It was comforting to read in Thursday’s Times that my colleague, John Kifner, did not remember writing a story that was recreated in a current segment of Mad Men.
Kifner is 70; I am two years older. We’re not losing it, just yet.
Journalists have prodigious memories for names, faces, details, quotes. It’s what we do. I sometimes tell people that I remember exactly what was said, and stand by my version. It’s a professional skill, like picking up the spin of a curveball, or being able to write code. But we are not infallible.
A writer for Mad Men used quotes from an article by Kifner in 1966, which described protestors confronting an ad agency after high-paid jerks threw water balloons down on them.
It’s a great example of art borrowing from real life.
But Kifner,did not recall the story. He covered so many demonstrations, as a young reporter that they tend to blur, or vanish.
It can happen. Let me tell you about covering the 1993 World Series in Toronto, when I got a call in my hotel room from the Obituary desk at the Times.
Norman Vincent Peale had just died, and they were using my obit on the famous preacher and writer.
That’s nice, I said. But I never wrote one.
I had covered religion from 1976 through 1980, and could remember my two conversations with Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador in 1979, visits to the Lubavitcher center in Brooklyn, documenting the political rise of the evangelicals. But I insisted I never wrote a Peale obit.
Yes, you did, the editor said. You typed your name on the top of every page and we are in the process of transcribing it into the computer system.
They downloaded the advance obit to me, and I read it, and a few details sounded familiar. I had a vague memory of walking down Fifth Ave. and seeing the church on the west side of the street, and somehow I recalled benign weather. But other than that, the obit does not revive any other memories of my research or writing.
I bet Kifner could recite the names of guides he trusted to get him through some hot spots in wars and riots all over the world. And why the outbursts happened. We go out there and report a zillion details, and decades later we remember many of them. Just not all.
What is cool is that a contemporary script writer sees a John Kifner article from 1966, and recognizes the urgency and the truth in it.
Measuring Covid Deaths, by David Leonhardt. July 17, 2023. NYT online.
The United States has reached a milestone in the long struggle against Covid: The total number of Americans dying each day — from any cause — is no longer historically abnormal….
After three horrific years, in which Covid has killed more than one million Americans and transformed parts of daily life, the virus has turned into an ordinary illness.
The progress stems mostly from three factors:
First, about three-quarters of U.S. adults have received at least one vaccine shot.
Second, more than three-quarters of Americans have been infected with Covid, providing natural immunity from future symptoms. (About 97 percent of adults fall into at least one of those first two categories.)
Third, post-infection treatments like Paxlovid, which can reduce the severity of symptoms, became widely available last year.
“Nearly every death is preventable,” Dr. Ashish Jha, who was until recently President Biden’s top Covid adviser, told me. “We are at a point where almost everybody who’s up to date on their vaccines and gets treated if they have Covid, they rarely end up in the hospital, they almost never die.”
That is also true for most high-risk people, Jha pointed out, including older adults — like his parents, who are in their 80s — and people whose immune systems are compromised. “Even for most — not all but most —immuno-compromised people, vaccines are actually still quite effective at preventing against serious illness,” he said. “There has been a lot of bad information out there that somehow if you’re immuno-compromised that vaccines don’t work.”
That excess deaths have fallen close to zero helps make this point: If Covid were still a dire threat to large numbers of people, that would show up in the data.
One point of confusion, I think, has been the way that many Americans — including we in the media — have talked about the immuno-compromised. They are a more diverse group than casual discussion often imagines.
Most immuno-compromised people are at little additional risk from Covid — even people with serious conditions, such as multiple sclerosis or a history of many cancers. A much smaller group, such as people who have received kidney transplants or are undergoing active chemotherapy, face higher risks.
Covid’s toll, to be clear, has not fallen to zero. The C.D.C.’s main Covid webpage estimates that about 80 people per day have been dying from the virus in recent weeks, which is equal to about 1 percent of overall daily deaths.
The official number is probably an exaggeration because it includes some people who had virus when they died even though it was not the underlying cause of death. Other C.D.C. data suggests that almost one-third of official recent Covid deaths have fallen into this category. A study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases came to similar conclusions.
Dr. Shira Doron, the chief infection control officer at Tufts Medicine in Massachusetts, told me that “age is clearly the most substantial risk factor.” Covid’s victims are both older and disproportionately unvaccinated. Given the politics of vaccination, the recent victims are also disproportionately
Republican and white.
Each of these deaths is a tragedy. The deaths that were preventable — because somebody had not received available vaccines and treatments — seem particularly tragic. (Here’s a Times guide to help you think about when to get your next booster shot.)
From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.