Letters to the editor

If we inadvertently led readers to believe that keeping canned food in the basement, in and of itself, would offer a shield against the flu, we apologize for the confusion. We were simply trying to add a practical dimension to the often-heard suggestion, one that Markel himself made, that social isolation can help to slow the transmission of flu.

Nonpharmaceutical interventions should not be the only measures used during a pandemic. Our article merely argues that we have historically erred in assuming that what seems obvious must be true. We call for a reasoned, fact-based examination of what works and what doesn’t.

Hitchens’s Cheap Shots

I usually admire Christopher Hitchens’s insights. But his misguided critique of political humorists (“Cheap Laughs,” October Atlantic) was surprisingly ill-informed. As a literary critic, Hitchens is unequaled. But does the man even have a television?

Garrett Eisler
Kew Gardens, N.Y.

Judging the work of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on the basis of their books, as Christopher Hitchens does, is a little like judging the artistic abilities of John Lennon on the basis of his drawings and published writings. Yeah, they’re not great. But you’re kinda missing a little something.

The reason regular viewers of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report remain so loyal to the hosts is because they can clearly sense that beneath the jokes beats a genuine, unironic heart, an unshakable belief shared by both men that there really are “better angels of our nature:” honesty, integrity, intelligence, compassion. And when the political world falls short of those ideals—as it so often does—sometimes the only sane thing you can do is laugh.

Nancy Banks Costenoble
Port Washington, N.Y.

Jon Stewart is not the most trusted journalist in America because of his skills as a comedian. He is the most trusted journalist in America because he is not cowed—unlike seemingly all actual journalists—by the threat of interview subjects’ restricting access. He questions assertions. He points out absurdity where it exists. And he has not publicly exposed himself as a liar or a hypocrite. This is admittedly the bare basics of journalism, and one would hope it took more than simple journalistic blocking and tackling to become our most trusted practitioner. That it doesn’t is a very serious problem for all of us.

Rob Zwiebach
San Mateo, Calif.

Advocacy Journalism

Mark Bowden has always struck me as one of the few straight shooters left in American journalism. In “The Story Behind the Story” (October Atlantic), he makes an eloquent plea for the return of objective truth-seeking in journalism. I share his desire for less political conviction and more curiosity in newspapers and the blogosphere. But when he offers only misguided anti-Obama bloggers as examples of the problem he laments—with neither a single example of advocacy dressed as reporting on the other side nor a serious effort to examine the media biases that drive his blogger subjects to do what they do—isn’t he doing exactly what he complains about?

Robert Schwartz
Boxford, Mass.

Two points: one, advocacy journalism would not happen if the public didn’t want it. It is the result of freedom in the marketplace of ideas, both good and bad. Mark Bowden will simply have to change the TV channel. Two, can there be journalism without advocacy? Not really. E. B. White put it well: “I have never seen a piece of writing, political or nonpolitical, that doesn’t have a slant. It slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular.” Bowden leans, so do I.

Ronald L. Trowbridge, Ph.D.
Conroe, Texas

Mark Bowden replies:

As I noted in the essay, liberal bloggers and TV advocates do the same thing as their conservative counterparts. My choice of a conservative example resulted from my appearance on Hannity, and the questions it provoked. The point was not that one side or the other is more at fault, but that real journalism is vanishing in the crossfire. I agree with both Ronald Trowbridge and E. B. White, but would argue there is a substantial difference between the “lean” of a journalist whose work is inescapably colored by his experience and values no matter how hard he labors to be fair, and the “lean” of someone engaged in political advocacy, which is more of a leap.

The Health-Care Debate

As a Canadian, I just shook my head at David Goldhill’s article (“How American Health Care Killed My Father,” September Atlantic). Canada and western Europe pay significantly less for their health care and have much better outcomes. The reason: socialized medicine. As Mr. Goldhill said, “Our nation’s health-care bill is too big to be paid by anyone other than all of us.”

Now, I know I’m not supposed to use a word like socialized when conversing with Americans if I don’t want them to run for cover screaming “The Commies are coming,” and I know I should soft-sell it by speaking of “single-payer systems.” But if there is ever to be a reasoned debate regarding health-care reform in America, certain truths have to be faced up to. In Western democracies, a socialized or collective approach to health care simply works better—that’s why everybody (except America) uses this approach.

As for Mr. Goldhill’s great faith in the brilliance of American capitalism, all those in favor of having your health care provided by GM, Chrysler, Lehman Brothers, Freddie Mac, and Fannie Mae, raise your hands.

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