IS THE MEDIA AN ESSENTIAL SERVICE?
CBS Sunday Morning had a fascinating piece earlier this month on the 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic. The segment discussed an aspect of that pandemic that bears repeating – the role of the press. Of course, in the case of the 1918 flu, it was the absence of the press that was so striking. In most cases, people were either not informed about the severity of the virus, or were misinformed. Accurate information was in short supply.
And it wasn’t the fault of the press. In 1917, at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson, Congress passed the Sedition Act. The Act prohibited activity that would adversely affect the United States efforts in World War I. This included reporting. And since more soldiers died of the flu than on the battlefield, that kind of reporting was potentially illegal.
We have heard about the huge spike in cases in Philadelphia ion 1918. It’s the basis of that popular graph that’s been all over social media. Part of what caused that spike was a large War Bond parade that the city allowed to take place. It contributed to a staggering 14,500 deaths in the city. But newspapers didn’t publish warnings from health care experts, because they feared prosecution.
Fast forward to today, and you may hear some people say the pendulum has swung the other way. Those folks may contend there’s too much reporting on the Coronavirus. But given the very real consequences of this virus, I don’t think the evidence backs that position up.
As we move towards more restrictions on business operations, and cities and states declare emergencies, and impose limits whose only exceptions are “essential services” let us recall the 1918 experience, and ask that the press and the media be deemed essential.
Because they are.