Chuck, Jake crash and burn: You really have to hand it to this morning's Washington Post.
In this morning's featured report, right at the top of page A1, three journalists start with an insight they claim to have gained from watching Dr. Deborah Birx speaking with Chuck Todd.
Yesterday, Birx was interviewed on Meet the Press, but also on CNN's State of the Union. The public was treated to two of the most god-awful interviews we've ever seen.
The answers were virtually non-existent, but the questions were frequently terrible. Consider the kabuki which resulted from the first things Todd and Birx said.
As you know, we love our old pal Chuck, but his first question wasn't the best. Much more awful was Birx's "reply." The first Q-and-A went like this:
TODD (4/26/20): Let me start with the issue of reopening. And that is, the four states right now that are doing some phase of it, none of these four states are meeting the guidelines that you laid out about ten days ago of what these phased reopenings would look like, what metrics each state should be looking for before they begin this.How concerned is Dr. Birx? Dr. Birx didn't say!
This wasn't a mandate. They were guidelines, I grant you that. How concerned are you that we are up to four states not following these federal guidelines?
BIRX: We put out the gating criteria to be very clear about what epidemiologic pieces we thought were critical, what health care delivery pieces we thought were critical, and what surveillance and monitoring pieces were critical. And we still believe strongly that those are the best public health recommendations to every state and every governor to follow.
As a matter of fact, she didn't say if she's concerned at all! Chuck decided to give it another try:
TODD (continuing directly): Would you advise any one of these states that have reopened right now, Georgia, South Carolina, Alaska, Oklahoma to be reopening right now?Would she advise those states to reopen? Dr. Birx didn't say!
BIRX: Well, each state is different. And the reason we made the guidelines and gating criteria very specific was also—and I'm sure a lot of people have missed the asterisk that said to look not only statewide, but also county by county. And I have been very struck by how different the outbreaks are from the metro regions, to the rural regions, to the county regions. And that's why we look at things in a very granular way and governors should be doing the same because there are areas of every state that are much more stable and much more spared this epidemic than other areas of states.
She did say, as she rambled on, that the situations are very different, county by county, in different parts of these states. For that reason, governors should be "look[ing] at things in a very granular way."
That was an interesting, somewhat surprising answer to a question she hadn't been asked. With respect to the question she had been asked, consider the state of Georgia, which has received the most attention among these four reopening states.
In Georgia, Governor Kemp hasn't seemed to look at things in a very granular way. His plan doesn't follow the administration's guidelines, and Kemp specifically said that mayors and other local officials won't be allowed to maintain closures which differ from his statewide decree.
In that sense, the Georgia governor wasn't taking the granular approach Dr. Birx was recommending, but Chuck didn't mention this fact. He did make a somewhat imprecise third try at getting an answer to his general question:
TODD (continuing directly): Are you concerned though that if you have already four states not following the guidelines that you laid out, more states appear to be ready to possibly do that as well, that we end up losing all the ground that we’ve gained over the last six weeks?For our money, that was the best question Chuck had asked. For one thing, he didn't make a presumption by asking how much Dr. Birx was concerned. In this case, he simply asked if she was concerned at all.
If various states don't follow the guidelines, could we lose the ground we've gained over the past six weeks? Presumably, Chuck was asking if infection rates and death rates might shoot back up or might fail to decline.
Stated clearly, that's a very basic question. Rambling around the countryside, Dr. Birx responded with this:
BIRX (continuing directly): I've had really very good conversations with a series of governors. And they have really been very insightful of how they are looking at this. They understand the risk. And they talk about this not as turning on a light switch, but slowly turning up the dimmer. Very slowly. And each, each—that is why these are in phases. And each phase carries a very specific piece. And to all the American people, please read those phases because it was very clear that if you have preexisting conditions or you're the elderly with preexisting conditions and have risk factors, we strongly recommended that you continue to shelter in place and continue to be protected and continue to follow all the guidelines. And anybody that you interact with, ensure that they're also following the guidelines very carefully.Is Dr. Birx concerned that we might lose the ground we've gained? Might infection and death rates start going up if states ignore the guidelines?
Dr. Birx didn't say! Instead, she rambled on about how insightful an unspecified number of governors are. Also, we the people should be sure to read the phases, whatever the heck they are.
Meanwhile, but how about the governors who aren't following the guidelines? How concerned is Birx about them?
Chuck had tried to ask three times. Each time, Birx didn't say.
Chuck's next question went like this. By now, the analysts were crying:
TODD (continuing directly): Well, now that actually gets me to my next topic with you, and that is the issue of testing. I’d actually, instead of me asking the question, I'd like to get you to respond to Bill Gates. Here is what he said to a colleague of mine yesterday on the testing issue.How would Birx respond to Gates? That sounds like a reasonable question. But what had Gates actually said?
GATES (videotape): Of all the things I am most surprised about the federal government response, the unwillingness to get involved in test prioritization is the most amazing. We have 330 million people and our testing capacity is under 200,000 a day.
