Why did the Washington Post interview "the pandemic's wrongest man" for an article about COVID-19?
Alex Berenson has been consistently wrong about COVID, so why’s he being treated like an expert?
Last month, Twitter handed down a permanent suspension to Alex Berenson (a.k.a. “The Pandemic’s Wrongest Man”) for repeatedly violating its COVID-19 misinformation rules. That didn’t stop The Washington Post from quoting him as an expert in a recent piece about the “COVID endgame” by senior editor Marc Fisher.
“When will this all be over?” is a fair question we all want to be answered. Unfortunately, this piece misses the point in a big way.
Let’s start with something simple: SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) probably isn’t going away — and that’s okay. COVID-19 will likely become endemic.1 Few serious people (if any) are arguing for a “zero COVID” approach. We probably missed whatever opportunity there was for that when it became clear that we wouldn’t meet the 60-70% vaccination threshold estimated early in the pandemic.
I say this because I feel that it’s important not to conflate “When will this all be over?” (hopefully sooner rather than later) and “When will the virus be eradicated?” (probably never).
Let’s take a look at the cast of characters who were interviewed for this piece — and what they had to say.
Monica Gandhi, an infection-disease specialist and professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco
Ezekiel Emanuel, a professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania
Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine and health economist at Stanford University
Julie Swann, a systems engineer at North Carolina State University who advised the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the H1N1 pandemic
Alex Berenson, a novelist and former New York Times reporter (he did not cover health at NYT)
Gandhi said that she believes we’re in the COVID endgame, hoping that “the cases will start plummeting in mid-to-late September and by mid-October, we will be in a manageable place, where the virus is a concern for health professionals, but not really for the general public.” Cool.
Emanuel, who is admittedly a bit more pessimistic than some of the others in the piece, said he believes it will be “at least spring 2022 and possibly much longer before most people are ready to resume normal activities.” Okay.
Bhattacharya told the Post that “the emergency phase of the disease is over” thanks to vaccines, which do a pretty great job protecting against death. The vaccines are “a miraculous development, and we should be celebrating it.” Neat.
Swann said the disease’s trajectory will depend on how delta and future variants spread among children who can’t yet get the vaccine. “The first step toward normalcy is getting children vaccinated, at least for ages 5 and up. Right now, unfortunately, what we’re seeing in Florida is many, many children getting infected.” Alright.
…and then there’s Alex Berenson, whose presence in this piece is baffling.
I do not understand Berenson’s function in this piece. He’s not a doctor, epidemiologist, or authority on any health-related topic. Prior to the pandemic, he wrote a book that argued that marijuana could lead to schizophrenia, violence, and psychotic breaks. That book was slammed by experts on the topic as “a polemic based on a deeply inaccurate misreading of science.”
I wrote about him in May 2020 as he was developing his “COVID contrarian” persona, so I am familiar with his commentary on the topic.
In a May 18, 2020 opinion column for FoxNews.com, Berenson did what he often does: he accused the media of trying to scare people.
The hysterics have been wrong. They know it, whether they admit it or not. Except for the most at-risk populations – who should be the focus of our protective efforts – COVID looks to be a minor risk. And with every day that goes by, every state and country that reopen without catastrophe, the lockdowns appear more insane.
When Fox published Berenson’s op-ed, just under 95,000 people in the United States had died from COVID-19. Currently, that number stands at 667,000.
Personally, had I made a name as someone who downplayed a virus that would go on to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans after I handwaved it away as “a minor risk,” I’d feel a bit embarrassed about it — but that’s not Berenson’s style.
But what’s the Post’s excuse? Why would they interview him for this piece? What do we gain from it as readers? Fisher even notes that Berenson had been banned from Twitter for repeatedly violating the platform’s COVID-19 misinformation rules, so it’s not merely ignorance on his part. So why do this? Well, let’s look at his section:
And the national divide over vaccines, masks and other such politicized public health measures could well end up being the reason the pandemic persists in the United States, said Alex Berenson, a novelist and former New York Times reporter. Berenson’s agitation against the vaccine has become a popular source of succor for many who have refused to get the shot, but it also got him permanently banned from Twitter for what the company called “repeated violations of our COVID-19 misinformation rules.”
“I don’t know how we get there politically,” Berenson said of the quest for an endgame. “We are at a very confused moment.”
He said his readers “are long done with covid. And personally, I have not worn a mask for months, and no one has challenged me anywhere about whether I am vaccinated or not.” (He’s not.)
But “obviously some large number of Americans feel differently,” he said. “They are happy to live under government strictures indefinitely. . . . These two populations cannot comfortably exist. This is not a medical problem. . . . This is a political and social problem and it will have to be resolved politically, I suppose.”
Berenson said he believes Americans can return to normal life right now, without mask mandates, contact tracing or vaccine passports. But “can” and “will” are different, and he expects it might be late 2023 or later — perhaps after the next presidential election — before any consensus might develop about returning to normal life.
Berenson is not an expert on this topic. Why is he being asked about “the reason the pandemic persists in the United States?” Why is the Post including his baseless projection that he expects “it might be late 2023 or later — perhaps after the presidential election — before any consensus might develop about returning to normal life”?
To understand why Berenson has no place being considered an authority on COVID-19, Fisher need only look at his colleague Philip Bump’s August 2 article.
On Twitter, Bump called Berenson “a serial and unchastened distributor of misinformation who recently equated vaccination to concentration camps, not a ‘courageous voice of reason.’”
In his piece, Bump slams Berenson for continuing to insist that the COVID vaccines don’t work (they do!) and for telling his followers to simply allow themselves to be infected with the virus. Lest you think that maybe Fisher simply hadn’t seen Bump’s piece, he linked to it.
In a piece filled with memorable lines,4 one stands out:
It is certainly the case that Americans should and do celebrate our ability to speak freely without censorship. But it is also the case that we all recognize that some assertions and statements should not be handed large audiences.
A month later, and the Washington Post did exactly that; it handed Berenson a large audience in a piece that was presented as being straight news, not opinion. Fisher failed his fellow Post colleagues in a big way.
When asked what this means, Harvard Associate Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases Yonatan Grad told the school’s website this: “The expectation that COVID-19 will become endemic essentially means that the pandemic will not end with the virus disappearing; instead, the optimistic view is that enough people will gain immune protection from vaccination and from natural infection such that there will be less transmission and much less COVID-19-related hospitalization and death, even as the virus continues to circulate.”
For instance, in October 2020, Berenson tweeted a link to one of his Fox News appearances where he bashed the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) for projecting that the U.S. could hit 500,000 COVID deaths by the spring. (We passed 500,000 deaths on February 12, 2021.) There are plenty of these examples from his now-suspended Twitter account.
Berenson recently started a Substack, which is significantly more popular than mine. There’s an audience for misinformation and vitriol. There’s less of one for… whatever it is I do on mine.
Bump is a fantastic writer: “The conflation of contrarianism and individualism that Berenson exemplifies is a powerful force in politics at the moment. Social media allows for the creation of self-reinforcing groups that convince one another that they have the true insights and everyone else is misled or naive. We see it with things like QAnon; we see it in the much larger universe of people who actively reject recommendations aimed at curtailing the pandemic, like wearing masks or getting vaccinated. To object to the country’s top infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci not only signals partisan status but is hailed as an indicator of unwavering individualism.”