BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Bob Garfield is out this week. I'm Brooke Gladstone. After Donald Trump's presidential campaign--
PRESIDENT TRUMP We have large Arab populations. They were cheering as the World Trade Center came down. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE and inauguration
PRESIDENT TRUMP We had the biggest audience in the history of inaugural speeches. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE There already was a widespread understanding across the political spectrum and certainly in the mainstream media--
PRESIDENT TRUMP I called the fake news the enemy of the people, and they are, they are the enemy of the people. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE --that the inner life of Donald J. Trump was provisional and largely untethered to reality, except when it served his interests. This, of course, was disquieting, to say the least, but only became truly terrifying when one considered the stakes. What if what if the nation faced a genuinely existential threat and that reality did not serve the president? What if a nation under threat and in need of protection could not rely on a single word that Trump and his surrogates said?
NEWS REPORT Just yesterday, Mr Trump attacked press outlets. He doesn't like claiming they're trying to make him look bad by inducing panic. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And on Friday, Trump's chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, suggested that people ignore Coronavirus news in order to calm the markets. On Thursday, the White House ordered government, health officials and scientists to coordinate all public messaging through the office of Vice President Mike Pence. He who delayed so he could reportedly pray on a clean needle exchange that would have prevented well over 100 additional infections during an Indiana HIV outbreak in 2015. He who wrote as recently as 2000 that smoking does not kill. He would be the point man for information about this highly contagious, almost pandemic viral infection called COVID-19. In 2014 at the height of Ebola deaths in western Africa and at the height of Ebola panic here in the U.S., we produced an infectious disease edition of our Breaking News Consumers Handbook. We advised that early reports are often frantic and incomplete and that noise levels wouldn't necessarily match risk levels. And that if the CDC says don't worry, don't worry. But this time, the CDC is worried. Here's Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases on Tuesday.
NANCY MESSONNIER It's not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness. I had a conversation with my family over breakfast this morning and I told my children that while I didn't think that they were at risk right now, we as a family need to be preparing for a significant disruption of our lives.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Such a disruption here would come as quite a shock to many, but not to Pulitzer Prize winning science writer Laurie Garrett, author of The Coming Plague, who's observed many outbreaks up close and whose mission lately has been to inform fellow Americans about the nature of contagions and offer reliable advice to a nation of people more accustomed to being, as she calls them, epidemic voyeurs.
LAURIE GARRETT Well, we've not had a serious epidemic in the United States except HIV in well over 100 years. We've witnessed the pain, the agony, the struggles from afar, you know, Zika in Brazil or Ebola in Democratic Republic of Congo. Now we're really facing the probability that we will not just be witnessing, we'll be experiencing. And then we'll find out what is the mettle of Americans.
BROOKE GLADSTONE One of the defining stories of the Trump era has been the gutting of the federal bureaucracy. Could you paint a picture of what it's like for the agencies with jurisdiction over the Coronavirus?
LAURIE GARRETT In America, public health is a city local function. You know, you go to one jurisdiction and they have one public health nurse paid for by their local government and one tiny laboratory. And you go to the next jurisdiction, say New York, and they have giant laboratories filled with literally thousands of employees whose job it is to ensure that New Yorkers continue to have the longest life expectancy of any major city in North America. And we do the federal role is very limited. The Centers for Disease Control, based in Atlanta, Georgia, can't march in to an epidemic and say we're in charge here. So when we ask, well, what will we do if COVID-19 strikes this country? The CDC has the guidance, the bully pulpit, the expertise, but they will not be running the response.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We had a breaking news consumers handbook a while back called the Infectious Disease Edition. And one of the things we recommended to news consumers is that if the CDC says worry than worry, take precautions. If the CDC says don't worry, don't worry. Is that still true?
LAURIE GARRETT Well, let's see how that played out this week at the White House.
NEWS REPORT Here's the president's tweet from a short time ago blaming the media. He says, “low ratings and fake news, Comcast and CNN are doing everything possible to make the coronavirus look as bad as possible.” [END CLIP]
LAURIE GARRETT Rush Limbaugh had fueled this.
