Commentary

Susan J. Demas: Blurring lines between shiny objects and serious problems has an agonizing cost

November 18, 2021 3:45 am

Susan J. Demas graphic

The greatest moment in trash TV history is, without question, when Kim Kardashian hysterically cries over losing her diamond earring in the ocean. With her baby velcroed to her hip, older and wiser sister Kourtney dryly declares, “Kim, there’s people that are dying.”

I think of this fairly often, as we’re on Day 489,764 of the pandemic. And I suppose it always feels this way after you’ve left Lansing for a bit, but things seem palpably dumber. 

Coming back to seeing the same disingenuous Republican attacks against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for using a private plane to see her sick father eight months ago is the dumbest deja vu ever. 

This is not the scandal of the century. 

You know what is? The fact that almost a year after life-saving vaccines became available, our national death toll of 763,000 people keeps growing because of horrific lies perpetuated by right-wing media and GOP officials — both in Michigan and across the nation — every day. Our GOP-run Legislature has devoted hours upon hours to fighting sensible health care measures that we know save lives, from masks to shots, and hasn’t done a damn thing to stop the spread of a disease that’s killed over 23,000 of their constituents.

That’s a goddamn scandal. It should never be something that reporters just take for granted.

Moreover, hypocrisy is a terrible journalistic frame for covering a health crisis of this magnitude. It’s true that Democratic elected officials haven’t always practiced what they preached on COVID with maskless indoor events and fancy dinners. I’m not a Democratic operative and it’s not my job to defend that. Personally, I got the shots as soon as I was eligible and have faithfully worn masks in public spaces since mid-March 2020, so I feel pretty confident about how my pandemic behavior stacks up against anyone, including those pantomiming grievance. (My record on shunning faux scandal reporting also dates back to the George W. Bush era).

“Operation Haircut,” another right-wing protest over COVID measures at the Capitol, May 20, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

But objectively speaking, we can all see that Democrats breaking health rules to enjoy a night at a dive bar is far less harmful to public health than Republicans who have been lying about the efficacy of masks and vaccines, amping up their gun-toting base by calling basic health measures “tyranny,” and cravenly dismissing credible death threats against Democrats, school board members and public health officials as “free speech.”

There is a body count for the policies that Republicans have pursued during this health crisis. 

And in one of the sickest developments, it’s their voters who are paying the biggest price. As bombastically rejecting masks and vaccines has become a GOP litmus test, the death toll in red America is soaring. 

It never had to be this way. That’s the horrifying part that keeps me up at night. Thousands of people are needlessly marching to their graves, leaving their spouses, children, siblings, parents and friends behind because they bought into GOP-sanctioned propaganda.

Everything we thought we knew about human nature, about the biological imperative for survival, has been thrown out of whack, even as we live in the most medically advanced time in history.

Avoidable tragedies are the ones you never get over.

And so you would think that after reporting on this much death and destruction — in a pandemic that threatens all of us and our families — that comically simplistic both-sides-do-it journalism would finally start to wither. But ironically, in times this precarious with an endless pandemic, an assassination plot against Michigan’s governor and a bloody pro-Trump Jan. 6 coup attempt, this approach seems to be a liferaft for those who refuse to acknowledge that the conventions we were weaned on are no longer operational.

Our GOP-run Legislature has devoted hours upon hours to fighting sensible health care measures that we know save lives, from masks to shots, and hasn’t done a damn thing to stop the spread of a disease that’s killed over 23,000 of their constituents. That’s a goddamn scandal. It should never be something that reporters just take for granted.

– Susan J. Demas

A generous interpretation is that sticking with a failed, but tried-and-true path gives some journalists a sense of order and control amid the chaos. A cynic, however, would say that regurgitating right-wing attacks they know are bunk — like that Whitmer’s anti-Trump 8645 knicknack was inciting violence — is a way to curry favor with the new far-right regime if 2022 is indeed shaping up to be the Dem disaster most pundits are betting it is. (Feel free to survey flacks from both sides of the aisle who pitched columns to me over the years and were promptly told to get bent).

After seeing the breathless coverage I missed last week of Attorney General Dana Nessel getting tipsy at a college football game, complete with the usual right-wing hacks blathering that she’s “out of control,” it’s hard not to be skeptical.

I mean, what’s the argument? Forget how Whitmer has fought for billions in federal pandemic aid (some of which the GOP Legislature refuses to spend to help residents), pushed to get 70% of those 16 and up vaccinated amid death threats and managed to get childcare, environmental protections and public school funding boosts through a hostile Legislature. Because of her private flight, that means that the motley assortment of GOP candidates pushing lies that Trump didn’t lose last year (he did, quite badly) and COVID conspiracies deserve to lead the state in 2023?

I suppose we’re also supposed to forget how Nessel has fought to save the Great Lakes from near-certain environmental destruction with an aging pipeline, protect women’s health care from far-right restrictions and shield seniors from fraud and abuse. Because of a couple Bloody Marys, we deserve to have an AG with a reckless disregard for the law who will use his office to punish enemies of the Trump GOP?

The contrast between the boring normalcy and foibles of our current Democratic top officials and the wild-eyed conspiracy-mongers who seek to replace them couldn’t be clearer. We’re a long way from the days when tax policy differences defined the parties, and demanding personal perfection from leaders is inane. 

Blurring the lines between those who believe in democracy and don’t, between those who believe in protecting public health and don’t, isn’t savvy journalism. It’s embracing the nihilism that has defined this pandemic and made all of our lives hell. Spare me the sanctimonious drivel that it’s just reporting what people want; news judgment still exists and it’s a decision to chase shiny objects and set certain narratives. People deserve a hell of a lot more from those who claim to be protecting the public interest.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 21-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 4,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 70 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

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