In This Episode
New U.S. cases of COVID are down slightly from the peak brought on by the Omicron variant. Average daily cases are closer to 700,000 than 800,000, which is where they were earlier in the month, and hospitalizations are at a record high but have started to level off. We look at the numbers and discuss new data on the efficacy of booster vaccine doses.
The Sarah Palin v. The New York Times libel case goes to trial today. Palin filed the suit after the New York Times suggested that an ad placed by Palin’s PAC was linked to the shooting of former Arizona Representative Gabby Giffords in 2011. We review the case and its potential to change how we think about First Amendment protections for journalists.
And in headlines: A fire in the Palo Colorado Canyon area forced hundreds of people to flee their homes along the California coast, a Saudi-led airstrike killed at least 87 people in a Yemen prison, and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern canceled her own wedding because of COVID.
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Gideon Resnick: It is Monday, January 24th. I’m Gideon Resnick.
Josie Duffy Rice: And I’m Josie Duffy Rice, and this is What A Day, where we want to make sure you’re sitting down before we tell you that Anna Kendrick and Bill Hader have been quietly dating for over a year.
Gideon Resnick: If you just crashed your car, we deeply apologize and we hope that you are getting the medical attention you need.
Josie Duffy Rice: We assume no liability for your injuries.
Gideon Resnick: On today’s show, a wildfire in Big Sur forces evacuations. Plus the prime minister of all of our hearts, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, canceled her wedding because of COVID.
Josie Duffy Rice: But first, let’s take a look at the trajectory of the pandemic in the U.S.. Dr. Anthony Fauci was on ABC’s This Week yesterday and projected some cautious optimism:
[clip of Dr. Fauci] You never want to be overconfident when you’re dealing with this virus, Martha, because it has certainly surprised us in the past, but if you look at the patterns that we’ve seen in South Africa, in the U.K. and in Israel, and that as you mentioned just a moment ago, in the Northeast and New England and Upper Midwest states, they’ve peaked and starting to come down rather sharply. There are still some states in the southern states and western states that continue to go up, but if the pattern follows the trend that we’re seeing in other places such as the Northeast, I believe that you will start to see a turnaround throughout the entire country.
Josie Duffy Rice: I will never stop loving that man’s accent. He went on to say that hopefully over the next few weeks or months, that cases could get to a point where they’re not disrupting the entire country. Can you even imagine that Gideon?
Gideon Resnick: No.
Josie Duffy Rice: I kind of can’t.
Gideon Resnick: Not at all.
Josie Duffy Rice: So can you tell us how numbers are looking right now?
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, I mean, overall, to his point, they are starting to come down from an incredibly high peak of cases. Average daily cases are now closer to 700,000 than 800,000, which is where they were earlier in the month. That, of course, is still crazy high. Hospitalizations, too, are still at a record but have started to level off. But we are once more talking about around 2,000 deaths on average a day, which is really horrific and represents where we have already been in terms of how many people have gotten sick. It is on the regional levels though throughout the country, like Fauci referenced, where public health officials are seeing some glimmers of optimism. Cases are falling, for example, pretty rapidly in places where Omicron first peaked, like New York City, Washington, D.C., for example. And the Times notes that case numbers are also declining outside of the northeast in places like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. So it’s not uniform across all states at this point. Cases are still going up in a lot of places. But what the country is sort of seeing is a trajectory that we saw in South Africa, which of course, is where the Omicron variant was first ID’s. From about mid-December, which is the peak in South Africa, cases have fallen off substantially by about 85%, so it does seem to fall pretty rapidly. It definitely remains to be seen what comes next here, though, right? Like whether this Omicron surge ultimately leads to COVID becoming more endemic or not. No one, Fauci included, wants to say, of course, which is why the best we are getting right now is a bit of cautious optimism.
