Big If True

(Big "if.")

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There was a remarkable story in The New York Times last week,
and I don’t mean that in a good way.

The story, which made the rounds online, makes the bold, and, to many New York Times readers, emotionally gratifying claim that Covid death counts are now split along partisan lines, so politicized have the vaccines become. Specifically, the claim is that:

In counties where Donald Trump received at least 70 percent of the vote, the virus has killed about 47 out of every 100,000 people since the end of June, according to Charles Gaba, a health care analyst. In counties where Trump won less than 32 percent of the vote, the number is about 10 out of 100,000.

As they say on Twitter: Big if true.

But my friend Jeremy Beckham makes an important and kind of obvious point: Republicans are old.

As everyone knows, Covid disproportionately infects and kills the elderly. Since Republicans lean older than the rest of the electorate, it’s not surprising they’re catching and dying from Covid at a higher rate, based on that factor alone. You’d think that would be the first explanation The New York Times would reach for.

But you’d be wrong. The Times’ David Leonhardt instead claims that the reason for the partisan difference is a Republican Party “that has grown hostile to science and empirical evidence in recent decades.” Conservatives are refusing the vaccine and dying of Covid, he claims, to own the libs.

And where is Leonhardt getting this data from, anyway? The CDC? The New England Journal of Medicine?

No, Leonhardt got his data from “Charles Gaba, a health care analyst.” Charles Gaba is a web designer in Michigan. He also has a Patreon-supported blog where he tracks ACA signups.

Jeremy called out Gaba on the faulty assumptions smuggled into his calculations on Twitter, and was met with snark (it’s Twitter, after all). I chimed in too, asking Gaba if he believes that the explanation The New York Times drew is justified by his data, to which he replied, more or less, yes.

But as misleading as Gaba’s numbers are, it’s not really fair to pick on him. It’s not Gaba but The New York Times that brought his suggestive data to its partisan conclusion, and it’s The New York Times that’s accountable to the public and to rigorous empirical standards, not some random blogger.

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It’s not hard to surmise why The New York Times finds this particular explanation so appealing. There are a lot of demographic splits between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, by race, education level, income level, etc. But to the average New York Times reader, only one split — the partisan one — paints a picture of the unvaccinated as selfish and undeserving. It’s hard to imagine The New York Times writing a story about the ignorant, deluded, selfish black Americans, or Latino Americans, or poor Americans, or uneducated Americans (ok maybe they would do that one) who are refusing the vaccine, but it doesn’t take any imagination to conceive of the same for conservatives; you can just google it.

But obsessing over the partisan split is misleading, because partisanship is not the most salient of the variables that divide us. If you don’t believe me, take it from one David Leonhardt from The New York Times:

These ideas all have some truth to them. But they also can obscure the fact that many unvaccinated Republicans and minorities have something in common: They are working class. And there is a huge class gap in vaccination behavior.

No doubt, there are reams of vaccine misinformation out there, and it’s true that conservative media is producing more of it than liberal media, though liberals have their own particular blinders on. But it’s also true that older and more educated Republicans are getting the vaccine at higher rates than younger and less educated ones. So even assuming that vaccine hesitancy is largely the result of susceptibility to misinformation — and that’s a big assumption — are your politics really the key determinant of your misinformation consumption diet, or could it be education or income? And if politics is the key factor, is conservative distrust of the media and of expert authority really so hard to fathom?

There are a lot of interesting questions to explore with respect to what informs, or misinforms, vaccine hesitancy. But exploration isn’t the media’s forte anymore; moral castigation is. The New York Times is still a better journalistic outlet than Fox News, but its incentive structure has become Fox’s mirror image, which is why we’re seeing more and more pieces like this not just from tabloid rags like The Daily Beast, but from the Paper of Record. Leonhardt’s lazy post is just another example of this change at the Times and of our era’s post-journalistic turn. This is what journalism has become in 2021. Everyone follows the Fox News script: draw politically convenient conclusions from incomplete reporting in order to tell your hyper-partisan audience what they want to hear, and in the process encourage us all to hate each other just a little bit more.