The notion that journalism is the first rough-draft of history seems to have originated, at least as a phrase, with the editorial board of The Washington Post in the early 1940s. You can see the appeal for journalists at least: There is a certain humility – or if you are disposed to be unkind to the ink-stained wretches, a certain false humility – in saying our work is rough, unfinished, a quick stab; which is true. At the same time, we make some claim to writing history, which is mostly false. We may frame it first, but we are not generally considered primary sources by historians (although the ways we get things wrong often are a rich subject for them).
Yet we persist, doing our best when we can to create a record which serves all sorts of people, including voters and politicians, as near to the present as we can remain. Rather than updating our work, we go on to the next thing and the next, like flibbertigibbets with short attention spans, but with some notable exceptions.
Almost a month ago, we expressed our concern that Gov. Polis’ administration seemed to be stymieing requests for pandemic information by charging state news media as much as $1,770 for access to public records that ought to be free or not carry a prohibitive cost.
On Monday, when we took a gander at Colorado Public Radio’s ambitious new project, “How Colorado caught COVID-19,” in its web iteration and scrolled deep, deep to the end (apparently it would be 22 pages if we printed it), we found this editor’s note: “This story is based on records from the governor’s office, (the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment) and local public health agencies in El Paso, Summit and Eagle counties. The agencies charged CPR News a total of approximately $2,000 for searching, processing and redacting those records to remove references to personal health histories. The records were supplemented with more than a dozen interviews of officials in those agencies and national experts.”
We cannot say whether it was fair to charge CPR News so much but we are glad CPR could pay it, because the result, in a classic case of burying the lead, is a sensational piece of work. In a narrative that takes one from “early warnings” to “pivotal weeks” and beyond, CPR lays out a detailed case that Colorado was slow to prepare for the pandemic and that the state’s response was often confused or incoherent owing to a fragmented public health system, which led to a loss of trust in the state’s ability to coordinate it.
Additionally, Colorado’s state lab was overwhelmed, taking up to 10 days to turn around test results in early March, to the governor’s frustration. And not just his: “In text messages on March 5, county officials mocked Polis’ claimed testing capacity of 160 tests a day as CDPHE struggled to handle half that many in a day.”
And, “As the virus approached, the state made no effort to secure additional protective equipment for first responders, health care workers, hospitals or nursing homes. The lack of masks, gloves and gowns, and the competition for supplies with other states and the federal government would become an important issue as the number of cases grew.”
Moreover, contract tracing of patients in some counties was abandoned early on amid hours lost to poor communication, essentially ending efforts at containment before they began “despite the emphasis placed on tracing by state health officials. Instead, slowing the virus through extreme social distancing orders became the focus.”
These are not Colorado’s problems alone, we strongly suspect, but they nevertheless are ours – and CPR has built a template of what not to do next time, assuming there is one.