Julie Hollar

NYT twists stats to insist we need more policing

The New York Times handed over its popular The Morning daily newsletter on January 18 to new hire German Lopez, formerly of Vox. His debut edition of the data-driven newsletter (usually helmed by David Leonhardt) was headlined “Examining the Spike in Murders.”

As criminal justice activist and expert Alec Karakatsanis (Twitter, 1/18/22) pointed out, the analysis presented as indisputable the notion that a rise in homicides demands a police-based solution—a position that is, in fact, highly disputed, and worth debunking in detail, since it’s a popular one these days, both in the Times and in other prominent outlets (FAIR.org, 6/24/21, 7/20/21).

More police as racial justice?

NYT: Examining the Spike in Murders

German Lopez (New York Times, 1/18/22) argues that the “short-term fixes” for a rise in murder involve “more focused policing, targeting the people and places most likely to be violent.”

Lopez describes an increase in the murder rate over 2020 and 2021 (which, it’s worth pointing out, is still lower than it was from 1970 through 1996) and explains that victims are disproportionately Black, framing his analysis in terms of racial justice:

The violence remains a grave example of racial inequality in the US. We have real solutions, with strong evidence, to deal with the problem, experts said. But those solutions need support from the public and lawmakers to go anywhere.

Lopez appears to see himself as working to right a wrong here, helping to inform the public about concrete solutions that will address racial inequality. And yet one of his central theories—that a policing “pullback” helped drive rising homicides, so police are a necessary part of the solution—not only rests on very shaky ground, its prescription entails heavy costs in terms of racial justice that Lopez refuses to consider.

Lopez cites zero Black sources about the causes or the solutions. Aside from a woman from Chicago who simply describes her experience of hearing gunshots in her neighborhood, his other three named sources are white professors of criminology and public safety.

Lopez says “experts” point to “three broad explanations” for the increased murder rate: “the pandemic,” “changes in policing” and “more guns.” Two of these are fairly straightforward: Gun sales and carrying greatly increased, which one would expect to increase the number of murders, since numbers of guns correlate with numbers of homicides. And the pandemic disrupted social services and safety nets that help prevent violence.

As for “changes in policing,” Lopez explains:

The fallout from the 2020 racial justice protests and riots could have contributed to the murder spike. Police officers, scared of being caught in the next viral video, may have pulled back on proactive anti-violence practices. More of the public lost confidence in the police, possibly reducing the kind of cooperation needed to prevent murders. In extreme circumstances, the lack of confidence in the police could have led some people to take the law into their own hands—in acts of street or vigilante violence.

It’s a theory (sometimes called “the Ferguson Effect”) that hinges on an awful lot of “could have”s, “may have”s and “possibly”s. It’s extremely popular among police chiefs and their boosters who, seeking to defend against movements challenging police violence, deflect blame back onto protesters.

Questioning the timing

After introducing the possibilities, Lopez turns to sorting out the likelihood of each. He argues that “timing” undermines the pandemic hypothesis, since “the murder spike took off in May and June 2020, months after Covid began to spread in the US,” and “other countries didn’t experience similar spikes during the pandemic.” Meanwhile, the same timing “supports” the policing explanation, because, he says, the murder rate rose “unusually quickly shortly after George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing protests,” and killings increased in 2015 and 2016 “after protests over policing during those years.”

The comparison to other countries is not terribly useful without much more fine-grained analysis, as it ignores their wide range of differences in terms of their governmental response to the pandemic and other factors that impact violent crime: inequality, lack of social safety nets and availability of guns.

As for timing, as Karakatsanis (Twitter, 1/20/22) points out, experts are very hesitant to speculate about short-term effects on crime because of the complex interacting factors. In fact, there’s even a great deal of uncertainty about the factors impacting historical, long-term crime rates. But there’s plenty to cast doubt on the protest/policing explanation. Murder rates are seasonal, lower when it’s cold (as when lockdowns started) and peaking every summer—the same time police protests have historically happened. Previousresearch hasn’t found an impact of “de-policing” on homicide. And there’s a great deal of diversity across cities when you take apart the data: NYC and LA, for instance, which both had major BLM protests, didn’t experience unusual homicide surges immediately afterwards.

Lopez inserts one of his experts, criminologist Richard Rosenfeld, to close out the brief discussion of the possible causes: “All three played a role. What’s difficult is to assign priority to one compared to the others.”

In other words, readers are to understand that it’s anyone’s guess whether “fallout” from racial justice protests was a bigger factor in the rising murder rate than the pandemic or a flood of new guns—and Lopez pretty clearly nudges readers toward guessing the answer is that it was.

‘No getting around’ more punishment

Correctly identifying causes is crucial, since the causes point to different solutions. “In the short term,” Lopez writes,

there’s solid evidence for policing—specifically, more focused policing, targeting the people and places most likely to be violent. With some of these strategies, the police work with other social services to lift violent perpetrators out of that life.

