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President Trump and Amy Coney Barrett at White House

Official White House Photo by Amy Rossetti

Judicial nominations normally have an impact on real-world events only in the long run, but Amy Coney Barrett's was different. The White House event announcing her selection had rapid consequences. It gave COVID-19 an unobstructed path to a lot of important people, starting with Donald Trump and his wife, Melania.

The affair was what Anthony Fauci called a "superspreader event," with attendees crowded together outdoors and indoors, chatting, shaking hands, hugging and generally making merry. Few wore masks or kept their distance. Several later tested positive for the virus, including former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, GOP Sens. Thom Tillis and Mike Lee and former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway.


If a terrorist group had unleashed a potentially fatal biological agent on a gathering of Republican bigwigs at the White House, Trump would have ordered drone strikes in retaliation. But it was the president who masterminded this fiendish plot.

Did the experience of getting sick, needing supplemental oxygen and being hospitalized teach him a lesson? Far from it. On the night of the election, he hosted a White House party for several hundred people. Within days, some of the celebrants were afflicted with COVID-19, among them White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and housing secretary Ben Carson.

But don't think Trump has lost any enthusiasm for his one-man effort to achieve herd immunity inside the Beltway. Christmas is a time for giving, and he thinks everyone should have the gift of coronavirus antibodies.

During the holiday season, The Washington Post reports, "the White House is expected to throw more than a dozen indoor parties, including a large congressional ball on Dec. 10."

This is not exactly in line with the practices necessary to safeguard public health. A number of cities have prohibited or limited indoor service at bars and restaurants because of the danger of transmission when people congregate for hours in closed spaces. A study published in the journal Nature found that restaurants posed the greatest risk of fueling the pandemic because of conditions that mirror those of a big indoor party.

The administration sees no need to dispense with holiday cheer and insists it will take appropriate care. "This includes smaller guest lists, masks will be required and available, social distancing encouraged while on the White House grounds, and hand sanitizer stations throughout the State Floor," said Stephanie Grisham, a spokesperson for the first lady. "Attending the parties will be a very personal choice."

But masks have to come off for eating and drinking, which people do at such events. That's if face coverings are worn at all, which past practice suggests they won't be, because Trump and those around him scorn this precaution. Social distancing at a party is the equivalent of composing poetry at a prizefight: It's not impossible. It's just never done.

Those invited to the White House events are free to choose whether to attend, but if they get the virus, they are bound to infect others who didn't elect to go. As for the employees providing service, personal preferences may not matter. The doctors and nurses who will care for those infected have no choice, either.

All this will take place in disregard of the warning issued Monday by Trump's own coronavirus task force: "We are in a very dangerous place due to the current, extremely high COVID baseline and limited hospital capacity; a further post-Thanksgiving surge will compromise COVID patient care, as well as medical care overall."

The festivities will make a stark contrast with the incoming administration, which takes the view that preventing disease and saving lives are more important than frivolous revelry. Biden's team is looking for ways to mark his swearing-in without filling up morgues.

The number of tickets for his inauguration will be slashed, and mask wearing and social distancing will be enforced. "Biden is unlikely to host fancy inaugural balls where hundreds of supporters are crammed into ballrooms," reported The New York Times. He may forgo the traditional parade down Pennsylvania Ave. His inauguration apparently will defer to the unforgiving necessities of the pandemic.

Trump's holiday parties, by contrast, reflect a refusal to let anything curtail his self-indulgence and vanity. Plenty of his allies and followers have only contempt for the idea of sacrificing for the common good. The result will be more infections, hospitalizations, and fatalities.

Let's hope these are great parties. For some of the attendees, there may never be another one.

Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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Chris Cuomo

