In Singapore 25 years ago, I reported on a rogue trader called Nick Leeson, who smashed a venerable British bank with double-or-quits bets on financial markets. Reporters searched high and low for him. My newspaper was in the truth business, so it demanded stories based on facts. But one day, I talked to a reporter from a different kind of paper who was savoring the yarn he’d send to Fleet Street that evening.
“I think Leeson probably sneaked away on a yacht and is on his way to Australia,” he said, “I’ll go with the yacht theory.” And that’s what appeared on his front page in London the next day. It was pure invention, not even an educated guess. As if to give the lie, Leeson returned from a Thai beach resort soon afterward to face the music and a stint in Changi Prison.
A TV cameraman I knew — a real pro — was there that day, and he used to say, “The truth is extraordinary enough. There’s no need to make it up.” His maxim applied to fictions invented back then on the other side of the world, and it applies equally now to fictions here in America in coverage of the coronavirus.
A deadly plague is raging around the globe, the entire human species has been wrenched out of its evolved social habits into something approaching solitary confinement, and hundreds of millions of plans, hopes, fortunes, and dreams are falling in ruins around us. Yet such extraordinary truths are not enough; some people still make stuff up.
There are the merely nasty micro lies that have little impact on how the pandemic is dealt with, such as NBC blaming President Trump for the death of a man who drank fish tank cleaner because it contained an element the president mentioned as a possible prophylactic against the virus. And then there are macro lies that undermine crucially important crisis policymaking. The most prevalent recent example of this genre is commentary that because Trump is thinking about how to mitigate economic damage, he cares only about the stock market and nothing about widespread death; he’ll let the elderly and vulnerable perish to enrich the young and strong, don’t you know.
Trump, like others including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, acknowledges that extreme social distancing is unsustainable in the long term, and government must consider ways to restart economic activity. As the Washington Examiner has argued, we can’t wait until a vaccine is ready 18 months from now. Production of ventilators, masks, and viral tests must be boosted so infected people can be isolated, the sick treated, and the spread of disease slowed. That’s necessary not simply to avoid mass death, but also because people must be able to return to something nearer normal life.
It is a shabby pretense to argue or imply that the economy can or should be shuttered indefinitely. Checking the pandemic and saving the nation and individuals from financial ruin are both massively important goals. Mentioning and planning for the latter is not tantamount to dismissing the former.
Politics in the real world is a ceaseless negotiation between competing, often incompatible, needs. Policymaking isn’t a theoretical debate between idealistic undergraduate students with no responsibility for making hard decisions about citizens’ lives and livelihoods. The administration is trying, in dire circumstances, to navigate a passage between the Scylla of raging deadly disease and the Charybdis of a devastating economic collapse. That’s what it should be doing. It will make mistakes — it already has — but it is those who advocate a sort of idealistic myopia who deserve excoriation.
People in general and pundits in particular slide quickly into their accustomed habits of mind. Some of those in the tank for Trump refuse to acknowledge that he underplayed the pandemic early on, or that he needs to take more care in articulating policy. On the other side, those dug in against him distort his every word and even argue that he should be charged with negligent homicide. The public, however, sees that the massive apparatus of the federal government is now in gear, which is why Trump’s approval ratings have risen fast in the past week or two.
It would be a blessed relief if extremists could step outside their intellectual ruts and look at what is. The truth is extraordinary enough. We shouldn’t be inventing ersatz scandals and false dichotomies to make it more exciting.
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