What if life wasn’t just a zero-sum game?

What if life wasn’t just a zero-sum game? July 27, 2021

Jay Rosen is a journalism professor/media critic/medical examiner for contemporary journalism. One excellent piece of advice he’s been shouting into the wind for years is to stop reporting on everything as a zero-sum point-scoring game between Team Republican and Team Democrat.

As Rosen put it in one recent tweet: “One way to improve the coverage of politics is to take a problem-solving approach to events frequently seen through a game or strategy lens.” This would, as he says, “improve the coverage of politics.” But it would also improve the coverage of everything else. And if it wouldn’t in itself make the world a better, fairer, safer, more truthful, more beautiful place, it would at least allow for the possibility of that happening.

Consider, for example, the recent horrifying condominium collapse near Miami which killed nearly 100 people and displaced hundreds more. There’s a good-government (or a minimally capable-of-governing government) angle to that story, but not an obviously partisan political angle. It doesn’t fit neatly into savvier-than-thou political punditry obsessively tracking whether Team D or Team R “won the morning” and therefore “won the day.” And so buildings-shouldn’t-fall-down becomes a problem that political reporting isn’t able to address and, consequently, it becomes a problem that our politics isn’t able to address.

Or consider the much larger example we’ve all been living through for the past two years. Our “game or strategy lens” political reporting and the politics shaped by it took an objectively non-partisan problem — a deadly global pandemic — and jammed that square peg into the round hole of its stupid, inaccurate, distorting “which Team is winning?” framework, thereby partisanizing public health, masking, vaccination, hygiene, concern for others, and self-preservation.

One of the worst offenders of this politics-as-game form of anti-journalism is Politico. Hence it’s nickname back in the days of the blogosphere: “Tiger Beat on the Potomac.” Politico has long treated politics as a spectator sport, which is to say as something that has no meaningful consequences (to them) apart from which Team is winning or losing. This taints and distorts everything Politico publishes, even when it involves otherwise fine reporting by otherwise dedicated journalists.

See, for example, two recent Politico pieces on COVID hotspots now experiencing a Delta-variant surge due to their partisanized opposition to vaccination:

• “In Alabama and Louisiana, partisan opposition to vaccine surges alongside Delta variant

• “‘What’s Covid?’ Why People at America’s Hardest-Partying Lake Are Not About to Get Vaccinated

Politico may be inconsistent in how it capitalizes headlines, but it’s painfully consistent in exacerbating the problem of misplaced hyperpartisanship even while doing an otherwise excellent job of describing its harmful effects.

In that first article, Erin Banco does a terrific job interviewing scores of local health officials, doctors, and nurses in Alabama and Louisiana. They’re all exhausted, frustrated, and shell-shocked from nearly two years of working intimately with death on a massive scale.

In a series of interviews, Louisiana regional medical directors and physicians described a horrific last two weeks marked by overcrowded ICUs, people showing up to emergency rooms after suddenly developing shortness of breath, and Covid-19 patients clinging to their last hours before abruptly letting go and dying. Almost all of these people died because they chose not to get the vaccine. And that’s what’s triggered doctors and nurses who are experiencing more anxiety and exhaustion now than they did during the first, second and third surges.

“At least then we didn’t have a vaccine and there was nothing we could do,” said Tonya Jagneaux, a critical care physician at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge. “Sometimes you just feel like screaming.”

It’s a heartbreaking story and Banco does great work making it human, giving us a glimpse of how this affects the real lives of real people while still providing the big-picture context of statistics, numbers, and data. But it’s also a Politico piece, and so it’s obliged to include game/strategy musing about “how the Biden administration will shape its response to Covid-19” and whether all of this Very Bad News is ultimately Good News for Team D or Good News for Team R. Because for the savvy politics-as-a-game Politico, all Very Bad News has to be Good News for one of those teams, doncha know.

The irony here is that when many of the health professionals Banco interviews describe the biggest obstacle to solving the problem they’re facing, they sound like Jay Rosen:

“We walk in to have a conversation with an individual patient about an individual medication. And I’m no longer having a conversation with a patient. I’m having a conversation with X person who was on Y,” [Baton Rouge physician Chrostopher] Thomas said, referring to broadcast media anchors. “That’s really where the challenges are.”

The X and Y there are, among others, “Tucker Carlson who was on Fox” and/or “Eric Metaxas who was on Christian Family Radio.”

Almost every public health official, local vaccine volunteer and physician in Alabama and Louisiana who spoke to Politico pointed to social media and the media as the main reason people in their neighborhoods are still holding out on the vaccine.

And, yes, Fox and Breitbart and Charisma and Salem Radio are even more pernicious than Politico or Axios or the other practitioners of savvy politics-as-game anti-journalism. If the latter prevent problems from being solved by not caring about anything other than which Team is “winning,” the former deepen and entrench problems by twisting every story into a “win” for their Team.

Where Banco focuses on the frustration of health workers, Natasha Korecki’s dispatch from the Lake of the Ozarks focuses on the unvaccinated themselves. It’s unsettling — the first act of a horror movie in which the Very Bad ending seems inevitable and inexorable:

The petite blonde bartender in ripped jean shorts bounced to each side of a square-shaped bar as women in bikinis and shirtless men lined up on a sweltering afternoon to order Bud Light, vodka and soda, and piles of nachos at this dockside retreat in the Lake of the Ozarks region.

In a county designated a Covid hot spot, in a state with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation, and in a region where hospitals are nearing capacity as the Delta variant takes hold, Erin, a bartender at Backwater Jack’s, couldn’t be in a more vulnerable position. She interacts closely with hundreds of maskless customers — sometimes on a single day. She knows most of them are probably not vaccinated. And she doesn’t care. She isn’t either.

“I’m living, breathing proof — I’ve not been sick once. I’ve been as hands-on as you can be with people from everywhere,” Erin said, as a motorboat thundered to the dock and another group of customers climbed out.

This reckless attitude is shared by nearly everyone Korecki interviews at the popular vacation site. This is a problem. What might be a solution to this problem?

The article nods in the direction of that question, then turns back to Politico’s usual way of avoiding it:

The president has attempted to hold up his handling of the pandemic as a top political accomplishment. But those achievements increasingly seem at risk. Despite a full-scale push on the local level here, and widespread evidence that the unvaccinated are making up an overwhelming majority of those hospitalized or dying from Covid, the vaccination rate remains ominously low.

Hence the article’s dismally irrelevant kicker, in which Korecki gives the last word not to any of the Ozark revelers she profiles, or to the public health officials or health care workers struggling to save them, but to “Gregg Keller, a longtime Republican consultant in Missouri.”

Does Mr. Keller have some proposed solution to this problem? No. He does not have a solution and he is not looking for a solution. His only interest in the problem is the same as that of Politico: Who’s winning? Will this Bad News turn out to be Good News for his Team or for the other one?

“The irony is it’s not the dumb rubes in Missouri who don’t understand the nature of this disease,” Gregg Keller, a longtime Republican consultant in Missouri. “Missourians understand this far better than these supposed medical experts we’ve been giving tens of millions of dollars every year.”

Buildings fall. People die. Consultants spin. It’s all just a game, after all.

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