Weekend Reading: Vaccinating the Unvaccinated, Facebook vs. the White House, Catastrophic Wildfires, and More
The best reporting and writing from the past week, and context to understand it.
There’s a lot of great journalism out there. Every week, in a format short enough that it won’t be clipped by your inbox, we aim to share some of the best, with additional context for understanding the biggest news of the day. This is a weekly digest of stories you can savor and reporting you can rely on.
‘A Recipe for Catastrophic Fire’: How an Oregon Blaze Became the Nation’s Largest
Sergio Olmos, Henry Fountain & Simon Romero, The New York Times
The Bootleg Fire continues to burn in Oregon, exhibiting behavior that veteran firefighters say they haven’t seen in 20 years. Climate change and forest management policies have contributed to the weeks-long blazes that have brought 2,300 firefighters from 30 different states.
📖 As the Bootleg Fire Burns, Locals Are Faced With the Realities of Climate Change — and Remain Skeptical — Joshua Partlow, The Washington Post: Everything is political, even wildfires.
The West has been beset by historic drought and heat waves this year exacerbated by climate change, but among the small towns that have been threatened by the Bootleg Fire — Sprague River, Beatty, Bly — there is little talk of global warming. Instead, residents vent about the federal government’s water policies and forest management. They blame liberal environmentalists for hobbling the logging industry and Mexican marijuana farmers for sucking up the area’s water.
📖 How Bad Is the Bootleg Fire? It’s Generating Its Own Weather. — Henry Fountain, The New York Times: A wildfire so big that it creates its own weather patterns is hard to comprehend, but we’ve seen it in recent history. The Carr Fire in Redding, California, in 2018 was just such a fire, and the Bootleg Fire has already burned 110,000 more acres than Carr did.
🖥️ ‘I Just Packed Up and Ran’: Bootleg Fire Continues to Spread in Southern Oregon — Catalina Gaitán, Kale Williams & Jayati Ramakrishnan, The Oregonian: There are certain stories that local outlets do much better (or at least should) than the big national outlets, and those are the human stories underneath significant newsworthy events. The Miami Herald owned the stories of those who perished in the Surfside condo collapse, and the Oregonian found a perfect subject to capture the gravity of the fire.
[Marc] Valens was planning to celebrate the ranch’s 50th anniversary this year. Instead, he and his wife will spend it cleaning up debris left behind after the fire ravaged the property, destroying what Valens spent the last five decades building.
📖 The Bootleg Fire, the Nation’s Biggest, Gives Scientists an Unexpected Experiment — NPR/The Associated Press: Forest management strategies are being criticized as the Bootleg Fire burns, but “firefighters said the flames jumped less from treetop to treetop and instead returned to the ground, where they were easier to fight, moved more slowly and did less damage to the overall forest.” In essence, it’s a real-time experiment that might yield new strategies for forest management to combat wildfires, which are only going to continue to grow in size and severity due to climate change.
🗄️ From 2020: ‘There’s Good Fire and Bad Fire.’ An Indigenous Practice May Be Key to Preventing Wildfires — Charles C. Mann, National Geographic: As counterintuitive as it might seem, the western states might be too good at fighting fires. But there’s a more proactive alternative out there. Margo Robbins, of the Yurok tribe, “co-founded the Indigenous Peoples Burn Network, a growing collaboration of Native nations, partnered with nonprofit organizations, academic researchers, and government agencies. It’s focused on a single goal: setting forests on fire.”
🗄️ From 2019: Lizzie Johnson — Longform Podcast, Longform: Johnson, now at the Washington Post, made wildfires her beat while at the San Francisco Chronicle, and she covered the Tubbs Fire, Camp Fire, and Carr Fire, as well as others.
🗄️ From 2018: Paradise Lost — Kyle Dickman, Outside: Despite all the pain and devastation wrought by wildfires, journalists never fail to capture the terror and the sorrow associated with these fearsome tragedies. This account of the 2018 Camp Fire is no exception.
🗄️ From 1992: With the Brave Young Dead — James R. Kincaid, The New York Times: The Premonition, the COVID-19 pandemic book by Michael Lewis, makes numerous references to the Mann Gulch Fire, which burned through the mountains of Montana back in 1949. Lewis uses the fire (and the techniques to fight said fire) to illustrate a larger point, but in so doing, he referenced a book called Young Men and Fire by Norman MacLean, the author of A River Runs Through It. This is the review of that book from 1992, and it’s yet more proof that wildfires and those who fight them make for wonderful writing subjects.
Treating the Unvaccinated
Dhruv Khullar, The New Yorker
The piece begins with a somewhat shocking fact, but one over 100 years old. More people died on the last day of World War I than in all of D-day in 1944, and even though an armistice agreement had been signed and declared that the war would end at 11 a.m., the final soldier’s death was recorded at 10:59 a.m.
