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Former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson, who has become one of the most well-known voices pushing back against the strategy of mass lockdowns to fend off the coronavirus, clashed this week with a VICE writer when a request for a Q&A devolved into a public spat.
Berenson has for weeks been challenging the narrative being put forward by health officials and politicians that the U.S. needed to shutter much of daily life with a mix of social distancing and mandatory government restrictions.
Posting on Twitter, he switches between careful analysis of data and statistics that he says shows that coronavirus modeling exaggerated the threat of the virus, and frustration at those who he brands part of “Team Apocalypse.”
“Seems increasingly clear the people who have been so terribly, hysterically wrong about this – more wrong by the day – are not going to admit their mistakes, much less ask for forgiveness for the damage they’ve done,” he tweeted this week. “They’re just going to yell ‘The lockdowns worked.’”
It isn’t his first time challenging a popular and mainstream narrative. In 2019, he published “Tell Your Children The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence,” which caused significant controversy by challenging prevailing narratives on the alleged harmlessness of marijuana.
Laura Wagner, also, is not one to shy away from a fight. Before writing for VICE, where she recently described former President Barack Obama as “a Netflix-deal-having dude whose stimulus plan sold out ordinary people during the last recession so that banks could give their executives billions of dollars in bonuses,” she worked for Deadspin — a sports blog that frequently tapped into politics and other beats.
There she became known for acidic and gloves-off reporting on the sports world, athletes, and sports media. “MLB Advanced Media Made Billions For Baseball, Chewed Up Its Employees, And Spit Them Out,” read one of Wagner’s investigations.
After Deadspin was taken over by G/O Media. Wagner then published a highly critical deep dive into CEO Jim Spanfeller called, “This Is How Things Work Now at G/O Media.” When the company fired Deadspin’s editor for refusing to keep to a mandate to “stick to sports,” Wagner quit, along with a number of other staffers.
So when she reached out to Berenson for an interview on his claims about the coronavirus response, sparks were likely to fly.
According to emails published online by both journalists, Wagner requested a “straightforward Q&A” with some follow up questions. Berenson wrote back saying he was short on time but was OK with a Q&A but “only on the condition you don’t do it Chotiner-style and annotate or second-guess me after I have answered (in other words, it would have to be the equivalent of a live on-air interview.)
“You ask, I answer, that’s the end of it,” he said.
Wagner sent over 12 questions (although she has since said she did not agree to an interview that excluded follow-ups) and Berenson responded at length.
Those questions include standard interview questions such as “What is happening with the COVID crisis, in your view?” Berenson responded by saying that while the virus poses a “serious threat” to some populations like the elderly, its risks are “overstated” and “the draconian lockdowns we have undertaken may have economic, educational and societal effects far more serious than the virus.”
Wagner also asked: “If you were in charge of the U.S. coronavirus response, what would you do?”
Berenson responded: “Outside New York City, I would reopen schools as soon as possible. Children and teens are at effectively zero risk here and to punish them by denying them school and in some cases forcing them to stay home with abusive parents is deeply counterproductive.”
After the response, Wagner sent back a flood of more than 30 additional questions, a number of which would have required lengthy answers. The questions ranged from questions about a German study on antibody tests to whether he supports “for-profit healthcare” and what he thought of protests in Michigan “during which people wore Trump paraphernalia and at least several bore confederate flags?”
Alex Berenson is challenging narratives about the coronavirus response.
Berenson drew a line: “Sorry not what we agreed to. Run it as is with the original questions and answers or kill it.” Wagner responded by saying “there are obviously going to be followups in an interview.”
Berenson responded by publishing the entire email exchange on Twitter.
Hours later, VICE published Wagner’s article: “Here Are the Questions the Right’s Favorite Coronavirus Truther Isn’t Willing to Answer” in which she called Berenson a “coronavirus truther.”
“Alex Berenson prefers not to be fact-checked” read the subhead.
The spat continued on Twitter, with Wagner mocking a typo in one of Berenson’s tweets, and rejected his claim that she asked a whole new set of questions: “Or as reporters call it, ‘following up’”
Berenson didn’t respond, but appeared to question the description of him as a “truther.”
“Is anything more Orwellian than the fact that media types now think the words ‘truther’ and ‘skeptic’ are insults?” he tweeted.
The spat between the two reporters is representative of a growing and often-emotional debate in the country at large, where a growing number of voices are expressing concern — and even outrage — at the lockdown strategy that has crippled the U.S. economy, and are questioning whether it is effective.
Meanwhile those — including a number of state governors — who back strict lockdowns are warning that any premature ending of social distancing could lead to more deaths and economic damage if it unleashes a “second wave” of the virus.