RUSH LIMBAUGH The coronavirus being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump.
Gotta clarify this, Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the Centers for Disease Control, which today warned it could be bad. It might be bad.
Is the sister of the former deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. [END CLIP]
LAURIE GARRETT The president will make some assertion or one of his economic advisers will make an assertion all intended clearly to calm the stock markets.
LARRY KUDLOW I don't want to negate that. I'm just saying. All I can do is look at the numbers. Numbers are saying the U.S. is holding up nicely. [END CLIP]
LAURIE GARRETT All of it meant to undermine this notion that America is facing a grave risk. On the other hand, we now know that he went into a screaming fit when he found out that the State Department agreed to evacuate American passengers on the Princess Cruise line who were known to be infected and bring them back, put them in an Air Force base quarantine situation. The president went nuts at first and then said it was a very great thing to do. It was the right thing to do. And none of it was following the advice of the scientists at the CDC. So the question is, who are we believing?
BROOKE GLADSTONE The WHO? Anyone? Can you rely on anyone to give you good information? I read recently that: raise the humidity in your house - that will help you resist the virus.
LAURIE GARRETT Well, whoever said that is a nut. The real decider for your community, is your local public health department. Your local health departments will make pronouncements and decisions that hopefully will really reflect both the risk environment that you're in and some accuracy about what you should do. Here's the key trust issue we face right now: in the United States so far, 426 people have been tested for coronavirus, 426 people out of, you know, more than 300 million Americans. In South Korea, they've tested more than 35,000 people in Seoul alone. We have no idea what level of silent infection there may be out there. The CDC developed a test kit and sent it out to the states and it didn't work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And yet Secretary of Health Alex Azar earlier this week said, no, no, no.
ALEX AZAR That's simply, flatly incorrect. The diagnostic works at CDC and at 12 sites, it has been validated. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Just as the head of the CDC was saying in another press conference how frustrated she was that the kits weren't working.
LAURIE GARRETT Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So, you know.
LAURIE GARRETT We have a real credibility question on diagnostics. We've been very huffy about it. Oh, Americans, we have, we have the best science in the world. We'll have test kits in no time at all. Well, meanwhile, in China, they've tried everything. They've tried crisper base tests, RTPCR, Illumina analysis, you name it. And they are experiencing false negative rates as high as 50 percent.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Wow.
LAURIE GARRETT So let's get real America. You think we wave magic wand and have perfect tech and the rest of the world is racing to catch up with us. But in fact, the Chinese are way ahead of us right now on the technology of testing. The president said we'll have a vaccine in a couple of months based on nothing. People who seem to be cured in other countries go out of the hospital and then two, three weeks later, they test positive. That implies that their immune systems are not sterilizing the virus out of their bodies. That could mean that human beings will have difficulty mounting immunity based on a vaccine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE One of the things in our old infectious disease Breaking News Consumer's Handbook was to urge people to understand that Hollywood is pretend, Hollywood is pretend.
LAURIE GARRETT I was one of the three scientific advisors on the film Contagion.
[CONTAGION FILM CLIP]
LAURIE GARRETT We went to great lengths to make it as accurate as we possibly could. Many of the things that you see in the background in Contagion are things that I've either personally seen happen or that we role-play--the empty shelves in the stores, the robberies of pharmacies, people at gunpoint trying to get food, the breakdown of trucking, shipping, delivery, the “you're on your own hunker down inside your home,” until the all clear sign is given, hospitals running out of equipment, the point at which there's nobody to come collect the bodies. These were all based on real tabletop exercises and we've seen them now playing out in China and the reaction in the stock market is about, wow, we didn't really get that the supply chains would be disrupted. We didn't really get that we wouldn't be able to make cars anymore. We didn't understand that an epidemic way over there could mean that I can't get my iPhone over here. When Larry Kudlow said rather smugly in the White House this week, well, I guess we have to reconsider our supply chains, as if he was saying our take home message on this epidemic is screw China, let's open factories in Vietnam.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We have a not dissimilar clip from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Fox Business last week.
