BOB GARFIELD 50 states with COVID19, thus 50 ways to tell the pandemic story through data.
ALEXIS MADRIGAL There isn't a governmental body that's come in and just said, “hey, listen, this is how we do this. So report this information at this time and we'll put out this report each day at this time.”
BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. For weeks, we've heard about frantic shoppers causing a run on toilet paper by hoarding it. But that ignores one key factor.
WILL OREMUS That the toilet paper you use when you leave the home is not the same toilet paper you use at home.
BOB GARFIELD And with no sports to air, real sportscasters call simulated baseball games.
JASON BENETTI You know it's just nice to have umpires in our lives once again. Did you ever think we were going to say that?
CHUCK GARFIEN I want to give all the umpires in the world a big hug right now.
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up, after this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media.I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I’m Bob Garfield. So what didn't federal officials know and when didn't they know?
NEWS REPORT It was just yesterday that President Trump said no one had even heard of the virus two months ago. But we are now learning that as far back as late November, American military medical investigators overseas sounded the alarm to officials right here at home about a contagion that was sweeping through Wuhan.
ALEX AZAR So we were alerted by some discussions that Dr. Redfield, the director of the CDC, had with Chinese colleagues on January 3rd. It's since been known that there may have been cases in December, not that we were alerted in December. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Speaking last month, that was Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who, according to The Washington Post, couldn't or didn't discuss the matter with the president until two weeks after he was alerted about the virus on January 18th, when, by the way, Trump quickly changed the subject to the availability of flavored vaping products. A week and a half after that, reported The New York Times, White House adviser Peter Navarro circulated a memo warning top administration officials of the very calamity that has since befallen us, as had the intelligence agencies throughout January and February. Not to be outdone, The Onion reported Wednesday on a damning report that, “White House officials failed to heed repeated warnings of impending doom that arrived via four skeletal horsemen galloping through the sky.” So, no, the federal government did not succeed in preparing for the calamity. And it's not so hot at documenting it now. Instead, non governmental third parties have stepped into the gap, outlets like The Post and The Times, as well as educational institutions like Johns Hopkins and the University of Washington have translated dizzying national data into powerful visualizations and projections. And then there’s the COVID Tracking Project, which is collecting data and lots of it. This ad hoc bunch of journalists, researchers and programmers is not just aggregating but thoroughly explaining local and state level info and is among the most highly regarded of such collectors. Last month, its managing editor, Erin Kissane told CJR, every day we hope the CDC will put us out of business, but the project's leader, Atlantic staff writer Alexis Madrigal, whom we caught up with in the middle of an animated homeschooling lesson, said the federal agencies still haven't come through.
ALEXIS MADRIGAL You know, we really, really, really were expecting that they would come out with these kinds of numbers, you know, state by state numbers, testing numbers, outcomes. And instead the exact opposite has happened. There is no information that has come out. And we have ended up basically having to set up this project to go for as long as the outbreak goes. So we're kind of in the process of trying to figure that out, because if you're doing something for a few weeks, you need a different kind of system than if you're doing something for, you know, 12 to 18 months.
BOB GARFIELD Now, this is clearly the kind of data set that we expect from government. Are the data being suppressed? Are there just no resources at the relevant agencies because of budget cuts or whatever? How can it be that it has fallen to a third party to aggregate and distribute just basic public health information
ALEXIS MADRIGAL Oh man, we've asked ourselves this question a lot of times, and I think there's a few different answers. You know, our system is federalized in this crucial way and the public health departments are just so different state to state in how they run, how well resourced they are. Two states that have had tremendous success testing Utah and New Mexico, I mean, not perfect, but they've just been able to test a lot of people each have this kind of lab that's close by that did all the testing for them. So at every level, this variability in the way that this data is generated. The thing that's been confusing is just that there isn't governmental body that's come in and just said, hey, listen, report this information at this time and we'll put out this report each day at this time. That is the part that is stunning to me. And in an really direct answer to your question, is information being suppressed? We haven't been able to find evidence of that yet, but I don't think it can be totally explained by just the bureaucratic difficulties because it bears such a similarity to other types of reporting that the CDC does do like around influenza.
BOB GARFIELD Yeah, I don't ask for no reason. You know, we are aware that, for example, through legislation, government agencies like the Justice Department aren't allowed to track certain aspects of gun violence because it is deemed potential propaganda for the anti-gun lobby. Nothing is nefarious as that going on is there?
