About mathewi

I'm the chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, and a former writer for Fortune magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper.

How we spent our quarantine: Teaching a lamb how to walk again

Lots of people have probably taken on projects or learned new things while quarantined with COVID0-19 — how to play the piano, how to paint, finished a novel, etc. But we had a pretty special experience, and it was special in part because we didn’t plan it at all, it just happened. It started in mid-March, when my wife Becky and I headed to the Farm (where we live now, near Buckhorn, about two hours north of Toronto) after coming back from vacation in Florida. Along with our youngest daughter Zoe, who joined us there during quarantine, we helped raise a little lamb who lost the ability to walk for some reason. Over the next couple of months, we helped teach him how to use his legs again and he wound up returning to his flock and becoming just a regular sheep. It was a lot of work at times, but it was definitely worth it. It was like living one of those Netflix specials or a Hallmark movie of the week!

Primo has a nap in Zoe’s arms

It all started because a neighbour who lives across the road near Buckhorn asked if he could use one of the fields at the Farm to raise some sheep. So he put up a little pen and put some sheep in there, and then — as they do — the ewes had lambs (this tends to happen when you put a ram in with the ewes). First it was the twins we called Pebbles and Bam Bam, whose mother we naturally named Wilma. And then one morning when we went up to the pen, there was a little voice bleating: a new little lamb, wandering around the pen looking for his mom. But his mom — Bella — was still in labour with what would eventually be two other lambs, and so she didn’t have time to pay attention to the one we called Primo. So the poor little guy wandered around trying to nurse off just about everything, including the ram — who didn’t like that much, and head-butted poor Primo a bunch of times. And then finally, Bella gave birth to Big Red, and the one we called Dopey.

This is Primo when he was about an hour old
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Life in a time of COVID-19

Update: It’s June 26th and the US just set a new record high for the number of daily coronavirus cases — more than 40,000 of them, which surpasses the previous record set in April. According to the CDC, as many as 20 million Americans may be infected, or 10 times the official estimates. There’s a debate over whether the upsurge in cases is a “second wave” or just an extension of the first wave, which the US failed to control properly, but regardless, cases are rising in more than 30 states. Just two months ago, they were rising in only four states, according to this virus-tracking site created by the co-founders of Instagram, which uses official case data.

Florida, Montana, Nevada, and Arizona are currently among the worst hit — a number of states are starting to close down some of the businesses they had previously allowed to re-open. Meanwhile, there are still people who refuse to wear masks, and medical officers in two states who tried to mandate mask-wearing received death threats and one resigned. Also of concern: Experts say younger people are now accounting for a disturbing number of new cases, and research shows that even those who recover from the virus could suffer long-term health effects.

Below is the text of my original post, which I wrote most of on or around March 20th after getting back from vacation in Florida, when the virus was just starting to become a serious problem. I updated the numbers in it multiple times over the next two months, but am leaving it here as part of the historical record of this crazy time.

The title of this post is a reference to the famous Gabriel García Márquez book “Love in a Time of Cholera.” I thought it was fitting was because it feels as though COVID-19 is our version of the cholera epidemic of the 1800s, or the Spanish flu of 1918 (which wasn’t Spanish at all, but probably originated in Kansas and was a form of H1N1) or the Black Death of the 1300’s. Those changed the way we lived forever, in thousands of small ways (as this piece argues that COVID-19 will), and I find myself wondering what it would have felt like if Twitter and Facebook and the Internet had been around during the Plague years. Would they have made fun of people wearing “plague masks” that made them look like giant birds? (Side note: Here’s the story of an Italian town that beat the plague, and how they did it).

I know for sure that if social media existed during the Middle Ages, they would have been full of posts that said things like “my sister is a doctor, and she says gargling with vinegar can cure the plague!” (one popular hoax is to promote the drinking of bleach, which as I like to point out will successfully kill the virus, but unfortunately at the cost of killing the patient as well). This past week — April 24 or so — Donald Trump mused aloud at a press conference that maybe injecting disinfectants might work. In the days that followed, hundreds of people called 911 after swallowing cleaning fluid of various kinds, but Trump said he wasn’t to blame.

I went back and looked at some email newsletters I subscribe to that I hadn’t gotten around to reading from the end of February, and none of them even mentioned the coronavirus (which was still concentrated in China, and seen as not a big threat elsewhere). It was refreshing to read them, since everything is pretty much all COVID-19 all the time now, but it also felt surreal. Those newsletters were from less than a month ago, but it felt like they were from 10 or even a hundred years ago. When I started writing this post around March 19 or so, Italy (which only had 200 cases and no deaths at the end of February) had more than 20,000 cases. As of March 27, it had more than 86,000 cases and more than 900 deaths in a single day. Bodies were piling up in churches.