WILBUR ROSS I think it will help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America, some to U.S>, probably some to Mexico as well.
Oh, that's a good point. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Hurray?
LAURIE GARRETT You know, it's interesting. Nouriel Roubini, who coined the phrase Black Swan--
BROOKE GLADSTONE An event that has no precedent--
LAURIE GARRETT no precedent and cannot be anticipated, but will have profound impacts across many aspects of society, including the economy. Well, Nouriel Roubini was saying this is my definition of a black swan. We are in it. Then all our role playing, what we see is that as a black swan epidemic event plays out, the social cohesion breaks down. You get fragmentation across society. There's another layer to that fragmentation that is already playing out, maybe even ahead, a step ahead of the fragmentation. And that is the lies, the deceit, the disbelief, the disinformation that is just flooding social media, just filling the airwaves, filling even reasonable newspaper accounts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what are the big lies?
LAURIE GARRETT I've been dissecting the big lies of the Chinese. You can see in real time the censors pull things out. Often, the thing that's disappearing is the news that really mattered. That's really true. Boom! Gone. Bye bye. But here we have the opposite situation. We have almost zero censorship, and in that cacophony of malevolent evil troll deliberately wrong. And we know the Russians are putting out a lot of troll deliberately wrong information right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Like what?
LAURIE GARRETT Like that this all came out of a biological weapons lab. And I can tell you that in every epidemic I have ever been in, the notion that the microbe was made by an evil force in a laboratory always comes up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yes. So that's one class of lies.
LAURIE GARRETT One class the second class of lies is the government is covering up and they're lying to you. And it's much, much worse than you think. Not surprisingly, that turns out not to be a lie most of the time if the country you're hearing that in is China or Iran. Right now here in the United States, that is a lie because we're not even testing, so there's nothing to cover her up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Our president says we have it all under control. And then he says, with luck, we'll skate through. It's a bit of a mixed message.
LAURIE GARRETT But it's not cover up of actual data because we don't have data.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Right. Right.
LAURIE GARRETT But that takes me to category number three, which is the big lie that's based entirely on politics. In South Korea, their huge epidemic is now the second largest on the planet. Really grew out of this strange Christian cult. And it's not a small cult. It's like a quarter of a million followers. And whatever it is that they do at their gatherings involves a lot of physical contact between people. One person had the virus and spread it through the whole congregation. And now every day, the majority of the cases ticking through as newly positive are connected to this church. Well, initially, there was a real attempt by the government to downplay the role of this church and to look at other possibilities of transmission and so on. We're only now realizing that's because the person named to be in charge of the entire epidemic response of South Korea is himself a member of the church and is himself infected.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In terms of American red flags, what are you seeing now that is most disturbing?
LAURIE GARRETT Brooke, I'll tell you what really is worrying me about the United States. We're in a national election year. We're politically civil war scale divided. And you're already beginning to see narratives that track politically. So, if you support the president, then you think that this is all overstated. I have had death threats. You know, you should be skinned alive, you fear-mongering, lying. I can't even repeat what they write. And then on the other side, you have the progressive voice saying, “this is all showing that the Republicans have torn down big government and big government was there to protect you. And now you're defenseless and you can't trust the government and they're all going to lie to you and we're all going to be overwhelmed by this horrible epidemic.” Both extremes do a disservice to having a rational discourse that gets us as a solidarity driven people through an outbreak. This outbreak is going to question the very notion of what is a community in America. We've never been less unified in modern time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, more with Laurie Garrett on how taking bad advice can be hazardous to your health and where to find the good stuff. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone with the second half of my conversation, or interrogation of science journalist and epidemic expert Laurie Garrett. This is about how we can protect ourselves against a threat that we still don't understand. Where are the sources of good information? News you can actually use?
LAURIE GARRETT Well, there are few of us. I think Jon Cohen from Science magazine, Kai Kupferschmidt also from Science magazine, Helen Branswell from STAT, which is a medical news outlet, has been excellent. Tom Inglesby from Johns Hopkins has really been fantastic. I wrote in early January a long piece on how individuals can protect themselves, what works, what doesn't.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Where's that?