ALEXIS MADRIGAL Not, that we've been able to see, I think it's more what people know because a lot of it is uncertain, but it's also sort of the institutional constraints that are imposed on them. And I do not think that there is a maximal transparency ethos in any part of the system that we're talking about here, whether that's the federal government or the largely private entities that we're relying on to do this national response. And I think that it reveals, just like so many other things with this outbreak, the nature of our information ecosystem is largely dependent on people who do not actually have civic-minded transparency built into the core of what they do.
BOB GARFIELD Now, your project isn't just a compilation of public health data, it's also a scorecard. You are evaluating the data as you go. Have any of the states whom you've graded poorly boosted their grades since you began reporting?
ALEXIS MADRIGAL Yeah. The people who I really think drive this change are the local reporters at local newspapers, at local radio stations, investigative people at Fox affiliates. You know, I mean all over the place. While their institutions collapse around them, they are still going to government officials asking for this data and forcing it out of places. And I think that we do need to recognize that. I think what our project allows those people to do and pro transparency state legislators and governors to do is to say to private testing companies and whoever else, “listen, if that state can get that data, then we should also have that data.” We were able to show very early on that there was a huge variability in how states were reporting tests. You know, the first thing was, okay, we're just reporting positives. Then we were able to, you know, I'm talking about journalism collectively and pro transparency forces generally were able to get okay negatives for the state labs and now you can have a ratio. And then finally, we were able to get negatives from all the commercial laboratories as well. And that's really important because one way of understanding this outbreak is just looking at the positive cases. The other way of looking at it that's also important is how many people have we tested overall? One really just stark example of this is in New Jersey. 45 percent of the tests that are going in are coming back positive in New Jersey. And that tells you something about the known unknown number of cases that are out there. There must be a huge number of people who are infected in New Jersey that haven't been tested because such a high percentage of positive means that the testing criteria are pretty tight. You look at Washington State, for example, you know, their positive rate all in is something more like 8 percent or so. That's pretty different from 45 percent. And it tells you that their outbreak is in a much different place, even though the raw numbers don't fully tell that story.
BOB GARFIELD Well, as you just alluded to, we know that the number of infections must exceed the number of official cases, perhaps by an order of magnitude because so few have been tested.
ALEXIS MADRIGAL I agree with that.
BOB GARFIELD But even the mortality numbers could be skewed. Tuesday of this week, my colleagues at Gothamist reported that the number of at home deaths in New York, people who weren't diagnosed with COVID and probably never will be, it's something like 10 times what it usually is. 200 New Yorkers dying at home every day compared to the norm of something between 20 and 25. Don't these factors on either side make all of the aggregated data, suspect? I mean, garbage in, garbage out?
ALEXIS MADRIGAL I’m not sure it's garbage, but there's a lot of noise in the signal. These numbers are the best we've got. But they require an enormous amount of qualitative description, caviating and understanding that you just can't expect that the results will fully describe the situation. Because the testing regimes and the testing reporting has been spotty, people have started to use deaths as the most reliable proxy for the severity of an outbreak. Now there's crosswinds, though, one of them you mentioned, which is that there are probably other deaths that are going on that we're not able to capture. That's actually just a part and parcel of what it is to be in a disaster scenario.
BOB GARFIELD Such as in Puerto Rico.
ALEXIS MADRIGAL Exactly. So in Puerto Rico or in any of these kind of situations, we have a major natural disaster way after the fact people get all these all in mortality numbers and then they're able to compare, well, how many people died during that time versus how many people would we have expected to die? And then that gap is the real sort of effect of that event. That's a complicated thing to do, but it's a possible thing to do and we'll eventually end up doing it with the Coronavirus outbreak as well, and we'll probably learn a lot more than we can, you know, here in the fog of pandemic. I do want to note that on desk, there's another piece of it, though, that it kind of cuts in the opposite direction, which is, you know, a lot of the people who are dying are older and they have other conditions and the way that a governmental body attributes the death to COVID-19 instead of something else is also another variable. That is going to be really, really tricky as we go forward to try and tease out really the decisions that went into generating these statistics and then try to do some meta analysis that allows us to say these ones turned out to be more reliable or seem more reliable and these ones did not.
BOB GARFIELD One of the new storylines, this week's, new, has been the hardly surprising lessons learned from the new demographic data from places like Milwaukee and Chicago. Contrary to what may have been said regarding Coronavirus as the great equalizer, there is a stark racial disparity in hospitalizations and in deaths because as in every other aspect of our society, some people turn out to be more equal than others. Are you overlaying such demographic data on your results?
