By JOANNE KENEN
THE NIGHTLY READS ‘THE MORNING’ — With 5 million readers, David Leonhardt, the author of The New York Times “The Morning” newsletter, is arguably the most influential of the Covid influencers.
He has positioned himself as the pundit who punches holes in public health orthodoxy, who shuns the “bad news bias” of journalism, who offers soothing rationality — grounded in his years of Pulitzer-winning reporting on economics — in the face of what he calls “Covid alarmism.”
Over the last few months, a long-simmering critical conversation among public health experts about Leonhardt’s take and his outsize influence has become more audible. And we don’t just mean on Twitter.
Notable doctors and scientists have written to the Times, individually or in groups, to poke holes in Leonhardt’s coverage of the pandemic. They say that he cherry-picks sources and data, giving too much weight to people who may have medical expertise but not on infectious disease; that he argues strenuously for open schools but downplays the Covid risks for kids as well as their role in spreading the virus; that he held out Britain’s vaccination strategy as a model (right before the U.K. itself reversed course); that he underestimates how many Americans — not all over age 65 — are at elevated risk or live with people at elevated risk. He tends, they say, to look at the virus’ impact on individuals, not the pandemic’s impact on society.
“To argue that we should just get on with life because boosted individuals (like himself) face relatively low personal risk of death from the virus misses so much,” Cecilia Tomori, director of global health and community health at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing tweeted about Leonhardt’s journalism this week. “The entire framing is wrong. Infectious diseases are inherently about social interaction.”
One letter to the Times from a group of prominent pandemic experts, obtained by Nightly (though with the full list of signatures withheld), called his reporting “irresponsible and dangerous.”
“It’s head-exploding,” one exhausted emergency physician told Nightly. “Bonkers.”
The “bad news” about Covid, these experts say, isn’t a bias. It’s reality. The pandemic, more than two years old, is now killing more than 2,000 people in the U.S. a day — 2,466 Wednesday, according to his own paper. That’s the high end of the deaths during the Delta surge.
As recently as three weeks ago, on Jan. 5, Leonhardt predicted the increase in deaths “is unlikely to be anywhere near as large” as the Delta wave was.
Leonhardt, in a phone conversation with Nightly, said he tries to talk to experts across many disciplines and spotlight the pandemic responses that have “big costs.” Among them:
- An educational gap that persisted before the pandemic is worsening, with Black and Latino kids bearing the brunt.
- A mental health crisis is sweeping the nation, particularly among kids. Suicide attempts are up. Drug overdoses are up. Blood pressure is up. Violent crime is up.
“If the goal — as it should be — is to protect people’s health and well-being, we need to look at it holistically,” he said.
He’s right that those concerns are part of public health, too. Yet his perspective and emphasis, his critics say, are too often misplaced.
“Some of his columns have been totally right — even lovely,” said a physician at a prestigious academic medical center. “But the majority downplay risk, downplay prevention. … There are political pressures and societal ramifications among this privileged group that reads him.”
That privileged group includes President Joe Biden, according to one individual who has worked with the White House on pandemic response — and who thinks Leonhardt is saying some things that need to be said to those Americans who are excessively cautious even after vaccination.
But many critics think his newsletter is too sanguine about the dangers of Covid.The criticsare “emergency physicians, infectious disease specialists — across specialties and across the country,” said Anand Swaminathan, an emergency physician and medical educator in New Jersey, one of the few people willing to go on the record about an enormously influential journalist.
“It’s not a little [discussion],” Swaminathan said. “And it’s not a small cadre of people in New York.”
Other public health experts Nightlyinterviewed — some of whom are sources for New York Times health journalists or have media gigs of their own — didn’t want to be quoted, or said they were too busy taking care of patients, ciao. One well-known research scientist, who is part of this critical conversation but who admires Leonhardt overall, wouldn’t even praise him on the record.
The critics fault Leonhardt for drawing too sharp a line between the “at risk” 65 and up population and the “low risk” 65 and under group. Millions of people under 65 have conditions from diabetes to lupus that increase vulnerability to Covid.
“There is no stark dichotomy of who is vulnerable and who is not,” said Seth Trueger, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Northwestern who has taken care of Covid patients.
The critics also say that for all his focus on inequality, he overlooks that for poor people, if they don’t have great insurance and paid sick leave, even mild to moderate disease can be an economic calamity.
At the start of this year, in a newsletter that he titled “Pundit Accountability,” Leonhardt acknowledged publicly that he’s gotten stuff wrong. Breakthrough infections. Delta. The duration of immunity. The quality of data. The need for boosters.
Now, he says, he is foreseeing better times ahead (again). Indicators do tell us the Omicron surge is subsiding, though as his paper reported today, the path to greater normalcy may be blessedly clear or it may be “long and bumpy, pockmarked with outbreaks.”
Over the last two years, Leonhardt told Nightly, the experts have been both too pessimistic (that back-to-school surge didn’t materialize in September) and too optimistic (who ever thought we’d be going into year three?) in the face of this mercurial, mutating virus. So, he acknowledged, it’s probably a good idea to be “very humble about what the future would bring.”