Missouri river scaled

The great state of (‘heartland’) denial

A view of the Missouri River close to downtown Kansas City, where schools and businesses have been closed in response to the pandemic.

Between the Lines / By Peter McDermott

A few months back, one of the late-night TV hosts joked that the only Manhattan that Trump would be welcome these days was the one in Kansas.

Well, I’m not so sure about that. Usha Reddi, the mayor of the “Little Apple,” which is the Riley County seat, was flabbergasted and appalled to hear a recent statement from Marvin Rodriguez, the Republican chairman of the Riley County Commissioners. He declared that they shouldn’t worry about the spread of the global pandemic to that part of the state as they had very few Chinese people there.

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It was a very busy and traumatic week news-wise and this didn’t make it nationally, but the Kansas City Star followed up. (The paper is based across the border in “the great state of Kansas”; a celebratory t-shirt is worn by Chiefs fans who are also proud Missourians — it has that Trumpian gaffe emblazoned on their state’s silhouetted outline). Significantly, the Star piece was part report, part editorial and by-lined by the Kansas City Star Editorial Board itself. It was almost a public-health announcement, saying “Citizens, keep your distance from idiocy!”

“We do have it already,” the editorial board said. “But, does he understand why it’s dangerous to Asian Americans to talk like that, and that there has been an increase in reported attacks?

“‘Well, they say it came out of China,’ [Rodriguez] answered, ‘and I’m not putting it past the Chinese government in communist China.’ Meaning, to export a virus on purpose? ‘Normally, this kind of thing spreads slowly,’ he answered, so ‘I put two and two together. I’ve been around a long time, girl.’”

The Star continued: “It’s no more the fault of the Chinese people, or of their government, than it was the fault of Kansans that the ‘Spanish flu’ of a century ago seems to have started in Kansas. Very close to home for Mr. Rodriguez, in fact, among World War I soldiers at Camp Funston, part of Fort Riley in Geary and Riley counties.

Doctor’s orders

“Chinese officials were wrong in their initial response,” the Kansas City Star said, “just as U.S. officials were wrong to downplay first the threat of any pandemic, and then, for months, of this one in particular. And any official who, like Rodriguez, is even now downplaying the seriousness of this situation is doing a great disservice to his or her constituents.”

It’s a strange idea that COVID-19 would make its way around the globe and somehow stop at the Missouri River at Kansas City — which began shutting down schools and businesses days before Trump said the word “pandemic” — and not get into Riley County. Some refer to that part of the world as the “heartland.” But that’s a mythical place. The heartland is all of us or it’s nothing. Kansas City, anyway, has arguably more in common culturally with the Manhattan that is New York County than with Riley’s capital, which is itself a diverse town.

Missourians, incidentally, know something of the history of the 1918 pandemic, for St. Louis’ city health commissioner Dr. Max C. Starkloff ordered the sorts of closing down of life we’re experiencing right now. And when that didn’t work, he imposed a stricter quarantine.

“Flu and flu-related pneumonia killed almost 3,000 St. Louisans in the last three months of 1918,” said the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Thanks to the quarantine, St. Louis' death rate was lowest among the 10 biggest cities at the time. In Philadelphia, where bodies piled up on sidewalks when the morgues overflowed, the death rate was nearly twice as high.”

Get me rewrite

Denialism is just as rampant in parts of New York City. A friend and neighbor, an immigrant married to a native New Yorker, was horrified when on a Saturday trip with her children to the local playground she saw elderly men on its benches high-fiving and hugging. “And they’re supposed to be the vulnerable group,” she said. A regular at the playground, she hasn’t been back since.

Fox News has greatly aided the denialism, although of late it has been in rewrite mode and rewriting of history mode.

On March 18, Sean Hannity said. “This program has always taken the coronavirus seriously and we’ve never called the virus a hoax.”

On March 9, he said. “They’re scaring the living hell out of people and I see it again as like, ‘Oh, let’s bludgeon Trump with this new hoax.’”

