Purveying Pig Flu Panic at the Post

January 01, 2010  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  The Independent Journalism Project  ·  Swine flu

Artist's depiction of the message the Washington Post's Opinions page sent on swine flu.

“Panic is what we want,” Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum wrote last May of swine flu. “Panic is good,” she said, also labeling the disease a “pandemic” five weeks before the World Health Organization (WHO) did. Yet flu season is now officially over and we’ve had about 12,500 total flu deaths, or a third the usual number according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.

Swine flu therefore enters the Hall of Infame alongside other infectious diseases that threatened life as we know it including heterosexual AIDS, SARS, Ebolavirus, and avian flu.

Still, say what you will about the Post Opinions page coverage of swine flu, it was consistent. It kept on promoting panic, notwithstanding they knew they were wrong, that indeed one of their contributors was outright lying. I know because I repeatedly kept them informed.

Thus June 23rd, Opinions ran author John Barry’s op-ed asserting U.S. deaths could be in the “89,000 to 207,000” range. This was two weeks after it rejected my op-ed (and the Post had previously run some of my material) clearly showing the threat to be grossly overstated. I quickly placed the piece in an obscure journal called the Los Angeles Times. Yes, that Los Angeles Times.

Finally August 1, Opinions dropped the swine flu H-bomb. It was Jorge R. Mancillas’ warning that worldwide “between 9 million and 10 million could die.” His qualifications? He worked in the bowels of a trade union federation called Public Services International.

Mancillas declared “Britain’s chief medical officer reported that modeling studies indicated that up to 65,000 people in that country could die.” Said Mancillas, “Projected globally, this worst-case estimate suggests the potential for 6.5 million deaths.” Then he immediately blew the top off that figure in projecting 9-10 million deaths based on “an average global rate” of deaths. One, it happens, he personally concocted.

John Barry wrote a good book on the Spanish Flu, but used it to become an alarmist on avian flu (which is what that new afterward is about) and then on swine flu.

Importantly, the Post’s web version of Mancillas’ shows his alleged source was a Times of London article news article. What the article actually said, however, was swine flu’s “case fatality ratio is expected to be in the range for seasonal influenza.” That’s about 250,000 to 500,000 people worldwide annually, according to the WHO—somewhat shy of 6.5 million, much less 9 or 10 million. It also said the British case-fatality swine flu ratio was well below that of seasonal flu.

So, I then sent another op-ed to the Post, pointing out that Mancillas was making it up as he went along and that his own alleged source proved it. This second submission of mine skipped the recycle bin and went straight to trash. Upon my bugging the editors, they said they would at least look into the readily demonstrable allegation that his article contradicted his lone citation. Alas, Opinions staff had to wash its hair that night.

Then I pointed this out to the editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, who, as luck may have it, was also washing his hair that evening! Then I wrote the ombudsman, Andrew Alexander. No, he wasn’t washing his hair; but he nonetheless bowed out saying he restricted himself to the news side of the paper. In fact, he’d previously written a at least one column regarding an item in the Style section.

But the Post got what its wish. The Obama administration declared two national swine flu emergencies and the public swamped emergency rooms with the worried well, delaying access for the truly ill. With the mildest flu season of the century, hospitals and first aid clinics had the highest levels of visits for “flu-like illness” of the century. Add school closures, work absenteeism, a massive batch of vaccine with 71 doses headed for the trash heap, ad campaigns, and other efforts and the costs are incalculable but surely astronomical.

And you can only cry “Wolf!” so many times. We all know how that story ends. Should a truly serious disease strike, stack the bodies at media footsteps, with an especially large heap at that of the Washington Post.