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The mainstream media let Trump’s blunders dominate the COVID-19 narrative, neglecting their chance for a nuanced look at public health, incarceration, farmers, and homelessness.

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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Eddie Conway: Welcome to this episode of The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway, and today, we want to look at the role that the media has been playing in this pandemic. Joining me to talk about the bias in the media and the way they portray the narrative around viruses, is Priscilla Wald. Well, thanks for joining me Priscilla.

Priscilla Wald: Thank you.

Eddie Conway: Priscilla, can you give me an overview of how the media plays a role in creating the fear and drama around different things? The media has been always considered the Fourth Estate in America, and it was there at the very beginning and it created the narrative that eventually led to this empire. So can you talk about how they portray certain things and present it to the American people, and how that impacts how we live and how we react?

Priscilla Wald: Sure. Well, I think, let me say, I think the media has a very difficult job, because on the one hand, they have to communicate the problem to people who don’t have a strong education, in most cases, in the science, and are going to have a range of responses to how to behave. And the public was hearing from the president that there wasn’t a problem, so when journalists were trying to get out the message from other people in the medical profession, other more local politicians who were trying to keep the public safe, they had a very difficult job of cutting through the president’s message that there was nothing to fear.
So on the one hand, they need to make the population pay attention and realize that there’s a problem, and that they really do need to stay inside, avoid public gatherings, and so forth, when again, the message from the White House was, there’s nothing to fear. There are 15 people and pretty soon, there won’t be anybody and it’s not really a problem, it’s a hoax. So that’s one side of it. The other side of it is when you communicate that information, how do you strike a balance between getting people to take it seriously enough so that they will disrupt their lives for it, put their livelihoods on the line on the one hand, and on the other hand, not panic? And so, I do appreciate the difficult position that the media is in.
What I write about and think about is something that I call the outbreak narrative, and the outbreak narrative is a highly sensationalized version that we see in popular culture films like Contagion, or Outbreak, and of course, it’s going to be sensationalized if you’re going to make the movie, you’re not going to make a movie about a cold circulating, no one’s going to watch it. Soon the one hand, popular culture is telling this very sensational story, but at the same time, and you can see this kind of thing around say the Ebola outbreaks that we’ve lived through, the media, a journalist might be trying to tell a measured story about the problem of an infectious disease, or of an outbreak, or of a pandemic, but then the headlines have to grab viewers. And so, it’s very easy to sensationalize a problem that no one really needs to be terrified by, say, in the United States.
There was no reason to be terrified by the 2014 Ebola epidemic in the United States, but the way that it was reported made people panic, and I think that panic button was easily pushed because of films like Outbreak and Contagion, and it exacerbated the kinds of biases that we tend to see, well, that are with us all the time, but that get more pronounced in a crisis. So children who had come from as far away as California is to New York, and had in no way, I mean, this is in Africa, and had in no way been exposed to Ebola were not allowed to attend a school in New Jersey, and that’s the kind of bias that you see when people react with panic to something that gets reported in the news. So the question is, how can the news report in a way that informs people without pressing those panic buttons? It’s a tall order.

Eddie Conway: Yes, and even as you say that, I’m thinking prior to this particular pandemic, from the time Trump’s administration got in, they have been denigrating the news, fake news, don’t trust it, don’t believe it. And so, there’s a certain amount of the population that already don’t trust the news, in the out-groups, say for instance, the groups that Trump’s people target, there’s always been a distrust of the news, because things happen-

Priscilla Wald: Of some of the news.

Eddie Conway: Yeah. Things happen in the poor communities, the black communities, communities of color, that people on the ground know that this is not true, or that’s not how it happened, or that’s not how it’s been reported. So the thing that I’m concerned about is how this is focused on China, how it’s under-reporting or ignoring what’s happening on the ground with homeless people, poor people, people of color, and so on. I mean, okay, so my personal thing is that the news is owned by six major multinational corporations. They pretty much control the message that we’re getting. So, and this message that we’re getting is xenophobic and also very hostile to people down on the ground. What’s your feeling about that?

