Playing The Hero
GOVERNOR CUOMO Ventilators, Ventilators, Ventilators. We need 30,000.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We're awash in messages. But some messengers are clearer than others. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. And if the White House messaging is confusing, you beware bogus science. Two new research papers are flooding the Internet, but to properly peer review, each one takes two scientists more than four hours each.
IVAN ORANSKY Four hours, two and a half reviewers, that's 10 hours per paper. Three million papers that’s 30 million hours. And so do that math. And by the way, do we have enough scientists who actually know what they're doing?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Also, some thoughts on this week's big debate. What’s worth more? America or Americans.
BRIT HUME The utter collapse of the country's economy, which many think will happen if this goes on much longer, is an intolerable result.
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. As overwhelmed as the country is in pathogenic threats, we are at least as awash in messaging.
NEWS REPORT We can't know exactly how easily coronavirus spreads. We don't know the physical effects on the average infected person. We don't know the death rate. Flatten the curve? We're not sure what the curve really is.
- ANTHONY FAUCI You don't make the timeline. The virus makes the timeline. It doesn't matter what you say. One week, two weeks, three weeks. You've got to go with the situation on the ground is.
DANNY DEVITO Hi, everybody, it’s Danny DeVito. And I'm asking you from the bottom of my heart. All over the state in New York, stay home. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD They flow forth from public health officials, celebrities, medical experts, politicians, Facebook friends, partisan trolls. Some are mediated by the media. Others are just ad libbed untruths from on high.
PRESIDENT TRUMP Anybody right now, anybody that needs a test gets a test. They're there. They have the tests. And the tests are beautiful. [END CLIP]
Two weeks later, still in catastrophically short supply. Meanwhile, earlier this week, Trump waxed rhapsodic about a holiday reprieve.
PRESIDENT TRUMP Easter is our timeline. What a great timeline. That would be a beautiful timeline. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Beautiful, unless you don't want a holy day celebrating rebirth to be the occasion for spreading deadly contagion. To prevent that, you'd need some sort of miracle. Ah, on March 21st, Trump retweeted, “Hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin taken together have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.”
PRESIDENT TRUMP People may be surprised by the way there would be a game changer. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD But that game took an ugly turn.
NEWS REPORT An Arizona man died after taking chemicals that he thought would protect him from Coronavirus. And his wife is in the hospital this morning. The couple took chloroquine phosphate. The active ingredient is also found in aquarium cleaner. It kills algae.
What would be your message to the American public?
Oh my god, don’t take anything. Don’t believe anything the president says. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Yet, the president is even more than usually present with his rallies canceled. He's turned to the daily Coronavirus press briefings into spasms of self-congratulation.
PRESIDENT TRUMP I’d rate it a 10. I think we've done a great job. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD The question is, what is the press's proper role here in these daily briefings? Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan floated the idea of simply not airing them live, so the press has time to sift the facts from reckless statements. NYU media professor Jay Rosen thinks the media should not repeat the president's unsupported assertions at all unless they're sandwiched between context and fact. He goes even further, suggesting that the press boycott Trump briefings and photo ops. Fox News Channel's media reporter Howard Kurtz called cutting Trump's mic, quote, the height of condescension. As if, he wrote, the media think Americans are too dumb to recognize spin and that, quote, only the pundits and the press are smart enough to figure that out so they will watch the president and then filter out what you need to know. Of course, filtering, explaining and contextualizing is exactly what the press is supposed to do in all of its coverage. On the other hand, such basic journalism may have an unintended consequence, namely giving cover to a chronically untruthful commander in chief. Here's how Atlantic’s Adam Serwer put it this week on WNYC’s The Takeaway.
ADAM SERWER Most Americans do not watch these conferences live. I think the larger issue is that they consume them through newspaper write ups and local news clips where the falsehoods and erratic behavior and rambling by the president are downplayed as producers and editors try to hammer Trump's statements into something that can be digested as information. So there's an impulse, even when the president is not saying something that makes sense to make it makes sense somehow to write around it or to edit around it.
BOB GARFIELD So, should TV journalists just let the nation see the emperor naked at the podium or cherry pick his most cogent moments? What's an enemy of the people to do? Last weekend, New York Times health and science reporter Donald McNeil Junior proffered a third path: Diminish the White House's presence by foregrounding the steady and trusted experts standing nearby.