LAURIE GARRETT And that is on the Foreign Policy Magazine website. And you can pull it up. Just search under my name. And at my request, foreign policy translated into Chinese and I know that it's had like 12 million reads in China. And I wanted to produce a series of two to three minute videos that we would pop up on YouTube that would say, here's how to ride a subway safely. Here's when you need to wear a mask and here's when it's stupid to wear one. Here's how you should use towels in your home in a way that you don't end up having the towel be the vector for spreading a virus through your entire household, to show people you can survive this, but you have to take common sense precautions. And that begins with forget about the masks. You can't buy off the shelf a mask that works.
BROOKE GLADSTONE These construction masks only filter out huge particles of dust.
LAURIE GARRETT Huge particles.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You need a special mesh to catch a virus.
LAURIE GARRETT Exactly. And if you have the right mask, you can only work for a maximum of about four hours because the moisture from your own exhalation deteriorates that mesh network. If you could get six thousand masks to stockpile in your home that were the appropriate masks, then I would say, you know what? They shouldn't be there for you. They should be for your health providers. Your stockpile means that there's a nurse risking her life without those masks and you don't need them. You need social distancing. You and I are sitting in a studio and we're just about the right social distance apart about four feet. Yeah. So if I were coughing, it's not going into your airspace.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What about holding a subway pole?
LAURIE GARRETT So I wear Lycra gloves that I wash every night and I'm very careful when I remove them to make sure that I don't do what most of us do is remove one glove and then with the bare hand, put it around the outside of the other glove, remove it. And now that bare hand is contaminated, just wash your hands all the time
BROOKE GLADSTONE and don't touch your face. I touch my face even more than in Contagion, Kate Winslet says:
KATE WINSLET the average person touches their face three to five times every waking. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE I probably touch mine 10000 times a day.
LAURIE GARRETT It's a real conscious thing when I'm in outbreaks. Every time I start to see, feel my hand going to say wipe a tear from the eye or a quick rub of the nose that you don't even consciously think about. I, soon as I feel my hand doing that. It's like, stop it and it pull the hand away. You have to learn to not touch your face and teach your children to not touch their faces.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Often we have found that science and health reporters are versed in the course of these epidemics, the arc of the coverage and they urge the media and people in general to calm down as in the coverage of Ebola a few years back. Do you think calm down is still an appropriate message when it comes to COVID-19?
LAURIE GARRETT Well, I don't think scaring for the sake of scaring is ever justified. I mean, even if we were under direct military assault, yes, we should be scared. But you can't act out of fear. You have to act out of a plan. And this is the other makes my blood boil problem with where we are right now. We had a plan for how the U.S. government would work, how it would coordinate with the state governments. We had training exercises for doctors and nurses all over America so that when an epidemic would arrive, we had a chain of command. We knew where to send samples. Everybody knew which agencies were responsible for what. And that's gone, thanks to the Trump administration. The Vice President of the United States, a man who literally said as governor of Indiana that he would pray for the people with HIV AIDS and that their disease would go away through prayer. That this is the man now designated in charge. Up until now, Pence's portfolio has been one thing: space force. Now its space force and protecting, you know, 300 plus million Americans against a new disease.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We always say here that news consumers can benefit from keeping some historical perspective and I just wonder whether in American public health history we could find something useful to us to navigate the moment. H1N1, HIV AIDS, Zika, the 1918 plague. I mean, does anything give us guidance in this moment?
LAURIE GARRETT H1N1, otherwise known as the 2009 swine flu, actually started in America. It started in our pork industry. It spread to farmworker communities in California and Texas, but was missed entirely until it exploded in Mexico. And very quickly from Mexican resort areas it came back via kids coming home from spring break to New York City and boom. Within six months, every single continent, including Antarctica, had H1N1. It was probably the most contagious influenza we've experienced in our lifetime. But fortunately, one of the lowest virulence ones. So, you know, a garden variety flu has about a 0.1 percent mortality rate and that one probably was about a 0.01 percent. It didn't kill any more people than a normal flu year. But the bad news is it showed that none of our defense mechanisms worked. Every country did the same stuff we're doing right now, shut down airports, screen people at airports, hoard masks, hoard Tamiflu, the only drug that was thought to have any efficacy at all. It got everywhere. That was a warning sign to the whole world that we weren't ready and that whatever level of globalization and kumbaya we all thought we were in didn't work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What year are we talking about?
