Susan J. Demas: Help us tell the stories of coronavirus better

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The small militia-organized rally last week at the Capitol was a depressing affair.

Extremists dressed in ponchos (but generally without masks) carrying guns and wilting signs for the usual right-wing causes — anti-abortion, pro-gun, the Democratic governor is the same as Hitler — milled around the Capitol listening to speakers scream about conspiracy theories. Many started to leave less than an hour in and the crowd peaked at just 200.

In case you wanted to mistake these folks as regular ole patriots upset about restrictions to stop COVID-19 (as much of the corporate media coverage did), somebody showed up in Pikachu costume an assault rifle and a GOP House candidate with a violent criminal history again brought a Gov. Gretchen Whitmer doll in a noose.

Prior to the spectacle, Whitmer and Democrats were subjected to a series of online threats. The GOP-Legislature abruptly canceled session for Thursday, which seemed very reminiscent of the Oregon legislature shutting down amid militia threats last year.

“You know, the Legislature apparently didn’t want to be around for … this activity that many of them incited, frankly, and so that’s why apparently they decided not to come into work yesterday,” Whitmer told CNN Friday.

Militia-organized protest of 200 melts away at Capitol Thursday

As I was snapping photos of a President Trump doll shooting a bloody assault rifle atop a minivan, I wondered if we should even be covering this. The summer farmers market at the Capitol is a bigger draw. There are rallies of this size and larger held by immigrant rights, civil rights and economic justice groups that barely garner a blurb in many outlets, if that.

So I want to share with you, our readers, why I did write a story, even though I think you can make a compelling case that I should have ignored a small minority desperate for attention. And then I want to ask for your help on how we can do better coronavirus coverage.

The reason why I was there is that after one of our reporters, Anna Liz Nichols, was hit in the head by a gun at another right-wing protest (you may have read about it in the New York Times), I made the decision I wouldn’t send reporters to the next event for their safety. (We would find out the day after the rally that a Detroit man had been arrested earlier for threatening to kill Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel).

I ultimately decided to write a short story because I felt it was newsworthy that the Capitol was shut down, even as Republican leaders pal around with these protesters (GOP Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey just spoke at another event this week with militiamen and a woman dressed as Hitler, mustache and all). I wrote about their violent signs, someone whose ax was confiscated and a reporter who was threatened.

Susan J. Demas: Protestors threatened Whitmer’s murder. GOP leaders haven’t condemned them.

But here’s what else I wrote about, because there’s more to the story than just a few dozen angry far-right extremists. I wrote that almost 50,000 people in Michigan (at that time) were sickened in the pandemic (it’s over that now) and almost 5,000 had died in just a couple months. I included a fact-check on health issues from a Lansing doctor who also said we can’t allow a “fringe, extremist groups and corporate interests to rush Michigan to reopen or misuse junk science to fool people into a false sense of security.”

COVID-19 is still a public health issue, first and foremost, even though Republicans want it to just be a political food fight, something other media happily oblige.

Anyone who knows my approach to journalism (i.e. the 12 people in the world who care) knows I’m not a big fan of horserace reporting. But polls have consistently shown a strong majority back Whitmer and social distancing, which doesn’t necessarily come across in the onslaught of coverage of small bands of protesters. So I included the latest Washington Post-Ipsos poll showing 72% of Michigan adults support the governor’s COVID-19 response and 25% don’t.

We’ve also reported on the national campaign and funding for protests like this, which are similar to Tea Party events I covered a decade ago, and we’ll continue to dig more.

Health care workers using expired gear during pandemic and ‘hoping for the best’ 

Over the last several months at the Michigan Advance, we’ve shifted a lot of our focus to covering this pandemic and its impacts on people in Michigan, while trying to still report on important issues from Line 5 to President Trump’s anti-immigration policies.

We report the latest COVID-19 case numbers every day and those who have had the disease or passed away. We’ve done deep dives into how the disease is disproportionately ravaging African-American communities, how frontline workers are overworked, how students are learning during the school shutdown, how charities are coping, how the virus is spreading in prisons, how unemployed people are struggling to pay rent and much more.

But we can do more and do better. And we have to.

We also can’t ignore that this pandemic is made worse by institutional failures, from the federal government’s slow response to Trump pushing harmful conspiracy theories to Michigan Republicans refusing to hold remote sessions and endangering the health of everyone who works at the Capitol while doing no work on their only constitutional duty, balancing the budget.

So why wouldn’t we as journalists ask what we’re failing at, too? It’s something I think a lot about and will undoubtedly write more about in the future.

But for now, I need your help. I know there are so many more stories out there to tell.

Blacks are 40% of Michigan COVID-19 deaths. Officials want to know why.  

So if you’re one of the vast majority who have been doing the right thing and staying home, tell us why you’re doing it. As journalists, we’re trained to report on action, so the shiny object of business owners reopening and breaking the law is an easy story (and the breathless news coverage thus becomes a perverse incentive for more to do so). But staying in your house is an action, too, in these times. And your stories are rarely told, even though there are millions of you. That creates a skewed reality.

This is a hard time for nice people who aren’t hollering on the Capitol lawn. I’ve thought a lot about folks struggling right now — the closeted LGBTQ teen quarantined with an anti-gay family, kids trapped with abusive parents, emergency room doctors who can’t see their kids, homeless people who have nowhere to shelter-in-place, people grappling with depression, immigrants with coronavirus symptoms too scared to go to the doctor, grandparents missing the birth of a grandchild, cancer patients worried about going in for chemo and so many more.

Some of these stories have been told, but I want us to tell more of them. So contact us at [email protected] Of course, with a small staff, I can’t guarantee that we can cover everything (the fact that I want to is another source of journalistic angst).

But I come from the journalistic school of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. I’m asking for your help so we can live up to that.

Susan J. Demas is a 19-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.