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Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA Today. Earlier this month, her newspaper ran an interview between her and her brother. Chris Carroll refuses to get vaccinated. He’s educated, conservative, religious, and Texas-proud. He’s a Trump supporter, too. Nicole ran the piece to explain why some Americans refuse to do their part in the collective fight against the covid pandemic. After knocking down each and every one of Chris’s “reasons” with empirical facts, Nicole Carroll ends the interview with Chris saying the CDC has been wrong, so why trust it?
And that, in the end, is his biggest problem. Trust.
“It’s hard to believe anything,” he said. “There is so much information out there, and so much bad information out there. There is so much distrust. For me, I try to read everything I can, pray for wisdom, and make the choice I feel is best for myself and my family.”
Implied is the belief that public institutions with more and greater commitment to integrity, transparency, and accountability would elicit more and greater public trust. If the CDC hadn’t been wrong (whatever “wrong” means), Chris would have trusted it. As the EIC of a major national newspaper, Nicole is acutely sensitive to this. She concludes, saying USA Today works hard at “fact-checking statements in the news, giving you original sources so you can see the evidence for yourself.” She said there is “no higher calling in journalism than to give people accurate information to help them make decisions that can save lives.”
Before I discuss that higher calling a bit more, let me just say this: Her brother doesn’t care. If the CDC had gotten everything right, right from the start, he would have told his sister the very same thing. Neither does it matter how hard Nicole or other editors at other major national newspapers try to earn his trust. They’re never going to get it. This is clear from the interview itself. As I said, she knocks down each and every one of his “reasons,” yet the empirical facts she offers do not elicit trust. Why? There’s always another “reason.” When this one doesn’t work, Chris goes to the next one. When that one doesn’t work, he goes to the next one. And so on. In theory, the interview between Nicole and Chris could go on forever like this, because his “reasons” are not reasons, but rationalizations for a decision he’s already made.
Put another way, Chris Carroll is making a choice, but he’s unwilling to be held accountable for making it. So he blames the CDC, the Biden administration, “politics,” anything to dodge personal responsibility. His sister, moreover, assists his dereliction. Not only does she end the interview with a vague lamentation about public trust. She refuses to recognize her brother’s choice as a choice — as something he can be held accountable for even if he’s right about the CDC. USA Today’s editor-in-chief holds amoral institutions to the highest standard possible while holding actual moral agents to virtually none at all.
While I sympathize with Nicole in that it’s hard to see bad faith in one’s kin, and then call it out by name, she’s also guilty of something I’ve noticed among members of the Washington press corps — being blinded by their own elite status in this country. For America’s elites, there’s not much in life that can’t be overcome with money, force, or will. (If you have to lie pathologically to be very obscenely rich, go ahead.) While normal people tend to reconcile themselves to life’s limits (morality, for instance), the elites never do. For this reason, even elites who are supposed to be professional skeptics, like journalists, are exceptionally vulnerable to bad-faith arguments like the one Chris Carroll offers his own sister. To our country’s elites, it makes perfect sense that if the CDC wants the public’s trust, it has to do better.
This elite focus on elite institutions often puts the public’s focus where it shouldn’t be. When news emerged of people in Mississippi taking ivermectin to treat or prevent covid, the FDA tweeted this along with an article about why humans should never ingest an animal dewormer: “You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y’all. Stop it.” The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, who fancies himself a kind of referee in the national political discourse, asked: “Is the tone of mocking condescension likely to make your message more or less persuasive?”
Friedersdorf could have asked a different question. For instance, the obvious one: If you distrust the CDC, why trust Sean Hannity and others who have been talking up ivermectin? He could have asked: If you’re willing to take an animal dewormer, maybe public trust in public institutions is beside the point?” He could have asked a number of serious questions that could have helped move public opinion toward the goal of ending the pandemic. He didn’t out of the mistaken belief widely shared among the country’s elites that if public institutions could behave better, anti-vaxers would, too. He implies worry about the FDA’s “mocking condescension” while implying own gothic levels of contempt, as if these adult men and women are children who can’t be, and maybe shouldn’t be, held accountable for their own decisions.
Nicole Carroll said there is “no higher calling in journalism than to give people accurate information to help them make decisions that can save lives.” That’s a vision of journalism oddly drained of its inherent moral character. “Accurate information” is not the same thing as “the truth.” Nicole’s brother, Chris, is a grown man who I presume has gone to doctors before. Does he need the CDC to be perfect before he trusts it to care about safety? Hardly. In making the wrong choice, he’s complicit in sabotaging the fight against the covid. His sister won’t say so. She in turn is choosing loyalty to family, not loyalty to the truth. There is a higher calling. Elites ignore it if and when it’s convenient.
John Stoehr is a visiting assistant professor of public policy and liberal studies at Wesleyan University, and editor and publisher of the Editorial Board. This article was originally published at The Editorial Board.