Priscilla Wald: I think that that’s absolutely true. I heard a really terrific panel a few nights ago, people who were working with farm workers, and how much have we read in the media about the risks to farm workers from COVID-19? And these are people whose working conditions are subpar to begin with, and some of them are undocumented immigrants and therefore don’t have access to health care, most of them don’t have access to excellent health care. Their jobs are not secure, they have to take the work as it comes, and they have to take these subpar working conditions as they come.
And a crisis like COVID-19 really underscores those inequities, the failures of our system, the people who are considered expendable or disposable, and we don’t hear that story nearly enough in the media. Why are we not having feature stories on farm workers and the conditions that they’re working in to get the food to our tables? Without them, we wouldn’t be eating, our stores wouldn’t be stocked. And I’m really glad, and again, I want to see the balance. I’m very glad that the media has begun to talk about frontline people, like people working in pharmacies, and groceries, and delivery services, and who are keeping us alive, but there’s a lot of people behind those scenes whose stories are still not being told, and I really would like to see some reporting on those forgotten people, those invisibilized, you might say, or obscured populations and professions.
So I completely agree with you. Another thing that I’d like to see more of is a more balanced discussion of what wet markets really are. I gave a talk a few days ago and somebody asked me, “Well, should we close wet markets?” and I didn’t have an answer, because, and this is to my shame, I hadn’t done any research on what they actually were. I was only getting what little was coming through the media, which is a very obscured understanding of it, and fortunately, I had a conversation with a Duke student a few days ago, who is from China and who explained to me her family always goes to wet markets. She’s never seen bats, and snakes, and all of these things, and she said they exist, but in a very small percentage of the wet markets. And so, what a wet market is, is something that widely varies across China, but we’re not getting those nuances, we’re just getting an outcry that somehow China should shut down all of its wet markets, which are a form of grocery shopping in China.
So we need to hear a more nuanced discussion about that kind of thing, and again, I don’t want to be critical of the media because as you say, the media has been so discredited. Not all the media, right? Fox News has not been discredited by Donald Trump, and his people do watch Fox News, and they’re getting very different news from people who watch MSNBC or CNN. We’re all getting… there are gradations of difference. So I don’t want to dismiss all of the media, per se, and play into Trump’s discrediting. And it is a tough job, I mean, and a lot of people covering all of these things are risking their lives as well, journalists are risking their lives and always do. But I would like to see more nuanced stories about people we’re not hearing about, and I absolutely agree with you, the homeless. What’s happening to the homeless during COVID-19? I don’t know. I’m not finding those articles, and I actually did look for that in a Google search and didn’t find very much.

Eddie Conway: Well, and we cover, one of the things we do is we cover what’s going on in the prisons and jails across America, to the best of our ability, and there’s almost no news, or the news is so [inaudible 00:11:24], that people don’t realize the disastrous impact that this is having in the prison system. But what’s the solution here? Okay, we know the media is owned by corporations. We know that they’re putting out a certain line, we know that that’s a difficult job. Yes, people have to take this serious, but what do we do going forward? Because you can’t kind of fix what’s already been happened, but going forward in the future, what should we be looking at to fix this problem with the media? To me, it’s like Big Brother in 1984, it’s always fearmongering, but it’s not necessarily giving us concrete, levelheaded advice about what really to do, without creating that panic that allows for eventually these states of emergency and authoritarian government. What should we be doing on the ground to change that, to change how those narratives are out there?

Priscilla Wald: That’s a great question. I wish I had a good answer. Personally, I want to start with education at every level, and I’m hoping that coming out of this crisis, people will begin to be aware of what is broken in our system, and I do think the media has been covering some of that. I have read a fair amount and heard a fair amount about the problems in the prisons, and of course, we need more, but that at least is getting out there, and I hope that following this crisis, people who have been forced, really, to pay attention to the news, we’re all in our houses, how else are we going to know what’s going on? We’ll begin to see that, as I said, things are broken in our system, like why do we not have universal access to health care? Why is that not a priority? It absolutely needs to be.
The prison system is absolutely something that desperately needs fixing. Maybe this will be the opportunity for people to be broadly, a broad population, to be receptive to hearing stories about how the prison is broken. Within academia, I read a lot about the broken prison system, but how about ways of getting that out into the public? And the media is the way to do that. How can we make… Well, it’s got two prongs, right? On the one hand, it would be terrific if the media began to give more educational programming about these problems, and not just the marginal media, but really, mainstream media doing an in-depth story about the prison system, multiple in-depth stories. We need a lot of stories about the prison system, but you also need a public that’s going to tune into those programs.
We need a public that is going to not just be looking for them. I mean, you or I, we’re looking for that programming, but the public needs to want to hear about it, and needs to not turn off the television or whatever way they’re getting their news source, put down the newspaper, or whatever it is, their online sources, when those stories are being told. So I think education has to happen everywhere, and it really has to start in K through 12. Students should be learning about the problems of our society broadly. They should be learning about the problems with the prison system, they should be learning about what it means to have disposable populations, and who got reported on and who didn’t, for example, in this crisis, whose story was told, whose story was emitted. I don’t know how to solve that problem, but I mean, you asked what I’d like to see. That’s where I’d like to see it begin. I’d like to see the outcome of this crisis be more education about where the system failed.

