Media Latch on to Swine Flu 'Pandemic'

“Are we on the verge of a swine flu pandemic?” That was a question asked by Larry King for CNN on April 27, but also by many Americans since April 24 as the number of confirmed cases around the world grew.

NBC’s Robert Bazell said the government didn’t “want people to panic,” but then panicked viewers saying “it appears to be an outbreak unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes.”

That scary, hyped tone reflected how many in the media covered the swine flu. Some media outlets hyped the threat with nearly constant coverage, worst-case scenarios or comparisons to the 1918 Spanish flu, while many others missed crucial points of the swine flu story, including the former president’s work to prepare in case of a pandemic flu and the issue of border security with Mexico – the country of origin for this swine flu outbreak.

Business & Media Institute adviser Dr. Elizabeth Whelan recently wrote an op-ed and advised people not to panic, but to take precautions. "We hear about the value of washing hands frequently--but you might want to go one step further. Don't shake hands."


Feeding Frenzy

Associated Press fanned fears of the swine flu on April 28. Ricardo Alonsozaldivar and Eileen Sullivan looked at the worst-case scenario “if the swine flu gets out of control.” Part of that scenario included “two million dead.”

“Two million dead,” Alonsozaldivar and Sullivan wrote. “Hospitals overwhelmed. Schools closed. Swaths of empty seats at baseball stadiums and houses of worship. An economic recovery snuffed out. We're nowhere close to what government planners say would be a worst-case scenario: a global flu pandemic. But government leaders at all levels, and major employers, have spent nearly four years planning for one in series of exercises.”

Thankfully, the current flu crisis is a far cry from two million deaths when you look at the numbers. By the morning of April 29, The New York Times reported there were 66 confirmed cases of swine flu in the United States and 1 death. That tragic case was a 23-month old Mexican child who became ill while visiting family in Texas. The toddler died in a Houston hospital.

The CDC warned on April 28 said they “expect” to see deaths from the flu outbreak as more cases are investigated. The World Health Organization raised its alert level to Phase 4 on April 27, but even that was two levels short of the “pandemic” phase.

Yet some in the news media insisted on frightening the public. NBC’s chief science correspondent Robert Bazell warned on April 27, “The fear here is because the people in Mexico who’ve died have been in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and that is what happened in 1918 when we had a new flu strain.”

Two days earlier, on April 26 Bazell included Dr. Michael Osterholm from the University of Minnesota who said, “It could persist for months and never turn into a pandemic, or in fact it could occur for the next several weeks, appear to be gone and then, like in 1918, come back 12 to 18 weeks later and in – come back with a vengeance.”

While that is one possibility, Bazell didn’t provide context by mentioning in either report that the 1918 “Spanish” flu epidemic claimed the lives of an estimated 50 million people.

Fox News Channel’s Brit Hume and media critic Howard Kurtz both criticized the national news media for portraying the outbreak as “a full-blown crisis.” Hume called it “much ado about – I’m afraid to say this – not very much.” Kurtz particularly noted the “front-page headlines, constant cable-news updates and top-story status on the evening newscasts.”

Though most media accounts were less hyperbolic than NBC and AP’s, the word pandemic cropped up in fifteen stories on the three networks in four days (April 25-28). During that same time, CNN used “pandemic” in 51 stories and Fox News Channel in 10 stories according to Nexis.

The media have gotten it wrong on pandemic flu in the past. Remember bird flu? The national media hyped its threat just a few years ago. ABC frightened its viewers about a coming bird flu pandemic for an entire week in March 2006, while CNN’s Jack Cafferty admitted the cable network was spreading fear of avian flu. “We’ve fanned the flames of fear about this stuff,” said Cafferty. Worldwide there have been 257 deaths from bird flu and fewer than 100 between 2007 and 2009.

GOP role criticized by MSNBC; positive impact gets ignored by networks

One MSNBC anchor found a new angle for the swine flu outbreak: blame Republicans. Specifically, she questioned whether GOP senators’ opposition to some of President Obama’s appointees somehow contributed to the problem. Meanwhile, the networks simply ignored President George W. Bush’s helpful role in preparing the country for a flu epidemic.

Newsbusters reported on April 28 that MSNBC’s Contessa Brewer asked Republican strategist Tucker Bounds, “Do you, Tucker, think that Republicans are in any way to blame for standing in the way of those important positions – when you’re facing swine flu – from being filled?”

As for the GOP’s actual role in the swine flu “crisis,” both CNN and Wall Street Journal indicated that the previous administration did a lot to equip Obama to handle this possibility – while the three broadcasts networks ignored that angle.

NBC’s Bazell noted the “strategic stockpile” of Tamiflu and Relenza on April 26 “Nightly News,” but didn’t mention Bush’s involvement at all.