LAURIE GARRETT 2009. Didn't work when you got slammed. Now, we're not even pretending there's a kumbaya moment on the world stage. You know, we've killed globalization. Make America great again. Make France great again. Make Germany great again. Make China great again, etc. I'll tell you how bad it is, Brooke. The WHO has now put out three statements saying this is how much money we need to fight this pandemic. They've gotten like 100 million dollars, their entire PR operation in headquarters, I would say the only barrier between public hysteria, unreasonably accurate calm information every day about this pandemic, that entire barrier, you want to guess how deep that benches in Geneva?
BROOKE GLADSTONE I have no idea.
LAURIE GARRETT Well, it's basically five people with a support staff of another five.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Wow.
LAURIE GARRETT And they're working in every time zone. They're multilingual. And they have one person handle all social media of planet Earth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So just to finish this up on a communications basis, communication is probably the most crucial element in any existential threat. We're in an era where competing realities exist side by side by side in a time when we desperately need a common pool of information from which to draw. So what would be your advice?
LAURIE GARRETT Well, you're exactly right. And again, that's not unprecedented. I mean, let's keep in mind that in the 14th century, one angry priest could get an entire village to kill every single Jew and say that's the way to end this plague. Disinformation and an outbreak has consequences. As we saw in the 1980s, with the early arrival of HIV, children's homes were burned to the ground by angry mobs because the kids had hemophilia and had acquired HIV in blood transfusions. And that is the basis of the Ryan White Act, which funded treatment and care for people with HIV. He was a victim of just such an assault. Just because we know more biology today doesn't mean we're more sophisticated in how we respond politically, how we respond as human beings and where we balance compassion against, “I don't care if you're dying. I've got to run off and take care of my 4 year old and my home.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE So whereas the inoculation for that?
LAURIE GARRETT The inoculation used to be profound religious leaders that set a moral standard and smart political leaders who set a sense of governance and what are the standards in the bars and an agile governance. If one policy didn't work, you swiftly moved to plan A and plan B and so on. We don't have either of those right now. I mean, religion is itself a force of divisiveness in America. And of course, when it comes to politics, 20 people in a room is 20 people screaming at each other, even if they're all Democrats. And so I would just put in a big plus for those of us that are science journalists who had training in the sciences. I was myself originally an immunologist, a bench scientist before I came to journalism. And I have many colleagues with really profound backgrounds, PHDs in the sciences. I think we bring to the table a very different attitude. We want to go where the data takes us and when the data is not clear, we want to be able to say, here's the arguments in favor of this interpretation. Here's the arguments in favor of that interpretation. We like the gray areas. The problem is mainstream media, the Twitter feed or the five-second scream on radio or TV has no tolerance for gray areas. We have to get off our high horse and arrogance as human beings and say, all right, time to hit the laboratory, time to understand that plan A might not work and plan B might have to be taken. And it doesn't mean that the people advocating Plan A, were all idiots. It doesn't mean that they deserve political attack. It doesn't mean that we should hang them from the rafters. It means we're being subjected to an unknown and we have to test and try and test and try until we find our way through this. And I just would finally say it's not going to happen fast, people. This virus is going to be with us for a long time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. This virus, so contagious and so alien, has been called a black swan event.
PHIL TETLOCK The idea comes from the fact that Europeans didn't know about the existence of black swans until they got to Australia. Black swans were thought unthinkable. And that's a metaphor for things that are radically unpredictable. Nobody saw them coming. But after the fact, everybody has an explanation for them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We spoke to Phil Tetlock, professor of psychology and management at the University of Pennsylvania, back in November of 2016 when the newly elected president was being called one.
