Michael Barbaro's Classist Ignorance

I know very little about Michael Barbaro, other than that he works at the New York Times and is the host of The Daily podcast. In 2018 I asked him a question while drunk at a South by Southwest day party. Not, like, personally, but during a Q&A session after his interview with, I think, Evan Smith.

My question was something about how reporting during the Trump administration was different from before (ugh, I know, I know!) and I most definitely just did it to mention that I was a journalist and the name of my outlet at the time. Anyway, that is my one Michael Barbaro anecdote that I am setting aside for the sake of saying that I think he's a classist corn-cobber who knew exactly what he meant in a tweet on Thursday that got a lot of people, including me, mad.

On Thursday morning, Barbaro tweeted a map of the U.S., colored in according to "when people stopped traveling more than two miles" during the coronavirus pandemic. The illustration was from a Times article titled, "Where America Didn’t Stay Home Even as the Virus Spread."

"In a word...The South," Barbaro captioned the map.

the south

His tweet came early in the morning, and gained traction quickly, accruing responses from many, many people who thought Barbaro's seeming indictment of the South as being selfish for not traveling less than two miles before March 26; or particularly responsible for the spread of Covid-19; or whatever other kind of judgement he meant by "the South," was misplaced at best and offensive at most.

To be clear, there are any amount of reasons why people in the South may need to travel further than two miles on any given day, including that they can't work from home, that their workplace isn't close to their home, that they don't live over by grocery stores or restaurants. I could talk about the bullshit treatment that the South undeservedly gets for hours. Governments across the South have resisted implementing shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders, which is of course not the fault of residents in such states, but it's far easier to generalize than to spare a group of people from classist, often racist, attacks, right?

Fortunately for Barbaro, and unfortunately for me, Twitter has made it extremely difficult for me to search for other people quote tweeting his now-deleted tweet. Yes, he deleted it, but not before retweeting someone telling him to delete it. Because, as we all know, you look far less like an asshole if you lean into it, and insist that you haven't been owned:

That's two words.

Here are two more: Food Deserts.

Here are two more: Delete This.

Screen Shot 2020-04-02 at 10.07.51 AM

After taking his tweet down, he replaced it with an "explanation" of why, it seems, that his audience, not he, was in the wrong.

"A lot of misinterpretation of my (not well-enough contextualized) tweet..." indeed! I did not include information, and because of that, you made a false assumption, but it is your false assumption that I will highlight, because that was your assumption and not mine. I am very smart.

It is puzzling to me that, as a professional communicator, you would feel that gesturing to this map and saying "the South" would be enough to get your point across. "No, not 'the South' as in the way that people generally mean it when they denigrate the region's people! I mean 'the South' as its governments' lack of action in enforcing stay-at-home regulations, most definitely!"

And reading the article itself, it's even more puzzling that you, a professional communicator employed by the publication that published the article, would still go on to cast the South as any sort of actor within the context of the pandemic when this article actively admits that this data might not actually mean anything, emphasis mine:

The location data, from Cuebiq, a data intelligence firm, measures the range that people travel each day. It cannot predict where outbreaks will spread, and it does not track how many interactions people had while they were traveling. Not all travel is problematic: A person driving for a few miles to pick up groceries would not be violating stay-at-home orders. And people in cities can infect others without traveling far.

But broadly higher levels of travel suggest more contact with others and more chances to spread or contract the disease, researchers said.

[...]

The coronavirus outbreak is unprecedented in scale in recent history, and it is hard to know the exact relationship between changes in travel patterns and how quickly the virus spreads. Other factors play a big role, including how quickly sick people are tested and isolated, how closely people tend to congregate — and luck.

What is even more bullshit is the fact that, according to another graphic in the same article, literally all counties without stay-at-home orders by March 27 saw a decrease in travel, even if not all of that travel met the two-mile radius standard.

Barbaro's tweeted map only works when it's on its own, implying that people in the South couldn't care less to socially distance or cut back traveling for the sake of others (this is, of course, the point I think he was making). It's misleading, and yet he still decided that it meant something about the South anyway.

It is disappointing to see journalists for huge national media outlets doing dumb shit like this, especially as this other bullshit is overtaking local news. How can one person making these tired-ass comments have so much power, while so many other journalists, who are far more competent about how their communities are experiencing the pandemic, are losing out on nearly a month of income? In six words....we fuckin' hate to see it!