Nothing to Fear but Swine Flu News

24-hour cable and the art of overstatement


By William F. Walker, The Friendly Curmudgeon  


In 1983, ABC televised The Day After, a rather heavy-handed propaganda piece about nuclear Armageddon, in reaction to Reagan’s defense policies. During the panel discussion that followed, one of the participants astutely opined that “scaring ourselves to death” was probably not the most effective way to formulate government policy.

Lately, the media have had another go at fomenting unwarranted public fear, this time driven not by politics but by the need to fill hours and hours of news programming with what, in reality, are minutes and minutes of actual news. The Swine Flu pandemic story has attracted the usual journalistic suspects who: 1) never want to waste a good catastrophe (no matter how un-catastrophic), using it as a platform for espousing everything from razor wire border fences to national health care, and 2) certainly don’t want the facts to get in the way of a good story.

But the facts are there for anyone who is seriously interested in reporting on communicable disease: Every month, year in, year out, upwards of three thousand Americans die of one or another flu virus. Depending on the strain, it is the very young, the very old, the very feeble, and those with compromised immune systems who succumb.

Typically, those deaths don’t get much, if any, news coverage outside of the obituary pages, where they are described as “short illnesses” or “complications.” But you’d be hard-pressed to find this fact on newscasts, since it doesn’t gather cable television-viewing eyeballs. Instead, a few deaths in Mexico from the Swine Flu became headline-news-as-cautionary-tale. When you have twelve hours to fill every day, a brief mention just won’t do. Instead, everyone who had an opinion on the Swine Flu (the direr the better), had his or her 15 minutes of fame on cable news (including Joe Biden).

And, because the over-the-air and print news operations live in fear of being out- shouted by the upstarts of cable, they also piled on the coverage, turning the Swine Flu story into an all-out media circus.

Before the rise of multiple news channels on cable, the national ‘alphabet’ TV networks covered the world news that mattered in 22 minutes a night, with the local television stations covering regional happenings in another 22 (10 minutes of which were devoted to weather and sports scores). If you wanted more in-depth coverage there was the morning paper and the Sunday ‘public affairs’ ghetto. Music programming radio stations gave you five-minute newscasts on the top of the hour, mainly to let you know that nothing was happening that was worth turning the dial to find more information. In hindsight, they all had it about right, with the exception that the Internet has replaced morning papers in delivering more timely, in-depth news.

Fortunately, once it became obvious that the Swine Flu threat had been overstated to the point of fantasy, the public caught on. To which the media and public policy fear mongers reacted by switching quickly to “Plan B.” The real lesson, they advised, is that we had somehow miraculously dodged this mysterious bullet, and the overblown coverage was really just a dry run for the time when something truly dangerous comes along. And it again becomes time to scare ourselves to death.

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