PHIL TETLOCK Donald Trump, it's not a totally black swan. He's more of a dark gray swan. There were people in the summer of 2015 who thought he had some low probability chance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What will happen? We don't know. The scientists studying the virus, they live with uncertainty. But we have a whole industry based on the belief that the perfect combination of experience and instinct can extinguish uncertainty, whether the subject is markets.
NEWS REPORT The consumers are in great shape...
Should Americans be freaking out? I don't think so. And I will tell you why.
Lots of earnings next week. OK? But they’ll matter less than the coronavirus.[END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE or the subject is politics.
NEWS REPORT Trump is America's summer fling.
I think last night is the beginning of the end for Trump.That is my prediction.
Bernie Sanders won't be the nominee in 2020 just like he wasn't the nominee in 2016 because he still has the same…[END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE As the battle for the Democratic nomination rages on, as the stock market plummets, as coronavirus spreads at an unpredictable rate and yet inexorably in our direction, pundits continue to stake claims on what will and will not be.
PHIL TETLOCK The question in this situation isn't, you know, did you see it extremely gray swan from a long distance, which very few people are ever going to be able to do. The question is, how quickly do you change your mind as new evidence comes in?
BROOKE GLADSTONE New York Times opinion columnist Farhad Manjoo was losing the prediction game when, after imploring readers to stay calm in the face of the Coronavirus last week, it became obvious this week that the reality of the looming pandemic was nothing to sneeze at. Manjoo wrote how last weekend, “I was looking for N-95 masks online and my wife and I began reigning in family vacation plans for the summer. It's all a swift reversal from the insistent, don't worry tone of my last column.”
FARHAD MANJOO The change in the facts on the ground got me thinking about how we in the pundit class think about threats and think about the world these days. I think a lot of us have noticed it since 2016, maybe or maybe since 2008 or maybe since 2000. The world seems to be getting more and more complicated and the stories that come at us are more surprising.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You wrote In the last couple of decades, the world has become unmoored, crazier, somehow messier. The black swans are circling, chaos monkeys have been unleashed. You know, events that upend the historical expectations and so the prediction game is increasingly perilous.
FARHAD MANJOO Yeah. I mean, we saw this very clearly in 2016 where every pundit, everyone who had been looking at the polls first thought Trump wouldn't win the nomination. Then there were sort of all of this machinations regarding the general election itself. And, you know, by the election, almost everyone who followed elections was surprised by the outcome. And we saw this with Brexit, we see it now in the Democratic primary six months ago. I don't think many people thought that Bernie Sanders would be at the top at this point. He had a heart attack. We're in this moment where prediction has become more difficult. And I argue it's because in various ways that I think we notice we have a lot of unknowns. The way that communication is changing, the way the business is changing because of globalization, because of instant travel, climate change, there's all of these big forces changing how human society works. I think it should invite among pundits this embrace of uncertainty.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Maybe the stability we thought we were living in was false. And if you go back to the period in between the great wars and the 60s and so on, there was always a sense of impending apocalypse. What do you think makes this period of uncertainty potentially different from earlier ones?
FARHAD MANJOO That there may be some reality, some version of the world that I am not seeing that contains the truth that I will miss either, because I am focusing on certain news sites or talking to certain people through social networks and I'm kind of missing the bigger picture, that's somebody else's reality might be the correct one and you because of your bubble or in the wrong one. I mean, people thought that in 2016 I think they should have noticed that they were not noticing substantial facts on the ground that could have given them an insight into maybe Trump was doing better than they thought they were. And maybe that's happening in lots of places, we’re just kind of missing facts because we have differing views of reality.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And yet, as you wrote, certainty is often a crucial part of commentary. A couple of years ago, we spoke with Phil Tetlock, a professor of psychology and management at the University of Pennsylvania, and he picked up on Isaiah Berlin's famous essay, Dividing Thinkers Into Hedgehogs and Foxes. Tetlock divides TV pundits the same way, and he found that hedgehogs far outnumber the foxes.