He then quotes another of his experts to leave no room for argument: “I’m as much a reformer as anybody, but the short-term solutions around high violence are mainly punitive. There’s no getting around that.” (In case you were wondering whether “proactive anti-violence practices” really meant anything but more punishment.)

Vox: Murders are spiking. Police should be part of the solution.

“Here’s proof that cops are good” seems like a good way to get a gig at the New York Times (Vox, 9/27/21).

The link Lopez uses to back up his claims of “solid evidence” behind policing directs readers to a piece he wrote for Vox in September (9/27/21) with a headline that made clear his position on this issue before the Times hired him: “Murders Are Spiking. Police Should Be Part of the Solution.”

One problem with Lopez’s argument in the piece—which is much longer and includes more nuance and caveats than his Times version—is that he used evidence about overall reductions in crime to make arguments about homicide, when in fact the two don’t move in tandem. (Indeed, overall crime rates have gone down during the pandemic, as Lopez has elsewhere acknowledged—Vox, 7/21/21.)

Two keystudies he relied on, for instance, noted that they found no or minimal reductions in violent crime with increased policing. A third (NEBR, 12/20) emphasized that while it did find a small reduction in homicides,

reducing funding for police could allow increased funding for other alternatives. Indeed an array of high-quality research suggests that crime can, in certain contexts, be reduced through methods other than policing or its by-product, incarceration.

That’s particularly noteworthy, given that the study found that increased policing also resulted in more arrests for low-level crimes like loitering and drug possession, which in turn places more burdens on the most affected communities: crippling court fees and fines, plus the effects of even brief incarceration like loss of income, jobs or housing, breaking up of families and disruption of mental health and health services. And for all that, increased incarceration doesn’t even increase public safety or reduce recidivism.

In other words, if policing in some form can modestly bring down murder rates, it also incurs very real costs, above and beyond budgetary ones—which are rarely if ever measured in these studies.

In the Vox piece, Lopez did acknowledge many caveats to the bold argument made in the headline. He noted that the research suggests that not just any policing works, for instance. This is where the “proactive policing” idea comes in, a favorite of policing proponents, and a big part of the argument that a police “pullback” causes the rise in crime. It’s true that many studies have found that specific, focused policing practices have produced some (mostly small, short-term) decreases in crime. But a) that’s not what most police departments do, except in a few ad hoc short-term programs (Police Quarterly, 1/20), so it could be expected to have had next to no impact on the nationwide homicide rate, and b) the studies once again don’t take into account the costs of these programs, including the negative impacts on heavily policed communities, mentioned above.

Lopez admitted the latter issue in his Vox piece. And he raised the possibility of alternatives to policing, though he gave them less credence than the authors of the NEBR study, because they fail to clear an impossibly high bar: “These other approaches were all evaluated in a world where police exist, so even the positive research can’t demonstrate that these are necessarily true alternatives to police.” So even if it won’t hurt to try these other approaches, Lopez concluded, the data say we’ve got to push forward with increased policing.

This is the same conclusion he brings to his Times debut. Lopez wrote that long-term solutions include those that “enrich both individuals’ and communities’ socioeconomic standing over time,” as well as “gun control and higher alcohol taxes.” Both these and policing solutions are “likely necessary to reverse the murder spike and prevent future increases.” That’s just the expert consensus, Lopez suggests.

Alternatives to more police

NYT: ‘Re-Fund the Police’? Why It Might Not Reduce Crime.

Shaila Dewan (New York Times, 11/8/21) reports on the “downsides of adding more police officers, including negative interactions with the public, police violence and further erosion of public trust.”

In fact, many experts disagree.

As one should always remember, the New York Times is not a monolith. Another reporter at the outlet, Shaila Dewan (11/8/21), looking specifically at the impact on crime of increasing funding for police departments, drew very different conclusions based on her sources—four academics and two community activists. All but one offered some pushback or alternative to the “more policing = less crime” mantra, demonstrating that Lopez’s experts do not come close to representing a consensus.

And Dewan’s remarkable piece raised certain critiques that rarely appear in corporate media accounts of crime, such as the fact—pointed out by Tamara Nopper, an abolitionist academic—that crime statistics come from the police and do not include civil rights violations or police violence (nor do they highlight white collar crime, or corporate crimes like wage theft and illegal air pollution). Take, for instance, the fact that while there were some 25,000 homicides in 2020, more than one million people per year in this country are “threatened or subjected to police use of force” during encounters with police (Annual Review of Criminology, 1/22).

Perhaps one of the most striking pieces of evidence against Lopez is one he cited himself in his Vox piece. A “majority” of a panel of over 60 criminal justice experts agreed that increasing police budgets would improve public safety, Lopez told readers. “Most” also say the same of increasing social service budgets, he then noted, but “there’s no reason, if the goal is to fight crime, that communities shouldn’t expand both policing and social services,” he wrote.