ALEXIS MADRIGAL We're working on spinning off the capture of this data with a couple of other groups, including one of my Atlantic colleagues Ibram Kendi who's been calling for this information to be recorded. Honestly, we hadn't seen it until just about the past five days or so. I think we're up to 10 states now report some version of this. When you see racial data that is largely coming from one city in which black people tend to be overrepresented because of the long history of racist urbanization, you are going to see high rates of infections and deaths among black people. Take New Orleans, for example, and the state of Louisiana is going to have relatively fewer black people in it. So you want to make sure that when you're looking at these numbers, you're actually comparing what the demographic baseline of a place, and what is also over and above systemic racism. I think there is absolutely every reason to expect that we're going to see the racial health disparities that are reflected throughout American society reflected here and probably amplified. I think if you look at some of the reporting that's coming out of the south right now, people who were already experiencing environmental racism, which is to say they're exposed to, more pollutants, are having major health problems as a result of COVID-19. And that makes sense because of the fact that this thing has started out in cities, because of the nature of anti-black ness, like within both the overall environment as well as within the healthcare system, and there's tons of studies on that, in sociology and medicine, because of all those factors, we need to talk about this for really what it is. This is really going to be about black people in America and the systems that underserved those communities.
BOB GARFIELD Alexis, thank you very much. I think you'll probably have to go corral your children, right?
ALEXIS MADRIGAL Yes. I don't know if you can hear it in the background, but they're there.
BOB GARFIELD Alexis Madrigal is a staff writer at The Atlantic and a leader of the COVID Tracking Project.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, the supply chain is less a chain than a puzzle box. Hence toilet paper.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. These days, disinfectant is in short supply, especially the oldest one, sunlight. According to Bloomberg News, some hospitals in hard hit areas have barred their employees from speaking to the media and more recently, from posting on social networking sites or chat rooms. And the informational lockdown isn't just limited to hospitals. Last week, NPR reported that many major city halls have kept their pandemic response plans, quote, under lock and key. Of the fifteen large cities that NPR contacted for their plans, seven denied the request outright.
Take some of the biggest cities in Texas. Austin has a plan on its website from 2006 that instructed city officials to communicate using CD roms. A spokesperson told NPR that actually the city's most recent plans are from 2011, but they aren't on its website. Houston said the plans on its website from 2006 were also out of date. After NPR asked about those plans, the city took them down.
BROOKE GLADSTONE City leaders in California asked their governor late last month for relief from the state's sunshine laws mandating the release of information. And Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot asked her state to suspend its Freedom of Information Act deadlines. The USS Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier docked in Guam, has been without its previous captain for about a week. Brett Crozier, having been fired for a whistleblowing email about the mounting threat the virus posed to his already ailing crew. On Monday, then Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly visited the ship in Guam, apparently to trash Crozier on the P.A. system.
THOMAS MODLY If he didn’t think that information was going to get out to the public in this information age that we live in, then he was a, too naive and too stupid to be the commanding officer of a ship like this. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Meanwhile, President Trump, who's told states to fend for themselves, has had FEMA blocking orders for vital equipment secured by governors, some of them anyway, so the government can buy them instead. This week, FEMA seized an order for 500 ventilators from a private company obtained by Democratic Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, only to have Trump give back 100 of them at what he called the request of the state's endangered Republican Senator, Cory Gardner. Thursday's Denver Post editorial declared Trump is playing a disgusting political game with our lives. But the Trump administration says it's got a plan and that it's working. White House adviser Peter Navarro. April 2nd.
PETER NAVARRO These guys up here are doing a heck of a job organizing this supply chain. [END CLIP]
NOAM LEVEY Well, I think that's news to a lot of medical providers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Noam Levey is a national healthcare reporter for The LA Times, trying to follow the COVD-19 supply chain.
NOAM LEVEY I can't say I've talked to many hospitals or doctor's offices or clinics around the country who feel that the supply chain is being managed in anything close to a rational way. That's for sure. And we can't seem to get answers from FEMA or the White House about what system, if any, is being used to balance the needs. A couple weeks ago, I was speaking with the head of the Texas Academy of Family Physicians who, working with a golfing buddy of his, managed to get about a half million masks over the border from Mexico and then spent about 72 hours getting them to rural hospitals and doctors offices around Texas, because the state of Texas didn't have anything to distribute. So you've got this system in which everybody is running around trying to get masks and ventilators and everything else. And then on top of that is a totally opaque system of what appears to be haphazard intervention by the federal government on some supplies, but not all of them. Everyone is completely perplexed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We hear that Trump is having no problem directing to Florida. Whatever Florida seems to need.