Hoax Hannity is maybe just the most prominent of this ilk, and hardly the worst offender. In the end, it was a woman — surprise, surprise — who took the fall. Trish Regan’s show on Fox Business is on “hiatus” after alleging a “Coronavirus Impeachment Scam.”

“We’ve reached a tipping point,” Regan said on “Trish Regan Primetime” on March 9. “The chorus of hate being leveled at the president is nearing a crescendo as Democrats blame him and only him for a virus that originated halfway around the world. This is yet another attempt to impeach the president.”

Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott and Fox News President Jay Wallace said in a message to employees that they must “keep in mind that viewers rely on us to stay informed during a crisis of this magnitude and we are providing an important public service to our audience by functioning as a resource for all Americans.”

Which is fine, but for some of their better-paid employees denialism will ease now into a campaign of distraction and distortion, one aimed at shoring up the position of the commander in chief.

And that’s a form of denialism itself, to the extent that it’s denying real accountability.

So we have Lou Dobbs reaching “almost North Korean levels of adulation” (in Huff Post’s words) with a viewers’ poll about dear leader’s performance during this the most serious crisis facing the nation since 9/11. You could choose from three options: “Very Good,” “Great” or “Superb.” And the results are in: Very Good, 9 percent; Great, 12 percent; Superb, 79 percent. (It was revealed Monday that Dobbs, long a passenger on the hoax train, is self-quarantined after a member of his team tested positive for COVID-19.)


I doubt if you’re going to see much discussion on Fox about the war games-type exercise that the administration conducted in 2019 with dire prognostications about a pandemic outbreak. Then Chief of Staff John Kelly and then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were present as full participants.

Or, I’d wager, you won’t have an honest testing of claims made in White House press conferences. On Monday, in contrast, Brian Lehrer on his 10 a.m. to noon WNYC morning show asked Lisa Baum, health & safety officer of the New York State Nurses Association, about individual statements on personal protective equipment (PPE) made by the vice president and the director of FEMA. Not happening on the ground in New York State was the essence of Baum’s reply to each. As for Trump’s rambling on barely coherently about a particular type of mask, Lehrer asked if he was making it up. Yes, he was, the nurses’ rep confirmed, “making it up.”

And will there be any analysis of the self-pity emanating from the White House? Former Obama diplomat Michael McFaul summed that up with the tweet: “At a time of a national crisis, with people sick and dying, Trump is asking us for sympathy because he is allegedly losing billions of dollars for running for president. Incredible.”

By Monday, a new line was being formulated on Fox with host Steve Hilton calling Dr. Anthony Fauci a global elitist who will still have a job at the end of all of this. Trump quickly seized upon Hilton’s “cure is worse than the problem” line and ran with it. The position that China and South Korea gave themselves a fighting chance to control the pandemic, to flatten the curve and perhaps have succeeded for now, and that we could be squandering that chance with such short-termism, won’t be heard.

A question of when

And finally, you won’t see Larry Brilliant popping up on Fox. He was one of the people that led the World Health Organization’s successful smallpox eradication program in the 1970s, and is known in addition to his work in epidemiology as a technologist, entrepreneur and author. In a March 19 interview for the technology magazine Wired, he said, referring to the popular 2011 film on which he was technical advisor, “People say ‘Contagion’ is prescient. We just saw the science. The whole epidemiological community has been warning everybody for the past 10 or 15 years that it wasn't a question of whether we were going to have a pandemic like this. It was simply when. It's really hard to get people to listen. I mean, Trump pushed out the admiral on the National Security Council, who was the only person at that level who's responsible for pandemic defense. With him went his entire downline of employees and staff and relationships. And then Trump removed the [early warning] funding for countries around the world.”

We learned in recent days, indeed, that the White House shut down the U.S. office in China that was meant to pick any early-warning signs there on potential pandemics.

One can understand why the basic message of the 2019 hit TV miniseries “Chernobyl” (starring Jared Harris, son of Richard) has been getting a bit of play in recent weeks, particularly if, say, one goes back to some of the rave reviews it got upon its release. The Atlantic’s Sophie Gilbert, for instance, praised it as a "grim disquisition on the toll of devaluing the truth.”