Of course, the reasons to not expand policing are myriad, as I’ve already spelled out. And while his portrayal of the survey is technically true, it’s a twisted interpretation of the panel’s results, which strongly tilted toward increasing social service budgets, which 84% agreed with, versus 61% for increasing police budgets. And strong agreement found even greater disparities, at 41% for social service increases versus only 10% for police increases.

Survey on ways to improve public safety

Source: Criminal Justice Expert Panel: Policing and Public Safety

Policing also isn’t the only viable short-term solution, as Lopez would have readers believe. There are non-policing short-term approaches with evidence supporting their impact on gun assaults and other index crimes, as Dewan pointed out in her piece, such as increased street lighting and cleaning up vacant lots—which don’t come with the drawbacks of policing.

And given the clear links between violent crime and gun prevalence, surely “gun control” merits more than a name check in any discussion of solutions, however brief.

As Karakatsanis (Twitter, 12/29/21) observes, a central aim of “copaganda” is to distract the public from inequality:

The goal is to extract wealth from [the] working class, make them less safe, and then offer them only those “solutions” that increase the power and control over them by people who own things.

Corporate news outlets and their corporate sponsors obviously aren’t terribly interested in people being constantly bombarded with news about threats to their well-being that derive from the actions of major corporations. Air pollution was recently estimated to cause over 100,000 US deaths in a year, nearly five times higher than the homicide rate. But the Times has yet to hire a journalist for The Morning with a passion for investigating the causes of and solutions to the air pollution death rate.

Corporate media needs to look at their own role in how we got here: media critic

Media seem to have finally found the line they won't abide crossing. After both sides–ing the political situation for four years of Donald Trump, the storming of the Capitol by an armed rebellion incited by Trump himself has brought out swift and strong words.

WaPo: Trump caused the assault on the Capitol. He must be removed.Washington Post (1/6/21): "Those who sought to benefit from Mr. Trump's mob-stoking rage…will always bear the stigma of having contributed to the day's shameful events."

"Trump Caused the Assault on the Capitol. He Must Be Removed," declared the Washington Post editorial board (1/6/21). "Responsibility for this act of sedition lies squarely with the president, who has shown that his continued tenure in office poses a grave threat to US democracy," they wrote. "He should be removed." They continued:

The president is unfit to remain in office for the next 14 days. Every second he retains the vast powers of the presidency is a threat to public order and national security. Vice President Pence, who had to be whisked off the Senate floor for his own protection, should immediately gather the Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment, declaring that Mr. Trump is "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office."

The Post deplored GOP lawmakers like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley who continued to press their baseless attempt to overturn the election, and praised Mitch McConnell, who "to his lasting credit" did not join them, even if, as they noted, "almost all" GOP members "bear some blame for what occurred on Wednesday." The Republicans, the paper wrote, have an "overriding responsibility to the nation: stopping Mr. Trump and restoring faith in democracy."

It's a surprisingly forceful position. At the same time, imagine if the paper—and the rest of the establishment media—had taken the GOP's threat to democracy seriously before it reached the point of the president inciting an armed insurrection on Capitol Hill. Yesterday's events were the logical outcome of years of the GOP and Trump casting aside institutional rules and norms one by one with increasing boldness, as the press corps described this increasingly authoritarian behavior as "us[ing] all of the levers of his power" (FAIR.org, 10/15/20), and years of giving Trump and his allies space to make their bogus claims of election fraud (FAIR.org, 9/15/20). The media's long history of both sides–ing the issue of purported election fraud (Extra!, 11–12/08, 10/12; CounterSpin, 10/21/16) paved the way for Trump's mythology that has seduced a breathtakingly—and dangerously—large proportion of the public.

Imagine if corporate media didn't praise McConnell, Lindsey Graham or any other Republicans who propped up Trump's dangerous lies for so long, for finally turning on him. Do they really believe we could have gotten to this point if McConnell and the rest of the party hadn't gone along with Trump's dangerously escalating lies–not just for the last several weeks, but for the last four years? If you keep your foot on the gas as the car speeds toward a cliff, but jump out a few seconds before you reach the edge, do you really deserve "lasting credit" for that?

The real test of corporate media will be not whether they are able to forcefully condemn a president's seditious acts, but whether they go back to business as usual after Trump is gone, pretending that the GOP, a disturbing number of whose members in Congress still pushed to overturn the election after the armed insurrection, is a democratic party that can be counted on to restore faith in democracy.

NYT: Trump Still Says He Won. What Happens Next?

New York Times (1/5/20): "More than 150 Republican lawmakers have signed on to reject the votes of tens of millions of Americans."

The Times editorial board, while silent so far after the events of yesterday, did publish a fairly benign opinion the day before ("Trump Still Says He Won. What Happens Next?"—1/5/20), whose optimism clearly didn't take seriously the extensive planning underway in broad daylight on right-wing websites: "The Republican effort to derail Congress's electoral vote count on Wednesday will fail, and President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn in at noon on January 20, as the Constitution commands."