NOAM LEVEY So FEMA, which is the agency that is allegedly responsible for distributing supplies from the strategic national stockpile, has claimed that they have some formula for distributing medical supplies that reflects states and large metro areas, relative populations and the relative severity of coronavirus outbreaks. They are actually shipping things across the country. However, it's impossible to find out what that formula is, whether or not allowances are being made in one way or another, for criteria that have not been identified. President Trump hasn't been shy about claiming that he's willing to reward his friends and punish his enemies. The conspiracy minded person might think, well, is there some nefarious method to how these supplies are getting distributed or not? We just don't know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What difference does it really make if we know or we don't know what the formula is for distributing this stuff?
NOAM LEVEY This is taxpayer money that we're talking about. Private actors in the market, of course, don't have an obligation to be transparent about what they're doing because there's no expectation under normal circumstances that they're acting in the public interest. We hope that the government is acting in the public interest, but without transparency, who knows.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Who's accountable for this? Who's in charge? Is it Rear Admiral John Polowczyk, who's at the head of FEMA's Coronavirus Supply Chain Task Force? Is it FEMA director Peter Gaynor? Is it Peter Navarro, who is reportedly coordinating private and public sector communication? Maybe it's Jared Kushner or the Invisible Hand? Is it really fundamentally the president and no one else?
NOAM LEVEY You know, without clear lines of authority, things are not getting done as far as we know, in a particularly efficient way. Nor do we know that, however there being done is being done in a lawful way frankly. If, for example, the president's son in law is dialing up private companies and asking them to give support in one way or another to the supply chain challenges, what assurances are being made to those companies about what they can expect? I'm talking about promises that are made to Company X that if they help out, that they'll be made whole in the end, they’ll be reimbursed at a certain level without a process. All of that is open to question.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is there a way to have an informed, data driven approach to this, as Jared Kushner said, the federal government was engaged in, if in fact the federal government isn't engaged in an informed, data driven approach. Can big business, small business, health officials, state officials do this on their own?
NOAM LEVEY So the facts on the ground suggest that this can't happen on its own. Now, that's not to say that there aren't a lot of efforts by individual actors, some of them quite influential, to play a constructive role. I mean, we've seen a number of large companies, including Apple, for example, say we are going to use our connections to the supply chain to procure masks and we're going to distribute them. The owner of the New England Patriots flew the Patriots plane to China to go pick up a shipment of masks and flew them back to Boston. The problem is, when you have this sort of thousand points of light approach to procuring and distributing needed supplies, what ends up happening is that well-connected medical centers that have relationships with large companies, either because they do business with them or because they're located in their backyards, are oftentimes at the top of the list. So, for example, Salesforce made a donation to the University of California San Francisco Medical Center because they have a longstanding relationship both being based in San Francisco. Does UCSF need that equipment more than a hospital in New York City or New Jersey? That's a lot to ask of Salesforce to try to make that determination. They don't have any expertise in doing that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do you know where Apple donated those 10 million N95 masks for healthcare workers?
NOAM LEVEY We asked them and they wouldn't tell us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do we know that they actually did?
NOAM LEVEY Nope.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What did you think of this piece in The Atlantic last month by Zeynep Tufecki. She wrote that one of the major catalysts for the spread of the pandemic so much faster than it needed to was an overreliance on linear thinking. We can trust that the ventilator shortage can be solved by making more ventilators. But if we do, we completely overlook the crucial factor of this system itself and the problem of fair and expedient distribution. In systems, “multiple things can go wrong together.”
NOAM LEVEY It is easier to talk about, well, we just need to make more ventilators. Envisioning a successful civic minded distribution system I think is more challenging. Healthcare in general, no matter how complicated it is, I've been covering health care for more than a decade. I can tell you before this crisis, I didn't think much about the supply chain part of the equation either.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Okay. Thank you very much.
NOAM LEVEY Good to be with you. Thanks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Noam Levey is a national healthcare reporter for The LA Times. Levey reminds us that it's easier to think about supply than it is to think about supply chains. Take one of the most common tropes of the COVID era
NEWS REPORT As everywhere, there has been an inexplicable run on toilet paper.
NEWS REPORT Fights over toilet paper breaking out in grocery stores, as shelves run empty.
NEWS REPORT The shelves are empty. No toilet paper.
NEWS REPORT Lots of examples of shoppers hoarding toilet paper with fights breaking out in supermarkets in Australia. One newspaper even printed, listen to this, extra blank pages for readers in case of emergencies. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But tech writer Will Oremus dug into the toilet paper issue and found that hoarding isn't even half the story.
WILL OREMUS There are some reports of gastrointestinal symptoms with COVID-19, but in general, people should be using the bathroom roughly the same amount that they've always been using the bathroom. And yet you go to the store and you can't find any toilet paper. Well, the explanation that people immediately turned to was hoarding or panic buying.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And so there's a psychological explanation.
