Before I begin this post, I need to clarify a few things. First, I am not indifferent to the thousands who have died from COVID-19. Second, I am a part of the high risk group so there is no need for finger wagging accompanied by the claims that I am a young person who doesn't care about life. Quite the opposite. I am acutely aware of the danger that this virus poses to a specific population and I care deeply about life... I just also happen to include the lives of 95% (worst case estimates) of the population that will survive COVID-19. While they will survive the virus, they might not survive the massive economic fallout that comes from how we handled COVID-19. Third, this post is a bit long... but I think length in this case is necessary. My aim in this post is to give some context and then expound upon two key observations from this whole mess that need to be considered, and that further require the action of the people to prevent such catastrophic nonsense from happening again in the future.
I wrote in an earlier post that "Panic, especially widespread societal panic, has it's purposes". That remains true. Panic produces opportunity and those who seek to gain the most from this opportunity are politicians and their media cronies (not to mention the special interest groups and lobby groups that have these politicians in their pocket). In this post, I want to point out the main reason for this panic that we have seen over the last month or so, but I also want to bring attention to how this has influenced where we are at and what we the people need to do about it. It can be summed up in two words. Power and narrative.
What Is Yellow Journalism?
What I have seen in the last few weeks can only be described in one phrase: Yellow Journalism. Yellow Journalism is a term that came into being in the late 1800s and stemmed from a competition between the New York World and New York Journal. In this journalistic (I use that word very loosely) war, both papers were trying to outdo one another in circulation and as a result, they sought to outdo one another in printing sensationalized news to attract readers. Sensationalism over facts became the norm and endured long after that war between those two papers was over.
In fact, Yellow Journalism had a significant impact on journalism and media from that point on. Something became apparent... the bigger the headlines, the bigger the scoop, the more the newspaper spun people up, the more money they made. This kind of journalistic malpractice (insert journalistic opportunism) was one of the factors that "helped push the United States and Spain into war in Cuba and the Philippines, leading to the acquisition of overseas territory by the United States" (citation here).
In order to understand why this is significant and the impact it has on reporting, we need to be reminded that newspapers (and in our day in age all news media outlets) are businesses. They, like every other business can become driven by profits. Money is a powerful motive and that motive lends itself to corruption, dishonesty and sensationalism to achieve it's ends. Not only is money a key motive, but power to shape public opinion through controlling the narrative is a key factor that I believe is contributing to this. Objective reporting of facts has been replaced with subjective narrative shaping which, in turn, has a tremendous effect on policy through public opinion. In this case, they are capitalizing on the fact that human beings are terrified of death.
Facts Are Stubborn Things
I recently watched a documentary on West Point, perhaps the most prestigious military academy in the world. West Point is known for producing some of the worlds best military leaders. During their first year at the academy, cadets must memorize 360 some pages of facts that they are expected to be able to recite word for word on command. For example:
What is Excalibur? ------ It is the two-handed sword of King Arthur and depicted over the door of the Cadet Chapel.
Who put the reveille cannon on top of the Clock Tower? ------ It is believed that Cadet Douglas MacArthur and a small group of cadets put the reveille cannon on the Clock Tower one night. It took two weeks to get it down.
One of the cadre explained the purpose behind this seemingly needless hazing ritual. He said that military leaders must be able to deal in facts. How many in your muster? What is your ammo count? What is your location? How many enemy are there? This is a key element of effective leadership because it gives objective information and facts that are necessary for effective decision making. You can't say "well I think we have 120 men" or "there might be 30 enemy". This monotony of being able to give the objective answer to a question is a key aspect in decision making and leadership. No spin. Just facts. As John Adams said, "facts are stubborn things" (there is more to that quote but bear with me, I think it will have more punch later).
As I have thought about this and the ensuing mass panic and chaos that has resulted largely from media coverage of this COVID-19 virus, there are two observations that I think every reasonable and thinking person needs to be aware of. One has to do with the reliability and credibility of news outlets in relation to freedom of the press. The second has to do with our responsibility as consumers. So, before I jump headfirst into these observations, I hope you will indulge a brief diatribe that I think is necessary to set the stage. I will try to keep it engaging but it is necessary to understand these two observations mentioned above.