The Times could only muster the courage to say that "there is a strong argument" for impeachment (linking to an op-ed they published on January 4) without actually making that argument themselves; the piece concluded by praising Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for resisting Trump's corrupt attempts at overturning the election results, and lamenting, "If only that weren't extraordinary in the Republican Party today."

What's missing so far is a mea culpa from the media for its own role in normalizing the GOP's long-term efforts to drag this country toward authoritarian rule—and their cynical enjoyment of the ratings bonanza provided by the enthralling spectacle of Trump's assault on democracy (FAIR.org, 3/1/16). Instead, we have the editor of Columbia Journalism Review (11/4/20) castigating the press for spending too much time in the past four years on Trump's "infinite faults," and not enough trying to understand Trump supporters (FAIR.org, 11/16/20).

Kudos to the Washington Post for finally calling for a political reckoning. Now it's time for you to call for a media reckoning.

Centrists lose again — and mainstream media blames the left again

Joe Biden hadn't even been declared the victor of the 2020 election before establishment Democrats, in the face of poorer-than-expected results in House and Senate races, began pointing fingers at the left—with corporate media giving them a major assist.

Democrats had been hoping for big wins on election night, with the possibility of winning not only the presidency but also the Senate, and increasing their majority in the House. But while Biden has come out on top, the party's most optimistic outcome in the Senate would be a 50/50 split (if they win both Georgia runoff seats), giving them a majority with the vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. And rather than gaining in the House, Democrats lost several seats.

In the wake of these disappointments, the right wing of the party immediately blamed its left wing for the poor showing, airing their grievances in a private conference call among House Democrats that was leaked to reporters.

In a write-up about the call, the Washington Post's Rachael Bade and Erica Werner (11/5/20) quoted and paraphrased 14 sources blaming those who "endorse far-left positions" for Democrats' losses, counterbalanced by only four sources defending the left. All of the progressive sources were named; half of the establishment sources were either quoted anonymously or presented as unspecified "moderates"—or, twice, simply as "Democrats," committing the exasperatingly common journalistic sleight-of-hand that erases progressive Democrats as legitimate members of their party.

In addition to quoting a handful of participants on the call, Bade and Werner interviewed numerous "moderates" for the article ("Several moderate Democrats said in interviews…"), but only managed to interview two progressives: Alexandra Rojas, head of the leftist PAC Justice Democrats, along with Rep. Jared Huffman, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus—who took the side of the centrists.

Huffman's contrary position, while perhaps surprising to some readers, and serving to portray the "centrist" view as even more of a consensus position, would have been less surprising to Bade, who had quoted Huffman just a few days earlier (11/1/20) about his opposition to leftists' efforts to exert more influence within the party. In other words, the reporters appeared to seek out only one source who could have been expected to offer a forceful defense of bold leftist ideas, to balance a whole parade of attackers.

In its piece on the dust-up, in which "Democrats traded excuses, blame and prognostications," the New York Times (11/5/20) quoted South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, who "cautioned against running on 'Medicare for all or defunding police or socialized medicine,' adding that if Democrats pursued such policies, 'we're not going to win.'" What the article didn't mention was that Clyburn has taken more money from the pharmaceutical industry in the past decade than any other member of the House or Senate (Post and Courier, 12/16/18).

The piece then quoted Rep. Marc Veasey, who "warned his fellow members against anti-fracking talk." Veasey ranked fourth among House Democrats in taking oil and gas industry money in the 2020 election cycle, and got 70% of his total campaign contributions from PACs. (To put that into perspective, the two progressives quoted in the Times piece, Pramila Jayapal and Rashida Tlaib, got 13% and 3% of their campaign contributions from PACs, respectively.) Readers might have found such information useful in analyzing the motivations behind those quotes.

CNN's Chris Cillizza (11/6/20) jumped into the fray as well, praising Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA official (another piece of relevant context not mentioned by Cillizza) who had some of the harshest words for progressives, for speaking "some hard truth to her party"–like, "We need to not ever use the words 'socialist' or 'socialism' ever again," as if the McCarthy era had never ended (FAIR.org, 10/9/20).

After quoting Spanberger extensively and then printing some of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's rebuttal ("You can't just tell the Black, brown and youth organizers riding in to save us every election to be quiet or not have their reps champion them when they need us"), Cillizza wrote:

What's beyond debate is that Republican strategists took comments made by liberals within the Democratic Party and used them to blast everyone from Spanberger on down.

Though all of these pieces offered plenty of suggestions that the left wing's vocal support for things like socialism, Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and defunding the police cost the party seats in 2020, they failed to provide any actual data that might have helped readers evaluate the veracity of those statements.

It's an important point, because understanding Democrats' lackluster performance should help guide their platform and messaging moving forward. But these articles aren't shedding light on the data—perhaps because it would thoroughly undermine the anti-progressive framing.

