The Swine Flu Scare and the Mainstream Media 

The media goes nuts over the swine flu, while ignoring the fact that the regular flu is far more deadly.

The so-called swine flu pandemic turned out to be a true low-point for the mainstream media. For more than a week, the story dominated the front pages of daily newspapers and Internet news sites, while cable television chased it 24/7. It was a made-for-mainstream media event: a supposedly deadly virus with a dirty sounding name that you could catch if someone sneezed in your face or shook your hand. Just watching the tube or picking up your local newspaper made you think we were on the precipice of Armageddon. There was only one big problem. The wall-to-wall coverage was entirely overblown, making it a textbook example of what's wrong with today's news media.

Hidden among the breathless coverage was this important fact — about 36,000 people die from run-of-the-mill flu every year in this country. And only one person has died so far from the dreaded swine flu in the United States. But the MSM drowned this inconvenient truth in a torrent of photos of masked health workers and endless lectures about the importance of washing one's hands. Not surprisingly, panicked educators quickly started closing schools around the nation, including twelve in the Bay Area, one of which was Berkeley's Malcolm X Elementary School. It was classic overkill; an absurd tribute to a dying medium's need to reestablish its relevancy via Internet page views, newsstand sales, and Nielsen Ratings.

By week's end, even the Mexican health authorities, who launched the scare with the proclamation that the virus had killed more than 150 people there, had quietly cut the death toll to 25. Sure, people were getting sick, but they overwhelmingly reported a mild to moderate illness, less worrisome than the average flu. In the end, the swine flu near-pandemic of 2009 appeared destined for history's scrap heap. Another next big thing that failed to materialize.

Justice in Chauncey Bailey Case

Speaking of overkill, in the Bay Area news media, it's been the murder investigation of journalist Chauncey Bailey. The sheer amount of time and newsprint devoted to one crime has been somewhat embarrassing, considering that more than 100 people are murdered every year in Oakland and none receives this type of coverage. Still, the excellent work by the Chauncey Bailey Project and the San Francisco Chronicle did uncover systemic problems within the Oakland Police Department, while exposing a police chief who's not ready for primetime and helping prompt some real justice, too.

First, the justice part. A grand jury last week indicted Yusuf Bey IV, the CEO of the defunct Your Black Muslim Bakery, for allegedly ordering the murder of Bailey and two other men. The charges could result in the death penalty or life in prison for Bey, who has long been suspected of being the mastermind of Bailey's August 2007 assassination. It took a long time to bring Bey to justice, in large part because OPD decided to assign one of Bey's friends, Sergeant Derwin Longmire, to lead the investigation.

Last week, we also learned from the project another reason for why Acting Police Chief Howard Jordan should not become the department's permanent top cop. Jordan had staunchly defended Longmire last year, saying he had done nothing wrong, even though there was compelling evidence that the homicide detective had no intention of going after Bey. Then last week, Jordan said if he had to do it all over again, he would have taken Longmire off the case because he was no longer sure the sergeant had been objective. That sounds a lot like closing the barn door after the horse ran away. It's pretty clear that Longmire had no business being anywhere near that investigation, and Jordan showed his true colors by defending him while he was still under investigation by both internal affairs and the state Attorney General's Office.

Spain to Investigate John Yoo

In other investigation news, a Spanish judge announced last week that he was opening a sweeping war-crimes probe of former Bush-era officials for their roles in authorizing and carrying out torture. The targets of the investigation by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon, most famous for going after Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, presumably will include UC Berkeley law school professor John Yoo, author of the infamous "Torture Memos."

But while Garzon was tackling the torture issue head on, President Obama was trying to walk a tightrope. First, he made a significant statement last week, telling reporters that he considers waterboarding to be torture. But then the president stopped short of saying whether Bush-era officials should be investigated for violating US and international laws. He also characterized the legal opinions that authorized torture — written mostly by Yoo — as a "mistake," and not criminal acts.

Three-dot Roundup

Speaking of torture, an eye-opening interview with a former FBI lead interrogator by Newsweek magazine revealed how traditional interrogation methods worked much better than waterboarding and sleep deprivation. ... Bad poll numbers plague the series of ballot measures in the May 19 special election, with five of the six propositions losing by 9 percent to 27 percent. ... AC Transit is planning to cut bus service again, just months after the agency raised fares and following promises that last November's parcel tax measure would avoid both. ... The Contra Costa County District Attorney backed off his threat to stop prosecuting misdemeanor crimes. ... The lawyer for ex-BART cop Johannes Mehserle is trying to have the Alameda County District Attorney's Office disqualified from his murder case. ... State Attorney General Jerry Brown had his tires stolen outside his Oakland hills home. ... And the Chronicle reported that Oakland's part-time mayor, Ron Dellums, is seeking a pay raise at a time when the city is facing an $83 million shortfall.


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