At one point during The Daily’s February 27 podcast, Michael Barbaro asked his guest and New York Times colleague, Donald G. McNeil Jr., how many epidemics he’d covered.
“SARS, MERS, bird flu, 2009 swine flu, Zika,” McNeil began. “Dengue and chikungunya didn’t really become epidemics. And also I’ve covered H.I.V., although that started long before my time as a health reporter. And seasonal flu. Have I forgotten anything? That’s enough, right?”
Apparently not. McNeil, “a science and health reporter specializing in plagues and pestilences,” according to The New York Times’s Web site, has become the go-to science journalist for un-sugarcoated coronavirus coverage, an Eeyore of the moment. More than that: McNeil has morphed into an unlikely pandemic sex symbol, judging from anecdotal reactions to his appearances on MSNBC—“I’d much rather be isolating with Don than my husband,” said one woman I know—where the twice-divorced, bespectacled, wonky reporter is sometimes called upon to give us the grim latest. If escapism is one antidote to the surreal nightmare we’re living, then McNeil’s essential dispatches are the antidote to the antidote. You will learn a lot, and then you will crawl weakly to wherever it is you keep that cocktail shaker, and reach for it with trembling fingers.
McNeil has become the go-to science journalist for un-sugarcoated coronavirus coverage, an Eeyore of the moment.
Still, as Barbaro put it to McNeil in another Daily conversation two months later, “we have come to you at just about every turn in this pandemic to understand what’s next, and the portraits of the future that you have painted for us each time we talk have been strikingly accurate.”
“Well, look, I’m not some dark angel who’s simply looking into the future.”
He’s being too modest.
The point here isn’t to tag McNeil with a “Doomsday Don” label—oops, too late—but rather to show our appreciation for what he’s been doing, and urge him on. Especially after his employer felt that recently he went “too far” in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, in which he called Vice President Pence “a sycophant,” said that the U.S.’s chaotic response is “the president’s fault, it is not China’s fault,” and suggested the “incompetent” C.D.C. chief, Robert Redfield, should resign. The New York Times noted that while McNeil’s “editors have discussed the issue with him,” they remained “confident that his reporting … has remained scrupulously fair and accurate.”
In any event, there’s the work itself. This particular chapter of the plagues-and-pestilences phase of McNeil’s career—the San Francisco native has also been a foreign correspondent, editor, and theater columnist—appears to have begun, quietly enough, on January 8, with a co-bylined article carrying the headline China Identifies New Virus Causing Pneumonialike Illness. Readers were told that “there is no evidence that the new virus is readily spread by humans, which would make it particularly dangerous, and it has not been tied to any deaths.” A few weeks later, though, came this: “Even though there are only five cases of Wuhan coronavirus in the United States, the mask hoarding has begun.”
He called Vice President Pence “a sycophant” and said that the U.S.’s chaotic response is “the president’s fault, it is not China’s fault.”
On January 30, McNeil co-authored a piece headlined W.H.O. Declares Global Emergency as Wuhan Coronavirus Spreads (“The situation is grave”), and three days later wrote that it was starting to look like a pandemic. Another sobering report on the virus’s spread proved to be just a warmup for the February 28 Sunday Review: a “news analysis” essay; that is to say, McNeil Unshackled.
“There are two ways to fight epidemics: the medieval and the modern,” McNeil wrote that weekend. “The modern way is to surrender to the power of the pathogens.... The medieval way, inherited from the era of the Black Death, is brutal: Close the borders, quarantine the ships, pen terrified citizens up inside their poisoned cities.”
He went on to describe “the iron fist instead of the latex glove,” gave historical examples of “choosing brutality over freedom,” warned that “stark choices will arise,” yet somehow ended on an upbeat note: “With luck, the extra time that China bought us by falling on its viral grenade will help produce a treatment or a vaccine. The threat will subside and reporters like me will be accused of alarmism.”
March saw the virus’s spread chronicled in additional McNeil pieces, which culminated in the depressing The U.S. Now Leads the World in Confirmed Coronavirus Cases. McNeil’s must-read magnum opus was still to come, however: on April 18, The Coronavirus in America: The Year Ahead appeared, and a nation clutched devices and copies of The New York Times’s Sunday edition in its collective sweaty palm while processing the author’s “gloomy forecasts” and “significant concerns.”
McNeil himself is not immune, as it were, to the fears stirred up by his own reporting. “I always have about a month’s worth of food in the basement, because that’s the kind of person I am,” he told The Daily. During another appearance on the podcast, he admitted to carrying Purell in his pocket and wearing one glove “like kind of an aging, completely unfunky, white Michael Jackson imitator. And I disinfect the glove as soon as I get a chance to.”
“I always have about a month’s worth of food in the basement, because that’s the kind of person I am.”
At The New York Times, McNeil is known as talented, loquacious, and outspoken, particularly when it comes to matters of the Guild—he’s not afraid to tell the brass what he thinks. According to John Schwartz, who was a science-desk colleague of his for years, it’s the combination of McNeil’s scientific knowledge and his experience as a foreign correspondent—plus “a Rolodex to die for”—that make him indispensable right now: “These are his moments, and he works himself to a nub during any pandemic.”
McNeil is also at the brainiac center of a lunchtime group—mostly science reporters, but journalists from metro, culture, and business as well—that occasionally gathers (or did) in the paper’s 14th-floor cafeteria. “He’s a great storyteller,” notes Schwartz, “though when he gets on tropical diseases I sometimes have to remind him that we are eating.”
McNeil has not replied to an invitation to comment, but a recent appearance on NPR’s Fresh Air offers a window on his current thinking.
“We’re really not responding to this in a rational way,” he told the host, Dave Davies. “And the model is there. We’re reluctant to follow China, but they did it,” estimating that China may have saved 10 million lives. He also speculated that we might eventually see “the immune elite, a whole new class of X-Men in this country.... It’s going to be a weird dystopian world of two classes, the immunes and the vulnerables.”
Sigh. Still: “I hope that a lot of things will change for the better.... [That people will] take more pleasure in the simple things in life, and feel lucky that they got through this.” At which point—and it’s on tape—Donald McNeil declared himself “relatively optimistic.”
George Kalogerakis is a Writer at Large for Air Mail