As the New York Times' Jim Tankersley (10/14/20) reported just last month in an unusually frank assessment of the popularity of left-wing ideas, the right's wall-to-wall attempts to bring down Democrats with the "socialist" label haven't been very effective, despite Cillizza's suggestion to the contrary. That's in part because Biden and other centrists deny them so forcefully, but in part because "many of the plans favored by the most liberal wing of Democratic leaders remain popular with wide groups of voters, polling shows." Tankersley pointed to a recent Times poll that found 2 in 3 respondents support a wealth tax, 3 in 5 favor Medicare for All (including 2 of 3 independent voters), and even higher numbers support free college tuition.

The Green New Deal is likewise broadly popular: One poll specifically of swing House districts (YouGov/Data for Progress, 9/19) found that respondents supported the idea by a 13-point margin, 49% to 36%—even when informed that it will cost trillions of dollars.

And with some races still not called, it's safe to say that Medicare for All and the Green New Deal didn't sink the Dems. Ocasio-Cortez pointed out (Twitter, 11/7/20) that every Democratic co-sponsor of Medicare for All in a swing district won re-election. And Gizmodo's Brian Kahn (11/9/20) found that of 93 Democratic incumbents who co-sponsored the Green New Deal—including five in swing districts—only one lost their race.

On the question of calls to "defund the police," it's important to clarify—as did the Intercept (11/6/20), but none of these establishment media reports—that such calls grew out of the Black Lives Matter protests, not the platform of progressive congressmembers, and that that movement led to a massive spike in Democratic voter registration. In other words, without the movement that gave us the slogan "defund the police," the Democrats would almost certainly have witnessed even greater losses– including, quite probably, the White House.

As the Intercept also pointed out, it appears likely that left-wing organizing in Minnesota, Michigan and Pennsylvania resulted in decisive Democratic gains in key cities and suburbs in those swing states. And Ocasio-Cortez named many other problems with the establishment's campaign strategies, running from underinvestment in digital campaigning to a lack of a ground game to a lack of recognition of or outreach to communities of color.

Clearly the 2020 election contains many lessons for the 2022 midterms, but it's unlikely the right conclusions will be drawn from the fact-free centrist narrative presented by corporate media.

Julie Hollar is the managing editor of FAIR's magazine, Extra!. Her work received an award from Project Censored in 2005, and she has been interviewed by such media outlets as the L.A. Times, Agence France-Presse and the San Francisco Chronicle. A graduate of Rice University, she has written for the Texas Observer and coordinated communications and activism at the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. Hollar also co-directed the 2006 documentary Boy I Am and was previously active in the Paper Tiger Television collective.

Voters should be wary of USA Today’s false balance on Election 2020

One thing readers can count on every election season is false balance in the press (FAIR.org, 12/9/16, 10/3/12; Extra!, 11–12/08; FAIR.org, 9/30/04), and despite the current threats to democracy (FAIR.org, 9/15/20) that one might hope would lead journalists to up their game, this year is no different.

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Corporate media teams with Trump to disparage public health experts

To the New York Times‘ Michael Powell (7/6/20), what’s interesting about public health experts’ recommendations about protests and Covid is not whether they were accurate, but what he saw as the experts’ “conflicted feelings.”

Public health experts, unaccustomed to the spotlight, have really taken a beating lately. As they tirelessly work to unravel the mysteries of the Covid pandemic (and are increasingly burning out), the president of our country has constantly attacked and undermined them—and, lately, so have corporate media.

In a July 6 report, the New York Times seemed bizarrely eager to cast doubt on those experts’ intentions. “Are Protests Dangerous? What Experts Say May Depend on Who’s Protesting What,” read the headline over Michael Powell‘s report. The subhead continued the framing of the experts as hypocrites:

Public health experts decried the anti-lockdown protests as dangerous gatherings in a pandemic. Health experts seem less comfortable doing so now that the marches are against racism.

Many readers wouldn’t be terribly surprised at the story, since it’s a curiously late addition to the small flurry of coverage around a letter circulated more than a month ago, signed by more than 1,200 public health experts, that supported the wave of anti-racist protests that erupted around the country after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The letter—which the Times notably did not link to, though it did link to two negative media responses to it—began by recognizing that many public health experts had condemned the white armed protesters who took over the Michigan State Capitol building, who were “protesting stay-home orders and calls for widespread public masking to prevent the spread of Covid-19.”

After explaining that “white supremacy is a public health issue that predates and contributes to Covid-19,” they wrote that while they support staying at home, social distancing and public masking, they

do not condemn [anti-racism] gatherings as risky for Covid-19 transmission. We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States.

The letter carefully distinguished this from the protests against stay-at-home orders, which “not only oppose public health interventions, but are also rooted in white nationalism and run contrary to respect for Black lives.” It continued by offering guidance for protesters and allies to minimize transmission risk at protests, like wearing masks, maintaining distance where possible, staying home when sick and providing hand sanitizer to protesters.