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Objectivity isn’t a magic wand

Note: I originally wrote this for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

The protests over the death of George Floyd and the way they have been covered (or not covered) by newsrooms around the country has widened existing stress fractures in journalism around the topic of race. One of the things that is being called into question is the concept of objectivity. Wesley Lowery, a reporter with 60 Minutes, put some of this into words with a recent essay in the New York Times entitled “A Reckoning Over Objectivity, Led by Black Journalists.” Whatever the ideals behind objectivity might be, Lowery wrote, in practice it translates into an industry in which “the mainstream has allowed what it considers objective truth to be decided almost exclusively by white reporters and their mostly white bosses.” And it’s important to note that this not only leaves Black journalists—and other journalists of color—on the outside looking in, but also makes for worse journalism, if by journalism we mean representing the truth about the world as accurately as possible.

What qualifies as objective journalism, Lowery says, “is constructed atop a pyramid of subjective decision-making: which stories to cover, how intensely to cover those stories, which sources to seek out and include, which pieces of information are highlighted and which are downplayed.” The piece sparked a conversation on Twitter, including a response from Tom Rosenstiel, a veteran journalist and executive director of the American Press Institute, and the co-author of a classic journalism textbook called The Elements of Journalism (a book that Lowery cites approvingly in his essay). In a multi-tweet thread, Rosenstiel tried to clarify what he said were some of the historic aspects of how objectivity became an industry standard principle. The practice began as a way of injecting more scientific rigor into the practice of journalism, he says, but instead it has turned into a devotion to false balance and other elements of what journalism professor Jay Rosen calls “the view from nowhere.”

Rosenstiel is quite right that objectivity started as an attempt to make journalism more rigorous by applying the scientific method, a structure and process designed to arrive at an objective truth. But the industry probably shouldn’t congratulate itself too much on the purity of the intentions behind this change: it wasn’t just that journalists or publishers suddenly decided that objectivity would be a good thing. It was also seen as a way to make journalism more palatable to advertisers, as the consumer-focused ad industry was becoming more national in scope. Over the next 50 years or so, objectivity came to be seen as a bedrock principle of journalism, to the point where some newspaper journalists— and journalism teachers—still argue that dismantling it will kill journalism. But as Lowery points out, what qualifies as objectivity is in the eye of the beholder, and that eye is still predominantly male and white.

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Are digital giants like Facebook destructive by design?

Note: I originally wrote this for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

The most benign view of Google, Facebook, and Amazon is that any social or political disruption and turmoil these behemoths have caused is a side-effect of the beneficial services they provide, and any over-sized market power they have is the result of good old-fashioned hard work or an accident of economics and technology. But what if that’s not the case? Dipayan Ghosh is a former Facebook staffer and a former policy advisor to the Obama White House who now runs the Digital Platforms and Democracy Project at Harvard, and the author of a new book called Terms of Disservice: How Silicon Valley is Destructive by Design. Ghosh argues that these companies are monopolists, and that they engage in a wide variety of disturbing conduct — much of it involving the data of their users — not accidentally but very deliberately. “I believe that Facebook, Google, and Amazon should be seen as out-and-out monopolists that have harmed the American economy in various ways, and have the potential to do much greater harm should their implicit power go uncurbed,” Ghosh writes.

All this week, we’ve been discussing some of the themes in Ghosh’s book — including privacy, competition, algorithmic accountability, and the idea of a new social contract — in a series of roundtables hosted on Galley, CJR’s discussion platform. The Tuesday roundtable, for example, started with a one-on-one conversation about privacy with Ghosh, followed by a day-long open discussion that included Ed Felten, a professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton and a former Deputy Chief Technology Officer with the White House; Jennifer King, the director of privacy at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society; Olivier Sylvain, a professor of law at Fordham University and director of the McGannon Center for Information Research; and Jules Polonetsky, who is CEO of the Future of Privacy Forum. The question before the panel was: “Is online privacy broken, and if so what should we do about it?”

Ghosh argued that not only is online privacy broken, but the digital giants have played a key role in breaking it to their advantage, with personal data at the heart of their business model. “These firms increasingly and perpetually violate consumer privacy to serve this consistent business model by collecting personal information in an uninhibited manner,” Ghosh says. “And relatively little of that activity is properly scrutinized, resulting in the radical corporate violation of individual privacy.” One question that came up in the roundtable was why, after two decades of this digital platform model, there isn’t a federal privacy law? Ghosh says this is a result of what he calls the “privacy paradox.” Most users don’t see the privacy harm when they sign up for a free service — they get immediate gratification from connecting with friends, and only much later to do see the downsides in the form of data breaches, etc.

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