WILL OREMUS Yeah, and I learned a lot of interesting new concepts to try to reconcile this.
NEWS REPORT It's rooted in something called zero risk bias. [END CLIP]
WILL OREMUS Zero risk bias is that there are some threats we can mitigate only partially. There are other threats that we can just get rid of entirely. The threat of running out of toilet paper during a pandemic is one that we could just take right off the table by stocking up on tons of toilet paper. Whereas the threat of actually catching COVID-19 that’s a lot trickier, harder to do. So we go for the thing that's easy, even if it isn't the most significant threat.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now, The Atlantic published a short documentary harking back to the great toilet paper scare of 1973.
NEWS REPORT Amidst the recent preoccupation with the fuel shortage and the meat shortage, a new gap has appeared in the staples of the American household.
NEWS REPORT Scotts spokesman said unfounded rumors of a shortage has caused excessive demand of retail outlets. [END CLIP]
WILL OREMUS So going back to November 1973, there were these sort of obscure news reports that there had been a tissue shortage in Japan and it kind of passed unnoticed until a Republican congressman named Harold V. Froehlich put out a press statement claiming that the Government Printing Office is facing a shortage of toilet paper. And then a few weeks later, it makes its way into a joke by Johnny Carson.
JOHNNY CARSON Of all the shortages we had is a gasoline shortage. You know what else is disappearing from the supermarket shelves? Toilet paper. Ha, ha, ha, you can laugh now. [END CLIP]
WILL OREMUS But people took it seriously whether they thought it was true or they didn't want to take the risk. That might be true. So they rush out to the stores, empty the shelves of toilet paper, and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy based on The Atlantic's reporting. It went on for months and it was all due to this misinformation, this joke that people took seriously.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's all over. By February ‘74, that's four months. Johnny Carson, who got a lot of the blame, issued a very serious apology right to the camera.
JOHNNY CARSON All my life as an entertainer, and I don't want to be remembered as the man who created a false toilet paper scare. There is no shortage. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE He picked it up from the paper because the media of 1974 loved this story. We need to remember this was a time of oil shortages and economic malaise.
WILL OREMUS Right. And we can start to see the parallels to today when people are scared about so many things. There's so much uncertainty we're facing that we are ready to believe that there will be no toilet paper. We're ready to believe anything at this point.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now, I was transfixed by your piece because you explain what actually happened. And that has to do with two largely separate markets for toilet paper.
WILL OREMUS The toilet paper you use when you leave the home is not the same toilet paper you use at home.
BROOKE GLADSTONE When you go to the office or any public bathroom, you're going to find toilet paper that's either in individual sheets or it's on these big enormous rolls.
WILL OREMUS It's two totally different products. One is recycled. The other one is Virgin Fiber. One of them is thin, flimsy, it comes in huge rolls, whereas the kind you buy in the store is often embossed and layered and cushy. I talked to some of the companies that make toilet paper both for this commercial market that sends toilet paper to office buildings, restaurants, airports, schools, and for the residential market, it's actually often different companies producing these two different kinds of toilet paper. A lot of the stories about the toilet paper shortage initially talked to Procter and Gamble. They own Charmin, among other leading toilet paper brands, they make toilet paper almost entirely for the retail market. The nice stuff that you buy at the store. But they didn't talk to companies like Georgia-Pacific, which makes toilet paper for both markets. And what they could have told you is they're seeing a spike in demand for toilet paper that people use at home, but not for toilet paper that goes to the commercial market.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In fact, probably a great deal less with 75 percent of the U.S. population under stay at home orders roughly.
WILL OREMUS And they're not using any of the type of toilet paper that you get when you're out in the world. So there's a completely understandable reason for a spike in demand on the type of toilet paper that people use in the home. We're using the bathroom more at home than we used to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Not only is it not the same product, it often doesn't come from the same mills and supply chains are crafted in such a way that you can't easily swap one product for the other.
WILL OREMUS Right. Toilet paper is an unusual product. It is extremely bulky for the price. It takes up a lot of space, but it's not worth much. So it would be a bad move to be stocking a lot of toilet paper in inventory, in warehouses. You'd be wasting space. And so it is one of those products built around just in time manufacturing. The companies that make toilet paper are keeping their assembly lines at close to full capacity all the time because they know exactly how much toilet paper people will need. It just doesn't change. But what that means is even a little spike in demand throws off the whole system.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Partly because the industry runs on very thin profit margins.
WILL OREMUS Right. If you had excess capacity and you're in the toilet paper business, that's lost money. Your competitors are going to beat you up by going thinner and leaner and producing just enough toilet paper all the time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So the rush on toilet paper does represent real scarcity then not just consumer panic?
