4.30.2009

Brit Hume To Swine Flu: 'Whatever!'

When major news stories break, there's a sudden genesis of interest in something new, the media descend, blog posts are written, crowds gather at the water cooler, and the 24 hour coverage becomes relentless. Then a few break off from the herd and take an opposing tack. Others soon follow and before long, debates are raging along ideological divides. Regarding the international concern over the swine flu pandemic (as it is now being called by the World Health Organization), Britt Hume is perhaps the first national figure to publicly poo poo the media attention over something that has the potential to kill tens of thousands of people. On Fox News Channel's "The Live Desk", Hume complains:
“I realize it’s been a slow weekend in terms of news,” Hume said. “The president went out and played golf on Sunday. The White House reporters don’t have much to work with today, so they’re trying to get a piece of this swine flu story, which you know, all the cable news channels are agog about, bug-eyed about. But so far, it doesn’t amount to much in the United States of America.”
[...]
"What this is, is much ado about – I’m afraid to say this – not very much.”

So Hume is saying that the media is really giving too much attention to this. Of course, since his comments, WHO raised their influence phase from 4 to 5, officially declaring this strain of flu a pandemic. Thus far, we've yet to see the tens of thousands of people dying around the world which might fit our ordinary definition of a pandemic, and Hume does make the point that these actions are intended to release funds to limit the spread of the virus, yet his very act of minimizing the importance of the flu acts to undermine the efforts of WHO which asks people to take this little virus seriously.

What could Hume's motives be? General disgust with the media? To score bragging points by being the first to break from the herd? Or is he just too cool to take this seriously?

To put this in a little more context, let's journey back in time to 2005 when flu was raging across the globe and hundreds, if not thousands, were dropping like flies - or in this case, birds. In an interview with then Health and Human Services Secretary, Mike Leavitt, Hume seemed to show a little more concern than he has today:
HUME: Now, the great worry, of course, is that it becomes communicable human-to-human, which it so far has not, correct?

LEAVITT: That’s correct.

HUME: How likely is it that that mutation of the virus will occur?

LEAVITT: I wish I knew that answer. It is maddeningly uncertain. We have had three pandemics in this century, 1918, 1957 and 1968, and they all followed the similar pattern where viruses that were either in birds, or animals, or people did what scientists call re-assort and create a new virus that no one has immunity for.

And that’s when — when that virus has the capacity to go from person to person to person, it’s when it sets off this geometric expansion of disease. And it’s a very dangerous situation. It’s something that’s been with us for centuries. And it will likely continue.

HUME: No known vaccine for this?

LEAVITT: The good news is we do have a vaccine. The bad news is, we don’t have capacity to manufacture it in enough quantity.

HUME: You said we have a vaccine. Do we have a vaccine that can prevent one getting it or simply a vaccine in which it can be treated, or what?

Here, at least, Hume seemed to understand the importance of a potential pandemic, and asked the pointed questions. So, it was not beneath him back then to have concern, despite ending the interview with:
HUME: Let me just come at you as journalists get to do, from an entirely different perspective now. You’re talking about a disease that no one in America has, that infects chickens but not in this hemisphere, certainly not in the northern part of this hemisphere at this stage, which cannot be transmitted yet from human to human. And we’re talking about $7 billion and dragooning the drug industry into going along with all of this.

Couldn’t you argue that that’s an overreaction?

LEAVITT: Perhaps some will. But let me give you some sobering facts. The last time we had a pandemic on this genetic strain of a virus was in 1918. It killed over 40 million people around the world. It killed the equivalent of two million people here in the United States.

HUME: Wow. Secretary Leavitt, good to have you. Thank you very much for coming. Hope you’ll come back.

Wow, indeed. And the bird flu strain hadn't even jumped to humans.

Where is Hume's "Wow" today?

2 comments:

manny paul said...

An NRI who flew to Hyderabad from Texas, the US state which reported the first swine flu death outside Mexico, was on Wednesday found to have the flu symptoms..
swine flu at hyderabad

melior said...

What cracked me up here was Hume's little slip, where he inadvertently contrasted Faux "News" with "all the cable news channels".

Yeah, Brit, we knew you guys are a "news" channel, not a news channel. But it's funny to hear you admit it.