eyes. And it turned a blind eye to the manipulations of political interest groups such as the teachers’ unions.
The media that claim to hold the powerful accountable instead chose to aid and abet those in power by promoting narratives that suited their own ideological assumptions, including the assumption that liberal technocrats, public health bureaucrats, Democrats, and teachers’ unions knew better than anyone else what was best for America’s children.
The evidence is now in.
Where’s the mea culpa?
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