It’s not every day that a New York Times writer is called on the carpet by his editors for going too far in offering his personal opinions instead of sticking with the facts of a story. It happened, though, to Donald McNeil Jr., the paper’s science and health reporter.
McNeil was interviewed by CNN”s Christiane Amanpour and he is not at all happy with the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. He pointedly speaks favorably of the Chinese government and blasts the American government. While this has been a standard response by many on the left – to blame Trump, not China – McNeil got carried away, even for the New York Times. He specifically pointed to the Trump administration’s response during the first two months of the pandemic outbreak.
“We were in a headless-chicken phase, and yes, it’s the president’s fault, it is not China’s fault,” McNeil Jr. said. “You know, the head of the Chinese CDC was on the phone to Robert Redfield on Jan. 1, again on Jan. 8, and the two agencies were talking on Jan. 19. The Chinese had a test on Jan. 13; the Germans had a test on Jan. 16. We fiddled around for two months, we had a test on March 5 and it didn’t work. We didn’t have 10,000 people tested until March 15.”
“And suppression from the top- I mean, the real coverup was the person in this country who was saying, you know, ‘This is not an important virus, the flu is worse, it’s all going to go away, it’s nothing,'” McNeil Jr. continued. “And that encouraged everybody around him to say, ‘It’s nothing, it’s nothing, it’s nothing.'”
“Getting rid of Alex Azar was a mistake- he was actually leading a dramatic response,” McNeil Jr. said about the HHS secretary. “And then, in February he was replaced with Mike Pence, who’s a sycophant.”
That was in reference to Trump assigning Pence as the leader of the White House coronavirus task force.
McNeil Jr. went on to mock the president, saying he’s “the same guy who said inject yourself with disinfectant” and that his “grasp of the science” isn’t even “at a third-grade level.”
Donald G. McNeil Jr: The CDC “is a great agency but it’s incompetently led, and I think Dr Redfield should resign.” pic.twitter.com/7tUPDGsE86
— Christiane Amanpour (@camanpour) May 12, 2020
McNeil criticizes Trump for a slow acknowledgment of the seriousness of the pandemic. That’s one take and the preferred one by Trump critics. It can also be said that Trump was trying to keep Americans calm and use a measured response. That included trying not to overreact by immediately shutting down the country. Here’s the kicker, though, in McNeil’s rant – he admits his own bosses at the New York Times had to be convinced of the magnitude of the coming crisis. He admits he wasn’t listened to by his higher-ups at the newspaper, at least initially. He said to Amanpour that it “took a while to get them… to believe this.”
It took a while, Mr. McNeil because it was a developing pandemic and that is not a commonplace event. It is good to be skeptical and to keep a cool head. Rushing to make a response without gathering facts and charting out a plan can lead to unintended consequences that do nothing to control the damages of a pandemic in the long run. Mostly this sounds like an attempt for McNeil to pat himself on the back and say, see, he was right from the beginning. The Orange Man is bad and McNeil is all-knowing.
I’ll give McNeil this, though – he is right to lay most of the blame at the feet of the CDC. I continue to be amazed that the CDC isn’t held to account for its sheer incompetence in getting a test out quickly. It seems to me that the CDC’s insistence that the test comes from the agency instead of allowing private companies to work on a test alongside the CDC’s efforts was an unforced error in the extreme. Time was wasted and the CDC should have to answer for its mistakes. Not right now, mind you, as we’re still in the throes of the pandemic, but later during the lessons learned phase of this crisis.
When asked by Fox News for a statement, the NYT offered up on that spoke to the seriousness of their reporter’s breach of professionalism while still standing by his reporting.
“In an interview with Christiane Amanpour today, Donald McNeil, Jr. went too far in expressing his personal views. His editors have discussed the issue with him to reiterate that his job is to report the facts and not to offer his own opinions. We are confident that his reporting on science and medicine for The Times has been scrupulously fair and accurate.”
Let’s just say that the Washington Post’s media critic, Erik Wemple, is not impressed with the NYT’s statement. Granted, his employer is a competitor but he makes a good point. There was no mention of McNeil violating the NYT’s own guidelines, just a fuzzy kind of declaration that McNeil was spoken to and he’s a good reporter, in management’s opinion. The guidelines state, “Generally a staff member should not say anything on radio, television or the Internet that could not appear under his or her byline in The Times on its reporters expressing personal views.”
Wemple rightly criticizes McNeil for specifically calling for the resignation of Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC. That comment was solely activism, not factual reporting from McNeil. Unfortunately, he later tepidly justified McNeil’s poor behavior. In reporting about the Orange Man’s administration, what’s a reporter to do but talk about all the incompetence? Wemple just couldn’t quite bring himself to stick with the professional criticism, he slipped in his own personal opinion. “What’s an experienced health reporter to say?” How about just sticking with facts, you know, like the guidelines state?
Mr. McNeil sure didn’t set himself apart from other CNN guests. He was spouting the company line – Trump is bad and incompetent. The Chinese government must be so happy. Their propaganda campaign is working well with Trump’s opponents.