In today’s Washington Post, way back in the Style section, Howard Kurtz, who regularly does media criticism, offered an insightful take on how the media has responded to the swine flu situation.
But Kurtz missed one crucial insight. Here are the first four paragraphs of his review, “The story spread rapidly in the news vacuum of Sunday afternoon, when federal officials declared a health emergency, and by yesterday the coverage of a swine flu outbreak had reached fever pitch.”
“With front-page headlines, constant cable-news updates and top-story status on the evening newscasts, the outbreak — with at least 40 confirmed cases in the United States — was inescapable. But the sheer volume of media attention suggested a full-blown crisis.”
“This is one of the hazards of 24-hour Internet-media-television,” said MSNBC President Phil Griffin. “It’s obviously a big story and you want to give it attention. I do think we have to be careful not to overstate it and not make people scared to death.”
“Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, said from Mexico City that some reporting, “if taken the wrong way, can cause undue excitement. But it can also calm or allay people’s fears. You have to make sure what you’re saying is absolutely credible and not sensational. I’m trying to provide that context.”
Left out is what was happening before the Sunday afternoon news vacuum was breached.
Beginning with the Saturday morning news cycle in Asia and Europe, the swine flu story was going viral faster than the disease itself.
The famously net-savvy Obama team saw the same emergence. Maybe it was even in the Saturday PDB. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a twenty-something net-head from over in the EOB — or maybe from his morning bike ride or evening bar-stool — who sent the first BlackBerry ping.
By Sunday morning it was becoming clear that panic was taking off, and with it any ability to meaningfully shape public understanding.
The White House had a few hours to act — and thereby influence — the Monday morning news cycle or wait and hope the worst did not happen. They decided to act.
The White House had several action options. They could have punted to a DHS press briefing or to CDC in Atlanta. They might have been a bit more laid back. They might have used their own YouTube capability and other new media resources. Instead, right after church on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, they called the mainstream media to the White House.
They started with an especially authoritative John Brennan setting out the strategic picture. The briefers spent considerable time answering questions and setting a tone of engaged, proactive concern and action.
They never said so, but the White House was depending on those ancient — now nearly lost — journalistic principles of “being careful not to overstate it” and “credibility not sensationalism” and “providing context.”
Fortunately for all of us — so far — they got what they wanted and we needed. If the White House had not acted when they did and how they did, the fever pitch on Monday morning or this morning would almost certainly have been deadly hot.