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The Media’s Coronavirus Coverage Exposes Its Ignorance About the Working Class

Those whose livelihoods are being ravaged by the pandemic are getting further maligned by an out-of-touch press.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

We are living in a situation where everything in the world should, by all rights, be falling apart. Anything that isn’t currently in the process of disintegrating is only being held together by the exhausted toil of workers whom we have only recently crowned “essential.” The intrinsic value of this workforce was well in evidence before the pandemic—anyone with a comfortable life in America gets to live this way because truck drivers ferry their high-thread-count bed linens across the country, grocery store workers lift heavy boxes of 16 kinds of flour, and Seamless drivers appear on demand bearing pad thai.

Now that everyone doing a real job is at higher risk of the same illness that has also kept the rich stuck at home, instead of just the myriad other health problems that result from a life of too-hard work, maybe we will come out of the other side of this with a greater appreciation for the desperate economic situation of people who earn less than the median income. Or, maybe not: The past few days have seen a rash of high-profile media outlets demonstrating that they are not intellectually equipped to take measure of this moment.

A recent story on NPR’s Morning Edition told the sad tale of a café owner who can no longer compel her employees to endanger themselves, because the CARES Act supposedly provides too-generous unemployment benefits that make it a better deal for them to stay home and not catch the deadly virus that’s killed almost 50,000 Americans. The story lamented the way the generous $600 unemployment insurance benefit shut down Sky Marietta’s coffee shop in Kentucky since, she said, “her former employees can make more money staying home than they did on the job.” If she says so! There’s probably no need to check those claims before broadcasting a story about them. They are just too good to verify.

Generally speaking, however, workers can’t just obtain unemployment insurance if they quit without “good cause.” The CARES Act included a provision allowing workers to collect unemployment if they leave their jobs if remaining puts them in danger of contracting the coronavirus. That’s certainly plausible for coffee shop employees to claim, even if service is limited to takeout. But according to the Department of Labor, the law’s standards are strict. In fact, the department’s information page about the CARES Act addresses this specific situation:

I’m not sick, nor is anyone in my household sick. I do not have children or care for someone who cannot care for themselves. However, I’m afraid of getting coronavirus from customers coming to the store, so I quit and filed for unemployment.…

Under the CARES Act, you may be eligible for benefits if you meet one of the circumstances listed in the Act, but none include the scenario described.

This is the exact scenario described by the NPR piece, but the segment made no effort to uncover or outline these rules. In general, the Labor Department says, workers are eligible for unemployment insurance “due to concerns about exposure to the coronavirus only if you have been advised by a healthcare provider to self-quarantine as a result of such concerns.” (It is very hard to square the general guidance from the government that we should avoid going out unnecessarily, even to the grocery store, with the law stating that those stores’ employees can’t consider themselves at risk until a doctor has told them they are.)

It would be an interesting story if workers were able to make more money by quitting their poorly paying jobs, but you could not reasonably frame that piece as a sad tale of a business closing, an upset boss wishing she could keep her employees, and an implied workforce of lazy, greedy baristas. If you wanted to cover the story fairly, you would have to give equal weight to how utterly incredible it is to be able to sit at home and get paid to do nothing—unless you take it as a matter of objective, self-evident principle that it is better for people to work than not. Besides this, the article did not interview any of the former employees to ask them about their boss’s telling of the situation—whether they were actually able to quit their jobs and still receive unemployment benefits, and whether they’re making more now than they were before. The piece not only repeated the boss’s unvetted claims about her employees but framed the entire article around them. It’s quite possible the real story here is that Sky Marietta has been underpaying her workers for quite some time.

An article in The New York Times on Trump’s late-night declaration that he would sign an executive order to “temporarily suspend immigration into the United States”—immigration that, The Wall Street Journal noted, has already been dramatically limited by the coronavirus pandemic—also missed the mark in a similar way. The article reported, as an assertion of fact with no particular supporting details or evidence, that Trump’s “primary focus appears to be on protecting American workers.” (Never mind that this is a man who barely has the capacity to “focus” on anything, let alone maintain both a primary and secondary area of attention.) The notion that Trump’s declaration was about “protecting American workers” is not a factual statement, borne out by evidence.

Elsewhere, in fact, it was reported that the Department of Homeland Security was “still drafting the executive order” and allowing for the possibility that it would include “an exemption for temporary guest workers, including those who work on farms.” The Times would eventually catch up and report that the president had “backed off plans to also halt guest worker programs that bring farm laborers, high-tech employees and others to the United States using special visas.” This would be an odd thing to do if you really sought to “protect” American jobs from immigrant labor, or even if that was what you wanted to signal, in terms of political optics. But the Times will have it both ways: Trump’s order will definitely “protect American workers,” unless it doesn’t.

It seems like the objective reality of this pseudo-event is that the president tweeted a half-baked idea in order to deflect the blame for his poor handling of the pandemic onto immigrants—one of his signature moves. Meanwhile, the rest of the picture looks fairly bleak, for reasons that cannot be pinned on immigrants. The Paycheck Protection Program is a disaster, with big companies gobbling funds while small businesses lose out. Workers are dying every day, in part because the Trump administration has done little to specifically protect them.