A century later, we are again losing Americans to a war that could already have ended. Nearly all COVID-19 deaths in the United States are now avoidable. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, data suggests that more than 99 percent of COVID deaths in recent months were among Americans who weren’t fully vaccinated — a finding so extraordinary that one might question its accuracy if similar statistics weren’t being reported in study after study after study. Six months after the COVID vaccines became available, more than 40 percent of American adults have not been fully vaccinated.
📖 Vaccination in America Might Have Only One Tragic Path Forward — Daniel Engber, The Atlantic: A grim prediction that surges in cases, ICU overcrowding, and deaths are the only things that might snap the unvaccinated out of their inaction. The divide in America is made plain to see.
The problem, it’s been said, is that we live in two Americas, riven by both ideology and immunology: In blue America, vaccination rates are standing up just fine; in red America, they’re slouchy and exposed. Indeed, the latest vaccine numbers show that 17 states have now provided at least one dose to more than 60 percent of their population—and every single one of them voted for Biden in the last election. Another 16 states are struggling to reach a rate of 50 percent; all but one of those went for Donald Trump.
📖 Vaccine-Skeptical Tennesseans on Why They’re Finally Getting the Shot — Dan Kois, Slate: A short dispatch from my home state, the same city where I attended law school, a place that I can’t help but worry about. It perfectly captures the very everday-ness of reporting on the topic, where questions like “Why haven’t you gotten vaccinated yet?” have stunningly simple, sometimes nonsensical, answers.
📖 Dolly Parton Tried. But Tennessee Is Squandering a Miracle. — Margaret Renkl, The New York Times: It did not matter what even our patron saint of the Volunteer State, Dolly Parton, said: Tennesseans were just too patriotic and freedom-lovin’ to get vaccinated. Not only are state vaccination percentages abysmally low, the state fired its top vaccination expert due to political pressure. A poignant paragraph from the piece that applies to more than just those of my home state:
Remember how hopeful we were when the new COVID-19 vaccines arrived so astonishingly quickly, and were so astonishingly effective and safe? As a nation — politically, institutionally, too often personally — we’d botched almost everything about this pandemic, and we did not deserve a miracle. The miracle arrived anyway.
📖 Moderna’s Next Act Is Using mRNA vs. Flu, Zika, HIV, and Cancer — Robert Langreth, Bloomberg Businessweek: It’s easy to forget how relatively unknown Moderna was before COVID-19 made it a household name, a way of grouping and categorizing ourselves in the midst of a pandemic as if we’re on teams or something. But the first paragraph reminds the reader quickly: “A year ago, Moderna Inc. was an unprofitable company with no marketed products and a promising but totally unproven technology. None of its experimental drugs and vaccines had ever completed a large-scale trial. Experts were divided on how well the mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine it was about to enter in a Phase III trial would stack up against older, more established vaccine technologies.” The company stands to make $19 billion this year, from a billion doses of its COVID-19 vaccine, and once we collectively move beyond this pandemic, the company is betting big on its mRNA technology to solve other medical puzzles.
🎧 Do We Need a Third COVID Shot? — Michael Barbaro, The Daily: A fair question if ever there was one. Unsurprisingly, the vaccine makers say yes. But is it morally defensible, even if medically beneficial, for Americans to be considering a third shot when so much of the world hasn’t received their first?
Who’s Winning the War Between Biden and Facebook? Fox News.
Gilad Edelman, Wired
Someone’s outraged about Facebook? Hardly seems like news. Oh, that person is President Joe Biden? Well, maybe that’s a little bit noteworthy. What did he say? What?! He said that Facebook is killing people? Well, this is a whole thing now. Facebook probably tried to smooth things over, didn’t it? No? What’s that you say? It doubled-down on all the good it’s doing to help people deal with COVID-19, by saying “The facts show that Facebook is helping save lives. Period.” That’s probably super useful and productive for the public, isn’t it? Oh, right, right, right; it can’t possibly be. Are we perhaps overlooking any bad-faith actors when so intently focusing on a deserved target in Facebook? Maybe, just maybe, the folks over at Fox News?
✉️ The Biden/Facebook Fight Is Part of the Problem — Charlie Warzel, Galaxy Brain: This pretty much sums it up:
Does Facebook bear some real responsibility for our vaccine hesitancy mess? Absolutely! Is it because of specific pieces of COVID-19 anti-vax material? Probably? But the real blood on Facebook’s hands is due to its years of inaction, which allowed broader political and cultural movements to incubate inside Facebook with the help of its connection and distribution tools. Did these movements exist before/without Facebook? Yes. Did Facebook supercharge them and give their biggest grifters access to large pools of money and attention? Yes. Did Facebook allow all these disparate movements (QAnon, anti-vax, etc.) to find each other and consolidate into a more cohesive political ideology? Yep. And I’d argue that this movement-building is and was far more dangerous and potent than any individual acts of content moderation.