GENERAL NORMAN SCHWARZKOPF Today, as you all know, after nine days, we've flown over 22,000 sorties and air operations. In those air operations, we have over 26 air to air kills. By the coalition air forces. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD That was General Norman Schwarzkopf in 1991 briefing the world on Operation Desert Storm. Not a politician, but the government's handpicked explainer of the war. One obvious choice for preempting the president in these circumstances is Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, who's already been at pains to correct the record with Trump just a few socially incorrect feet away.
NEWS REPORT Dr. Fauci, it was explained yesterday there has been some promise with dropsy, chloroquine, his potential therapy for people who are infected with the virus. Is there any evidence to suggest that, as with malaria, it might be used as a prophylaxis against COVID-19?
- ANTHONY FAUCI No, the answer is, is no. And the evidence that you're talking about, John, is anecdotal evidence. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD But Fauci seems to have been pushed farther and farther away from the president on the reviewing stand. This coinciding with a right wing troll campaign portraying him and other experts as partisan saboteurs out to harm President Trump. Unless I've misinterpreted the term “deep state Hillary Clinton-loving stooge.” But if we're looking for a coronavirus Schwartzkopf, there's one who already has a podium.
GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO Facts can be uplifting. They can be depressing at times. They can be confusing at times. But I think facts are empowering. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's morning press briefings haven't garnered the same audiences as Trump's primetime appearances, but they've been well covered. And unlike the president's widely praised, this is partly due to New York state's unfortunate claim to epicenters status. Almost a third of the nation's confirmed COVID-19 cases are in New York City. But Cuomo cleaves strictly to the science, the data, the advice of experts and the imperative of public health. He does some pastoral work, but offers no Pollyanna declarations or unfounded hope.
GOVERNOR CUOMO In a situation like this, not knowing the facts is worse because that's when you feel out of control. [END CLIP]
On the other hand, he is a politician and his resumé is not unblemished. Before we anoint him America's governor, we should recall America's mayor.
NEWS REPORT Tell me, what is your philosophy of leadership? So many people are admiring your leadership just now.
You have to lead by example, you have to be honest. You've got to be willing to work as hard as the people that you're asking to work with you, and not be removed from them. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD The press, in other words, should be vigilant regarding Cuomo's motives and his rhetoric. For example, on Wednesday, Cuomo said the state was fully supplied with protective gear for healthcare personnel. A claim promptly disputed by the nurses union. The emergency protocols for stretching out the useable life of the gear said the union, continued to put frontline caregivers at high risk. And so what the world needs at the moment is not just leadership, but trust. Where politics lurks, virulent but unseen, we must, above all, remain at safe distance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, if the message from the White House is misleading, be careful of half-baked science, too.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. In the time of Coronavirus, we’re all, it seems, amateur epidemiologists trying to find a way past the contagion that's overturned our lives. We follow the headlines. You might learn about the breakthroughs on Twitter or Facebook, but often they first appear on what are called preprint servers. In fact, Ivan Oranksy, professor of medical journalism at NYU and co-founder of Retraction Watch, says that many of the purported breakthroughs around the virus are being shared in spaces that are completely unvetted.
IVAN ORANKSY So essentially, no one has seen them. There's something that a lot of frequent servers refer to as a sort of sanity check, like is it so beyond the realm of what could be true if you're putting up astrology on an astronomy preprint server, you’re probably not going to get through that barrier. But it's a really low bar.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There is a torrent of data being released by preprint servers that are filling in some of the holes in our understanding, maybe not very accurately, but at least it gives us something to grab on to.
IVAN ORANKSY There clearly is a desperate need. And what you don't want to do is sort of withhold information from people. But what you do want to do is make sure that it is vetted at some point.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But you know that even vetting isn't going to necessarily yield perfect research. Trump going overboard on that drug. Hydroxychloroquine?
IVAN ORANSKY Hydroxychloroquine, yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That came from a peer reviewed paper. The author of it was one of the editors in chief of the journal it was printed in.
IVAN ORANSKY Yeah. In that case, it was actually technically peer reviewed, but would it have appeared in another journal? I think the rule of thumb about no single study actually still holds. So if it is the first study to show something, no matter how strong it looks, it's about whether or not it's been replicated, whether someone has repeated something very similar to it and found a similar result, not about whether that particular paper holds up. President Trump was in fact, pointing to a single peer reviewed paper. It's tragic and completely predictable that after that press conference, a couple drank their fish tank cleaner because it includes chloroquine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Another problem with peer review that you point to is the sheer volume of papers, something like 3 million a year?
