Sunday, May 31, 2020


By Dominique Paul Noth

Nationally, our neck has long had a huge weight pressing down on it.  This feeling that “I can’t breathe” started months before George Floyd’s video death footage knocked the pandemic out of the top headline spot.  For days cities everywhere have exploded in unrest, with some violence-minded outside agitators on both the left and right stealing the public protests once the sun went down.

The news in this time frame should have been dominated by a potentially monumental and essential shift in presidents and not (since the nation has been slow to pay attention for 400 years)   the knee on the throat that the black community has been familiar with. 

Covid-19 – 100,000 deaths in the US in three months but probably much more  --   should still dominate international  attention and soon will again since too many states without flattening the virus curve are dealing with fumbled advice from the White House to reopen. 

The virus is the reason we all feel a death grip on our collective chest, particularly those in older years, those with underlying medical conditions and those crowded together in prisons or workplaces – and now we see how many young adults are also succumbing and how even some children under 5 have related symptoms despite the hope that the young recover better. 

Typically our imaginations try to humanize this invisible enemy, imagining it’s a him cackling like a demented Claude Rains in “The Invisible Man” as he flits among us, or hovering over our beds in a Nosferatu cloud waiting to swoop in and attack the droplets in our saliva.

A contrast in styles -- Madison protest to reopen state from coronavirus
 stay-home orders in April and (below) a Milwaukeee daytime march
downtown in the George Floyd case.
There is a horrible contrast here – polls indicate most Americans (84%) are still following social distancing, hand washing and even face masks despite Trump’s thrust to reopen whatever the cost.  Yet simultaneously the videos of people crowding into bars and pools make us think these thousands exist on an even more massive scale in a nation of 328 million people. Every TV moment of crowds packed in for protests or drinking confirms the fear.

We expect any day now to see the death tolls rise and the much expected second wave of the winter actually continue as a constantly rebooted first wave all the way into September.  It is a belief furthered by our realization of the imbeciles we’ve elected to high office – if we could do that to ourselves once, maybe we’re doing so again.

The summer death toll will continue but not, I anticipate, at the rate our worst dreams imagine, because the majority is struggling to follow the medical directives. Certainly some people are wearing face-coverings during Floyd protests to protect their identities, but look how universal remain the masks.  Anger may reduce the social distancing but clearly the virus is not far from the minds of protesters.  That won’t make the Floyd case the tipping point many pray for but it does suggest Americans can keep differing ideas in their heads at the same time.

So I am hopeful. Most governors will be forced to respond to spikes though Trump seems to have abandoned responsibility. 

Part of my brain remains uncertain, however, because the network and cable news largely have missed the boat, wasting hours in expected revelations from the corona virus task force assembled by the president but forced by his vagaries and ego to produce a mixed message of important medical advice suffocated in misleading rambling data about testing, spread, false drugs, the place of the economy in his thinking, where the tons of advertised help are actually going.   Of late, in his self-inflation flailing, he has suspended the task force press conferences and turned again to misdirection about thugs, Twitter rules and threats rather than realities.

As former president Obama pointed out, responding to a pandemic would challenge the abilities of the best of presidents.  We have the worst, yet our democratic niceties demand that we can only have one president at a time.  So while real words of comfort may be coming from Biden, he cannot insist on a contrary system to what the White House has wrapped itself in.  The pandemic has produced a presidential contest unlike any other, where we normally want explicit contrary visions of the future to dominate air time. The pandemic means we still have to hope the guy with the executive power to do things will grow up. All we can do is pray against realities that Trump may fumble through.

Rachel Maddow keeps our attention local
as well as national.
So how do we gain any sense of clarity in these circumstances?  So far I have only seen one famous anchor attempting that.  Until the Floyd explosion in dozens of cities, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow was trying to split the nation’s attention in her nightly news show between the global pandemic and the steady but diverse deterioration state by state, nursing home by nursing home, prison by prison, meat packing plant by plant, doctor by doctor.  In many ways, this is the real human story of the president’s failure and where our nation must be paying attention to recover. It was a vivid reminder that the real purpose of the masks is to protect others. But it’s clearly not a ratings winner.

Spitting moments of anger and passion, Maddow was deliberately digging for what she saw week after week as the real story, not the ratings story.  She knows how to get ratings.  Her January interviews with Les Parnas – remember him? One of Giuliani’s Ukraine stooges that people hoped in vain would testify during the impeachment trial in the Senate, and does anyone remember that? – stole FOX and CNN’s thunder.  Her outlet’s coverage of that impeachment trial was also memorable for sticking with what happened, or should have happened.

Indeed take a moment to look back.  Trump’s ineptitude with the pandemic was hardly a surprise.  Viewers knew he was guilty and should be impeached by the Senate.  We also sensed the GOP senators knew it but refused to embrace the remedy.  The House’s eloquent lead prosecutor, Adam Schiff, bluntly warned Trump would do it again and by golly he has.  Recall what Schiff told us and the Senate, once they had absorbed his “overriding guilt.”

“History will not be kind to Donald Trump,” Schiff said in part. “If you find the House has proved its case and still vote to acquit, your name will be tied to his with a cord of steel and for all of history. Is there one among you who will say enough?” 

There wasn’t.

“Right matters here,” said Schiff. “So does decency. . .  He has betrayed our national security. And he will do so again. He has compromised out elections and he will do so again. You will not change him. You cannot constrain him. He is who he is. Truth matters little to him. . . . I do not ask you to convict him because truth or right or decency  matters to him but  because  we have proven our case and truth matters to you ... You are decent, he is not and he is not who you are.”

Maybe not.  Maybe yes. We knew then and know now this was the only chance to be rid of him, little realizing in the earliest days of February that covid-19 had already broken through the doors and Trump’s feeble efforts were arriving far too late. Now we are forced to live through our failure and thousands of lives do hang in the balance. 

It’s one reason I responded to Maddow’s aggressive coverage.  (With one caveat.  Her insistence we pay attention to what local newspapers and media were showing us would have had even more value if local newspapers and media had remained strong and probative over the years, but time and again we see more clearly the stories they have missed.) 

Yet that is also a value of Maddow’s coverage.  The meat companies and prisons that won’t share numbers or respond to local Freedom of Information requests.  The confusion of local media and papers to echo the graphs and visuals that were already burying us at the national level.  They needed humanizing and she supplied.

By tracking regional and state coverage to the degree she did, she must have known that national ratings numbers would go to the “White House first” teams of other outlets. Yet she saw where the real story was, the humanity of local medical personnel, the suffering of relatives, the true weight on our chests of this pandemic.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his DomsDomain dual culture and politics outlets.  A member of the American Theatre Critics Association at its inception, he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.