Opinionista David Buckham 30 March 2020

Decency in crisis: TV anchors, please behave yourselves

There is something distinctly indecent and self-serving about the tone many international news outlets have adopted during this crisis.

There seems to me to be something unhinged in the contrast I draw between the cacophony of information hurled at me by global international media houses and what I can actually do with the information they give me.

This idea occurred to me on Thursday 26 March 2020 while watching a live feed of CNN anchor Brianna Keilar interviewing Peter Navarro, the White House Trade Adviser, who, more accurately at this present moment, is the person responsible for the federal supply chain in the US, specifically regarding medical equipment and supplies.

To be clear, I was as concerned as Keilar appeared to be about the failure of the federal government to adequately respond to the novel coronavirus outbreak – which has become so severe that, later that same day, the US recorded more confirmed cases of Covid-19 than any other nation to date, including China.

I felt as strongly as Keilar that there should be more information about why the federal government had not provided sufficient ventilators to its people and, indeed, I felt as exasperated as she seemingly did that the federal government had inadvertently competed with its own state governments by ordering all the remaining production supply of ventilators, thereby denuding them even of the solace of future ventilators.

At this point in time, my choices as a member of society – irrespective of the flood of information I receive from CNN, BBC or Sky News – are tremendously limited anyway because I have been ordered to stay in my home, except when I need to get medicine, go to hospital or get food. I must therefore conclude that the information I am getting is for interest’s sake only.

Nonetheless, Keilar’s question as to why the US federal government had failed to anticipate the impending requirement for ventilators did seem a fair one. That Navarro failed to adequately answer the question was not surprising. What was unusual, however, was the tone the interview then took. The discussion between Keilar and Navarro descended quickly into an argument. Both parties grew visibly irate and neither showed any willingness to back down.

Navarro repeatedly side-stepped Keilar’s questions, specifically regarding the number of ventilators that would be available for Covid-19 patients. Keilar, in turn, attacked him outright: “Peter, in fairness, the government was clearly ill-prepared for this.”

In response, Navarro attempted to appeal to the better angels of her nature, pleading with her to stop shouting in his ear and allow him a chance to speak. He went on to blame the Chinese, the Obama administration and everything other than the current White House administration. The conclusion of the interview came when Navarro claimed that “as a country, we got dealt a bad hand by China”.

At this point, the ideological canyon between Briana Keilar and Peter Navarro widened. She simply gave up hiding her exasperation and said: “Peter, that is just a waste of time to say that. That is ridiculous.”

She cut him off and abruptly ended the interview to lead onto a story about the spouse of a US soldier who had tested positive for Covid-19 and who was now in quarantine. This was shortly followed by a one-minute “Global Destinations” advertisement break sponsored by CNN Travel to encourage viewers to visit the Himalayas in Bhutan – somewhat ironic to me since one of the breaking-news banners rolling on the bottom of the screen during the interview had informed us that hundreds of trekkers in the Himalayas had been caught out by the coronavirus and were now stranded.

It was disconcerting to me that there seemed to be no time for the important question of what had happened to the US supply chain and, indeed, that there was no time to continue the discussion with the person in charge of co-ordinating this supply chain, yet we could spend a minute on Bhutan, followed by one advertisement after the next about CNN’s various reporting segments.

CNN is by no means the only network where this kind of absurdity is apparent. Kay Burley from Sky News got herself into a nasty spat with the UK Health Minister over the question of why Prince Charles received a test before others did, when it was not even clear to me that he had. She, too, told him that he was wasting our time.

It may seem trivial, but what such examples of reporting in times of a crisis seem to highlight is a critical loss of decency – the desecration of an ancient moral code.

In Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947), the French-Algerian author highlights the importance of human decency in the face of an epidemic – not as a nicety but as a necessity. The only defence against the terror of a plague, he observes, is for each of us to take individual moral responsibility for the decisions that we make and the actions that we take under these extraordinary circumstances.

“This whole thing is not about heroism,” says the doctor in the novel. “It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”

“What is decency?” asks another character. “In this case,” Dr Rieux replies, “it consists of doing my job.”

There appears to be something distinctly indecent and self-serving about the tone many international news outlets have taken in this crisis. To invite someone to appear on television, in front of the entire world, with no authentic intention of engaging in a useful discussion with them seems to demonstrate a loss of basic respect, courtesy and, indeed, decency.

To further claim that an interviewee is “wasting everyone’s time” when they attempt to reply to a question, only then to hypocritically cut to an irrelevant self-promoting marketing segment, demonstrates that these media corporations are just as ill-prepared for the health crisis we are facing as they so eagerly claim the governmental agencies are.

In fact, at this time, the critical role of international news media is to inform. Instead, they have been inflammatory, somewhat hysterical, and, at times, indecent. DM

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