IVAN ORANSKY That's right. That's three million papers, two to three peer reviewers per paper. Scientists tell me when you're doing a peer review well and properly, it takes them on average about half a day. So, you know, call that four hours. Four hours, two and a half reviewers. That's 10 hours per paper, three million papers. That's 30 million hours. And some of those papers were reviewed several times in several journals because they were rejected the first or second or eighth time. So do that math. And by the way, the number of peer review requests to researchers who are experts in coronavirus, now, imagine that. You would probably have, I don't know, one an hour based on the number that we're seeing. You can't possibly do them. And so what happens? Well, that peer review ends up being done by the next person in line or the eighth person in line, somebody the editor can find. But it's not someone who can really do the expert kind of analysis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Can you give us an example of some stuff that's gotten out there in the mainstream that has subsequently been debunked?
IVAN ORANSKY There was a paper in early February that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, and it was a letter to the editor which gets a much lighter peer-reviewed treatment generally. But it was in the New England Journal Medicine, one of the world's premier medical journals, it had their stamp of approval. They did what they could to get it out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And what did it say?
IVAN ORANSKY It said that you could actually spread the virus if you didn't have symptoms yet. And now there's some evidence that that may be true, although, again, we're still in a preliminary phase. But at the time, there wasn't clear cut evidence for what was in it. The people who wrote it might not have even seen the patients themselves. A lot of confusion there. And it stood for about a week until Kai Kupferschmidt of Science Magazine, who's been reporting a lot on this, these issues very well, I should add, exposed the fact that there were some problems in this paper. There was another paper that came out in a virology journal that claimed to show that there were two very distinct subtypes of the virus. One of them was really virulent and the other one maybe wasn't quite as dangerous. I'm oversimplifying that, but you may have seen headlines about these two subtypes of virus. That paper, which, by the way, hasn't had any correction on it or anything, just for the record was very well debunked by, actually, a couple virologists, there was actually a preprint that came out on a Friday afternoon at the end of January. The punch line of that paper was that because these researchers saw a lot of common proteins in this coronavirus with other viruses, including HIV. They therefore concluded and I think this is where they just went way off the rails, that this was clearly an engineered bioterror agent. That paper was actually withdrawn within 40 hours on a Sunday. There are papers that are coming out now, no one's actually going to see in order to vet properly, you know, the example of hydroxychloroquine, if you look at the downstream effects of a single paper of only a couple dozen patients switching the entire world into actually a shortage of hydroxychloroquine, which, by the way, is a drug that people with lupus very much need. It's great to get a clinical trial going on. It sounds like something we should be trying, but we're way ahead of the evidence and we need to be careful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So then, do you think that there is a role for preprints that the flow of information is essential for collaboration among scientists themselves and that it helps us cycle through ideas faster?
IVAN ORANSKY I do think there's a very positive role for preprints. Science doesn't happen only when a paper is published. If anything, the horses left the barn and you're closing the door by publishing that paper because it takes so long to publish a paper. So preprints can absolutely help send information flow, but you shouldn't go to a preprint server and say well, it's got some scientists’ name on it. It must be kosher. We have to stop thinking about it in the binary way and think probably a high percentage of it's going to turn out to be wrong. But preprint servers, if they've gotten the word out sooner, let other people try and replicate the experiment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE One last thing. For health and science journalists, this is absent the gunfire and continuous mortal danger. Your version of war reporting, which means you're subject to fatigue and the fog of this pandemic.
IVAN ORANSKY Yeah, I think that all of the things that are, if you will, problematic about war reporting and yet ultimately incredibly necessary about war reporting are present here. I think what you have to do is actually acknowledge the fog of war, not feel the need to react to absolutely every pronouncement, every study. That's really hard to do, pretending there aren't bullets flying over you. How do you do the dispassionate kind of reporting that you need to do in a case like this? But there are reporters who are experienced at war reporting in the same way, the reporters who are experienced in health and science reporting that was part of how they sat down to report and do that story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ivan, thank you very much.