CNN’s John Roberts described Bush’s “interest” in pandemic flu on April 28. Addressing Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, Roberts said, “General, President Bush was very interested in pandemic flu. He came up with a pandemic flu response plan back in 2005. President Obama also very interested in making sure that the United States is prepared for this. But with that – even with that consistent focus, do you believe that this country is prepared to meet a pandemic head on?”

“I think we are better prepared than we were five or six years ago, John,” Honore responded. “That being said, we have a great plan. It's called our National Influenza Plan. It's written, approved by President Bush. And a lot of training had gone on with the interagency to be prepared.”

Tevi Troy, writing for the Wall Street Journal, also credited Bush with helping speed up development for vaccines, stockpiling Tamiflu and “war-gam[ing] pandemic scenarios with senior officials.”

How About that Mexican Border?

Since the swine flu originated in Mexico one logical question the media should be asking is why hasn’t the border been secured in order to contain the virus? But that idea didn’t get much play in swine flu stories.

Despite the wall-to-wall stories about pig flu, Rep. Eric Massa, D-N.Y., a congressman who called for an “immediate” border closure to deal with the spreading flu outbreak was interviewed by only Fox News Channel. He wasn’t even mentioned by the other networks.

CNN was the only channel to ask in multiple stories if the borders should be closed. ABC never asked the question.

CNN’s Larry King asked a panel including Dr. Sanjay Gupta if the borders should be closed. Gupta defended the open border.

“Well, you know, I don't know that we're there yet, certainly. I think that there are certain things that sort of trigger a decision like that,” said Gupta, who turned down the job of Surgeon General for the Obama Administration. “And I think that the CDC and the other infectious disease organizations are going to continue to monitor that. But they're not giving any indication they're planning on closing the borders.”

NBC’s Ann Curry hinted at border closure on April 28 when she asked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano about people “being waived through” when they arrive from Mexico. “Is the United States doing enough to protect Americans from infection,” Curry asked.

Curry did ask a more direct follow-up question saying, “Madame Secretary, forgive me for asking the question again. But I think a lot of Americans are concerned about this. Why is it not smart to do more to prevent new cases from arriving from Mexico. Why is it not smart to stop people at the border?”

Napolitano responded by saying that it “would be a very, very heavy cost” to close the border.

But if the U.S. had secure borders it might have been easier to control the spread of swine flu. As Massa told “Fox & Friends” “I am all in favor of legal trade and legal immigration but you gotta know who’s coming and going” and warned not to mix politics and national security. “This is about national security,” Massa said.

While the administration has chosen not to close the border or restrict travel to and from Mexico, the Times reported that five cruise lines have canceled port calls in Mexico. Reuters said some companies have restricted their employees’ travel to Mexico and some countries are doing even more. Cuba suspended all flights to and from Mexico for 48-hours.

Scare could sicken industry profits


Unfortunately, as with many scares the people getting sick aren’t the only ones the virus is hurting. It is already hurting the pork industry and could hurt the economy at large if things continue.

According to Reuters, “U.S. pork producers are finding that the name of the virus spreading from Mexico is affecting their business, prompting U.S. officials to argue for changing the name from swine flu.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack who has taken pains to call the flu the “H1N1 virus” told Reuters, “This is not a food-borne illness, virus. It is not correct to refer to it as swine flu because really that’s not what this is about.”

The fact that this flu cannot be caught from pork did not stop Russia, China and South Korea from banning some pork imports of some North America. Russia’s ban also included beef, which isn’t even related in name to the flu outbreak. The Times said at least 10 countries have implemented restrictions on pork imports.

The U.S. was a top exporter of pork in 2008, so import bans from other countries could take a toll.

USA Today reported on April 28 that shares of pork producers dropped by 6.5 to 12.4 percent on April 27 “as investors wondered if consumers might cut back on pork consumption due to confusing about how the virus spreads.”

“Investors and consumers typically have overreacted to health scares,” USA Today said. “Food stocks slid in the 2006 panics with mad cow disease and bird flu, but rallied back when fears eased.”

In the past, the media have been complicit in the economic damage. Remember the “tomato” scare of 2008? A rash of salmonella poisoning worked the network news media into a frenzy over tomatoes, which ultimately cost the innocent tomato industry more than $100 million. The real culprit of the salmonella outbreak was a pepper.

The media also jumped on the Avian flu scare of 2006 and the previous SARS scare, frightening viewers with outrageous predictions, like saying the virus could mutate and “50 percent of the population could die.”

All of that hype over bird flu and ultimately 257 people died worldwide. Tragic to be sure, but out of 6.5 billion people in the world you’re much more likely to be killed by lightning.

SARS was more serious, killing nearly 800 people worldwide. It also wreaked havoc on Hong Kong’s economy, which contracted by about 9 percent when the epidemic peaked in 2003, according to AP.