PHIL TETLOCK And there's a pretty obvious reason for that. The hedgehogs give the media the soundbites that they want. Hedgehogs have one big idea. They try to assimilate everything into that big idea. And that makes for a compelling narrative package. Foxes are more likely to interrupt their flow of thought with things like but, however, although, so that led me to propose one very simple rule of thumb for distinguishing more fox-like from more hedgehog-like pundit. Foxes are more likely to say, however, and hedgehogs are more likely to say moreover. However, over moreover ratio.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So have you ever felt the pressure to be a hedgehog?
FARHAD MANJOO I mean, I think we all do. Yeah, and I think I would add something, which is that the kind of media formats that we deal in now, Kyron's on cable news or tweets. If you write a headline that is certain and it promises something, it's going to get a lot more clicks than if you're a little bit unsure about things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So given what you've observed and what you expressed, what percentage of your columns have been focused on prediction and do you plan on maybe ratcheting that down?
FARHAD MANJOO Yes, I do plan on ratcheting it down. One thing I have tried to do more often in my columns recently is less prediction and more, this sounds bad, but like moralizing. A lot of times people shy away from saying what's definitively right and wrong in the world, and I think I try to do that more often. I mean, I wrote a column last year saying that we should abolish billionaires. That wasn't a prediction. It was just like, I think that it's the right thing to do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's a more level playing field than making cases for things that are really impossible to foresee. What's your advice for news consumers?
FARHAD MANJOO The fact that the future is complicated makes us cling to people who offer certainty, and that kind of certainty is not in the offing. I mean, a few months ago, people were convinced that the economy is going to be strong for the next several years. But we were in a kind of a new place in the economy. And now the virus seems to be undoing a lot of that. And those kinds of out of the blue things can just happen at any time. And we should just be open to the possibility that everyone you see on TV or on Twitter has no idea what they're talking about because they don't know the unexpected thing that's going to come about tomorrow.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Farhad thank you very much.
FARHAD MANJOO Thank you. Great to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Farhad Manjoo is an opinion columnist at The New York Times. Coming up, when you dismiss a swing voter as a non-voter, you may very well lose your presidential race. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. If you're a Democrat running for the White House, you can make your case for defeating Trump with the persuasion theory whereby you draw moderate Democrats and disaffected Republicans into your purplish boudoir. Or you can make your case with the expansion theory whereby you boost turnout by sounding Klaxons, giving free rides to the polls, talking about civic duty and tailoring your message to the marginalized and the youths. Veteran political operative James Carville hates the expansion theory.
JAMES CARVILLE The entire theory that by expanding the electorate increase in turnout in an election is the equivalent of climate deny. If you're voting for him because you think he'll win the election, but he'll galvanize heretofore sleeping parts of the electorate, then politically you're a fool. [END CLIP]
IBRAM X KENDI There's this fear that if Sanders or even Warren is the nominee for the Democratic Party, that they will lose, that they are not electable, that only moderates are electable because they fear they will alienate swing voters. They're thinking of white people who swing from voting Republican to voting Democrat.
BROOKE GLADSTONE If regular voters are scrutinized, just imagine how pundits probe swing voters, all the while missing an important voting bloc hiding in plain sight. Ibram X Kendi, executive director of the Anti-racist Research and Policy Center at American University and author of How to Be an Anti-racist calls that unseen block the other swing voter. Someone who is not disengaged but who is unsatisfied and unwilling to cast a ballot for those who neither serve nor even recognize them. Kendi says these other swing voters have swung elections and may again.
IBRAM X KENDI I talk about what I call the other swing voters who swing from voting Democrat to not voting at all or voting third party. These people are distinct from people who are not registered to vote, who have no intention to vote. People who assess candidates, who assessed the candidate in 2016, did not like the candidate or was voter suppressed or ended up choosing a third party. There were more Obama voters who swung to not voting or voting third party than there were Obama voters who swung to Trump in 2016.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In the piece you wrote in The Atlantic, one thing that really struck me was the distinction you made between the nonvoter and this other swing voter. Yet they are dealt with the same by political surrogates and pundits and the media in general.
