This type of lurid exaggeration ultimately costs the sensationalists -- they do lose credibility. Consider CNN's Anderson Cooper as a case in point. His ratings continue to slip. Cooper certainly got a short-term surge during Hurricane Katrina, when he urged hurricane survivors he was interviewing to "show rage." Treacly theater, lousy reporting.
Exaggeration exacts other costs. Fear repeatedly ignited by exaggeration eventually fizzles into dangerous disinterest -- ask the boy who cried wolf.
Reacting to the excess, skeptics recall 1976's swine flu outbreak, when spurred by fears of a 1918-type influenza disaster, President Gerald R. Ford ordered mass inoculations. The virus proved to be less virulent, and Ford was ridiculed. Thanks to Internet archives, skeptics have access to 1976 television public service announcements pushing mass inoculations. A kiss passes the virus from husband to wife. A cough or conversation gives it to a cab driver. A lurking subtext: Fear other people.
2009's most noxious headlines echo that ugliness. This time, we're to fear Mexicans and Mexican products. Fearing Texans and New Yorkers may be the next phase, since school kids in those states have contracted the illness.
The Centers for Disease Control provides a balanced, rational response. Instead of fearing other people, the CDC recommends washing your hands and staying home if you feel ill. As of 11 a.m., April 28, the United States had 64 lab confirmed cases and no deaths. The figure will rise. It may prove to be virulent. There will be deaths -- there always are. The CDC Website notes that every year "ordinary" flus play some role in 36,000 deaths (e.g., the flu leads to fatal pneumonia).
Precaution is common sense. Explore the swine flu's genes, and push for a vaccine. Prepare to quarantine, if necessary. Stockpile antivirals, and thank the folks that developed them. Pharmaceutical companies (often demonized by benighted politicians) wage a constant war against mutating viruses. Foresight, often energized by a quest for profit, can provide a curb, if not a cure, for fear.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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