Josie Duffy Rice: I will take whatever we can get right now. It’s so uneven that you can see reasons for future hope, even while hospital systems like those in Mississippi, for example, are under tremendous strain. Sticking with cautious optimism just for a moment, the CDC published some new real-world studies on vaccine boosters in the US on Friday. So can you tell us what those said?
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, I think the one that really jumped out to people was this analysis of hospitalizations from around August to early January. It showed that a third shot of either Pfizer or Moderna reduced the chance of hospitalization by 90% compared to a person who is unvaccinated. Now the flip side of that, according to the lead author of one of the reports who spoke to The Washington Post, is that people with just two shots have seen a pretty big decline in protection against Omicron, particularly if it has been around six months after the second shot. The protection against hospitalization there was just something like 57%, so a pretty big drop. The research overall did show that the booster doses gave the greatest amount of protection to older people, with booster recipients who were aged 65 and older, showing the biggest declines in severe health outcomes.
Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. And so what more do we know about who is getting boosted right now?
Gideon Resnick: It certainly seems like it’s fallen off a little bit. So the country appeared to be on a roll with administering boosters earlier this month as Omicron was really coming to dominate. But that only pushed the overall number of people who have been boosted to just under around 40%. Now, granted, some people are not eligible yet because there hasn’t been enough time since their last shot, for example. And The Post notes though, that about a third of eligible people older than 65 have not gotten one yet, and that is concerning to public health experts. Only about 4% did so this month. The more free time these wonderful retired people have at home to watch Tucker Carlson do anti-vax slam poetry, the worse it is for our fragile country—that all tracks. Some public health experts in the article, though, were optimistic that new data around booster efficacy could help in the communication efforts, but that there also should be a refining of the message to target vulnerable populations better. We will get into more of all of that soon, of course, but Josie, you add something else pretty crazy that you want to talk about.
Josie Duffy Rice: Yes, moving away from our pandemic world and towards the world of the absurd: Sarah Palin versus the New York Times. A real life libel case goes to trial today, and even though it sounds like a Tucker Carlson slam poetry segment or a sketch on Newsmax’s version of SNL, it really is actually a big deal. So this case alone has the potential to change First Amendment protections for journalists.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, everything I’ve heard about this has sort of made me a little bit uneasy for that exact fact. So can you give us the basis of this lawsuit?
Josie Duffy Rice: Sure. So it all goes back to June 2017, four and a half years ago, and also a lifetime ago in its own way.
Gideon Resnick: Yes.
Josie Duffy Rice:: The New York Times published an editorial on the day of the congressional baseball shooting, where House Representative Steve Scalise was injured, and the editorial argued that increasingly vicious political rhetoric on both sides could be encouraging violence. And in particular, the piece argued that quote, “the link to political incitement was clear” between the 2011 shooting of Gabby Giffords and a map that Palin’s political action committee had published that marked 20 congressional districts that Republicans hope to win in the next election with, quote, “stylized crosshairs.”
Gideon Resnick: Got it. And then it turns out, though, that in the incident of the Giffords shooting, there wasn’t any evidence of that link that The Times had described.
Josie Duffy Rice: Right, exactly. So New York Times definitely definitely made a mistake claiming that there was a clear link between the shooting and the map. There’s no evidence that that was the case or that the man who shot Giffords was influenced by that map whatsoever. Palin was right about that—insert the worse person you know just made a good point meme here. So the New York Times did what it should have done in the face of a mistake like this, right, it corrected it. But yet we’re here at four and a half years later still talking about this mistake.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah. And so my understanding then of this case is that the burden of proof is on Palin then, right? But what is it that she actually has to prove?
Josie Duffy Rice: So she’s bringing a libel case and in libel cases, what a plaintiff has to prove depends on whether or not they’re considered a public figure. And if they are a public figure, they have to meet a higher standard in order to win this case. So Palin has to prove more than just The New York Times was wrong, or even the New York Times was negligent, she has to prove that the paper acted with, quote, “actual malice” meaning they lied, they knew they lied, and they lied maliciously.