WILL OREMUS Right. It was probably triggered by some degree of panic, but also some degree of just totally rational preparedness. I mean, if you're going to be at home for a while, you better go out to the store and make sure you've got enough toilet paper. But then this other factor takes over and we get the real sustained increase in demand. That is what helps explain why the toilet paper has not come back to the shelves, even after stores across the country have tried to crack down on hoarding by saying you can only buy one pack of toilet paper at a time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But if the toilet paper manufacturers aren't going to produce more and people are using more, why should we expect the shortage to end anytime soon?
WILL OREMUS I mean, I think at this point people are ready to accept the crummy commercial toilet paper at home if it's all they've got. So the logistical problem becomes a little simpler, although it still exists. If you were making toilet paper for the commercial market and now you want to send it to drugstores and grocery stores, you've got to make new contracts. You've got to figure out new shipping routes. Who's going to be driving that toilet paper? Who's going to be dropping it off and when? How it'll be priced. How to be packaged. That all takes time. And the reason it's not happening quickly is, as we discussed, if you go overboard, if you retool your whole assembly line to produce more retail, toilet paper and less commercial, then you're going to be in trouble because you'll have the wrong supply when people are going back to work and need toilet paper there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What does the framing of this story tell us about the invisibility of our supply chains, whether we're in a pandemic or not?
WILL OREMUS Yeah, once I learned about this shift in demand and about the two different types of toilet paper and all the complex supply chains behind each one, it was sort of head-smackingly obvious. Of course, people are using more toilet paper at home. And of course, the stuff we use at home is different from the stuff that we get at work. But the thing is that once we had the narrative that it was hoarding or panic buying, once we thought we knew that, then the fresh angles were, well, how do we explain that? It seems so dumb. I don't think a lot of people went back and asked, well, could there also be a different cause or could that have been the cause initially, but there's now something else going on? Supply chains are not well understood, I think, by the general public. I think they're not even well understood by a lot of the media. While toilet paper is an extreme case of this kind of bifurcated home versus commercial market. It's not the only product that works like this. There was an NPR Weekend Edition story that talked to the CEO of a fruit and vegetable supplier. Grocery stores have been selling out of bananas. Now the supplier supplies bananas to the commercial market--the bananas that you get at your workplace, you know, at the cafeteria, they are small and they come loose, whereas the ones you buy in the store are big and bright and they come in bunches. The grocery stores don't typically stock the commercial bananas. And again, we have two different supply chains there. And now, as a matter of figuring out, can we get those little teeny restaurant bananas into grocery stores where people presumably will accept them at this point, even if they previously didn't prefer them. And then there's the beer industry where a company like Anheuser-Busch, usually a lot of its beer, is put into kegs and sent to restaurants and bars. Well, that is kind of out the window. So now they have to figure out how to get all that same beer into bottles, get it into the grocery stores and the liquor stores before those run out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Nothing but toilet paper touches every American.
WILL OREMUS That's right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Will Oremus writes for OneZero, a Medium publication about tech and science. You can read the article called What Everyone's Getting Wrong About the Toilet Paper Shortage on marker.medium.com.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, what about the gut busting shortage of sports? We've got an answer, though we’re not entirely sure you'll like it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I’m Bob Garfield. We'll end our show this week where we began it one month ago, the moment American TV sports collapsed right before our eyes.
BOB GARFIELD Minutes before tip off on a Wednesday night meeting between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder, the National Basketball Association made a game time decision to cancel the game and the rest of the season is the game.
NEWS REPORT The game tonight has been postponed. You’re all safe. Take your time in leaving the arena to do so in an orderly fashion. Thank you for coming out tonight. We are all safe. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Within hours, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament put their seasons on ice. The National Hockey League took its season off ice. And just like that, America's greatest source of escapism and community had vanished from the airwaves right when we needed it most.
NEWS REPORT It would qualify as an April Fool's joke, but it is a sad reality. Most traditional sports are no more. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD But hold on. Turns out there's an app for that. Our producer, Micah Loewinger has been tracking a bizarre convergence of old media and new that would be an episode of Black Mirror if it weren't actually happening. Hey, Micah.
MICAH LOEWINGER Hey, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD Where do we begin?
MICAH LOEWINGER What could possibly replace sports?
BOB GARFIELD What's the answer?
MICAH LOEWINGER Sort of sports.
NEWS REPORT Next up, is Mike airtight alibi, there is a skip. There's a nice skip. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER A few weeks ago, ESPN aired a series of oddball competitions like the 51st National Stone Skipping Championship.
