Anti-vaccine protestors outside Governor Andrew Cuomo’s official residence in Albany, New York in June 2021 Photo credit: Wirestock Creators / Shutterstock.com
When most people think about “bias” in news coverage, they usually think of some kind of ideological bent, as if the Washington Post, say, is trying to advance some kind of political agenda with its journalism. While this does apply to right-wing outlets, like the Washington Examiner, most of the rest of the press corps isn’t ideological as we would normally understand that word.
This doesn’t mean there isn’t bias, though.
The most prominent bias comes from journalists merely doing their jobs. Choices have to be made. Cover this story, not that story, for this reason, not that reason. In these choices, news outlets reveal their bias. The New York Times, for instance, is not center-left. It’s a publication of the very obscenely rich, that is, the American elite. When it comes to deciding “the news that’s fit to print,” the elites who work there tend to focus on other elites and what they think—to the exclusion of other points of view, because why be inclusive when you’re elite? This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can be, like in the middle of a pandemic.
What’s preventing us from ending the pandemic isn’t medical. It’s behavioral. It’s violence! What’s driving that is the Republican Party. What we need is for these people to get in line, for the sake of their freedom and everyone else’s. What we need is basic law and order.
Elites tend to believe they’re elite, because they’re elite. They are deserving of wealth and power, in other words. Never mind that most, though not all, elites were born successful, and never mind they were born into eliteness on account of governments favoring their families. This context has serious ramifications with respect to political values. Freedom, for elites, isn’t rooted in democracy, community or mutual obligation. Instead, it arises from the absence of coercion, especially by the primary instrument of democracy, community or mutual obligation: government. Choosing for oneself what’s good and right—that’s freedom. Fine and dandy, except in the middle of a pandemic.
The Washington press corps’ presumption that freedom is about choice, not responsibility, is warping our shared understanding of the pandemic. (In this, the Times isn’t alone.) On the one hand, the presumption minimizes the damage being done by those who refuse to wear masks or, especially, who refuse to get vaccinated. On the other hand, it gives these people the appearance of pursuing something noble. Instead of being presented as saboteurs, they are presented as individuals fighting for their rights. When they are presented as saboteurs (which I think is accurate), we are told they’re a political problem that the president has yet to figure out a way to solve.
But the presumption of freedom as choice does something else. It obscures the lawlessness of GOP leaders and their allies. The press corps has been busy reporting noble individuals fighting nobly for their noble rights. In fact, these individuals have actually been undermining basic law and order. Texas and Florida have led the way in outlawing mask and vaccine mandates by local officials, especially on school boards. Meanwhile, Republican resistance nationally has sparked a crime wave.
A teacher in California was attacked by a parent over masks. The same thing is playing out in schools across the country. A man was stabbed and a reporter assaulted in Los Angeles during a vaccine protest. An Iowa man was sentenced to a decade in prison over a mask fight. Medical workers are facing more violence and threats of violence. Same thing for flight attendants. (Airlines are now refusing to serve booze, because first-class passengers so often get belligerent.) Elected office holders are enduring high levels of harassment. Two women attacked a laundry worker in New York City over a request to wear a mask. Employees everywhere are being assaulted for doing their jobs.
According to the Associated Press: “Across the country, anti-vaccine and anti-mask demonstrations are taking scary and violent turns, and educators, medical professionals and public figures have been stunned at the level at which they have been vilified for even stating their opinion. And they have been terrified over how far protesters will go in confronting leaders outside their homes and in their workplaces.”
It bears repeating that we are not facing a public health crisis. We have vaccines. They work. They are free. They are available pretty much everywhere now. What’s preventing us from ending the pandemic isn’t medical. It’s behavioral. It’s violence! What’s driving that is the GOP. What we need is for these people to get in line, for the sake of their freedom and everyone else’s. What we need is basic law and order. But the press corps is so focused on freedom as choice, not responsibility, that no one is talking about a violent Republican crime wave. It’s almost like it’s not a crime if it’s conservative white people doing it.
There’s the rub. If Black and brown people were attacking flight attendants and laundry workers and school teachers, we would hear no end from the Washington press corps about threats to basic law and order and elected leaders would harp on about the need to crack down on crime. Among the news media’s presumptions is the one about Black and brown people being violent on account of being Black and brown. Conservative white people aren’t “naturally” violent, so when they are, there must be a good reason. Like fighting for their rights!
There is no good reason. There is no reason at all except perhaps refusing to be held accountable to the same standards—the same laws—as Black and brown people are held. Lawlessness shouldn’t be a regrettable outcome of liberty. It sure as hell shouldn’t be the point.
John Stoehr is a visiting assistant professor of public policy and liberal studies at Wesleyan University, and editor and publisher of the Editorial Board, where this article was originally published.