IVAN ORANSKY Thank you, Brooke. Always a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ivan Oransky is the vice president of editorial at Medscape, a leading journalism and health care site for healthcare professionals and professor of medical journalism at NYU. So if mostly experts use preprint servers to send their unvetted studies up the flagpole, how about the non-experts? Surely during a global pandemic poised to kill millions if the best advice is drowned out, they are going to back off and stay in their lanes. Right? I mean, in the interest of public safety?
NEWS REPORT I agree. No question about it. I'm not a scientist, so I agree.
NEWS REPORT I'm not a scientist. But it does feel overdone on the panicky side of the worries about the virus.
NEWS REPORT I'm not an expert in viruses by any means, but I compared it to traditional influenza.
NEWS REPORT How is it a panacea? Do I know that it’s going to work? I'm not a doctor, as I've been telling you, but I'm interested. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE BuzzFeed's Ryan Broderick recently wrote an article titled “I'm Not an Epidemiologist But...The Rise of the Coronavirus Influencers.” He observed that in the wake of Coronavirus, several types of viral influencers have coalesced online, ranging from YouTube grifters to Silicon Valley techies to actual doctors who have taken to Twitter with actual bad information. That last category includes Harvard epidemiologist but not virologist Eric Feigl-ding, who wasn't seeking headlines, he was just putting things out there on Twitter that he'd seen, you know, just to share, attracting a heap of followers and doing some unintended damage along the way.
RYAN BRODERICK His tweet sharing I believe it was a pre-print that hadn't been vetted or reviewed is what caused a conspiracy theory that COVID-19, was somehow related to HIV. So you can trace that rumor, that hoax directly back to a tweet of his. And when I brought that up with him, you know, he was apologetic. But him and the medical experts like him who are just trying to ring the alarm bell, they're happy as long as they're ringing that alarm bell.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You describe three different groups under the coronavirus influence or umbrella. So let's start with the malignant block. These are people who are intentionally spreading disinformation, hoaxers or grifters, as he'd put it.
RYAN BRODERICK That's right. You have white nationalists like Tom Kawcyznski currently trying to rebrand himself as a health and fitness podcaster. YouTubers like the Pro QAnon influencer Jordan Sather.
BROOKE GLADSTONE QAnon is basically a conspiracy that says Trump is engaged in a liberty saving fight against the deep state.
RYAN BRODERICK Right. His most recent thing was trying to tell his supporters that if they mixed the chemicals together that create bleach and drink it, they could protect themselves from the outbreak. And he's been really, really into how to weaponize the information online about the outbreak to help himself build a following. And then websites like Infowars and the Conservative Online Fringe have been really interested in selling, you know, survivalist packages. And it's a whole world of either political bad agents or scammers or grifters and they're all seeing this as a prime opportunity to find some people to take advantage of.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The right wing magazine, The Federalist recently published the, I guess you'd call it the thought stylings of one Doug Perednia. He's reportedly an unlicensed dermatologist and he says we should all be having Coronavirus parties like when I was a kid with chicken pox parties in order to achieve herd immunity. And yeah, maybe some people will die, but, you know, we'll have special facilities.
RYAN BRODERICK The Federalist has been one of the bigger outlets to take the, “we need to sacrifice ourselves for the good of Trump and the economy,” stance. The piece you're talking about was taken down by Twitter. It's one more story in a very long line of deeply irresponsible writing that that website's been doing about the outbreak. They love to position themselves, as you know, public health experts, but their agenda is very clear, which is we need to put the sick inside and, you know, obviously protect the old people but, yeah, they might die, but we've got to get back to work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That brings us, I think, to the second category you talk about: they're not intentionally lying, they are the coronavirus influencers who have no relevant experience in the fields of which they speak.
RYAN BRODERICK I would categorize all of these types of influencers as sort of like men who love data and are now bored at home. It’s the economists, the data scientists, the Silicon Valley investors, it's like they're taking what they would be doing on LinkedIn and now they're doing it on Twitter for hundreds of thousands of people to see. I first noticed the phenomenon with coronavirus why you must act now on Medium. So chances are you've seen it. It's been viewed over 37 million times and it's a good piece of writing. It turned ‘flatten the curve’ into a meme. It was translated into two dozen languages. It was a lightning in a bottle moment. And so I was curious about who wrote it. His name is Tomas Pueyo and I looked him up and realized that he has no scientific background whatsoever. And when I called him and asked him how he wrote the Medium piece, he said that he had just collected a bunch of stuff that he had put on Facebook and put it into a Medium post. And I was sort of horrified. And I spent an afternoon double checking, triple checking, finding anybody who had anything bad to say, but I couldn't. It seems like it's pretty solid.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He advised strict social distancing measures early, urged readers to take the virus seriously.