TODD: Dr. Birx, I know you have had your own—you’ve worked with the Gates Foundation in the past, so I should set that aside there a second. How would you respond to him?
Gates seemed to be saying that we aren't doing sufficient testing. But is that what he actually meant?
The clumsy phrase, "test prioritization," made his comment hard to parse. Meanwhile, a million people have said by now that we aren't doing sufficient testing. If that's what Chuck was asking about, it should have been an amazingly easy question to ask.
Whatever! Chuck proceeded to ask two more questions, three in all, which seemed to be about insufficient testing. Birx's first two responses were long, technocratic and barely coherent. The third Q-and-A in the series went like this:
TODD: So essentially what you’re saying is we don’t have—you don’t think we have the capacity to ramp up the testing you would like because we need this—we basically need a breakthrough for easier testing?"RNA-type testing?" Is that the "nucleic acid testing" Birx had rambled on about in her (much longer) two previous statements?
BIRX: No, I think we have other technology that we think can come online within the next two to three weeks. That will be a breakthrough in the RNA-type testing. But I think also, just for ease of use, finding out how we can do antigen-type testing like they do with flu. It can be used as a screening test. And then you could do the actual RNA testing for a confirmatory test. Just allows you to screen large numbers of individuals quickly.
Things were getting murky. In her previous statement, Birx had said that "we really need to move into antigen testing" without explaining what that type of testing is, or how it differs from the "nucleic acid testing" she'd already mentioned.
Now we were on to "antigen testing." All in all, Birx's three answers about testing were about as clear as mud.
After that, Chuck asked this:
TODD (continuing directly): The vice president on Friday said that by Memorial Day—in fact, I want to read the quote exactly here—that, by Memorial Day, the epidemic, “I think honestly, if you look at the trends today, that I think by Memorial Day Weekend we'll largely have this coronavirus epidemic behind us." This Memorial Day, 2020? Is that realistic, that it is behind us? Can you explain what he means by that?"Can you explain what he means by that?" By adding that unnecessary second question, Chuck was practically asking Birx to create a version of Pence's remark which seemed to make good sense.
In fairness, Pence's sunny, perhaps delusional statement was somewhat vague. But the obvious question would have been this:
Do you agree with Pence's statement? Do you believe this pandemic will be largely behind us by the end of May? Full stop!
We don't know what Birx would have said in response to that direct question. Below, you see the bafflegab Chuck's actual question produced:
BIRX: I think he means that in the models and in tracking our actual data—because previously, we were using models based on data from around the world. And now, we are very much tracking every single outbreak in the United States separately. And if you look at those outbreaks over time, and you look at places like Louisiana, if you look at Houston, if you look at Detroit, and you look at how they have reached their peak and come down, and what those cases look like as they come down, it gives us great hope when you project out Boston and Chicago and certainly, the New York Metro which we are all very still focused on. I mean, they still have 45% or so of the entire cases in the United States, and the majority, about 40 to 50% of the mortalities.Will the pandemic largely be behind us by the end of May? That seemed to be what Chuck was asking.
So we continue to watch this very closely. But that is where the projections take us. And it is very much based on Detroit, Louisiana and other groups. And then looking at Seattle, that never really reached a peak and has never really had a large outbreak. And trying to understand what we can do as a people to ensure—social distancing will be with us through the summer to really ensure that we protect one another as we move through these phases.
Did Dr. Birx answer that question? We have no idea! Heroically, though, the Washington Post took today's lede from that rambling answer.
We'll have social distancing through the summer! That's the absurdly obvious statement around which the Post built its front-page report. "Social distancing could last months, White House coronavirus coordinator says." So the newspaper's online headline says.
The word "through" is somewhat ambiguous there. But that turned out to be the deathless remark which tops the Post's front page.
For all we know, Dr. Birx may be giving sound advice behind the scenes. But as a public explainer, she's a total disaster, a rambling wreck, and has been for some time.
Things went no better on CNN, with Jake Tapper forming the questions. Concerning Chuck and Jake, we would say this:
Neither fellow seemed to know when his questions weren't being answered. If they knew, they weren't prepared to do what a questioner should:
They weren't prepared to start with a cogent question, then simply state the question again if it hasn't been answered. All through yesterday's interviews, the moderators and the doctor seemed to be speaking different languages.
We thought about the later Wittgenstein as we watched. Repeatedly, Chuck and Jake didn't seem to recognize when nothing coherent was being offered in response to their somewhat fuzzy questions. Incoherence from Dr. Birx seemed like a cultural given.
The later Wittgenstein seemed to say that western philosophy, at its highest end, is shot through with such acts of incoherence and incomprehension—with major figures who don't recognize that their own difficult statements make no discernible sense.
The people inq uestion are regarded as giants. But their statements made no sense, and they couldn't tell!
That's what we thought of as we watched. But we have decided to hold those reports for a later day.
Final thought for today: Stalking the wild asparagus was almost certainly easier than attempting to get an actual answer from the highly elusive Birx.