It is difficult for anyone paying attention to media coverage of the pandemic to deny that much of it has been incomplete at best, downright misleading at worst. This has involved not just misinterpretation of data and failure to put numbers into context, but also a refusal to note data or research that might undercut the hysteria and challenge the doom-and-gloom narrative.
In the former category (misinterpretation) can be found news reports of "spikes" in cases in states that have begun to open up without mentioning that those states have also ramped up their testing -- as Jim Geraghty put it, "If you do more tests, you will get more positive results. The media are inadvertently creating a disincentive to conducting more tests, because every state that increases its testing finds more cases, generating 'Cases are up, the outbreak is getting worse!' headlines."
In a similar vein, we get stories showing pictures of irresponsible cheese-heads swilling beers in Wisconsin bars the day they were allowed to open by court order, accompanied by ominous stories about increases in the number of infections in the state (clearly suggesting that the phenomena are linked), without realizing that there is generally a one- to two-week incubation period for the virus (which means opening the bars could not have caused the spike, at least not that early).
Then there has been the especially egregious "more have died from the virus than died in the Vietnam War" stories that don't bother to tell us that three times as many Americans die from natural and unnatural causes in a typical month (close to 160,000) as died in Southeast Asia, or that more than a million people die every year globally from malaria (most of whom, in tragic contrast to the virus toll, are under 5 years old) and another 1.5 million from tuberculosis (compared to the virus death count of roughly 350,000).
A different kind of media negligence (ignoring data and studies that don't support the fear narrative) was, however, on full display recently with the failure to cover the release of the Centers for Disease Control pandemic planning report. For those who haven't heard, because most media outlets didn't tell us, the report presented five scenarios estimating future virus fatality rates (as a percentage of the symptomatic infected), with the "best estimate" (scenario 5) positing an overall case fatality rate of 0.40, about 10 percent of that estimated by the World Health Organization (WHO) at the start of the pandemic.
That number becomes even more intriguing when factoring in the CDC estimate of 35 percent asymptomatic cases, producing a fatality rate of 0.26, about two to three times that of the seasonal flu. Were that asymptomatic percentage to be higher than the CDC estimate, as many analysts believe, then that low fatality rate drops still lower.
The CDC study is of course just one among many, and its findings were appropriately coupled with caveats about how the estimates will vary as more data become available. But there is no denying that it is important both for what it contains and the authoritative nature of the source: throughout the pandemic the single most important question has been what the actual virus fatality rate is, because only with such knowledge can we estimate its degree of lethality. And without understanding the degree of lethality, we cannot intelligently assess the necessity of the lockdowns and whether or not to continue them.
A long and rigid lockdown strategy might make sense if the fatality rate is as high as the WHO originally estimated (3.4 percent) but little sense if it is 0.26 percent or even lower. In a similar sense, the only way we can come close to deciding the debate over whether the lockdowns prevented catastrophe or were unnecessary is if we know how dangerous the virus would have been if left to freely spread.
One might therefore have expected the CDC study to have been the lead story in news broadcasts and reported in above- the-fold front-page headlines in our newspapers, especially with much of the nation opening up in risky fashion for a national holiday. There was some coverage, to be sure -- the invaluable RealClearPolitics site carried the CDC report on its news sidebar for a few days, and also ran a couple of columns discussing its implications written by lockdown critics. NPR covered the report from an opposing point of view, running a piece citing experts who thought the CDC estimates were too optimistic.
But that was about it. Most news outlets didn't even mention it, preferring instead to use their airtime and headlines to tell us that Donald Trump had gone golfing (in apparent callous disregard of the ongoing emergency, sort of like Nero fiddling while Rome burned or some such).
So was this because the national media simply didn't know about the CDC report, in which case they are incompetent?
Or did they know about it and ignore it because it didn't fit the apocalyptic narrative they've been selling to gin up viewership and readership?
And maybe, just maybe, because it makes Republican governors who are opening up their states look a little less reckless?
Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.Editorial on 06/01/2020
Print Headline: The report that wasn't