RYAN BRODERICK I have no objection with him or what he did at all. It's more that a piece of writing could be, as I put it in my piece, the defining writing of this outbreak. But it has kicked off a trend of other people doing the same thing. And they're not so good. And they're getting treated just as importantly and being brought on places like Fox News to talk about their stuff. And that's that's the dangerous thing that's happening now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So give me an example of that.
RYAN BRODERICK The most recent one was a medium post by Aaron Ginn titled “Evidence Over Hysteria COVID-19.” Ginn is a Silicon Valley technologist. He basically wrote a piece arguing that we can just calm down and we can all go back to work and things are fine. It was taken down by Medium. He then republished it on the financial blog Zero Hedge, which is notable because they started spreading really xenophobic conspiracy theories about COVID-19 a couple of months ago and Ginn was brought on Fox News to talk about his Medium piece. And they used the Medium piece as a way to say, you know, this guy is an expert. This guy is going viral, look how great this Medium piece is. And so while Tomas Pueyo was totally right and what he did was totally correct, Aaron Ginn I think saw that as an opportunity to legitimize himself. And Fox News jumped on it because it backed up their political narrative, which is that we need to turn the economy on no matter who dies. There will be people who go viral with information about the outbreak. It's just natural because things are flying around the Internet and people are scared and people are home. But we can stop and say, why am I listening to you? Who are you? What's your agenda?
BROOKE GLADSTONE But Feigl-ding has said, and I think he's said to you essentially that he believes less than perfect information is better than no information. That from a journalism point of view is anathema, but maybe not from a scientific one.
RYAN BRODERICK I wonder if he'll change his tune in a couple of weeks. As we get further into this, maybe he starts to say, okay, yeah, I maybe shouldn't tweet this out without checking first.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I would hope he's an honest and sincere actor, well-intentioned in this arena. You haven't seen and don't anticipate seeing any change in the other two categories. They'll just do their thing until the fuel runs out.
RYAN BRODERICK Let's call them the Trump bubble grifters, the malicious actors, the QAnon, the white nationalist, anti-vaxxers, these people, they are very much a glitch of the problems with our modern social media platforms. They will survive, apparently anything. You know, I thought maybe with the outbreak they would disperse or change their tune. No. So I think we can now safely say that these groups and these influencers will try to profit, whether financially or politically, off of anything. With the third sort of more nebulous category, these finance bros who are into crypto and Medium, I do think people are getting smart to it. I've seen a lot of memes saying like, wait a minute, you're an economist. Why are you talking to me about the Coronavirus? And I think especially with the collision of personal safety and economic benefit, this argument of should we go back to work or not? I think that is beginning to change the way people see the data people and the finance people who are sharing outbreak statistics. It is making people a little nervous about who they're listening to because you don't know what the agenda is. And I think that is ultimately a good thing because hopefully it will open up some more space for some legitimate scientists to go viral with their take or their statistics or their charts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ryan, thank you very much.
RYAN BRODERICK Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ryan Broderick is senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, what the pronouncements of pundits and politicians this week tell us about the current thinking on the value of life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. Donald Trump calls them nasty questions, which turn out to be ordinary journalistic questions, whose answers inevitably will reflect badly on him. But imagine a world where that process yields actual change. Judd Legum is inhabiting that world. The progressive Democratic founder of the ThinkProgress news site is now the author of Popular Information, a politics newsletter that has turned its attention lately to the inequities laid bare by Coronavirus. His simple nasty question: Which companies do not provide enough paid sick leave? He began with Darden, which operates chain restaurants like Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse, with 170,000 restaurant employees across nearly eighteen hundred locations. Then things started to happen.
JUDD LEGUM So I wrote my piece. People were retweeting, people are commenting. I started hearing from a lot of other Darden employees and Olive Garden employees that, yes, this was a big issue, thanks for bringing it to your attention. So I thought that that was a pretty good initial response. And then that evening I was in a coffee shop, something you can't do anymore. But at that time, I was at a coffee shop getting my next newsletter together. And I got a call from Darden and it was their Chief Communications Officer, he was saying, well, I just want to let you know that we are going to offer all of our employees paid sick leave starting today.
