Staff Columnist

Gov. Reynolds, don't blame the media for your mess

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference, Tuesday, Aug.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, in Johnston, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Just weeks after a White House report declared Iowa a hot spot for the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Kim Reynolds blamed the media for overhyping the reality of the virus.

When asked by AP reporter Dave Pitt about the reality that a child or teacher could contract the virus during the school year, Reynold’s lashed out.

“This is part of the problem. The scare tactics that are being laid out by the media.”

“I resent that you say that to me,” responded Pitt, who argued that he’d been listening in on school board meetings and was voicing the fears of parents and teachers.

Reynolds later offered a tepid apology, stating she didn’t mean to accuse Pitt of “anything.” But she doubled down on her attack of the media, arguing that the coronavirus numbers should be better reported in context and that the media should stop feeding into anxiety and fear.

Reynolds isn’t the only one accusing the media of over stoking COVID-19 fears. The rhetoric is a weapon of the White House, who has deemed the journalists “the enemy of the people” and loves to cry “fake news” at inconvenient realities.

Blaming the media for inflating fears is a disingenuous attack, designed to deflect from an administration that has failed to adequately do everything — or really anything — within its power to protect its citizens from preventable death.

The state has routinely withheld information about the reality of the disease in the state. An AP report showed that the state was not accurately reporting case counts at meat packing plants, and testing has not kept up with the spread of the virus. The testing program we do have is window dressing — plagued with problems and inaccuracies. Reynolds refuses to issue a mask mandate, refuses to cede local control to school districts so they can develop back-to-school plans that will work for their communities, and refuses to answer hard questions about it.

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At every news conference, Reynolds takes about 20 minutes of questions, not even answering a majority of the questions from the reporters who are present. In contrast, in Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers takes at least one question from every reporter in the room.

How can reporters accurately report if the governor’s office is not answering questions or even complying with open records requests in a timely and legal manner? When Reynolds says she wants the media to report the numbers in context, she means her context, not the context of actual reality.

The reality is, if schools open, students will get sick, teachers will die. Already, across the nation, in Mississippi, Georgia and Indiana schools have opened their doors only to have to close them again. And parents and teachers are worried. This isn’t the media exaggerating the reality, this is simply the reality.

A study done by Pew research has shown that when politicians blame the media for reporting the truth, what happens is it creates distrust in accurate and reliable information. For Reynolds to play into this narrative continues to further risk the lives of Iowans who will not take the virus seriously until it is too late.

Over 900 people have died. That is more than the flu season. And those deaths were preventable. In fact, in March, Reynolds scoffed at models that showed Iowa would see more than 777 deaths. We reached that number before we were predicted to.

Of course, the media is not blameless in this pandemic. But what blame lies at our feet is different from what Reynolds would like to admit. If anything, we haven’t been dogged enough, we haven’t pushed hard enough for the reality. We haven’t done a good enough job of showing the faces and stories of those who have been lost to this disease. Like the governor, we have not adequately shown the human cost — what each of those over 900 people have meant. In the process, we’ve turned the pandemic into a numbers game, reporting deaths and illnesses like sports scores.

We’ve also played access games with people in power, often kowtowing and softening our pursuit so as not to be punitively cut off from information.

We wrote soft profiles without pressing harder for information that could save lives. We allowed lies to go reported unchecked. We often let talking points, not reality, rule our headlines. When the governor declared the pandemic complete, we let that dominate the news cycle.

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Ed Yong, a science reporter for The Atlantic has been our nation’s Cassandra — accurately warning about the oncoming pandemic, but no one listened. He also has criticism for the media and he is correct. In his article “Why is the Virus so Bad in America?” Yong accurately writes that the media has fed the beast of COVID confusion, by giving “oxygen to fringe anti-lockdown protests while most Americans quietly stayed home. They wrote up every incremental scientific claim, even those that hadn’t been verified or peer-reviewed.”

So yes, the media is to blame for some of this, but not because we have been inflaming fears and anxieties, but because we have failed to push harder for answers.

The reality is, media in this state isn’t powerful enough to spread fear and anxiety. We simply don’t have the subscriber base to do that. Fear and anxiety are being spread by inaccurate information, the misleading messages and outright lies from our president, and the unchecked environment of social media, where rumors and become fact and false Facebook posts get shared more than the news story we write correcting them.

Every week, I receive emails telling me that I should be more positive. That I should stop complaining so much. “Stop being so negative.” These emails echo Reynolds plaintive whine to Pitt that media should be part of the solution. But the reality of our lives right now is negative. We are living in a state where the pandemic is unchecked, where our institutions have failed us, where our leaders at every level of government have failed to step up. Pandemics are handled at a county level and at the beginning of this pandemic, in Linn County, where I live, one of our county supervisors was on the road with the Bernie campaign, the other chose to go on a spring break trip overseas. In Fayette, they held a county fair, because they could. In Cedar Rapids, there is going to be a beer-fueled outdoor concert where everyone is supposed to stand inside a small square. Right now, the governor who allowed a 600-person horse auction to continue is working hard to threaten districts who want to conduct school online. This is madness. Do you remember when President Donald Trump said our state epidemiologist should be on his task force and everyone talked about it until the White House essentially said “Psyche!” What is happening? Are we supposed to ignore all of that? Pretend it’s Midwestern Thanksgiving and whenever something bad happens we just smile and say “Time for dessert?” Right now, working in the media is like being inside a house on fire and getting yelled at because you said, “Hey, this house is on fire!”

It helps no one except Reynolds poll numbers to lie about our reality.

But I do agree with one thing, we need to be part of the solution. But the solution isn’t lying. The solution is an opportunity to rebuild our nation, state and systems of reporting and writing the news. What this disaster has brought us is a chance to rethink the inequality at every level. It’s forcing us to reckon with the disastrous legacy of meat packing plants, racism in our towns, our biases in health care, biases in newsrooms and reporting and the disparity in our educational system.

If there is a positive it’s that we have a chance to take an honest look at the shambles of the world and rebuild it into something much better. But first, we have to be honest about the shambles.

lyz.lenz@thegazette.com; 319-368-8513

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