Gideon Resnick: Right. And all of that is an incredibly high burden of proof.
Josie Duffy Rice: Right. I mean, Sarah Palin is a real uphill battle here, for sure. The New York Times is basically saying, Look, this is an honest mistake. And she’s saying, No, it was something deeper. But still, The New York Times did make a mistake here, right? And they are the paper of record. So even though it seems that the odds of winning are somewhat in The New York Times’ favor, it’s not a situation where, you know, The Times is going to come out looking great either.
Gideon Resnick: So what else should people be thinking about in terms of this lawsuit and its implications?
Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. Well, as you may remember, Trump really wanted and talked a lot about loosening the standards around libel law so that public figures would not have to prove absolute malice, which would make it easier for them to sue outlets that get things wrong. And at least two Supreme Court justices, both Justice Gorsuch and Justice Thomas, have openly expressed interest in reconsidering that high standard as well. And it’s fair to say that this would be a really bad thing, right? I mean, of course, it’s very important to have high standards for news outlets. Misinformation is rampant. So we all have a vested interest in The New York Times and other outlets telling the truth. But removing the actual malice standard would make it so much harder for an already struggling industry to stay alive, and it would leave journalists fighting worthless lawsuit after worthless lawsuit over minor discrepancies, instead of really being able to do their job.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, there are a lot of stakes here. You know, worst case scenarios you could imagine how media could be changed in very impactful ways here. But since Palin is involved, there has to be something about this case that we can share that is also utterly insane to end on.
Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, of course. We’re talking about Sarah Palin here, right? So there’s at least one thing like that. Apparently, there are some things the Palin legal team does not want to be included as part of the case because they might cause, quote, “unfair prejudice and confusion.” In a court filing from a couple of weeks ago, her lawyers ask that two clips from Palin’s appearance on The Masked Singer be hidden from the jury. Those clips are listed as “Masked Singer Video Reveal” and “Masked Singer Video Dancing and Rapping. It is true.
Gideon Resnick: Inspiring confusion is certainly what is happening for me, I will say.
Josie Duffy Rice: We’re going to let you listen to these clips of Palin on The Masked Singer yourselves, and you can decide whether or not you think Palin’s attorneys are using expert legal judgment to try to keep these out. So keep in mind she is dressed head to toe as a pink teddy bear while she sings this song by Sir Mix-A-Lot:
[singing] “I like big butts and I cannot lie . . . “ [song continues]
Gideon Resnick: That’s her voice?
Josie Duffy Rice: That’s Sarah Palin, Gideon.
Gideon Resnick: Wow. That’s not admissible in any public venue at all where there are other humans.
Josie Duffy Rice: You know, I think post-Trump we kind of forget, but it was pretty wild that she was steps away from being vice president.
Gideon Resnick: Yep. And it could have all been in a pink teddy bear suit and singing Sir Mix-A-Lot. Wow.
Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. The line between The Masked Singer in the White House is thin and Sarah Palin walked it.
Gideon Resnick: Very thin.
Josie Duffy Rice: So that is the latest for now. We’ll follow this case and we’ll be back after some ads.
Gideon Resnick: Let’s wrap up with some headlines.
Gideon Resnick: A fire in the Palo Colorado Canyon area forced hundreds of people to flee their homes along the California coast this past weekend. The blaze, which is now being referred to as the Colorado fire, started Friday in a steep canyon and then quickly spread toward the sea. While it’s unusual for a fire to happen this time of year, the dry weather and harsh winds of up to 50 miles per hour have created the perfect conditions. Authorities closed the stretch of Highway 1, the main roadway near Big Sur on Saturday morning, and put mandatory evacuations in place between Carmel and Big Sur. And on Saturday, flames were hitting the edge of the iconic Bigsby Bridge, which you may remember from the HBO series Big Little Lies. As of yesterday, the fire was 25% contained and stretched across over 1,000 acres of land. Authorities are still investigating the cause.
