California lockdown, a leadership failure and my rules for media engagement


The entire state of California was told Thursday to stay home. To shelter in place. The most populous state in the nation has been ground to a halt. Seven weeks after the biggest story there (and everywhere) was the death of Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash, the health and livelihoods of millions are on the line.

The huge public gatherings to memorialize Bryant and his daughter outside the Staples Center keep coming back to me as I think back to the days when the threat was growing.

Today in Los Angeles, you can’t have a public funeral for anybody. Today, gatherings of any size in public are banned. Today, all nonessential businesses are closed. Yesterday, a California man who was healthy when he flew from LAX to a conference in Orlando, Florida, on March 4, died from the coronavirus. He was 34 and had suffered from asthma when he was younger but hadn’t needed an inhaler for years. His life was normal. He flew to Orlando, went to Disney World, then came home and died.

On the day of Bryant’s funeral, Feb. 7, many in the nation were transfixed on the story. Fewer, perhaps, read an Op-Ed piece published that day by senators Richard Burr and Lamar Alexander, outlining the steps the federal government was taking to confront the emerging threat of the coronavirus.

That piece recited some of the alarming statistics from China, then pivoted to this: “Thankfully, the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus, in large part due to the work of the Senate Health Committee, Congress and the Trump Administration.”

But we weren’t prepared. And they knew it.

Three weeks later, Burr, the chairman of the senate intelligence committee and the author of the 2006 Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, was speaking to a group of well-connected North Carolina constituents called The Tar Heel Circle. And he delivered a far more stark message. NPR obtained a recording of that speech and published it Thursday night

Weeks before the Europe travel ban, at a time when there had been only 15 cases of COVID-19 confirmed in the U.S., he warned that travel abroad should be reconsidered. He told of potential school closures, disruptions to business and even military involvement. He painted a picture of virus sufferers being treated in military field hospitals. It was unlike anything anyone else in the government was saying in public. That same day, President Donald Trump told reporters of the coronavirus: “It will disappear.”

Burr, by contrast, told the private gathering in North Carolina: “There’s one thing that I can tell you about this: It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history. … It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.”

One more thing: In between his Op-Ed piece and what he told constituents in North Carolina that day, on Feb. 13 Burr sold off a significant percentage of his stock, between $628,000 and $1.72 million, according to a report by ProPublica.

Now, I am not naïve to how politics work, especially in a time of crisis. When there’s bad news to be given, I understand that its rollout is carefully timed, calculated to avoid panic and run through the prism of political benefit for the leaders involved in breaking it. (And, an addition, I will mention at the request of Twitter follower Andrew Bryan, that in January and early February, the attention of much of the nation was consumed by an impeachment process that had no hope of success.)

Even Winston Churchill was not beyond misleading the public if he felt the naked truth was too much. But our leaders today are no Churchill (who sounded the alarm of the growing Nazi menace to anyone who would listen for years and years).

It wasn’t necessarily Burr’s job to throw open the windows and sound an alarm that most assuredly would’ve panicked a panic-prone American populace. That job, in a perfect world, would belong to the president, who was privy to all of the same information, and who could exercise his own discretion as to tone and timing of such disclosures. But in the absence of anyone else in the American government being willing to do the right thing and voice an early alarm, Burr’s failure to do so in any forum larger than a small, paid audience in his home state will be a lasting epitaph on his political career.

We focus, all too often, on the wrong things in this nation. All too often, the simple act of a person doing his or her job can be the difference between success and failure. And increasingly in American life, the failure of people to do important jobs has led to major problems.

I’ve called it the decline of American competence. Others have called it a decline in decency. Call it what you want.

In the case of this virus, this country is experiencing the results of a failure to develop testing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rejected offers from the World Heath Organization and others on delivering test kits, not satisfied with their quality. It preferred to develop its own. But when its efforts early were flawed, the U.S. fell behind in testing the public, and once behind, there’s no catching up.

Without adequate testing against a virus that no one has ever seen, you’re fighting a battle blind. And the only way to fight it is the same way communities fought the influenza pandemic in 1918 – by locking people down and confining them to their homes.

