Closest advisor (CA): "Bad news, señor secretary. The scientists say we're going to have an outbreak of swine flu this winter."
Respond I (S): "You mean H1N1, don't you? We do not want to get people upset at the pigs, again. We will have the newpapers digging around for those silly flying pigs graphics again."
CA: "Right. I meant there'll be an outbreak of -- H1N1 flu this winter."
S: "Of course, there will. Every winter people suffer from flu. H1N1 is simply the variety that is going around this year. We handled it well in the spring. We will do the same this winter."
CA: "But, señor secretary, the scientists are talking of up to one million cases. That's 50 times as many as we have already had. People will panic. We can tell them a much lower number. No one will know."
S: "People will not panic if we tell them the truth. The scientists predict 'up to one million.' That is not the same as being one million. We will talk with the newspapers. If we show them the facts, they will not do anything sensational. And we will tell them we have a plan. The best way to handle any public issue is to simply be honest with people and assure them that everything is under control."
CA: "But what about the tourists? They're not going to come here with numbers like that."
S: "If we are honest and tell the truth, people will understand."
After briefing the newspapers that the one million number is an outside case and that there is a plan in place, the secretary goes home and dreams of headlines: "Government prepared for possible H1N1cases."
He rises at his normal time, greets his wife at the breakfast table, sits down, and opens the morning newspaper to: "Health secretary says swine flu cases could rise to 1 million in winter."
The secretary wept.
I wish I could say all of this came out of my fertile imagination. The conversation did, but not the broad outline. The headline is real.
Health Secretary José Ángel Córdova Villalobos held a press conference on Friday. Based on the headlines, you would have thought he was boarding a rocket ship to escape the extermination of life on Earth.
What he announced was:
- the current H1N1 situation is in "a very stable phase"
- 80 to 100 cases are reported daily across Mexico
- 184 deaths are related to the H1N1 virus
- flu cases normally spike in the winter
- the government has drawn up plans to deal with any possible upsurge in cases
- there is an outside possibility of up to 1 million cases of H1N1 this winter, but the number will most likely be lower
- the government is prepared
From that information, the newspaper editors made up a headline that sounds as if very few of us are going to make it through the winter.
Other blogs have discussed this issue before. We have discussed it.
Sensationalism sells newspapers; sentimentality does not.
Why does the New York Times not fill its front pages with stories about faithful husbands, loving wives, and obedient children? Because we see that every day in our own lives.
People will slap down their quarters for a good tale about gore, catastrophe, and death.
The little girl who lived next door to Lizzie Borden asked why none of the neighbors spoke to her. The little girl's mother responded: "Well, dear, she was very unkind to her mother and father."
If a newspaper today had the choice of printing that tale of understatement or the actual details of the axe murders, which do you think would end up as a headline story?
We can rail about it as much as we want, but people are interested in the most God-awful (and I use that in its reverent sense) tales imaginable. Newspapers and television stations would stop relying on these stories the moment people show no interest in them.
I am certain that most of you have friends who forward email to you that contain some of the most bizarre occurrences or arguments imaginable. A person with common sense would look at most of them and say: "That's just nonsense." Or: "What a waste of time." But some people -- a lot of people -- just forward them.
There was a period when I would respond to each piece of stink-mail (as I call it), and either 1) point out that the piece had already been identified as false or 2) ask what the sender wanted me to do with the email. If I got any response, the answer to number 1 was: "I just sent it along. I have no idea if it is true." To number 2: "I have no idea. I just thought it was something."
What does this have to do with our poor health secretary?
He received information that the public needed to know. He attempted to convey it as information and to reassure people. The press, on its own, decided to create a sensation to sell newspapers. The same newspapers who will call government officials liars and charlatans.
I need this warning as much as anyone. Before I pass on information, I want to be certain that I have the correct facts and the correct tone.
We use to call that being a good citizen.