It seems pretty clear: Black people and other people of color are disproportionately hospitalized and dying of the disease, not as a result of some biological difference but because of the ways that systemic racism has put them at greater risk. Therefore, racism is a vital public health issue—both in general, as people of color suffer worse overall health outcomes than white people, and specifically concerning Covid-19.

So it’s clearly not a question of “who” is protesting, as the Times‘ headline suggests. It does matter very much “what” is being protested. In the case of the anti-lockdown protesters, the entire goal was to make government officials flout public health experts’ recommendations for infection control. Obviously, those actions couldn’t be supported from a public health perspective—not to mention that, given their agenda, most protesters were not wearing masks or keeping distance.

It’s worth noting, too, that experts’ understanding of the novel coronavirus’ transmission has played a role in shifting recommendations. Early on, less was understood about transmission, which is why full lockdowns were encouraged: If people aren’t near each other, they can’t pass the virus to each other, whatever its preferred mode of transmission.

As more research has emerged showing that outdoor activities are far less dangerous, and that masks seem to make a big difference in preventing transmission, experts can make finer-grained recommendations about which activities are higher and lower risk. Since anti-racism protesters were largely compliant with mask wearing, moving around rather than staying in one place, and in many cases attempting to keep distance from others, many experts judged that their outdoor activities were relatively low risk, particularly when weighed against the potential benefits from any outcomes that worked to dismantle systemic racism.

(Note that public health experts are not a monolith—they are individuals with individual perspectives and judgments—and not infallible. The public health experts at the WHO, in the most obvious example of both of these points, clung to their recommendation against universal mask wearing until well after the pandemic was underway—CNN, 3/30/20—and likewise refused to acknowledge mounting evidence pointing to airborne transmission until just this week, under pressure from hundreds of other health experts around the world—Reuters, 7/7/20.)

But like many who came before him (FAIR.org, 6/10/20), the Times‘ Powell was eager to skim over all these nuances, erasing the public health distinctions between the two kinds of protests. He played up the political distinctions to paint epidemiologists and other health experts as hypocritical, feeding the media narrative that they were “politicizing science.”

At the time of the letter, other outlets similarly cried foul. “Suddenly, Public Health Officials Say Social Justice Matters More Than Social Distance,” huffed Politico (6/4/20). “The Protesters Deserve the Truth About the Coronavirus; Public Health Experts Should Strive to Provide a Neutral Accounting of Risk,” scolded the Atlantic (6/4/20). The right wing, which has been attacking public health experts since the beginning of the pandemic, went predictably nuts; Jonah Goldberg (Dispatch, 6/5/20) went so far as to accuse epidemiologists of “treason.”

Some on the left, too, offered up false arguments to condemn the public health experts who supported the anti-racist protests, arguing that if they counseled everyone to stay at home in the face of the pandemic, at extreme economic and psychological cost, they certainly couldn’t say it’s okay for some to now go out and protest. In a widely-cited essay in the Guardian (6/8/20), Thomas Chatterton Williams (who later spearheaded a letter at Harper’s decrying so-called cancel culture and the “vogue for public shaming” on the left) leaned on ideas of political correctness gone amok to argue that “two weeks ago we shamed people for being in the street; today we shame them for not being in the street.” Public health experts, he wrote, are “politicizing science” and “have hemorrhaged credibility and authority.”

Intercept: The Abrupt, Radical Reversal in How Public Health Experts Now Speak About the Coronavirus and Mass Gatherings

According to the Intercept‘s Glenn Greenwald (6/11/20), “People who left their homes for any reason other than officially approved ‘essential’ functions were—no matter how careful they were—publicly shamed if not fined and arrested.”

Glenn Greenwald in the Intercept (6/11/20) was similarly outraged, calling the letter’s distinction between the two kinds of protests

plainly political judgments, not scientific ones, and the shoddy, glaring conflation of them is nothing less than a manipulation, an abuse, of public health credentials. For scientists to purport to dictate which citizens can and cannot safely choose to leave their house — based not on health judgments but on their political ideology — is repressive, and certain to erode the credibility of their profession. Yet this is exactly what they are doing: explicitly and shamelessly.

Again, it’s not about “which citizens” can leave their house, it’s about the purpose of the leaving: Why would public health experts not condemn efforts to pressure governments to rescind public health measures? And it expressly is about health judgments—both about the relatively low risks of sporadic, masked outdoor protests versus the high risks of people going about their normal business, and about the health judgment that protests against racism could improve health outcomes for people of color, during and beyond Covid-19.

Moreover, Greenwald, like Williams, the Atlantic‘s Conor Friesendorf and others, seems convinced that public health ought to be somehow objective, scientific and neutral, not political. But public health can’t avoid being political. Managing the health of an entire population is done through policy decisions, many of which people will disagree about. Gun control, smoking, obesity—so many of our major public health issues are highly politicized. If we want public health experts to tell us how to maximize our health, we can’t at the same time insist that they only tell us about certain narrow kinds of health outcomes, or health outcomes for certain kinds of people.