✉️ President Biden Goes After Facebook — Casey Newton, Platformer: Newton knows that the finger-pointing from both sides of the Facebook vs. White House debate represents a false binary. He’s got a potential solution (albeit one facing a serious hurdle):
One thing that might help us get out of this false binary is data — empirical evidence of how much good and bad information has been published on Facebook, and by whom, and how many people saw it, and the degree to which Facebook amplified it. Whatever their differences, both Facebook executives and Biden administration officials think of themselves as empiricists, and these facts are not unknowable. Except they are, because for the most part Facebook doesn’t share them.
🎧 Facebook vs. the White House — Michael Barbaro, The Daily
🎧 Reporters Reveal ‘Ugly Truth’ of How Facebook Enables Hate Groups and Disinformation — Terry Gross, Fresh Air: The exact point that Warzel and so many others are making in response to the Facebook vs. White House debate: The issue is much bigger than Facebook’s handling of COVID-19 disinformation. An in-depth discussion between Terry Gross and the authors of An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination, Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang.
🎧 Just 12 People Are Behind Most Vaccine Hoaxes on Social Media, Research Shows, Shannon Bond, All Things Considered: Just a truly gobsmacking statistic: 12 people are responsible for 65 percent of COVID-19 vaccine disinformation.
The 2021 Olympics Are Turning Into a $20 Billion Bust for Japan
Alastair Gale, Miho Inada & Rachel Bachman, The Wall Street Journal
A sobering look at Japan’s hopefulness and preparations and investments seemingly squandered in slow motion as the Olympic Games kicked off officially on Friday. The games were supposed to be the announcement that Japan had recovered from the 2011 tsunami that killed almost 20,000 people, but instead, weeks before the games began, Japan went into a state of emergency due to COVID-19. Now the Olympic Games will be but a shadow of themselves, and for one more reason, the world mourns.
🎧 Toyota and Other Big Olympics Sponsors Are Downplaying Their Ties to the Games — Anthony Kuhn, NPR: In a particularly humbling move, some of Japan’s biggest corporations and sponsors of the Tokyo Games are, in the last minutes before the Games begin, pulling advertisements in Japan because public support for them is so incredibly low.
📖 Let the Games … Be Gone? — John Branch, The New York Times: The introductory anecdote about a marathon course shows the “can’t-catch-a-break” nature of these Olympic Games:
Among them was this project, resurfacing the 26.2-mile marathon course with a shiny, reflective coating meant to bounce the heat away. It was a small expense for an event that would cost billions, and officials were not entirely sure it would do much good. But inch by inch, with large machines making whooshing noises over several hot August nights, the marathon course was unveiled in a silvery stripe. Two months later, officials moved the marathon course 500 miles north to Sapporo, which has cooler weather. Left behind was the meandering stripe through central Tokyo, a marker of regrettable ideas.
📖 With Tokyo 2020 Overshadowed by COVID-19, Athletes Are Left to Bring Light to Troubled Olympics — George Ramsay, CNN: Bad luck continues for the Tokyo Games, with the city logging 1,979 new COVID-19 cases, the highest since January 15th, and 91 positive cases for people associated with the Games, as of Thursday.
🎧 The Welcome to the Coronavirus Games Edition — Joel Anderson, Stefan Fatsis, Josh Levin & Motoko Rich, Hang Up and Listen: A discussion with the New York Times’ Tokyo bureau chief about the run-up to the Games and the recent increase in positive COVID-19 cases.
More of Our Favorites From the Past Week
His Name Was Emmett Till — Wright Thompson, The Atlantic
The Day the Good Internet Died — Katie Baker, The Ringer
What ‘Ted Lasso’ Taught Us About Abuse, Recovery, and the Pitfalls of Revenge — Alex McDaniel, For the Win
The Truth Behind the Amazon Mystery Seeds — Chris Heath, The Atlantic
On the Trail of a Mysterious, Pseudonymous Author — Adam Dalva, The New Yorker
Why People Are So Awful Online — Roxanne Gay, The New York Times
The news doesn’t stop. If you checked out last week’s edition and found the topics interesting, here’s a collection of stories published since.
Critical Race Theory
📖 History as End — Matthew Karp, Harper’s
📖 Texas Republicans Seek to Expand Restrictions on Teaching About Racism to Any Subject — María Méndez, The Austin American-Statesman
📖 The Ethics of a Deepfake Anthony Bourdain Voice — Helen Rosner, The New Yorker
This week, elsewhere on The Postscript.
A guide for journalists and documentarians that calls for ongoing informed consent, collaborative decision-making, and psycho-education for all involved.
Stories That Matter: How a South Indian Island's Community Radio Station Saved Lives During Cyclone Gaja
India’s islands battle worsening cyclones and the effects of climate change every year. Sibi Arasu’s story on Kadal Osai shows how local media can keep residents safe from natural disasters.