BOB GARFIELD I'd like to say that one of the things the free market is free of is conscience. Is that what you think got Darden to change its policy? Conscience?
JUDD LEGUM I think the public relations hit if they held their ground amid growing concern about contracting a virus. And I also think and this is I think a big factor is it's just not that expensive to provide paid sick leave to all your employees. There was a study that was put out I think the same week that I published, that showed on average in the states that required by law, people use about 2 days per year of paid sick leave. So for a company like Darden, it's a very minimal expense.
BOB GARFIELD The National Restaurant Association have paid lobbyists doling out a lot of money to make sure that they are protected by state and local legislation and regulation. What did you uncover?
JUDD LEGUM In the case of Darden in February, which was the month before this piece came out, they were actively lobbying in Florida for something called the preemption law, which would mean even if a city, Miami or some other city decides, OK, everyone in our borders is going to have to provide paid sick leave if you want to operate a restaurant within our city limits, the state law would preempt that and say that's invalid. The National Restaurant Association, Darden, they pursue those kinds of laws all around the country. And that was what was really kind of shocking to me that they switched so fast because it was really a 180 degree turn.
BOB GARFIELD So with Darden’s success and you were not done, you started looking into the largest supermarket chain in the United States, or at least the largest supermarket holding company, Kroger, which has such brands as Kroger and Ralph's in California. And Harris Teeter. What happened there?
JUDD LEGUM Yeah Kroger is a lot more complicated than Darden because most of their staff is unionized and there's different union contracts all around the country. And each one has different sick leave provisions. So I started communicating with Kroger employees all around the country and found they were full time employees that had paid sick leave and it was available 90 days after they started working. There were people who were full time who had sick leave, but they had to wait a year to get sick leave. And then there were people, for example, Kroger employees in Texas who never get paid sick leave. I talked to people who had worked there for 15, 20 years and had never gotten paid sick leave.
BOB GARFIELD You have a voice mail from the president of one of the Kroger brands, Fred Meyer, to his employees.
DENNIS GIBSON Hi, this is Dennis Gibson, president of Fred Meyer. I want to thank you for being there for our customers, our communities and each other as a token of gratitude. Each of you will receive $25 for groceries added to your rewards card today. [END CLIP]
JUDD LEGUM The Kroger employees that I had been talking to were pretty upset about the voicemail and in different divisions, they had different ways of communication, but none of it went over very well with the employees.
BOB GARFIELD Not all of the grocery corporations were as stingy. The Publix grocery chain had a much better policy, no?
JUDD LEGUM Yeah, and actually I think that was probably key to changing Krogers minds on this. Publix was saying if you have symptoms, you can stay home and we will pay you or even if you need to take care of someone else who has symptoms and I actually send it to Kroger to see if they had any reaction, which they did not.
BOB GARFIELD But after your story landed, Kroger did expand its policy in what ways?
JUDD LEGUM Well, on Saturday, which was about a week after I published the first story, they did adopt a policy that is similar to Publix, although not quite as good. They will now offer paid sick leave to people who are having COVID-19 symptoms or who place themselves into self-quarantine. But in both cases, they want those decisions and the symptoms verified by your doctor. So it's easier to get some proof from your doctor that says, hey, you should stay home because of these symptoms, I'm concerned, than it is to get a positive test back, but it can still be difficult for some people, especially if you lack health insurance.
BOB GARFIELD In your reporting you point out that there's so many laws and regulations in so many different jurisdictions. Is there in the offing any kind of national legislation that will make it one rule for all workers and all employees across the board?
JUDD LEGUM Well Congress actually just passed a great bill with a very aggressive paid sick leave policy, at least for this current crisis, requiring all employers to provide paid sick leave and then also with the declaration of a national health emergency, immediately give everyone 14 days that they could use to protect themselves during that time. But what happened was it went from a requirement from all employers to a requirement that only applies to companies that have between 50 and 500 employees. So would that change, they left out 80 percent of workers in the United States.
BOB GARFIELD All right. You can understand the 50 because these are small businesses, but over 500. I simply do not understand why there would be a carve out for large companies with big payrolls.