Williams and Greenwald appeared less concerned about hypocrisy concerning different kinds of protests and mostly upset about—as Greenwald put it—the apparently sudden deviation from the previous “dictate” from public health experts “that we could not go outside for any reason.” Greenwald wrote:

One of two things is true; either 1) these protests will lead to a significant spike in coronavirus infections and deaths, in which case public health experts should reconcile that outcome with how they could have encouraged and endorsed them; or 2) it will not lead to such a spike, in which case it will appear that the months of extreme, draconian lockdowns—which caused great suffering and deprivation around the world—were excessive, misguided and unwarranted.

First of all, stay-at-home orders were not intended to keep people locked up inside; since the beginning of the pandemic, health experts have been recommending that people continue to get outdoor exercise while maintaining social distance (NPR, 4/1/20).

Perhaps more importantly, the economic hardship caused by lockdowns does not happen in an apolitical bubble; as public health experts Julia Marcus and Gregg Gonsalves pointed out in the Atlantic (6/11/20), they and many other such experts have long been pushing for massive economic assistance to help forestall such fallout, as has been done quite successfully in many other countries. In other words, lockdowns do not have to lead to the kind of suffering and deprivation being experienced right now in this country, and no public health expert is advocating that.

There’s now been more than enough time to judge the impact of the protests on infections—and, despite nefarious police tactics that raised risks of transmission (like kettling, using tear gas, and not letting arrested protesters wear masks while they were held for long periods in police custody), there is no evidence that the protests spurred outbreaks; no increases in infection rates in places that saw some of the biggest protests, like Minneapolis, New York City and Washington, DC, and in fact an increase in social distancing in places where protests took place, which presumably helped drive down transmission (NEBR, 6/20). On the other hand, in several US states that have relaxed their “draconian” lockdowns in a manner at odds with public health experts’ recommendations, infections are beginning to escalate exponentially.

So, in fact, neither of Greenwald’s two things are true: Public health experts did not recklessly abet a spike in protest-related infections, nor have their recommendations for lockdowns in the face of increasing transmission been proven unfounded.

Which brings us back to the Times article, which came a full month after the letter was first published, and well after the outcome was clear. Perhaps to justify the existence of his article, Powell left open a wide berth for alternate interpretations of the data: “There is as of yet no firm evidence that protests against police violence led to noticeable spikes in infection rates.” But of course, it’s not just no “firm” evidence—Powell offered no evidence, period. So why run this story, framed in this way, now? With nothing new to contribute, the article serves only to further erode trust in the very people we have to rely on to get us out of the disaster we’re currently in.

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Fox Leans Right, White, and Male

FAIR�s latest study of Fox �s Special Report with Brit Hume finds the network�s flagship news show still listing right�heavily favoring conservative and Republican guests in its one-on-one interviews. And, according to the study, Special Report rarely features women or non-white guests in these prominent newsmaker interview spots.

In previous studies FAIR has found that looking at a show�s guest list is one of the most reliable methods for gauging its perspective. In the case of Special Report , the single one-on-one interview with anchor Brit Hume is a central part of the newscast, and the anchor often uses his high-profile guests� comments as subject matter for the show�s wrap-up panel discussion. If Fox is the �fair & balanced� network it claims to be, then the guest list of what Fox calls its �signature news show� ought to reflect a diverse spectrum of ideas and sources.

FAIR�s current study looked at 25 weeks of Special Report �s one-on-one interview segments (6/30/03�12/19/03), finding 101 guests. FAIR classified each guest by political ideology, party affiliation (where applicable), gender and ethnicity. When FAIR first studied Special Report in 2001, the dominance of conservative guests was so overwhelming (71 percent of all guests) that we used just two ideological categories, �conservative� and �non-conservative.� The latter included guests with no discernible political ideology.

When FAIR�s second study in 2002 found conservative guests had dropped to less than half of the total, we added a �left of center� category for comparison purposes. Though the �left of center� category was more broadly defined than the �conservative� category� since many right-of-center guests were not counted as conservatives�conservatives still outnumbered those on the left, 14 to one.

For this study three ideological categories were used: conservative, centrist and progressive. Guests affiliated with openly conservative, centrist or progressive think tanks, magazines or advocacy groups, or who openly promote such views, are labeled as such. Guests who do not avow an ideology�such as military operations experts and journalists who decline to reveal their own political inclinations�were categorized as non-ideological.

As with earlier FAIR studies of Special Report , Republicans were not automatically counted as conservatives and Democrats were not automatically counted as liberals. For instance, Georgia Democratic Senator Zell Miller, who champions many conservative causes and openly campaigns for George Bush, is classified as an ideological conservative. Likewise, Georgia Democratic congressmember Jim Marshall, who has one of the most conservative voting records of any congressional Democrat, was classified as a �centrist,� as was Democrat Susan Estrich, who was a member of Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger�s transition team and has implored Democrats to move to the center. Dennis Ross, who has served under Republican and Democratic administrations and whose positions on the Middle East are center-right, was counted as a centrist for the purposes of this study.

