The newspaper meltdown has moved beyond tragedy and well into farce. Michael Miner at the Chicago Reader reports on a journalism awards banquet in that great city. One of the winners, Melissa Isaacson, had been laid off two days previous. She heard her name called, went up to collect her plaque, and found…
…(By) the time she made her way up front to accept her plaque it had disappeared. That’s because (still-employed Tribune managing editor Jane) Hirt had hopped up from the Tribune table next to the dais to claim it for the Tribune. “My friends asked me later if I got to bask in any of the applause,” says Isaacson, “but there was no basking. I had to go find my award.”
I think Isaacson got the best part of this deal. She lost a plaque, but gained a much better story she can tell for the rest of her life. The plaques I gathered in my cursed career are all in a box in the basement somewhere, and the most good any of them did me was when we used one of Alan’s AP awards to prop open a window with broken sash cords. It was a little bust of Mark Twain, and was just the right height to do the job. (This was in our home office, and I found inspiration in his little golden face, holding up my window on warm days. Twain would have appreciated it, too.)
And I remember when the debate over journalism awards was about Gannett, famed at one time for buying great papers, turning them into pale imitations of their former selves, and then buying ads that claimed all its papers’ Pultizers for itself, even those won before under previous ownership. (Gannett is now famed for surviving into the current era.) Times have changed.
The understatement of the year, that.
So how is your week going? I’ve been tracking swine flu. This is part of my night-shift job, editing health-care news. It leaves me both optimistic and, well, not. The optimism comes when I reflect on what a marvel our public-health system is when it works well, and so far, I think it’s working well. You’re already hearing the usual naysayers, pointing out that tens of thousands die from the flu in a normal year, that most people are recovering from this particular variety just fine, that once again, the government is spreading panic, etc.
I would advise these folks to read past the second paragraph. The public-health emergency declared over the weekend, as was pointed out in nearly every story, was mostly a formality. The comparison was to declaring a tropical storm a hurricane; it frees up money and staff to work on it, and is not even close to a cry to run for the hills. A global pandemic, even of a viral illness most will sail through with little more than lost time from work, is nothing to sneeze at. (Sorry.)
The discouragement comes from the realization that despite all these professionals and this modern information-dissemination system, we really remain incredibly ignorant of some pretty simple things about our health. You know how many stories have moved assuring people that they cannot get swine flu from eating pork? I’ll tell you: Scores. The confusion comes from something Alan used to harp about all the time when he was a health reporter: We don’t really know what flu is. It’s a respiratory illness. It affects the lungs. You get it when people cough their germs in the air nearby, and they fly over to you and make themselves at home. But because we’ve christened every case of stomach upset “stomach flu,” it’s probably natural that some will figure it comes from something you ate.
Anyway, it’s probably a good time to short your pork futures.
In health journalism, as in all things, there’s a huge gap between the best and the rest. The best are incredible; my shift covers publication of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and USA Today, and all three have ace health reporters who not only know their beats, but can explain them capably to the average reader. And then there’s the rest:
“It’s a fine line between educating people and frightening them,” said Dr. Marvin J. Tenenbaum, the director of medicine at St. Francis Hospital on Long Island. He has been making the rounds of patients and responding to their concerns about the outbreak, concerns that he said had been amplified by patients’ watching cable news in their hospital beds.
Even as news anchors preach caution and pledge that they do not want to cause undue anxiety, the sheer demands of the 24-hour news cycle of cable news and the Internet have amplified the story. Typifying the sometimes overheated coverage, a Fox News Channel commercial on Wednesday exclaimed that “swine flu plagues the nation” and urged viewers to tune into prime-time coverage.
And you know what? The reporting was probably OK. But when you try to boil a story down to a phrase in the promo department, you come up with “plagues the nation,” and the good work goes down the drain.
All I have to add is: Wash hands frequently. Avoid Mexico for now. And read the good newspapers.
I’m late today, so just brief bloggage:
It’s true that editorial cartoons in newspapers are true relics of a time gone by. In an era when anyone can be a Photoshop cartoonist, when Get Your War On shows the hidden humor in MS Word clip art, there’s something just sooo 19th century about the sketch at the top of the ed page. On the other hand, there are still a few truly gifted practitioners still at it. The times that editorial cartoons have made me laugh, chances are the artist was Mike Peters.
Happy hump day, all.