JUDD LEGUM For the companies between 500 and 50, this simply was going to be subsidized with a tax credit. So they were going to essentially be paid back by the government for the money that it cost them to provide the sick leave to their employees. And people were saying, well, we don't want to subsidize these big companies like Amazon and Kroger and whoever else. But what doesn't make sense about that was they could have, of course, just required those companies to provide paid sick leave and not paid for it. But that was something that apparently was a deal breaker for enough people that it wasn't included in the law. I mean, I think like many people, the supermarket is pretty much the only business right now that I'm patronizing. And I definitely am much more aware of how critical these folks are, how essential that they are and how critical it is for the safety of everyone else that they're treated properly.
BOB GARFIELD Yeah. If I say to you, essential workers, you’re thinking first responders, police, fire, ambulance. Not necessarily someone working the checkout down at the Giant.
JUDD LEGUM I've been doing a lot of reporting on corporate responsibility, but I think that the connection between that and the people on the lower end of the economic ladder is really critical. And I hope that I'm able to keep finding useful ways to do this kind of reporting, even in the context of a non pandemic instead of just during a pandemic.
BOB GARFIELD Well, Judd, thank you very much. Congratulations on your reporting and be well.
JUDD LEGUM Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD Judd Legum is the author and founder of Popular Information, a newsletter about politics and power. You can find it at popular.info.
BROOKE GLADSTONE On Monday, I proposed an essay on the words essential and non-essential, as in having your work deemed vital or, you know, dispensable in times when public duty is best expressed in isolation. Here in the big epicenter, Governor Andrew Cuomo explained the essential.
GOVERNOR CUOMO Grocery stores need food, pharmacies need drugs. Your Internet has to continue to work. The water has to turn on when you turn a faucet. So there are essential services that will continue to function. I want to talk about the most drastic action we can take. This is the most drastic action we can take. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Many people like we, in the On the Media crew can work, though it's tricky, from home. Not so, sanitation workers, ambulance drivers, firefighters, mail carriers who risk infection every day, sometimes because they can't afford not to, because lacking sufficient benefits or cash reserves, they have no choice.
NEWS REPORT We spoke with a taxi driver this morning and we did take steps to maintain some social distancing. We set up the mic on a platform, on a Clorox wipe, sitting on a platform, and we each stood six feet apart. We asked him about what it feels like to be considered an essential worker in this strange time.
I'm doing a service to the community, but at the same time it's a job and that's how I've always looked at it. So I'm more here because I need to be driving taxi. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE That was San Francisco here in New York City. The streets are pretty empty.
PRESIDENT TRUMP You know, I don't want the cure to be worse than the problem itself. The problem being obviously the problem. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE If you're perplexed that the president of the world's contagion capital wants us all buying, selling, doing whatever the heck we do sooner rather than later, don't be. He sees the world in turmoil and he seems to share the view of another president who said economic depression cannot be cured by legislative action or executive pronouncement. These wounds must be healed by the action of the cells of the economic body, the producers and consumers themselves. That, by the way, was Herbert Hoover.
PRESIDENT TRUMP We have to put the country to work. Look, you can lose a number of people to the flu, but you're going to lose more people by putting a country into a massive recession or depression.
GOVERNOR DAN PATRICK Let's get back to work. Let's get back to living. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick told Tucker Carlson that he'd pay with his life to get the economy moving again.
GOVERNOR DAN PATRICK No one reached out to me and said, as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren? And if that's the exchange I'm all in. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's when I realized my little rumination on the meaning of essential had been subsumed by a foundational clash over the relative value of lives and the urgent question of how to fuel the engines of market capitalism. When that fuel, the only fuel is literally locked away. For Glenn Beck, it's a no brainer.
GLENN BECK I would rather have my children stay home and all of us who are over 50 go in and keep this economy going and working. I'd rather die than kill the country, cause it's not the economy that's dying. It's the country.
BRIT HUME The utter collapse of the country's economy, which many think will happen if this goes on much longer, is an intolerable result. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Fox's Brit Hume acknowledged that COVID-19’s death toll was a lot higher than the usual flu, but quote, there we are.
BRIT HUME You know, we don't shut down the economy to save every single life that's threatened by a widespread disease. We just don't.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So the choice is between America and Americans? You can't have both?
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's actor Michael Sheen at a London rally in 2015 defending Britain's National Health Service.