In the past, Special Report featured interviews with moderate Republicans such as Christopher Shays, Christine Todd Whitman and David Gergen who were counted as �non-conservatives� under the earlier classification system. Only one Republican was counted as a �centrist� in the current study period: Noah Feldman, a legal expert who worked for the Bush administration in Iraq.

Conservative & Republican

Fifty-seven percent of Special Report �s one-on-one guests during the period studied were ideological conservatives, 12 percent were centrists and 11 percent were progressives.

Twenty percent of guests were non-ideological. Among ideological guests, conservatives accounted for 72 percent, while centrists made up 15 percent and progressives 14 percent. (The total exceeds 100 percent due to rounding.). Viewers were roughly five times more likely to see a conservative interviewed on Special Report than a progressive.

The five-to-one conservative-to-progressive imbalance is actually a marked improvement from FAIR�s 2002 study, which found that �left-of-center� guests�three percent of the total�were outnumbered 14 to one. In the 2002 study, however, conservative dominance was less marked, at 48 percent of total guests.

Special Report �s guestlist shows a similarly heavy slant toward Republicans. Forty-two guests were current or former Democratic or Republican officials, candidates, political appointees or advisers. Guests who had past affiliations with both Republicans and Democrats were counted as nonpartisan; for example, Dennis Ross�having served under presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton�was classified as non-partisan.

Of the 42 partisan guests, 35 were Republicans and only seven were Democrats�a five-to-one imbalance. Furthermore, of the handful of Democrats that did appear, the majority were centrist or conservative, and frequently expressed views more typical of Republican guests. For example, centrist Rep. Jim Marshall (10/23/03) argued that the media weren�t covering the �good news� in Iraq, while Sen. Zell Miller talked about his dissatisfaction with the Democratic party and his fondness for George Bush. Thirty-four of the 35 Republicans who appeared were conservatives; only one, Noah Feldman, was classified as a centrist.

The five-to-one partisan imbalance represents a greater slant than FAIR�s 2002 study, which found Republicans outnumbering Democrats by three to two, though it is still better than FAIR�s 2001 study, which found Special Report �s guest list favoring Republicans by more than eight to one (50 vs. 6). After the 2001 study, the show�s anchor, Fox managing editor Brit Hume, told the New York Times that, though he had yet to read the findings, �if it is a reasonable question, and we find that there is some imbalance, then we�ll correct it.�

White & male

Special Report continues to overwhelmingly favor white and male guests: As in 2002, only 7 percent of guests were women, and the percentage of people of color rose only slightly, to 11 percent from 7 percent in 2001 and 2002. In 2003, only one woman of color was featured in a one-on-one interview: National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

As in past studies, those women and people of color who did appear on Special Report were remarkably conservative. Four of the seven appearances by women were by conservative Republicans and two were by centrist Democrat Susan Estrich. No progressive women appeared in the study period. Of the seven guests of color (accounting for 11 appearances), five were conservative and only one was progressive, journalist Charles Cobb of allAfrica.com.

The one person of color classified as non-ideological, Mansoor Ijaz, accounted for five appearances. Ijaz, a wealthy investment manager of South Asian heritage who has expressed support for Hillary Clinton, is also a frequent and vocal booster of neo-conservative causes and difficult to label ideologically. Leading all other guests with five appearances during the period studied�he�s appeared on Fox more than 100 times on other occasions�Ijaz regularly echoes Bush White House and neo-conservative claims about global threats, ignoring evidence while citing only shadowy, unnamed sources.

Imbalanced All Around

Conservatives often defend Fox �s rightward slant by claiming that it simply counterbalances a predominantly left-leaning media. But previous FAIR studies have found that, across the supposedly �liberal� media, Republican sources dominate�and Fox simply skews even farther to the right.

FAIR�s original 2001 study of Special Report included a comparison to CNN �s Wolf Blitzer Reports �which favored Republicans 57 to 43 percent. And a 2002 FAIR study of the three major networks� nightly news broadcasts found an even greater imbalance than on CNN : Of partisan sources, 75 percent were Republican and only 24 percent Democrats. The differences among the networks were negligible; CBS had the most Republicans (76 percent) while ABC had the fewest (73 percent).

Even NPR , characterized by conservative critics as �liberal� radio, favored Republican sources over Democrats by a ratio of more than three to two in a recent study of its main news shows. And Republican political domination doesn�t explain the imbalance: In FAIR�s 1993 study of NPR , when Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, Republicans still outnumbered Democrats 57 to 42 percent.

In our second study of Special Report, FAIR remarked, �While Special Report can claim to have moderated its imbalance with regard to Republican and conservative guests, the show still falls short of reflecting the diverse ideas and communities of the United States.� With current findings indicating that the show has tipped back toward increased imbalance, it becomes harder to defend Special Report from charges that it chooses its guests based on political sympathies, not news judgment.

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