Josie Duffy Rice: A Saudi-led airstrike on Friday hit a Yemen prison run by Houthi rebels, killing at least 87 people and wounding over 200. And another airstrike that day led by the same Saudi coalition hit a telecommunication center, causing a countrywide internet outage, which was ongoing in most of Yemen as of last night. The Saudis and their allies have been fighting Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels since 2015. It has created what the U.N. has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. This latest escalation comes just days after the Houthis used drones to drop bombs in Abu Dhabi, killing three people. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned both the Saudi coalition and Houthis for their attacks and said quote, “What we need is to have, as we have been proposing from long ago, a cease fire together with the opening of harbor and airports, and then the beginning of a serious dialog among the parties.” Always great to hear calls for a serious dialog in the middle of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
Gideon Resnick: Awful.
Josie Duffy Rice: Awful.
Gideon Resnick: Consumers around the globe are struggling to keep up with rapid rates of inflation as countries set new records for price increases. In the EU, prices are rising at the fastest rate since the euro itself was introduced as a form of currency—wow. The UK’s annual inflation rate was the highest it has been in 30 years, while Canadian consumers are watching prices rise at a rate twice as fast as they did before the pandemic. And here in the U.S., millions of Americans are struggling to afford basic necessities, even after receiving pay increases from their jobs. The rising prices have been attributed to supply chain disruptions, but economists say that government spending during the pandemic may also be to blame. In an effort to curb consumer spending, the Federal Reserve is planning on raising interest rates to make it harder for people to borrow funds. Tomorrow, its policymaking committee is expected to announce that these rate increases will begin in March. So if you are putting off getting that loan for that trampoline cafe that you’ve been dreaming of starting, there is truly no time like the present.
Josie Duffy Rice: As the old saying goes: always the prime minister dealing with an unprecedented viral pathogen, never the bride. On Sunday, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern revealed in a press conference that she canceled her own wedding plans in light of the most recent wave of COVID. Last month, New Zealand delayed plans of a phased reopening after reports of Omicron’s high transmissibility. And this week they raised their threat level to a red light after health authorities reported a wave of new cases. When asked by reporters how she felt about canceling her matrimony plans, Ardern simply said “such is life.” At least this way, she can be sure that something borrowed at her wedding won’t be Uncle Artie’s viral load. Now, let’s just hope we at WAD can get a full refund on the gift we bought for the happy couple, a beautiful Williams-Sonoma dining table we laser engraved to say “Boss Babe”. It wasn’t on the registry, but we really thought Jacinda would love it, you know?
Gideon Resnick: It is artfully done and it’s a commissioned piece that we were quite proud of.
Josie Duffy Rice: So maybe I’ll just have to take the Boss Babe table now, Gideon.
Gideon Resnick: The shipping would be less expensive, I will say. So that would ease my mind on that front.
Josie Duffy Rice: Honestly, everybody wins.
Gideon Resnick: Yes.
Josie Duffy Rice: Everybody wins.
Gideon Resnick: It is true. We apologize for that, Jacinda. And those are the headlines. That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, materialize a year-long celebrity relationship from thin air, and tell your friends to listen.
Josie Duffy Rice: And if you’re into reading, and not just what a sandwich used to cost like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Josie Duffy Rice.
Gideon Resnick: I’m Gideon Resnick.
[together] And will be the next one, Jacinda!
Gideon Resnick: Yes, we have multiple tables that we’ve had engraved. So don’t worry, there’s ample gifts.
Josie Duffy Rice: We have Boss Babe tables for days.
Gideon Resnick: We run a Boss Babe table business, actually. You’re the lucky recipient of all of them. What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Jazzi Marine and Raven Yamamoto are our associate producers. Our head writer is Jon Millstein, and our executive producers are Leo Duran and me, Gideon Resnick. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.