NEWS REPORT Max Topgun Steiner, whoa there’s a skip came out of nowhere. Max came to play today. Nutty McNutty is up next. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER This is part of a gimmick that ESPN lifted straight from a movie that was satirizing ESPN, Dodgeball from 2004 in which Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn compete in a tournament aired live on this fictional channel.
MICAH LOEWINGER Now ESPN 8: The Ocho has become a real ESPN summer tradition, which the network aired early this year to fill the sports vacuum. Viewers were treated to a grab bag of stone skipping, axe throwing and my personal favorite, the 46th annual cherry pit spitting championship.
NEWS REPORT Gentlemen, Joe right there, 73 years old, he brought in his oxygen tank and spoke to him earlier. You know, I also talked to some of these spitters today and they talk about cleaning that pit real good.
NEWS REPORT Well, it says in the rulebook that they will get disqualified if any of the cherry comes out with the pit. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Is this the equivalent of an alcoholic drinking Sterno because it's all they can get his hands on?
MICAH LOEWINGER Yes, I guess so.
BOB GARFIELD But why not just rerun classic games?
MICAH LOEWINGER Yeah, they've done some of that. But all those old Super Bowls and the glory days basketball games are actually pretty expensive to repair. And anyway, sports fans want new stuff, which is why Fox Sports and NASCAR took a fascinating gamble.
NEWS REPORT Now a network television first. A NASCAR All-Star race from the virtual homestead Miami Speedway delivered by iRacing. Thirty five of NASCAR's top drivers for 100 laps. Bracing for something more… [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Wait. A video game?
MICAH LOEWINGER Yeah.
NEWS REPORT All right, folks, we know this is not real racing. Sure wish it was on a Sunday. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Virtual racing, but with real drivers. And they got a bunch of living legends like Dale Junior and Denny Hamlin to sign on. Plus, a lot of these drivers were prepared for it because they already own super expensive equipment to simulate the racing experience from home steering wheels, six speed transmission controllers, and enormous computer screens that replicate the windshield view.
NEWS REPORT All right. Ready for the green green flag? We're racing in Homestead. Garrett Smith lead, on the break from William… [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER And honestly, it checks a lot of the boxes of a sports broadcaster. Live commentary, interviews with the drivers, hyper realistic driving physics, and even a nail biting finish.
NEWS REPORT Wow. What a race on the final lap off a turn two side by side. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin.
NEWS REPORT What a march to the front through this field for Hamlin. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER That's a lot of data. They even booked Bob Weir, one of the founding members of the Grateful Dead, to sing into what looks like to me an iPhone camera.
BOB GARFIELD Micah, may I do some editorializing?
MICAH LOEWINGER Yeah, go ahead.
BOB GARFIELD This is insane!
MICAH LOEWINGER Maybe to you. Over 900,000 thousand people tuned into the first of these races. The biggest thing on Fox Sports since the start of the pandemic and the biggest televised e-sports in history. In fact, I got to watch my team, the Washington Capitals win seven straight games in NHL 20, the official hockey video game with live commentary from my favorite color commentator Craig Laughlin of the local NBC Sports affiliate.
And local Arizona radio duo Jon Bloom and Tim Kempton called a matchup between two pro basketball players in the video game NBA 2K. A first for the radio.
A lot of times when we've hit the airwaves and we tell people this isn't our first rodeo, tonight we can't say that, this really is our first rodeo. We are changing the world. [END
MICAH LOEWINGER And then a Twitch streamer named Ibai Llanos recruited soccer players from Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and other top teams from La Liga, the Spanish League, to play in an online FIFA tournament for charity that made its way onto Spanish TV and even Chinese TV.
BOB GARFIELD So once again, real people are tuning into real broadcasts of real athletes playing fake sports. I just can't see how this stuff is watchable for more than two minutes.
MICAH LOEWINGER Yeah. They seem like novelty stunts, but some of these events have been billed as the first of an ongoing digital season. In some ways, it's close enough to real that it's unnerving.
IAN BOGOST Those games were modeled after broadcast television sports. So it feels like, oh yeah, this should be the same. But then there's something that's like a little bit off or a little bit uncanny.
MICAH LOEWINGER I spoke with Ian Bogost, a media scholar at Georgia Tech. He's written extensively about this stuff.
IAN BOGOST If you look closely and you can sort of see the animations repeating or the cadences of behavior on the court or on the field or among the simulated crowds in the stands, you know, this is little stains or tears in the kind of fabric of the broadcast.