MICHAEL SHEEN Do we want to be a society that is fractured, divided, disconnected? Do we want to be a society that is suspicious and mistrustful of its own people? A society that is exploitative, that sees people as commodities, as numbers, mere instruments of profit to be used while they have use, drained of whatever they can offer, or do we want to be a society where all are equal in value? And your value is not purely a monetary one? [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Are all equal in worth and value? The value of an actual life is generally seen as priceless, but the value of a statistical life or as they call it VSL, that's altogether different. VSL is calculated often by looking at the risks people are willing to take and at what price? Economists might ask you how much you'd paid to reduce your risk of dying. The cost of a smoke alarm perhaps, or I don't know, a ventilator. But no one asks if you'd prefer to redirect one billion dollars of the $17 billion reportedly earmarked to save Boeing and use it to buy 80,000 ventilators. So we'll set aside the messy VSL for the even messier VSLY. The value of a statistical life year. This is where legal scholar Cass Sunstein got into trouble. When considering the costs and benefits of irregulation, the EPA applied a constant statistical value to each life, irrespective of age.
Sunstein thought that maybe it shouldn't. Maybe the lives of older people should count for a little less because they've had so many more years to live. In fact, he said maybe valuing the old and the young equally was actually unfair to younger people because it treats each of their anticipated years as less valuable than those of older people. Good point. Back to your dark, satanic mill Granddad, at least until this thing blows over. Save the economy for the rest of us. So the young Sunstein, and he was young then, might cringingly acknowledge that Dan Patrick, Glenn Beck, Brit Hume and so on might have a point if they weren't offering a false choice. But they are. The country won't die, Glenn, nor the economy. Both are likely, though, to change. And with a little bit of luck, we've lately been lacking. That could be good. The great economist John Kenneth Galbraith said it would take nothing short of cataclysm or revolution for America's contented class to shake off its oblivion. In fact, he wondered, was this blinkered blitheness the American genius? We won't shake this off so easily. So I ended the week having to acknowledge that the aid bill, while filled with disappointments and bucking up the plutocracy, puts money in the pockets of people who've long been drained and shunned by a government of the comfortably contented. A bill that wouldn't have been possible before the virus. The government already seemed perilously close to the edge, even before the viral rampage. Change was coming. One way, or another.
BOB GARFIELD One final thing. We've been working hard to get this show to you from our living rooms and kitchens and dungeons and so forth, and it has been challenging. But what about you? How’ve you been coping? OTM producer Ashtaa tweeted out that question last week. And here she is with a selection of your answers.
Hi On the Media. My name is Sarah. I'm from Chicago, Illinois.
This is Bill Campbell in San Diego.
Aloha. My name's Jason and I live on the island of Hawaii.
I'm Caroline Harrison. I'm recording this from Queens, New York.
This is Tucker from Cambridge, Massachusetts.
It's Ashlynn here in Ireland.
ASTHAA CHATURVEDI So last week we asked you how your Coronavirus media diet is impacting your mental health.
I have PTSD and I am a regular consumer of news.
I'm not really sure how you could be paying attention to what's going on without being pretty depressed or anxious.
Honestly, the news surrounding this has all become a bit overwhelming.
I’m finding that when I don't listen to the news, I feel happier. But I have no idea what's going on. And then when I do listen to the news, I feel much more informed, but definitely more anxious.
ASTHAA CHATURVEDI And you told us about the different sources that you're using.
My wife, she's a nurse at the local hospital. So she's also on the front lines of this whole thing. And she's reading medical journals and trying to find the latest information.
I feel like the only place to really get up to the second news is on Twitter. But I really feel like it's this kind of bad news virus that is going around.
I'm not a big social media user. I have a Twitter account that in the past I would have interacted with maybe once every two weeks or so. But in the last week, that's been once every 15 minutes.
ASTHAA CHATURVEDI You told us about how it's really difficult to make sense of things and all the different kinds of questions that arise out of every new development.
I wonder what will happen to our society if even, say, half the worst-case scenario develops.
ASTHAA CHATURVEDI But you also told us about your coping mechanisms.
I think if there was a time that people look to a trusted source, now is it.
I'm trying to, I guess, social distance myself from coronavirus news to help manage my anxiety.
We usually end the night by watching a few episodes of The Office on Netflix to try and regain sanity before going to bed.
ASTHAA CHATURVEDI And we'll give Ashlyn from Ireland the final word.
You know, all the listeners are doing well and their families stay safe for everybody and wash your hands.
BOB GARFIELD 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 Asthaa Chaturvedi 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. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield.
UNDERWRITING On the Media is supported by the Ford Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the listeners of WNYC Radio.