Eddie Conway: And as you were talking, I was thinking and wondering, the internet and social media, the interaction on the ground, grassroots kind of back and forth. Obviously, you get 10,000 people talking about 10,000 different things in 10,000 different ways, you’re not going to have any cohesiveness. But I was wondering, I was just thinking there used to be, and it seems to be diminishing, public broadcasting systems, and I wonder if that’s not one of the things that we should consider in the future, is the public to own the major media systems that tell us what’s going on, so that we could have more trust in them, we’re not worrying about what Rupert Murdoch want us to hear, or [inaudible 00:16:54], or whoever. I wonder if that’s a way to go. I like your concept of the education K to 12, that’s really important. Young people should start studying and learning about the media and its role in our life, because it’s controlling our life. The government obviously controls our life, but the media tells us how.

Priscilla Wald: I agree. I think the problem is funding, right? My worry actually, is that public broadcasting is going to get increasingly even more, it’s already starting, defunded under the current administration. People have to step up and fund those sources, but if you hear the annual drives or semi-annual drives for support, it’s not happening on as broad a scale as it needs to, and I think, I would love to see more programs like Democracy Now!, and I would love to see Democracy Now! have a much broader range than it does at the moment. It’s often hard for me in North Carolina to find where Democracy Now! is broadcasting, it’s hard to get. When I’m in Seattle or New York, I can get Democracy Now! very easily. So, it’s a multipronged problem of people needing to step up with the funding and once they do, of having a broader broadcasting system that allows us access. I mean, online access to Democracy Now! is a good solution obviously to programming that doesn’t happen locally.

Eddie Conway: And I hear you, and I know that the public has been carrying that water, but I’m wondering, the same way the government takes 50% of our tax money and spend it on military ventures all around the world, why not use some of our tax money to finance those… I mean, the media is probably the one of the most important things that impact our life. Why not make that a part of the federal budget and a part of the public taxpayer’s expenditures? I mean, we should demand that.

Priscilla Wald: Health care, education, public media support, I mean, all of these things should be funded. I would love to see, again, coming out of COVID-19, an entire rethinking of our economic system and how we allocate resources. I 100% agree with you, but we have to elect the officials that are going to make those decisions, right? And I think, I’m going to guess the way you vote, the way I vote, we would, but a majority has to make that happen, a big majority has to make that happen. And how do we do that? I don’t have an answer for that question. I hope you do, but I’m not sure any of us is, at the moment, going to come up with that solution.
We all work for it, we all hope for it, we all give our time for it, but it has to happen, and I think there are, I mean, many possibilities following COVID-19, but sort of outlining three of them, people can put this behind them and never want to think about it again. I mean, obviously we’ll think about it, we’re not going to have the option not to, but they may just want to get back to normalcy, to things as they were, and there will be over time, collective amnesia. I hope that doesn’t happen. I don’t know if it can, given what’s coming.
Secondly, people could turn even more conservative and want to have solutions that go more towards privatization, which I think all of us on this call would not want, or I mean, I’m going to repeat myself, but people could say our system failed, and our economic system is at the source of that failure. How we allocate resources, what we fund, how we communicate. I mean, our communication system failed. Not in this case because of journalists, but because of the president’s megaphone, and how do we fix that? And my hope is that those are the questions people are going to be asking when we come out of this. The most left-leaning moment as I understand it, historians might correct me here, that we’ve had in this country was during the Great Depression. I don’t want to see a depression, but this is a crisis of that order right now, and maybe this will make people stop and think we need a different way, we need different leaders, really different leaders with different commitments, and then the funding you’re asking for would happen.

Eddie Conway: Okay. So thank you for joining me.

Priscilla Wald: Thank you. Thank you for your questions, and let’s fight the good fight, right?

Eddie Conway: And thank you for joining The Real News.

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Executive Producer
Eddie Conway is an Executive Producer of The Real News Network. He is the host of the TRNN show Rattling the Bars. He is Chairman of the Board of Ida B's Restaurant, and the author of two books: Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther and The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Eddie Conway is an internationally known political prisoner for over 43 years, a long time prisoners' rights organizer in Maryland, the co-founder of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program, and the President of Tubman House Inc. of Baltimore. He is a national and international speaker and has several degrees.