Fire! Fire!... Oh Wait
In America, we enjoy certain rights. These rights are protected in the charter of our country (the US Constitution) and ensure basic liberties that are necessary to securing the freedoms we enjoy. These were initially known as The Bill of Rights and later became the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. Among them are the 1st amendment which protects (among other things) freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Since they are in the same amendment, I would like to use these two basic rights as analogous to one another to illustrate a simple point. Please note that this is not a bad analogy either considering that, according to the Legal Information Institute of the Cornell Law School, "Despite popular misunderstanding the right to freedom of the press guaranteed by the First Amendment is not very different from the right to freedom of speech. It allows an individual to express themselves through publication and dissemination. It is part of the constitutional protection of freedom of expression. It does not afford members of the media any special rights or privileges not afforded to citizens in general" (citation here).
Imagine I am standing in the middle of a crowded theater and yell "Fire! Fire!". I'm just exercising my freedom of speech, right? Wrong. Actually, there are limits on freedom of speech. In Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919), the United States Supreme Court ruled that "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. [...] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent".
So... freedom of speech is limited if your speech creates a "clear and present danger"... even if the danger doesn't result in actual harm. What is the clear and present danger in this case? Panic. People potentially being trampled trying to escape the fire that I warned them of. The fire that didn't actually exist.
There is a big difference in other words between yelling "fire" in a crowded room and warning people that the fireplace is hot and they need to stay away from it lest they get burned.
Now, here is the analogy (and remember that the freedom of speech and freedom of the press are not very different from one another). The press over the last few months have essentially yelled "fire" in a crowded room causing not only the clear and present danger of panic, but actual panic itself. To be fair, a significant amount of blame has to fall on politicians and government officials who, as Doug Wilson states, responded by "ready, shoot, aim", but the press didn't ask the right questions. The press saw an opportunity for a big story... the biggest story of their lives, and ran. They exasperated the problem. Have you seen White House press conferences lately? It's filled with gatling gun volume of "gotcha" questions that aren't aimed at getting facts, but shaping narrative.
They have metaphorically caused us to trample one another due to a panic they created by Yellow Journalism. They created this mess. They created it through sensationalized reporting, misinformation, selective reporting, manipulation, and fear-mongering. They created it by not asking the right questions to get at facts. They created this by pushing an agenda to shape the narrative. They did this. That is not to say that we don't bear some implicit responsibility in this (which we will get to in due time), but it does mean that all of the major media outlets cried "fire".
So, with that as some context, now for my two observations.
Freedom and Responsibility
Just as there is a responsibility in freedom of speech to make sure you are reporting a fact that the building is in fact on fire before yelling it, there is also a responsibility for journalistic integrity, a quality which is severely lacking in our current climate to report facts and not shape narrative. With freedom comes responsibility. Freedom of the press is freedom from government censorship. Not freedom from responsibility. The media is a public health danger in it's current form.
Take for example some facts that we should all be made aware of.
- Professor Yitzhak Ben Israel of Tel Aviv University recently showed that the virus follows a fixed pattern irrespective on whether society shuts down or not (citation). Here are some quotes from the article:
“Is the coronavirus expansion exponential? The answer by the numbers is simple: no. Expansion begins exponentially but fades quickly after about eight weeks,” Professor Yitzhak Ben Israel concluded. The reason why coronavirus follows a fixed pattern is yet unknown. "I have no explanation,” he told Mako, “There are is [all] kinds of speculation: maybe it's climate-related, maybe the virus has its own life cycle.”
The article continues to point out that the healthcare system in Italy collapsed under the weight of the 2017 flu and Professor Ben Israel states
“I think it's mass hysteria. I have no other way to describe it. 4,500 people die each year from the flu in Israel because of complications, so close the country because of that? No. I don't see a reason to do it because of a lower-risk epidemic.”
"He concludes in his analysis summary paper that the data from the past 50 days indicates that the closure policies of the quarantine countries can be replaced by more moderate social distancing policies. The numbers simply do not support quarantine or economic closure."
Go look at the statistics from the 2017 flu in Italy and note the age of the population and how that impacted it along with their medical system and perhaps we shouldn't be reacting based on what happened there with COVID-19.
