Alex Berenson: “He was a contrarian with a big ego. He also was a talented writer.”

From a New York Times story by Media Equation columnist Ben Smith about covid contrarians:

If you’re not in Ohio, you probably haven’t heard of Jack Windsor. But you may have heard of Alex Berenson, the Twitter and Fox News figure who is as credentialed as Mr. Windsor is self-made. Mr. Berenson, a former reporter for The New York Times, pumps tirades against lockdowns, school closings and even masks into the central conversation on Twitter. His avatar shows a mask dangling mockingly from his jaw. “Masks are useless,” he had tweeted at 1:40 last Thursday morning; he was back on around 10 a.m., accusing The Atlantic of “panic porn.”

Mr. Berenson lives on a hilltop in a tony Hudson Valley town. When I went to interview him on Thursday afternoon, he opened the door without a greeting or a mask, and led me to his small bright attic study, where I wore a disposable mask (in theory for his protection, not that he was asking for it) while we shared the sweltering air for more than an hour. He stands 6-foot-4 and looks younger than his 47 years, but his mood — harried, angry and reveling in the fight — matches his voice on Twitter. When I arrived, he was in the midst of the chaos of three roving young children and two high-energy dogs.

They say that the best thing about working for The New York Times is that you get to call yourself a “former New York Times reporter” forever. Mr. Berenson trades hard on that credential. It’s the first line of his Twitter bio and his calling card on Fox News. But he earned it. He wasn’t just a Times reporter; he was a good one. . . .He was a contrarian with a big ego and some problems with authority, “a talented, bristling, swashbuckling character,” Roger Cohen, a former Times foreign editor, recalled. During an internal Times crisis in 2003, Mr. Berenson was the one who stood up at a staff meeting and asked the executive editor, Howell Raines, whether he would resign.

Mr. Berenson was also a talented writer. He left The Times in 2010, after his muscular post-9/11 spy novel, “The Faithful Spy,” had become a breakout hit. It was the first of a 12-volume series.

His career was impressive even by the standards of his group of friends, or former friends, who include elite business journalists like Andrew Ross Sorkin and David Leonhardt of The Times, Jesse Eisinger of ProPublica and Felix Salmon of Axios.

And they had always laughed off his excesses — like the time he accused the writers of “Homeland” of stealing his characters. Now, they “all wonder what he’s doing, because some of the things he’s doing are dangerous,” said another member of his circle, Craig Geller, who works in advertising.

Mr. Berenson’s road to his new cause began last fall with the book, “Tell Your Children,” which was inspired by conversations with his wife, a psychiatrist who worked with the criminally insane. The book moves from studies linking marijuana with psychosis to a broadside against the drug’s safety. Advocates of legalizing marijuana accused him of steering nuanced science to simple and unfounded conclusions. In an afterword added this February, he wrote that the book was shunned by mainstream reviewers, darkly complaining of a media “blackout.”

“When serious journalists write serious nonfiction books, they usually receive substantial coverage,” he wrote. Though his book was the subject of a major New Yorker article, “not one major newspaper reviewed it, not even the Times, where I had worked for a decade.”

Former Times journalists are often stung when their books aren’t featured, given the paper’s outsize influence on book buyers. But the reasons are often prosaic. A Times editor said the galleys arrived late, so they featured it atop the Book Review’s “New and Noteworthy” section, rather than giving it a full review. A Washington Post editor said it simply hadn’t made the cut.

By the time the coronavirus arrived, Mr. Berenson was primed to believe that public health voices and the media that covered them had been politicized — and were perhaps out to get him. Flawed early pandemic coverage set off his contrarian side. Reporters, sometimes parroting public officials, first suggested that the virus wasn’t a major threat and that people at the beach would surely spread it. They overstated how much we knew. They overhyped anecdotes.

The coverage soon flowed into the deep political grooves of American life, turning every public health measure into a partisan battle.

“It’s important to have journalists who are asking questions and who are skeptics — it’s important to have a backstop against groupthink,” said Charles Ornstein, a deputy managing editor at ProPublica and a past president of the Association of Health Care Journalists. He has drawn Mr. Berenson’s ire for an article on Houston hospitals being overwhelmed with coronavirus patients. Mr. Berenson has been dismissive not only of ProPublica’s reporting but also of Houston hospital officials’ public statements.

“Alex cherry-picks individual data points that fit his narrative that things aren’t as bad as they actually are. That’s dangerous,” Mr. Ornstein said. “Clearly, across the country, things are getting worse, but to hear Alex’s version, they’re not that bad.”

Critics sometimes play down Twitter’s importance; it’s not, the saying goes, real life. But it is the real public conversation. As Lili Loofbourow wrote on Slate, Twitter is really what we’re talking about when we talk about the toxic “climate” for debate.

And Mr. Berenson’s presence there became both Twitter at its best — wide open for an argument and information as well as putting into perspective statistics like the relatively small risk to children — and at its worst — a sneering confirmation machine, reflexively amplifying facts and claims that support a preordained conclusion. Mr. Berenson believes that the impact of the coronavirus is regrettable, mostly inevitable and overstated: That lockdowns are useless, masks don’t help and politicians are too worried about the deaths of old people who were going to die soon anyway.

Mr. Berenson plays down counterevidence — even when it is firsthand or expert. He breathlessly warned that a quarantine for visitors to New Zealand amounts to “indefinite confinement,” and stuck by the claim even after his original New Zealand source described him as “confused.” Last week, Mr. Berenson gleefully tweeted about a study he framed as discrediting mask use, and, in response, the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci accused him of spreading “misinformation.”. . .

But when you pull away from the fire and fury of Twitter, Mr. Berenson’s tirades against the media don’t explain why he finds himself standing nearly alone against most public health experts and world governments. . . .

Playing devil’s advocate works on Twitter, though, and on Fox’s powerful shows, and has helped Mr. Berenson sell more than 100,000 copies of his self-published booklet, “Unreported Truths about Covid-19 and Lockdowns.” Tesla’s founder, Elon Musk, helped shame Amazon into allowing the booklet onto its platform in June, and the two men have also discussed starting a new publication. Mr. Berenson even began preliminary conversations about hiring reporters, an associate of Mr. Berenson’s told me, but did not pursue the plan. . . .


  1. Mark Oshinskie says

    For various reasons, including extensive study of science and the mainstream media’s sensationalism, I’m confident that Berenson is not only right but–and this is a word I seldom use–heroic.

    CV’s effects have been overstated and overreacted to, chiefly for political reasons.

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