MICAH LOEWINGER And then the commentary:
JASON BENETTI Just a superb day for baseball here at Fenway Park. The folks in Boston are out in full force, blue sky overhead. And just great to have baseball back in our lives at Fenway Park. It's the White Sox and Red Sox, and it's just nice to have umpires in our lives once again. Chuck, did you ever think we were gonna say that?
CHUCK GARFIEN I want to give all the umpires in the world a big hug right now. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Commentators Chuck Garfien and Jason Benetti of NBC Sports called an official simulation between the White Sox and Red Sox. No gamer was controlling either team in this broadcast, just the built in A.I. that was designed by the game developers based on all kinds of data stuff that TV commentators love to talk about team chemistry, pitcher hitter matchup, home field advantage, weather conditions and so on. But the way that they mixed actual human 2019 season stats with this new fictional computerized 2020 season conceit, I found that so weird.
NEWS REPORT So Mankato last September. Let's not forget what he did. He slashed 412, 455, 647. He's basically continued his success from the end of last season into the start of this season and has been red hot ever since the season began a week ago. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Comparing the stats of the actual 2019 season with the stats of the early pretend 2020 season, hybrid reality.
MICAH LOEWINGER And even Ian Bogost thinks sports fans are ready for it.
IAN BOGOST It's like the announcers job now to persuade the viewer that everything is normal, even when everyone knows that it's not. But that's kind of what the sports viewer wants. In a way. It's not just the game with a kind of first one is the ritual. I watch sports on the weekends or you know, I watch Monday Night Football, whatever it is, replacing that loss with something that resembles sports enough or where you're play-acting as if it is quote, unquote, real sport. That may actually tick the box.
MICAH LOEWINGER Bogost told me that we might have a real opportunity. We can bring in sports that up until now have been boxed out by the old media gatekeepers or maybe even ditch some that have overstayed their welcome.
IAN BOGOST You know when a handful of sports that are broadly, broadly popular nationally and internationally first became popular, which was the end of the industrial revolution, so the late 19th early 20th century. What you have is the rise of a leisure class. You have colonialism that spreads a few sports all across the globe. Association, football, cricket. You know, American football is a little unique in that respect, but there are versions of it in rugby and Australian football. And then it's just, you know, kind of established themselves in culture and becomes very hard to unseat. And it takes some kind of catastrophe almost to reconsider them.
BOB GARFIELD It's kind of like when the world of plastics we inhabit came about because it was hard to access natural fibers and rubber during World War II. But polyester isn't silk. And NBA players controlling avatar basketball players is definitely not basketball. On the other hand, there is a huge market for polyester for its own qualities. Can artificial sports build an audience and evolve on their own merits?
MICAH LOEWINGER They already have. I spoke with one big e-sports journalist who told me, yeah. Coronavirus is a big L, but we're also getting so many W’s.
BOB GARFIELD I get that this is a win for e-sports. But what would be an example of loss for an established sport?
MICAH LOEWINGER The one Ian Bogost is looking at is the NCAA football season, which it seems like it's probably not going to happen. Teams are not going to be well prepared for August. And that stinks for the players who had devoted their lives to football. You know, with the promise of a good scholarship or a shot at the big leagues. But at the same time, there are some issues with college football and a lot of people have been asking for reforms for years.
IAN BOGOST And before, like this week, I don't think it was possible to ask the question, is this the end of NCAA football? It was just kind of too big to fail institution that it was impossible to gain purchase on. And now we have the opening to play out some ways in which we might reform that particular sports institution on behalf of the players.
BOB GARFIELD The players don't get paid even though they expose themselves to permanent brain injury, not to mention a lifetime of orthopedic problems.
IAN BOGOST I do think it has the potential to open a question about who we are as Americans. Even if you don't think that sports are part of your life as an American, they are. They go to the very center of nationalism. And that's why the Olympics work the way that they do. You have stadiums that are built sometimes at great public expense, even though it doesn't make any sense to create a place for hundreds of thousands of people to gather in and have community who might not otherwise have anything in common. All of that's up in the air now.
BOB GARFIELD I got to say, Micah, I live in this ongoing sea of guilt for even being a football fan, because the trade off of players injuries for audience entertainment is immoral. It wouldn't break my heart if this entertainment of last resort would, you know, have the result of paralyzing the football industrial complex.
MICAH LOEWINGER I don't think it has to be entertainment of last resort. Why don’t we link up in Madden, in like 10 minutes? What's your gamertag?
BOB GARFIELD Oh, yeah. My tag is Garfinator. That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, and Jon Hanrahan, and Xandra Ellin. We had more help from Anthony Bansie and Eloise Blondiau and our show was edited by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Josh Hahn.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer, Kat, get well soon, we miss you. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield.