How the Media Helped Democrats Spin the Pandemic

The nation’s most trusted mainstream news outlets have proven unworthy of anyone’s trust.

March 15, 2020. Uncertainty sweeps the United States as COVID-19 is widely realized to be a ubiquitous threat. Then-candidate Joe Biden takes the debate stage with Bernie Sanders and reminds us that there is one thing we can still be certain of: Joe Biden would oppose Medicare for All on national television during a pandemic. Many of us watched Biden repeat tired smears against single payer healthcare, denouncing Italy’s universal healthcare system because of the mounting COVID-19 cases and deaths there. It wouldn’t be the last time prominent Democrats used disinformation to make the pandemic worse by stunting momentum for public, universal, scientifically-backed policies.  

Throughout the deadly pandemic, Democrats—America’s “science believers” and “responsible adults”—have employed propaganda at every turn to protect health insurance companies, landlords, and capital in general. President Biden and Democratic lawmakers at every level of government have obscured the benefits (and ethical imperative) of single-payer healthcare, guaranteed housing for all, rent cancellation, and shutdowns of non-essential businesses. They’ve advertised state and federal “rent assistance” and “eviction moratoriums” even while folks are evicted in the tens of thousands and applying for rent relief programs remains incredibly burdensome. The Democratic governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, was lauded by the national media and Democrats across the country for simply being more telegenic than Donald Trump, even as Cuomo’s COVID-19 policies and his decade-long track record of defunding public healthcare directly led to many thousands of deaths. Cuomo’s current myriad of scandals—including sexual harassment allegations, hiding nursing home deaths, a dangerous bridge safety cover-up, and special COVID-19 testing for friends and family—might have been uncovered sooner if the national media hadn’t been so busy celebrating the now-disgraced governor. 

Despite top Democrats’ opposition to single payer and universal housing protections, the realities of the pandemic have forced them to at least acknowledge the responsibilities of government during a public health crisis. After Biden cited the raging pandemic in Italy to write off a single-payer system as a solution in the March 2020 debate, he affirmed the need for the government to pay for everyone’s pandemic-related care. He said the government simply needed to make sure “no one has to pay for” treatment, drugs, and hospitalization “related to the crisis. That’s a national emergency and that’s how it’s handled…We just pass a law saying that you do not have to pay for any of this period.”

Then came 2021: Biden was president and Democrats controlled Congress. They had the power to “just pass a law” to make COVID-19 treatment free and protect all tenants. So far, their promises don’t match their actions. The American Rescue Plan (ARP) passed by Congress and signed by Biden a few weeks ago does expand on previous COVID-19 relief laws and executive orders to cover no-cost testing and treatment for the uninsured, as well as  folks covered by Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Absent from the ARP, though, is any provision guaranteeing no-cost COVID-related treatment, drugs, and hospitalization for everyone. As a result, the current framework allows for-profit providers and insurers to continue making obscene amounts of money off the national health crisis while folks are left to deal with enormous bills—or worse, to not seek treatment because of the cost.

Even when it comes to testing, one thing for which Congress and President Trump attempted to guarantee free coverage early in the pandemic, people with private insurance were still left with medical bills. Despite provisions in relief laws early on in the virus surge, executive orders from Trump, executive orders from Biden, and the ARP, people have gotten bills just for COVID tests or office visits for tests. A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that “while the Biden Administration has clarified that all testing conducted for diagnostic purposes must be covered… some patients still face out-of-pocket costs related to COVID-19 testing, which our analysis shows can be high and unpredictable,” and cites five common ways people have been left with test-related bills. These include visiting a provider for a COVID test but not receiving one during that visit, or going to out-of-network providers for tests. A primer on how to deal with surprise COVID medical bills would likely be more helpful than the Biden administration when it comes to avoiding these loopholes. 

The patchwork of laws and regulations haven’t protected people from medical bills doled out by for-profit providers and insurers during the national health emergency. A national single-payer health care system like Medicare for All does away with all of the uncertainty, gets people the care they need free at the point of service, and saves lives. To speak against Medicare for All during a pandemic is a service to the profits of insurers—record profits, in fact—and providers, not the health and safety of the people. Then-candidate Biden suggesting that there’s a blanket solution to free crisis-related medical care within America’s current private health care system was (to put it gently) a distortion at best. 

The Biden administration’s “America First” posture on vaccines is another area of murky rhetoric. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken recently stated, “We have a duty to other countries to get the virus under control here in the United States,” which is true in one sense and completely beside the point in another. Blinken went on to say the U.S. will explore options for getting vaccines to other countries once “we get more confident in our vaccine supply here at home.” But the U.S. is hoarding vaccines, while other countries are reaching out daily for help. To suggest we have some duty to the world to get the virus under control in America first, rather than a duty to ameliorate suffering and stop people from dying from COVID everywhere possible as quickly as possible (say, by prioritizing global health over U.S. pharmaceutical companies’ profits) is without basis in science.

Another distortion: calling a policy an eviction “moratorium” or “ban” when people are still being evicted and are still under threat of eviction. It’s another example of how many of America’s top Democrats, with the help of the mainstream media, are intentionally misleading the public, as evidenced by headlines like “Biden extends the national ban on evictions through March 2021” and “Biden administration extends federal eviction moratorium through end of June.”

Once again, the propaganda is effective because of popular confusion. And make no mistake: the current situation is confusing as hell. The CARES Act established a partial eviction ban early on in the pandemic. Democratic governors and legislatures around the country added to that by instituting temporary measures to protect renters from eviction—but not all renters. Under Trump, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) instituted a so-called moratorium on the federal level in September and President Biden extended it when he took office. With that in mind, how is the public supposed to make sense of headlines like, “Millions of Americans could lose their homes despite President Biden’s eviction moratorium order,” “Colorado’s Eviction Moratorium Is About To Get Looser,” and “The CDC banned evictions. Tens of thousands have still occurred?” CNBC reported that between the September CDC “ eviction moratorium” and early December there were tens of thousands of evictions. Definitionally, there’s a problem here. To call the orders moratoria when they’re not actually moratoria is an example of hypernormalization—the surreal, uniform acceptance of a false version of reality and the myths that fuel that false reality. In this case, the policy is not actually a moratorium, our leaders know it’s not a moratorium, the media knows it’s not a moratorium… but everyone still calls it a moratorium and our leaders frame it as a moratorium to the public. The so-called bans issued by Trump, Biden, and Democratic state lawmakers function only to attract positive press and blunt advocacy for an actual ban (and the critical next step of rent forgiveness). 

Prominent Democrats seem to believe that if they say “no more bad things!” enough times, they’ll somehow speak universal protections into existence. Senators Chuck Schumer and Chris Van Hollen blamed Mitch McConnell for blocking the extension of the so-called moratorium in the CARES Act, while championing the measure (along with a burdensome, means-tested rental assistance program) as the solution for tenants at risk of eviction. But their own prepared statements showed the limitations of their plan: at a press conference, Senator Elizabeth Warren said Congress also had to pass a bill she was co-sponsoring that would make the moratorium “universal.” The sheer flood of state-sanctioned misinformation has been staggering. In December 2020, then-Rep. Joe Kennedy III called on Joe Biden to “prioritize” extending the “eviction ban” once he took office. Democratic Representatives Dwight Evans and Mike Doyle wrote a letter signed by more than 50 Democrats in the House to the CDC, asking for it to extend the so-called moratorium. Rep. Evans tweeted, “We must keep people housed, especially in this pandemic winter!” Neither the letter nor the tweet mentioned the tens of thousands evicted since the CDC measure was put in place. Those evictions weren’t mentioned in Rep. Evans’s press release touting the letter either, nor in fellow letter signee Rep. Bill Foster’s press release commending Biden’s plan to extend the measure in mid-January.

Focusing so heavily on the so-called moratorium not only rhetorically concealed the evictions taking place across the country, it also obscured the future reality that unless eviction protections are made permanent (or back rent is forgiven), many more people will be facing eviction in due time. Activists and tenants have said this loudly from the beginning of the pandemic. But the Democratic establishment, with the help of the national media, used essentially the same playbook it did during the 2020 presidential primary. Back then, Centrist Democrats said the guy trashing single payer on the debate stage at the beginning of America’s bout with coronavirus was the “electable” one. The mainstream media repeated it, and people believed it. A similar phenomenon is repeating itself now, with one crucial difference: you can shift public perception with words alone, but not material conditions. Overwhelming the public with a fabricated narrative can get the party in line behind a presidential candidate, but it doesn’t work as a response to a public health emergency. 

None of the Democrats’ pandemic propaganda would be possible without the acquiescence of the mainstream media. The most infamous example is Andrew Cuomo. CNN, MSNBC, and other mainstream national news outlets made him the heroic savior of the pandemic—at the very same time that his failed policies were leading to thousands of preventable deaths. He was the foremost “science believer” and “responsible adult” who Democrats and the national media could contrast with the orange man in the White House. Yet Cuomo’s reckless statements and policy decisions cost lives just the same. 

Cuomo began giving daily propaganda briefings at the beginning of March 2020, as the days ticked by without him issuing a New York lockdown—a delay that led directly to 17,500 deaths. News networks and entertainment outlets dubbed these offerings must-see daytime TV. Chris Cuomo, the governor’s brother, hosted him on CNN for playful banter about the growing number of Andrew Cuomo fans out there—or “Cuomosexuals”—while Chris was getting preferential COVID testing ordered by the Governor for his family and friends. The Los Angeles Times published an entire article reporting that Gov. Cuomo approved of the term “Cuomosexual” after it had been mainstreamed by the likes of Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, and Ellen DeGeneres. Famously (or infamously) Cuomo was later awarded an Emmy. Respectable outlets like NPR hosted Cuomo on his book tour to give a “halftime review” of the pandemic response—uncritically giving someone responsible for so many deaths a platform for pablum and falsehoods. Media gushed over Cuomo’s role as a “truth-teller” and leader who “consoled” the public. In one moment of purported consolation, Cuomo said to all his viewers during the pandemic, “You’re not alone. Nobody is alone.” But many of the people who were victims of Cuomo’s failed COVID policies did, in fact,  suffer and die alone.

At the same time as they were praising Cuomo, mainstream outlets were criticizing GOP politicians’ handling of the pandemic. That criticism was justified, but it was undermined by how obvious the partisanship was. Coverage ripped Trump for downplaying and denying the pandemic and suggesting injections of bleach could be a cure for COVID. CNN and MSNBC ran frequent stories on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ poor pandemic response. Yet media critiques of Democratic politicians who embraced similarly cruel policies were hard to find. For all the media’s handwringing about the nation’s “polarization” and “tribalism,” they seemed unable to identify any cause for this that didn’t involve Trump’s unique cruelty and incompetence. 

If the largest media outlets had critically covered all of our leaders’ pandemic responses, Democrats like Cuomo might have been forced to change their disastrous pandemic policies. Instead, for nearly a full year, Cuomo got to keep his image as a hero as people died. It’s painful to imagine how things might have been different. If journalists and broadcasters had been more skeptical in March 2020 when Cuomo told reporters “we should relax” and “we don’t even think it’s going to be as bad it was in other countries,” the pressure to shut down New York would’ve been much greater. Maybe I—and roughly 200 other Queens residents—would’ve been spared from sitting together in a big room for state-mandated jury duty a week after the pandemic first arrived in New York. A lot more people might be alive right now. 

Throughout the pandemic, the Democratic approach to messaging has been to obscure the ethical, humane policy options available—like single-payer health care, housing for all, equitable vaccine distribution, or paid lockdowns—with propaganda that allows the powerful to persevere. When Democrats use the phrase “we listen to science,” their aim is merely to demonstrate their moral superiority to the GOP—not to convey an ethical commitment to saving lives. In the context of the pandemic, Democrats saying they listen to science means little more than (1) they don’t deny the deadly nature of COVID-19, (2) they don’t think people should inject themselves with bleach, and (3) they do believe in wearing masks and social distancing. We know that’s not enough, and they know it too. Still, the torrent of misleading stories in the mainstream media can make reasonable people believe unreasonable things.

In the face of corporate media, the Democratic establishment, and their wealthy donors, two of our biggest hopes are persistent activism and dogged independent journalism. These  were the people calling out the inadequacies of the government’s pandemic response and the mainstream media’s failures. Activists won relief measures locally and nationally, including the partial eviction protections that helped a great number of people stay in their homes during the pandemic. Before the next public health crisis like COVID comes, though, we’re going to need concrete legislative changes that deliver Medicare for All, housing for all, and other universal programs. Who knows how much time we’ll have to catch our breath?

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