News Literacy Week 2022, an annual awareness event started by the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to making everyone “smart, active consumers of news and information and equal and engaged participants in a democracy” has closed out. From January 24 to 28, classes, webinars, and Twitter chats taught students and adults how to root out misinformation when consuming news media.
There’s no downplaying the importance of understanding what is accurate in the media. These days, news literacy is a survival tactic. One study estimated that at least 800 people died because they embraced a COVID falsehood — and that inquiry was conducted in the earliest months of the pandemic. About 67 percent of the unvaccinated believe at least one COVID-19 myth, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
It’s not that accurate information isn’t available; people are rejecting reports of vaccine efficacy and safety because they distrust the news media. A third of Americans polled by Gallup said they have no trust at all in mass media; another 27 percent don’t have much at all.
Getting people to believe information presented to them depends more on trust than it does on the actual data being shared. That is, improving trust isn’t an issue of improving reporting. It’s an issue of improving relationships with one’s audience.
And that’s the real news problem right now; some celebrity anchors at cable news outlets are doing little to strengthen their relationships with their audiences and a lot to strengthen their relationships with government officials.
The most obvious example is how CNN terminated Prime Time anchor Chris Cuomo last month for his failure to disclose the entirety of his role in advising his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, on the sexual harassment accusation that unfolded in Albany, a scandal that eventually led to Andrew Cuomo’s resignation.
But there are others. Just this month, the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol revealed that another anchor on another cable news network, Laura Ingraham of Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle, texted then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows last January, advising Meadows how Trump should react to reports of possible armed protests at state capitols around the country. This revelation followed the story that Sean Hannity, host of the eponymous news hour at Fox News, also texted Meadows with advice last year.
And while he didn't advise a government official, CNN anchor Don Lemon revealed information not available to the public when he texted embattled Empire actor Jussie Smollett to tip him off about the Chicago Police Department’s wavering faith in his story about an assault. That’s from Smollett’s own sworn testimony.
When English philosopher Edmund Burke joked about the press being the Fourth Estate — in addition to the First, Second and Third (the clergy, nobility and commoners, respectively) — his point was that, despite their influence on each other, these “estates” — bastions of power — are supposed to be separate.
The Fourth Estate will always be an essential counterweight to government. But, since Donald Trump was elected in 2016, we’ve been so focused on stopping an executive branch from pressing the press to support an administration's agenda — either by belittling journalists or threatening to arrest them for doing their jobs — that we’ve ignored the ways that it affects and influences other Estates, and not necessarily through its reporting.
That is, we have news personalities-cum-reporters who are influencing government policy — and not telling us about it until it’s too late.
The United States has fostered an incredible closeness between the Second Estate — which in 2021 and 2022 would be political leaders — and the Fourth Estate. About a year ago, an Axios reporter had to be reassigned because she was dating one of President Biden’s press secretaries. Last year, James Bennet, the former editorial page editor of the New York Times and brother of Colorado Senator and 2020 Presidential candidate Michael Bennet, had to recuse himself publicly from the Gray Lady’s endorsement process. In 2013, the Washington Post reported at least eight marriages between Obama officials and established journalists.
To be clear, there aren’t any accusations that anyone just mentioned engaged in anything other than ethical behavior. But I, for one, don’t believe that James and Michael Bennet didn’t discuss Michael’s campaign. I don’t think the Axios reporter and her West Wing-employed boyfriend — or any journalists and their federally employed spouses, for that matter — didn’t share facts that the public will never know. Such is the nature of family and intimacy.
And as long as those conversations don’t affect the coverage of any news events, there’s nothing specifically, technically wrong with them. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t damaging.
As these stories show, when we don’t know about these advisor roles, at least not until someone other than the journalist in question exposes them, it causes a further erosion of trust in news media.
What’s foolish about the Cuomo, Ingraham, Hannity, and Lemon improprieties is that they don't necessarily need to be the problem they’ve become. Cuomo’s show contained opinion content like 46 percent of CNN’s programming. An active debate rages on as to whether Fox News is all opinion and whether or not it can rightly even be called opinion journalism since its shows are so studded with inaccuracies and lies.
What that means is that Cuomo, Ingraham, Hannity, and Lemon are allowed to take a stand as opinion journalists; Cuomo and Lemon never really worked under a mandate of objectivity and Ingraham and Hannity likely wouldn’t honor it if they did. Indeed, a certain subjectivity — and explaining how it developed for the journalist — is part of an opinion journalist’s craft. To me, little of these consulting roles would be problematic if any of these anchors had just disclosed them and the ways they advised the people they cover.
But they didn’t. Instead, the advice they dispensed to government employees and celebrities was disclosed by a third party and news of it contributes to the public’s distrust in the media. While personal PR advisory connections between journalists and politicians haven’t been pinpointed as a source of distrust, they may have an effect. Almost two-thirds of respondents in a Pew Research poll said they attributed what they deemed unfair coverage to a political agenda on the part of the news organization. No one has rigorously examined the ways in which individual journalists can swing institutional opinion so it may be part of the reason why consumers are suspicious of news.
Cleaning up ex post facto is both a violation of journalistic ethics and ineffective. Apologies and corrections after the fact don't always improve media trust. In other credibility contests, like courtroom battles, statements against one’s interests enhance a person’s believability. But that’s not necessarily true of news; a 2015 study found that corrections don’t automatically enhance a news outlet’s credibility.
It’s a new adage for the 21st century: It’s not the consulting; it’s the cover-up. Journalists need to disclose their connections to government officials — up front — to help maintain trust in news media. Lives depend on it.

Chandra Bozelko did time in a maximum-security facility in Connecticut. While inside she became the first incarcerated person with a regular byline in a publication outside of the facility. Her “Prison Diaries" column ran in The New Haven Independent, and she later established a blog under the same name that earned several professional awards. Her columns now appear regularly in The National Memo.


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