The firing of the New York Times’s star virus reporter Donald G. McNeil, Jr., made international news, given his status and the strange circumstances. His dismissal had nothing to do with his virus reporting or aggressive advocacy of hard lockdowns. It occurred because of a racial slur he used in private conversation on a trip to Peru in 2019.
At first the paper found his slip up too minor to warrant termination. Managers changed their minds after internal lobbying. The National Review regards this as another case in which cancel culture overcame rationality. Andrew Sullivan agrees.
To my own amazement, none of the coverage of his career shift addressed the most salient point about McNeil’s career over the last year. He was the first reporter from a major media venue to stir up virus panic and advocate for extreme lockdown measures. It was late February, a time when Slate, Psychology Today, and the New England Journal of Medicine were all urging calm. He fundamentally changed the national conversation and contributed mightily to the political and cultural panic that ended up shattering our lives.
The initial blast from McNeil came in a shocking interview in the Daily podcast of the New York Times, from February 27. He started guns ablazing. He said that this pandemic “reminds” him of the Spanish flu of 1918. The show’s host Michael Barbaro, who surely knew ahead of time what McNeil would say, affected alarm: “I thought you were here to bring calm, Donald.”
I’m trying to bring a sense that if things don’t change, a lot of us might die. If you have 300 relatively close friends and acquaintances, six of them would die in a 2.5 percent mortality situation.
Well, with zero evidence, he overestimated the death rate by 25 times (in the US case), depending on whether he is referring to the crude death rate per capita or the case or infection fatality rate (he doesn’t say). He promoted the idea that you get it from surfaces, which we now know to be wildly exaggerated. Mostly his purpose was to promote lockdowns as the only viable way to mitigate the severe consequences of a new pathogen. In his ideal:
You can’t leave. You can’t see your families. All the flights are canceled. All the trains are canceled. All the highways are closed. You’re going to stay in there. And you’re locked in with a deadly disease. We can do it….
We can do it, but we’re not used to being controlled from the top down the way people have been in China. So I don’t know what’s going to happen in the United States. We’re not mentally prepared to fight a sort of people’s war against an epidemic, which is what happened in China.
My emotion when I heard this podcast: shock. It was not the content as such. I was shocked that the New York Times, which I had previously believed was a more or less responsible venue, was so aggressively manipulating its listeners into a full freak out, based on almost no evidence. In all previous pandemics, the Times editorials had called for calm, doctor-patient relationships, and general social functioning.
This time, it was completely different. The Times allowed its voice to be used to promote a primal and primitive disease panic, which they surely knew would create a cultural/political frenzy. Whether and to what extent this was the brainchild of McNeil himself, I have no idea. Was he speaking for himself or was he serving as the mouthpiece for some other grander plan to push lockdowns? I really do not know, but he certainly bears moral culpability.
The very next day came his second blast, one of the most astonishingly deranged pieces of prose to appear in the whole of 2020. His article was “To Take On the Coronavirus, Go Medieval on It.”
You have to read it to believe it:
There are two ways to fight epidemics: the medieval and the modern.
The modern way is to surrender to the power of the pathogens: Acknowledge that they are unstoppable and to try to soften the blow with 20th-century inventions, including new vaccines, antibiotics, hospital ventilators and thermal cameras searching for people with fevers.
The medieval way, inherited from the era of the Black Death, is brutal: Close the borders, quarantine the ships, pen terrified citizens up inside their poisoned cities…. Harsh measures horrify civil libertarians, but they often save lives, especially when they are imposed in the early days.
So there we go: just reject the whole of modern medicine and public health. Be like China. Be like Cuba with AIDS. Lock everything and everyone away for the duration, until….it’s not clear actually. McNeil seemed not to have a plan. Or maybe his plan was the cranky view that if you hide long enough from the virus, you somehow drive the infection rate low enough so that the virus stops mattering. It doesn’t really work that way: the so-called R-naught is a statistical rendering of effects, not a casual agent that makes the virus behave this or that way. Though he covered viruses for years, he never actually studied them in school (B.A. Rhetoric, UC Berkeley).
And sure enough, the US did go medieval, even to the point of making modern medical care inaccessible for many, blocking people from dentistry services, and stigmatizing religious minorities for disease.
McNeil came back several times on the Daily Show, each time whipping up more panic with his dark baritone intonations and seemingly authoritative perspective. There was just something about this guy, his burning desire to pen people in their homes “inside their poisoned cities,” enjoying his fame as the voice of lockdowns. His entire ethos always struck me as quasi-pathological.
It appears that the New York Times found McNeil irresistible in the search for more traffic or for a new experiment in totalitarianism, or something else I do not know. I only know that he was a main rhetorical driver of the lockdowns in the United States. Whether it was his initiative or not, ideas matter and his ideas in this case mattered a great deal.
The sad part of McNeil’s departure letter is that it made no mention of this at all. Instead, he apologized profusely for using an off-color word, which, in the scheme of things, caused far less damage to the social order than his aggressive and highly irresponsible push for national lockdowns based on the China model for a virus whose lethality he wildly exaggerated.
Where is the accountability for that? When and where do settled standards of journalism kick in to hold voices such as his partly responsible for what they contributed to the catastrophe of our times?