The Times seems to habitually struggle with the concept of Real Americans and what they are demanding from their government. While it’s hardly the media’s only offender in this regard, the paper has, in the past, made a habit of presenting Trump fanatics as if they were swing voters. Last week, the Times’ political desk succumbed to this tendency again when it published a story about the small protests, lately waged by the kooky libertarian types who have demanded that states reopen their businesses. That particular journalistic misfire included the assertion that Trump offering support for “those who challenge the stay-at-home orders could help the president re-energize the coalition of conservative Republicans and working-class populists who agree with the anti-government sentiment that helped power Mr. Trump’s election victory in 2016.”

It’s a knotty sentence, which might be arguing that spurring anti-government demonstrations writ large could spur other working-class populists, not involved in the protests, to support Trump. The simpler interpretation is a much more troubling idea: that the Times believes that authentic working-class populism is an animating force behind these anti-lockdown protests, some of which were organized by a group linked to Betsy DeVos’s family of notorious right-wing bankrollers. Protesters in Denver were seen driving expensive pickup trucks—the sort that a genuine member of the working-class would be unable to afford. Then again, New York Times Brain being what it is, it’s possible seeing a pickup truck instantly autocompletes the thought with “redneck,” “guy who hauls bricks for a living,” or more to the point, “Real American Conservative,” of whose criticism the paper lives in mortal fear. As writer Albert Burneko pointed out, it’s all a part of a deeply rooted unconscious bias that the media in general—and the Times specifically—struggles with: the notion that “if an idea is stupid and backward, it must necessarily represent the working class.”

This is not just extrapolation from one sentence in a piece; it’s a troubling continuation of the Times Brain approach to the Tea Party, which treated the movement as a genuine, popular expression of libertarian objection to deficit spending from those ignored by Washington. Last year, the paper published a controversial retrospective on the Tea Party that initially failed to mention racial hatred of Obama at all. Even after intense criticism induced significant after-the-fact edits, the piece still described the movement as “a mass uprising based on notions of small-government libertarianism” and claimed that it was “concerned with government debt and spending and what it came to symbolize: politicians who were unresponsive to their concerns and an economy that wasn’t benefiting most Americans.” (You’d be hard-pressed to find a searing example of Tea Party fundamentalists, catalyzed as they were by Rick Santelli’s plutocratic ravings, calling for the amelioration of economic inequality; in fact, Tea Party Patriots published a post criticizing Ezra Klein for making a video about income inequality in America, which complained that Klein ignored the fact that poor people typically have refrigerators or even a DVD player.)

That retrospective’s central question, of how the Tea Party’s goal of limiting deficits could have been so forgotten by a party that now embraces deficit spending, is easily answered by the sentence “They didn’t actually care about the deficit, and also they were racist.” But it treated this tension as the result of some drift away from its original principles and towards Trumpism, and not as evidence that the whole thing was nonsense from the start. The piece also did not address the big money donors who helped shape and bankroll the supposedly grassroots Tea Party movement, going as far as to quote the head of Freedomworks lamenting the lack of deficit-concerned members of Congress, without noting the extensive contemporaneous reporting showing how Freedomworks and others took the Koch brothers’ money to organize Tea Party activities. The piece instead described Freedomworks simply as “a group that pushes for balanced budgets, lower spending and tax cuts and has backed Tea Party–inspired candidates.”

There is a throughline from this sort of naïve reporting on the Tea Party to the idea that working-class Americans are the ones putting on funny costumes to demand that states reopen: It works very hard to ignore who the Republican Party really represents, whether they’re clamoring about deficits or demanding that underpaid salon workers be sent back to work. An interesting thing about working-class Americans is that they are more likely to hold those jobs that have lately been deemed to be essential, which makes it harder for them to take the time off to demonstrate against coronavirus lockdown directives in protest cosplay.

There has been plenty of excellent, useful reporting on the economic devastation of the coronavirus, including from the Times and NPR. We would not have a public record of things like the problems unemployed Americans are having getting their unemployment benefits because of jammed phone lines and old computer systems, for example, without this reporting. But these examples betray the problem of thinking that by putting your Reporter Hat on, you can rid yourself of all biases and ideology, and that your work will reflect only the cold, hard truth.

This problem is particularly acute in political reporting. A few weeks ago, the Times’ Peter Baker claimed he has essentially no personal opinions, telling his own paper: “I try hard not to take strong positions on public issues even in private, much to the frustration of friends and family. For me, it’s easier to stay out of the fray if I never make up my mind, even in the privacy of the kitchen or the voting booth, that one candidate is better than another, that one side is right and the other wrong.”

A reporter who thinks they hold no positions is much more dangerous than one with strong opinions, because at least the latter might have a hope of understanding what they are reporting and why. Perhaps most dangerous of all is a reporter who sees the structures of capitalism—bosses wishing they could force their workers to work through a pandemic, workers still unable to feed their families without opened businesses, immigrants pitted against native workers—and sees them as an immutable and unchallengeable fact, as inevitable as the sunrise, and just as comforting. The sort of reporter, for example, who would take a shop owner’s claims that her former employees were all living high on the hog on the government’s pandemic relief largesse at face value without asking a follow-up question. What a privilege it is to have such an essential job!