IBRAM X KENDI Obviously, if you have two Americans and one is not registered to vote and has no intention of voting and you have another person who is registered to vote who does not like the Democratic candidate has never really voted Republican and they choose not to vote, ultimately, the result is neither of them voted, but they are not the same types of people. Candidates realize that they have to persuade white swing voters, whether they're the Republican or the Democratic candidate. These other swing voters have to be persuaded to vote for the Democratic candidate, too, but instead the white swing voters are treated like they have agency. You have to get them to vote. But these other swing voters, typically younger, typically people of color, especially young black voters they're treated like political cattle. They have to be turned out.
NEWS REPORT While these new or irregular voters show up--
Hispanics, young people, married women, white women who in the past have been occasional voters..
...because we need young people to vote, we need you to show up. [END CLIP]
IBRAM X KENDI To be essentially brought in drag to the polls against their will as opposed to maybe you should choose a different candidate who can actually excite them and energize them. Which is precisely what people recognize they have to do for white swing voters.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now, let's talk about numbers. Can a group of other swing voters really make the crucial difference?
IBRAM X KENDI If you take the 2016 election in which Hillary Clinton lost the states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin by a combined 80,000 votes, the number of Obama voters, who did not vote in 2016 far away eclipse the number of votes she lost those states by. You know, I think it was 4.4 million Obama voters did not vote in 2016. I believe an additional 2.3 Obama voters swung to voting third party. This is more than the 6 million Obama voters who voted for Trump. And so what I make the case about in the text is not that other swing voters are more important, the case that I make is that they're both important. And a candidate who can attract both is a winning candidate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Something else that you've noted is that the Obama voter who switched to Trump overwhelmingly believes that Trump is doing a great job and identifies more as Republican than Democrat. These are not people that progressive Democratic candidates or moderate ones are likely to turn. Isn't that your argument?
IBRAM X KENDI There was a recent study in these key swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania on white swing voters who swung from Obama to Trump. 70 percent of them favor the job that Trump is doing. According to the pollsters, they resemble Republicans. By contrast, 70 percent of other swing voters who voted for Obama in 2012 and who did not vote in 2016 view Trump in an unfavorable manner and, “resemble Democrats.” So if the Democrats had to choose which group of voters, are they more likely to win, obviously, they're more likely to win those who resemble Democrats.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Back in January, you wrote a piece called Why I Fear a Moderate Democratic Nominee.
IBRAM X KENDI We've heard so much about the fears that moderates have of putting up a progressive nominee that they will alienate centrist voters, that they will not be able to attract Republicans. Moderate candidates actually alienate other swing voters. They alienate younger people. They alienate some groups of people of color. They alienate progressives. There's legitimate fears for electing a progressive candidate, but there are also legitimate fears for electing a moderate candidate. It was a moderate candidate that lost to Trump in 2016. If we put up another candidate who is not able to excite young people and young people of color who are less likely to vote and only energize the people who are most likely to vote anyway, to me, that's not a winning strategy for Democrats. You look at Bernie Sanders win in Nevada. He not only ran away with young voters compared to his competitors, he also ran away with white, non-college educated voters, which is Trump's base, which is the base of white swing voters.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What does recognizing the other swing voter mean for the press and the campaigns and the elections?
IBRAM X KENDI Well, it has long been thought that the white centrist is the political tool, the most important voter you label any type of voter as the most important voter. What's going to happen? Campaigns are going to organize themselves and organize their policies around attracting the type of voter who they believe decides and swings elections. But what if there's another extremely important voter? And what if that voter today is young and black? What if that voter tomorrow is young and Latinx? And what if that voter is just as important? In many ways, it completely disrupts how campaigns organize themselves. What types of policies they should be proposing and advocating. It then leads to a different kind of policymaking. It then leads to a more anti-racist America.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much.
IBRAM X KENDI You're welcome. Thank you for having me on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ibram X Kendi is author most recently of How to be an Anti-racist and he's a contributing writer at The Atlantic and director of the Anti Racist Research and Policy Center at American University. That's it for this week's show On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan, and Asthaa Chaturvedi. We had more help from Xandra Ellin, Anthony Bansie and Eloise Blondiau. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Josh Hahn. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
UNDERWRITING On the Media is supported by the Ford Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the listeners of WNYC Radio