This post first appeared at Common Dreams on March 16, 2023.
You write for the most influential newspaper in America. Your recent column about COVID relied on dubious sourcing, specifically, Person A, who agreed with your personal views on the issue.
Your opening “hook” for readers was Person A’s inaccurate and misleading statements. He characterized a medical review in which he participated (along with 11 others) as supporting your position, although the review itself stated that it didn’t.
Your column went viral. The medical community condemned Person A’s false characterization of the review and highlighted the review’s methodological limitations and failings that your column ignored.
Two weeks later, you doubled down on your position.
Shortly thereafter, the review’s editor-in-chief issued a statement that Person A and many commentators had misrepresented the review’s conclusions.
What do you do now?
What if you’re the newspaper’s editor?
Bret Stephens’ February 21 column on mask mandates created this scandal at the New York Times.
How It Began
When the next airborne pandemic strikes, the disinformation currently surrounding COVID will paralyze policymakers and the public. Both-sidesing critical mitigation measures such as masks – even when one side lacks serious factual support – has undermined science and created mass confusion.
Over the past three weeks, Stephens and the New York Times have added to that confusion.
The fact is that masks and mask mandates limited the spread of COVID. But Stephens claimed to have “unambiguous” proof from a recent Cochrane Library review that mandates didn’t work at all. A cursory reading of the Cochrane review abstract and authors’ summary revealed that it expressly – and repeatedly – declined to support Stephens’ position:
- “The high risk of bias in the trials, variation in outcome measurement, and relatively low adherence with the interventions during the studies hampers drawing firm conclusions.”
- “There is uncertainty about the effects of face masks. The low to moderate certainty of evidence means our confidence in the effect estimate is limited, and that the true effect may be different from the observed estimate of the effect.”
- “We are uncertain whether wearing masks or N95/P2 respirators helps to slow the spread of respiratory viruses based on the studies we assessed.”
Likewise before Stephens published his column, the medical community had warned that anti-maskers were misusing the Cochrane review to support their broader agenda.
Throwing caution – and facts – to the wind, Stephens turned to Tom Jefferson, one of the review’s 12 authors. Jefferson is a senior associate tutor in the department of continuing education at the University of Oxford. He has a history of being wrong about COVID.
As more than 50,000 Americans were dying during the month of April 2020 alone, Jefferson questioned whether the outbreak was really a pandemic or just a prolonged respiratory flu season. He continues to claim that there is no basis for saying that COVID spreads through airborne transmission, despite the fact that major public health agencies have long said otherwise. The “Declarations of interest” relating to the Cochrane mask review noted that Jefferson had voiced “an opinion on the topic of the review in articles for popular media…[and] was not involved in the editorial process for this review.”
Ignoring the red flags, Stephens opened his column by quoting Jefferson’s inaccurate and misleading statements, starting with: “‘There is just no evidence that they’ — masks — “‘make any difference. Full stop.’”
Then Stephens blasted CDC Director Rochelle Walensky for acknowledging the limitations in Cochrane’s review, accused her of turning the CDC into an “accomplice to the genuine enemies of reason and science,” and called for her resignation. He closed by saying that the review had vindicated those who fought mandates.
The Stephens/Jefferson misleading characterization of the Cochrane review provoked widespread condemnation from the medical community and others. Two days after Stephens’ column appeared, former CDC Director Tom Frieden wrote on Twitter:
“Community-wide masking is associated with 10-80% reductions in infections and deaths, with higher numbers associated with higher levels of mask wearing in high-risk areas.”
How It Proliferated
As anti-maskers weaponized Stephens’ column and it went viral, the New York Times failed to correct it:
- The Times published four brief online letters to the editor accurately challenging Stephens’ false assertions and unsupportable conclusions.
- The following Sunday’s print edition (February 26) boasted that Stephens’ column was one of “Last Week’s Top Trending Headlines” and noted that it “cited an analysis of Oxford studies by an Oxford epidemiologist, drew nearly 3,800 comments from readers, not all of them agreeing with him.”
- In the February 27 installment of “The Conversation” – a weekly dialogue between Stephens and the Times’ Gail Collins – neither mentioned Stephens’ misleading column.
- In Stephens’ next weekly column for the Times on February 28, he moved on to a new subject – Ukraine.
The Times March 6 episode of “The Conversation” finally raised the issue. Reaffirming his incorrect position, Stephens ignored the medical community’s criticism of the Cochrane review and his column, denied relying solely on the review (even though his column cited nothing else), and dragged his fellow Times mask-mandate critic, David Leonhardt, into the fray.
How It Unraveled
Four days later, on March 10, Times opinion columnist Zenyep Tufekci, a journalism professor at Columbia University, published yet another detailed critique of the Cochrane review: “Here’s Why the Science Is Clear That Masks Work.” She didn’t name Stephens, but she detailed facts and evidence that demolished Jefferson’s misleading claims in his column.
Some of that evidence came from Cochrane Library’s editor-in-chief, Karla Soares-Weiser. She told Tufekci that Jefferson had seriously misinterpreted its finding on masks when he said that it proved that “there is just no evidence that they make any difference.”
“[T]hat statement is not an accurate representation of what the review found,” Soares-Weiser said.
Hours later, Soares-Weiser issued Cochrane’s statement repeating the cautionary caveats in the review itself, which “has been widely misinterpreted… Given the limitations in the primary evidence, the review is not able to address the question of whether mask-wearing itself reduces people’s risk of contracting or spreading respiratory viruses.” (Italics in original)
Cochrane’s statement also called out the purveyors of disinformation: “Many commentators have claimed that a recently-updated Cochrane Review shows that ‘masks don’t work’, which is an inaccurate and misleading interpretation.” (Italics in original)
How the Times Made It Worse
The Tufekci article suggested that the Times had come down on the side of fact-based science demonstrating that masks and mandates had been effective. But on Sunday, March 12, its online edition presented mask mandates as a debatable proposition: Should we use them in the next pandemic?
Using a “Yes” or “No” format, the Times relied on Dr. Anders Tegnell, former state epidemiologist for Sweden, to defend the “No Mask Mandate” position. Given the parameters of the hypothetical pandemic that the Times posed (only five cases of a deadly respiratory virus in a single jurisdiction and 10 cases nationwide), Tegnell said that masks should be used in health and elder care settings. He said that it was too soon for a mandate, but the decision would depend on how the situation unfolded.
So even the “No” wasn’t really a no. The Times failed to mention that Tegnell had presided over his country’s disastrous “do-nothing” response during the first year of COVID-19, when Sweden’s COVID death rate far exceeded neighboring Nordic countries.
How It Will Haunt Us
Stephens moved on without remorse, but the incalculable damage left in his wake endures. Mask mandates are disappearing and won’t return any time soon, but not because they were ineffective when needed. The catastrophic consequences of Stephens’ disinformation will arrive when the next airborne virus (or COVID variant) strikes, pandemic victims overwhelm hospitals, policymakers and the public disregard science, and a proven mitigation tool remains on the shelf.
The Times is complicit. After failing to issue a correction to Stephens’ column, it then regressed to both-sidesism. Presenting both sides of an issue as if they stand on equal, fact-based footing when they don’t is not journalism. It’s an insidious form of disinformation.
When it involves public health, it can be deadly.