Kamala Harris and Mike Pence (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Here's what you need to know about tonight's debate: Mike Pence shouldn't even be there

Public health experts agree: Pence should be in quarantine. Mainstream media defaults to false equivalence, again



Dan Froomkin
October 7, 2020 10:00PM (UTC)

This article was co-produced with Press Watch, a new website that monitors and critiques American political coverage. Please consider supporting Press Watch by making a donation.

Mike Pence should be in isolation — not on a stage in Salt Lake City where he could well be spreading a deadly virus to everyone around him.

His very presence is an affront to public health guidance the rest of the country is supposed to be following.

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The American people should listen to his words only in this essential context: On that stage, he will be the embodiment of the profound personal irresponsibility expressed by Donald Trump and his loyalists; behavior like his is precisely what's going to kill tens of thousands of Americans who would otherwise live.

This context couldn't be clearer or more dire, but it is largely escaping our elite political reporters, who refuse to break out of the traditional strictures of campaign coverage. Those strictures forbid journalists from taking sides in argument, and require both sides to be presented as equally valid.

That's why you had a Washington Post story up for much of the day Wednesday headlined "Pence, Harris teams at odds over plexiglass at debate" — a textbook case of false equivalence.

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That's why the New York Times treated Pence's refusal to accept safety measures as just so much normal back-and-forth, writing: "The complaint from Mr. Pence's staff — which was quickly brushed aside by Ms. Harris's team — was another salvo in the fraught negotiations over the debate scheduled for Wednesday in Salt Lake City."

That's why the Times' "What to Watch for" on debate day acknowledged that the "debate has been shaped by the Covid-19 pandemic," but doesn't address how dangerous and ridiculous it is that the debate is actually being held in person.

That's why the Associated Press lookahead story only noted in passing that Pence "has faced questions about whether he should be at the debate at all" — quickly batting those questions aside by writing that Pence "has repeatedly tested negative for the virus, and his staff and doctors insist he does not need to quarantine under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines."

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That, by the way, is an awfully credulous way to refer to the public spectacle on Tuesday of the once-vaunted CDC once again being casually abused as a political tool by the White House.

I really hate quoting Bill Kristol, but he got it exactly right:

Pence was literally front row at Ground Zero of the GOP outbreak: the Rose Garden event on Sept. 26 to celebrate the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. That means he was near a super-spreader (who the White House is going to great pains not to let anyone identify) for a prolonged period — not to mention many other possible exposures before, during and after. He should have gone into isolation for at least 14 days after that.

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Ryan Bort, writing for Rolling Stone, quoted a number of public health experts who explained that Pence shouldn't be allowed out of his house yet, not to mention onto a public stage.

Those included Dr. Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist at the University of Arizona: "It would be grossly negligent to break quarantine to come out for [the debate], especially after such significant exposure. ... He sat right in front of somebody for a very significant period of time, and that doesn't even account for any indoor activities. It would go against public health guidance and all of the recommendations that we've been giving the public."

Bort also quoted Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University: "It's better to be 12 feet apart than seven feet apart, but at the same time it is completely possible to be infected by inhaling the virus from somebody who is producing respiratory droplets more than six feet away from you. … A lot of it will depend on the size of the room and the ventilation, but really the best thing to do would be not to have an in-person debate at all."

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And consider these tweets from experts I follow on Twitter:

The view that this debate shouldn't be taking place is hardly a radical one. It's mainstream, common sense:

People at the New York Times who are allowed to express opinions certainly got it. A Times editorial proclaimed that "under the current circumstances, it would be irresponsible for the show to go on as planned."

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Times TV critic James Poniewozik wrote that "the Commission on Presidential Debates, as much as it may want to carry out its usual civic role, has enough evidence now that it cannot put on a safe production, in this pandemic, with candidates in person."

This, incidentally, is what the Pence people were fighting against — at least until they actually saw it:

The egregious Post story was eventually updated. The new version noted that top Pence staffer Katie Miller — who had mocked Harris for wanting to "use a fortress around herself" — found out hours later that her husband, the notorious Trump adviser Stephen Miller, had been infected.

This is madness. Campaign reporters will lose themselves in the moment, churning out the obligatory he-said-she-said coverage. But that means losing sight of the bigger picture.

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Pence being there is a super-spreader event for irresponsibility and, eventually, death.


Dan Froomkin

Dan Froomkin is Editor of Press Watch. He wrote the daily White House Watch column for the Washington Post during the George W. Bush administration, then served as Washington bureau chief and senior writer at Huffington Post, covering Barack Obama's presidency, before working as Washington editor at The Intercept.

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