Monday, July 20, 2020


This Ben Smith story isn't bad.

Its main subject is the self-admiring ex-Times reporter Alex Berenson, a coronavirus denialist who insists that masks don't protect people and the pandemic is not particularly terrible in America. Smith is reasonably good on Berenson, though he's far too even-handed.
Mr. Berenson, a former reporter for The New York Times, pumps tirades against lockdowns, school closings and even masks into the central conversation on Twitter. His avatar shows a mask dangling mockingly from his jaw. “Masks are useless,” he had tweeted at 1:40 last Thursday morning; he was back on around 10 a.m., accusing The Atlantic of “panic porn.”

... “Alex cherry-picks individual data points that fit his narrative that things aren’t as bad as they actually are. That’s dangerous,” [ProPublica's Charles] Ornstein said. “Clearly, across the country, things are getting worse, but to hear Alex’s version, they’re not that bad.”

... Mr. Berenson’s presence [on Twitter] became both Twitter at its best — wide open for an argument and information as well as putting into perspective statistics like the relatively small risk to children — and at its worst — a sneering confirmation machine, reflexively amplifying facts and claims that support a preordained conclusion....

Mr. Berenson plays down counterevidence — even when it is firsthand or expert. He breathlessly warned that a quarantine for visitors to New Zealand amounts to “indefinite confinement,” and stuck by the claim even after his original New Zealand source described him as “confused.” Last week, Mr. Berenson gleefully tweeted about a study he framed as discrediting mask use, and, in response, the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci accused him of spreading “misinformation.”

... Perhaps the most jarring thing about Mr. Berenson’s presence on Twitter is not his relentlessness but his lack of empathy. When a marijuana policy figure he’d clashed with died last July, Mr. Berenson tweeted, “Here’s where I’m supposed to say that even though we disagreed he was smart and cared deeply about public policy.” Instead, he followed with a Latin phrase about not speaking ill of the dead. When Mr. Berenson learned that one of his Twitter foes, the Times opinion writer Jamelle Bouie, had lost his grandfather to the virus, he just kept arguing, writing that he had dead grandparents, too, and “the world didn’t stop for them either.”
Smith takes Berenson down a peg by comparing him to Jack Windsor, a former wedding planner who's now a local TV reporter in Ohio, where he asks wingnutty questions at the governor's pandemic press conferences. Windsor is now well known in Ohio, but the rest of America doesn't know who he is. Berenson was a pro; Windsor is an amateur. Smith appears to be trying to piss off the very ambitious, credential-proud Berenson off by comparing him to a small-time crank. I hope it stings, because Berenson is a terrible person.

But Smith doesn't understand why Windsor became prominent locally and Berenson nationally. He writes:
If you’ve been following Gov. Mike DeWine’s coronavirus news conferences the way that New Yorkers follow Andrew Cuomo’s, you know Jack Windsor: He’s the reporter asking about creeping Marxism among contact tracers and suggesting that Ohio is double counting virus cases.

Mr. Windsor, a 44-year-old with credentials from a small Mansfield TV station, is a new kind of media star, the local face of Covid contrarianism.

“You are a very lonely voice,” a Cleveland radio host, Bob Frantz, told Mr. Windsor in May, because “everybody else just wants to kowtow to the dictator.”

Mr. Windsor had come out of nowhere to fill an unsettling opening in the market. He left a job selling ads for a local website in 2019, not long after his then-wife won an order of protection against him. This April, he was running a wedding venue.
Windsor didn't "come out of nowhere." He came out of the right-wing fever swamps that have been festering for decades, apparently unnoticed by Smith and most of his mainstream media colleagues. I don't understand how Windsor secured this job when so many experienced reporters are losing theirs, but I assume he was taken on because he was fluent in the shibboleths, conspiracy theories, and long-held grievances of the Fox News/talk radio right. These people have been living in an alternate culture -- although in much of the country it's the mainstream culture -- for many, many years. This culture is destroying America, but it's invisible to journalists like Ben Smith.

Berenson has been making a different play for the Fox audience: He's the credentialled elitist from the liberal world who's gone apostate. He's Alan Dershowitz or Jonathan Turley; he's the present-day equivalent of the "Fox News Democrats" who over the years have conveyed the message to Fox's audience that even sensible liberals know that conservatism has all the answers.

Berenson and Windsor are dangerous disinformationists. But they don't exist in a vacuum. Smith doesn't understand that.

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