It didn’t have to be this way. But it is. And now that it is, the value of collecting and marking all of the missteps is important and valuable. But there are more important matters to deal with now.

As a member of the media, I keep asking, what are the most important things I can do right now? Here are my rules for myself:

1). KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE BALL. Don’t be distracted by the sideshows. Try to write about things that will help people, either practically as they try to navigate this unprecedented situation, or emotionally as they try to process all that is going on around them. Media in general should resist the urge to chase after the latest controversial thing they hear from the president and chase instead news that will help people right now.

2). ADMIT YOUR SHORTCOMINGS. Nobody is an expert in any of this. Certainly not me. And certainly not most people analyzing things in public today – though we’re all reading and studying every day. Listen to what the medical community has to say, follow its direction, and write stories that will help others to do the same. Right now, the best thing anyone can do is stay at home as much as possible. Limit interactions with others. This isn’t forever, but if enough of us do it well enough, it can slow the spread of this virus in our communities.

3). PROMOTE VICTORY. I’m writing to a lot of people angry at leadership in Washington or who are on the other side of the political aisle from that leadership, but in this instance, in a situation that threatens our national security and way of life, and in fact the very lives of many, we should be rooting for those leaders to succeed. I’m not saying to root for them as people, or their party, or any party. But root for success in this important enterprise.

Now, it’s the job of the media to hold those leaders to account. If one day the president appears ready to mobilize private industry in the effort to fight COVID-19 and the next day backs off, as appeared to happen on Thursday, media need to question that and, in some cases, challenge it. But the outright adversarial relationship changes in times like this. I wish everyone could put their knives away, but know that’s not going to happen, either on the part of the president or some of the people who cover him. But it’s not going to help. The media needs to report where government agencies and officials are failing and succeeding. The sideshows were fun for a while, but they are counterproductive now. Just because they are there and because they get page views and viewers doesn’t mean they should be front and center for Americans. At least not now.

4). PRESENT GRIM REALITY, BUT KEEP PERSPECTIVE. There will be an end to this crisis. It won’t be soon, and the country, and perhaps its priorities, will look different on the other side. But we will emerge and be stronger, and coverage should not lose sight of that, even in the midst of difficult stories to tell. We will get through this. We should trust less in our emotions than in our determination at this point.

5). ASK FOR HELP. What do you need from us, the media? What do you need from me? Sometimes it is as simple as a question. You’re cooped up working from home. You’re continuing to go to work, but conditions are worrisome. There are people doing vital jobs right now, at UPS, at Amazon, who need more protective gear, but who aren’t getting it. The fact is, even the doctors treating patients right now in the hottest spots in the nation, Washington state, New York California, don’t have enough protective gear. If nothing else we need to acknowledge people who are putting their own health on the line – those in warehouses, over-the-road trucking, and elsewhere – to provide necessary goods and services. If you have stories of people who are going above and beyond in this crisis, I’d love to share them.

One positive story: Today, UPS and the Teamsters union have come to terms on some guidelines for the COVID-19 threat that should give some protection to workers. You can read about it here.

6). IN OTHER NEWS. Congress is passing a stimulus package that will put some cash directly into the hands of Americans. Details are being worked out. The bill also is expected to make funds available for small business and to target essential industries. You can read more about its progress here.

7). TODAY’S STATS: As of this morning, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is 246,275, with 14,250 in the U.S., where testing still is sparse. The COVID tracking project estimates the number of tests given in this country at 111,638. In Kentucky, 40 people have tested positive, with 639 tested. In Indiana, 554 have been tested, with 79 positive for the virus.

8). A FINAL THOUGHT. The other night I was talking to my dad, and he remembered something an old friend of his, Dave Long, a longtime railroad employee from Hustonville, Ky., used to tell him: “It takes a mile-long train a mile to stop, and mile to get going again.” Things will get going again. But right now, it seems we have no choice but to keep the brakes on and stop this whole thing.

Stay safe. And please, reach out to me via social media or email at ecrawford@wdrb.com if you have suggestions or requests.