- A new study from Oxford University indicates that millions have COVID-19 worldwide and that a vast majority of those infected displayed mild or no symptoms. "I am surprised that there has been such unqualified acceptance of the Imperial model," This falls in line with other reports below.
- A study from Stanford University shows that 50-80 times the number of people previously thought in Santa Clara County, California have been exposed to COVID-19. Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, one of the authors of the paper said "We found that there are many, many unidentified cases of people having Covid infection that were never identified with it with a virus test,"
- For more like this, check out Doug Wilson's article here and this must read article here.
All of this to ask... what is getting the media attention from a majority of outlets and what is getting buried? Then ask yourself this... Why? Because sensationalism sells and facts don't. Sensationalism and fear-mongering shapes the narrative and objective facts that lead to good decisions don't preach the narrative they want. Facts, real facts that could shape effective policy, don't matter to them. We have to hold them to account. We have to keep them honest. That leads to the second observation.
I recently watched a fascinating documentary in which it was observed that network news channels were the death of honest reporting in our time. A network news channel is a business. A business that gains money from and has a vested interest in you watching as much as possible. Now instead of reporting the news, there are talking heads telling you what to think, spinning stories, and even creating stories out of thin air. This is modern day Yellow Journalism. It's after ratings, viewers, and influence. With that in mind, let me just ask you this... do they stand to gain from a nationwide panic? I'll pause a minute and let you think about that.
Have you ever bought a used car? Then you've dealt with a used car salesman. To be sure, there are some with integrity, but what comes to your mind? The greasy haired, smooth talking salesman whose main goal is to shape the narrative and excite your emotions so you buy the car. Never mind that it has a little rust and the tires are a bit worn. Overlook the fact that there is a tear in the seat. They wont even tell you those things and if they are pointed out, they will spin it because the last thing they want is for you to haggle the price down. They want you to want the car, and in wanting the car, you will overlook flaws. They gain from the narrative being shaped. The same is true of our current corona chaos. These greasy haired smooth writers are taking the American public for a ride in a lemon and telling you it's as good as new.
It's our job as the American public to be discerning. Not all news is created equal and not all news is news. This is easy when it comes to The National Inquirer for example. While checking out at the grocery store (ensuring you maintain the required and responsible "social distancing"of course) you might glance over and see that Michael Jackson is alive and was sited in the Congo or the the Loch Ness Monster had a baby with Sasquatch and "baby Ness" can move freely between woods and water without being seen. That's easy. We know it's nonsense.
What is difficult is these so-called reputable outlets that have built an empire on making you think they are reliable, all the while taking you on a journey where without knowing it, you are being shaped by what they say and not the facts they report. We have a responsibility in this to think. To reason. To ask questions. To be reasonable people. We have a responsibility to not burn down the barn because we see a couple of termites.
We can get into why the American public are so gullible another time, but what is important here is if we are to keep this nonsense from happening again (and by nonsense I mean a massive over-reaction by the people, perpetuated by the media, leading to more over-reaction by the government at the call of the people) we have to stop being sheeple and take outlets to task for journalistic abuses. As has been recently shown (here), they will only be honest when forced. In other words deal in facts and make the media deal in facts. Stop letting them do your thinking for you.
Old Yeller - Ultimately these little snakes will hide behind their keyboards and shame anyone who dared to sound the alarm like the cowards they are. They will refuse to take responsibility for their actions much less admit they were wrong and apologize unless we the people demand more and the only way we can demand more is by not letting cowards hide behind thinly veiled pseudo-facts and subjective opinions as though they are actual facts. If we fail in this, they will simply move on to the next big thing that captures you and draws you into their web of emotional manipulation. Remember the quote by John Adams?
"Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."
So, we must demand more and live up to the responsibility of the freedom that has been entrusted to us. We must not be manipulated by the media and let those cowards who seek to shape the narrative do that. Yellow journalism is, well... yellow.
Jon is husband to Carlee, Papa to Finleigh, Ainsley, and Olivia, a pastor at Arbor Drive Community Church in York, Ne, and co-host of The Pastor Discussions Podcast