In a week marred by hysteria, Big J journalists missed the boat

Wild Card Round - Minnesota Vikings v New Orleans Saints

Want to know a dirty little secret about the media industry? It’s cheaper to give opinions about the news than to collect it. A lot cheaper. Stephen A. Smith may cost ESPN $8 million per year, but accounting for the ratings and revenue he creates, that’s a bargain. In contrast, journalism is slow, and many times unrewarding for a network’s bottom line. So, capitalism being the way it is, media organizations have decided to go with less Outside the Lines, more First Take.

Furthermore, the role of reporter is being rapidly replaced by former insiders with established sources (really, just their industry pals). In sports, this means Jay Williams, Kendrick Perkins or Keyshawn Johnson now play the role of news-breakers. In politics, people like Susan Rice - who’s been in and out of Washington think tanks and democratic presidential cabinets for more than 20 years - regularly “break news” and give expert opinion in mainstream publications. These former players come with their own biases and alliances, but they keep costs down for companies while presenting consumers with more recognizable names and faces than Joe reporter.

This was all bad news for journalists before the pandemic. Now, as media companies lose their shirts left and right - Disney lost $1.4 billion due to coronavirus last quarter - it feels like the very position of news-collector is on the brink, especially locally.

This week, big J journos had a chance to show why thoughtful, judicious voices are still valuable, but they missed the boat.

On Wednesday and Thursday, fraudulent hysteria filled newsfeeds, timelines, blogs and talk shows. First, it was Kirk Cousins saying, “If I die, I die,” in reference to coronavirus, during an hour-long discussion with Kyle Brandt. The reaction - filled with phony moral outrage - was astounding. In reality, the Vikings quarterback offered us perhaps the most reasonable take on coronavirus from a public figure since this debacle began.

“I want to respect what other people’s concerns are, but for me personally, if you’re just talking no one else can get the virus, what is your concern, if you could get it, I would say I’m gonna go about my daily life,” Cousins said on 10 Questions with Kyle Brandt. “If I get it, I’m gonna ride it out, I’m gonna let nature do its course. Survival of the fittest kind of an approach, and just say, if it knocks me out it knocks me out. I’m gonna be OK. Even if I die, I die, I kind of have peace about that. That’s really where I fall on it, so my opinion on wearing a mask is really about being respectful to other people, it really has nothing to do with my personal thoughts.”

Cousins was nuanced, polite, and ruggedly independent. All things we once valued in America. Not to mention, he sounds like every normal person I’ve talked to about coronavirus. The hysteria that followed, and the moral peacocking by pundits, is not the disappointing part. As I explained, that is all a part of the business model. The disappointing part is that journalists, who are supposed to be the ones cutting through this nonsense, rode the coattails of their more flamboyant colleagues.

An embarrassing 14-minute press conference was devoted almost entirely to the press prying a half-felt apology out of Cousins.

“Do you see how some of that could be a little insensitive,” one reporter asked, hoping for Cousins would finally get on his knees and beg for forgiveness. “And maybe even a little tone-deaf?”

No reasonable person was offended by what Cousins said. It appears journalists have been tricked by their corny comrades - who are incentivized to make a big deal out of nothing - into mistaking the act for the real thing.

“The only thing preventing moral panic from becoming the dominant model of commercial press in the past, was that we in the media had other ways of making money,” said Matt Taibbi in Hate Inc., his 2019 tribute to Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent.

Now, in a pandemic that has excluded reporters from access to fields and locker rooms, can we blame them for embracing moral panic? Their options are limited, and moral outrage is allthe rage.

The following day, another scandal ensued. Parth Upadhyaya, a Penn State football reporter, tweeted that according to Penn State’s director of athletic medicine, “cardiac MRI scans revealed that roughly 30-35 percent of Big Ten athletes who tested positive for COVID-19 appeared to have myocarditis.” Myocarditis is heart inflammation associated with all coronaviruses, including the common cold and flu. It can be fatal.

The post was shared over 23 thousand times, and several news stories were written about it, including from U.S. News and World Report, and USA Today. A few hours later, the report was debunked. The number of Big Ten athletes with Covid-19 related myocarditis is actually believed to be 13-15 percent, but the study those numbers come from has yet to be peer reviewed. Oops!

Now, the genie is out of the bottle. Please, though, don’t you dare blame the press.

Our media landscape is growing increasingly hysterical. Consumers are checking out. Joe Rogan was the first to figure this out, so he created a nuanced, three-hour, panic-free podcast. Rogan now has the largest audience in America. People are literally desperate for reasonable voices, and the journalism profession - which once prided itself on “just the facts” - is instead doing its best Moaning Myrtle impression.

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