Saturday’s column by Ogden’s local editor, Mike Myer, is about pandemics and how quickly they can spread. Early in “COVID-19 Is Deadly Wakeup Call,” Myer explains that this is the reason why he is so concerned:
Well, how quickly can a benign virus, unable to even penetrate human cells, develop that ability? As little as two weeks, researchers have learned.
Now you understand why I’ve been the little newspaper editor who cried wolf for oh, around 20 years.
I was a bit surprised by this – while the coverage of the coronavirus is now the dominant story in the Wheeling papers, my memory was that they, for the most part, ignored the spread of the virus until mid-February. Since the virus has been known for around 12 weeks, I decided to do some research on the first half of that period to see how much he or his paper “cried wolf.”
I first found a timeline from The New York Times of how the story developed from its beginnings in China in late December to the present. I then searched every issue of the Wheeling Intelligencer for the first half of that period (up to February 11) to see how much coverage the Wheeling Intelligencer was devoting to the developing pandemic. Here is what I found. (Note – the dates in bold come from the Times timeline which has links to NYTimes and AP stories.)
The first six weeks
Dec 31 -- Chinese authorities treated dozens of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause.
Jan 11 – China reported its first death.
Jan 20 – Other countries, including the United States, confirmed cases.
Jan 22 – First mention of coronavirus in the Intelligencer. The word is used once on page 9 as part of “Business Briefs.”
Jan 23 -- Wuhan, a city of more than 11 million, was cut off by the Chinese authorities.
Jan 24 – Coronavirus appears once on page 11 as a worry for the stock market.
Jan 25 – The virus is noted again in a business brief on page 11.
Jan 27 – The first non-business story about the virus appears on page 3 – it’s an AP story about the virus in France and China.
Jan 29 – Another business briefs story on page 9.
Jan 30 -- The W.H.O. declared a global health emergency.
Jan 31 -- The Trump administration restricted travel from China.
Jan 31 – Four mentions of coronavirus. Nothing on the front page. On the editorial page, it’s mentioned in an editorial cartoon and a Froma Harrop column. It also gets mentioned in a business brief and as part of an AP article on the economy. Most importantly, there is no mention of the World Health Organization’s declaration of a global health emergency.
Feb 2 -- The first coronavirus death was reported outside China.
Feb 4 – The first page 1 story, about two Ohio County residents being quarantined, appears. Coronavirus is also mentioned in business briefs on page 9.
Feb 5 -- A cruise ship in Japan quarantined thousands.
Feb 5 – Coronavirus gets a passing mention in a page 4 Erick Erickson column.
Feb 6 – The virus is mentioned in a healthy ways’ column on page 19.
Feb 7 -- A Chinese doctor who tried to raise the alarm died.
Feb 7 – Two mentions and two charts in two business articles on page 11.
Feb 8 – The virus is mentioned in a page 6 business article.
Feb 10 – On the editorial page, a Larry Elder column compares Trump and Obama black involvement in dealing with viruses. A page 13 article discusses the virus’s impact upon motion picture attendance in Asia.
Feb 11 – The second local article appears: “In Ohio, Flu Poses Bigger Threat Than Coronavirus” by Linda Comins.
A summary of the first six weeks: despite international and national media coverage of the spread of the coronavirus and the growing concerns of health professionals, our local Ogden newspaper devoted very little space to the approaching pandemic. Two-thirds of the articles were found under “Business Briefs” and the word “pandemic” was only used once. (It was found in a January 2 article about the Brooke County Library’s display on World War I; the article had nothing to do with the coronavirus.)
Where was the influence of our “little editor who cried wolf”?
The last six weeks
For the second half of February, over half of the coronavirus mentions were part of business briefs. Finally, in late-February, local coverage began to change. On February 28, coronavirus was found in five articles and the next day’s paper had six. The first editorial appeared on March 2 and despite the near-total neglect of the virus by the Trump administration, the editorial was about the state of Ohio’s refusal to release the location of the person who had tested positive.
While the coverage of virus has increased, the locals have yet to criticize anything done (or not done) by the federal government. To that end, Myer argued, last weekend, that we should not play the “blame game” and criticize the Trump administration. Following his own advice, this Saturday’s column doesn’t blame anyone other than the collective “we”:
As an editorial we carried this week pointed out, there would have been no shortage of N-95 protective masks for health care workers had we stockpiled 20 million or so of them at a cost of less than one F-35 warplane.
“We”? I’m sorry, sir, but that’s not my job. Doesn’t that responsibility rest with government, and more specifically, the federal government?
A final question – would Trump losing Ogden be like Johnson losing Cronkite?
In terms of scale, obviously not. But if Mike Myer is serious about his pandemic concerns, he might make a difference by criticizing Trump’s policies. Throughout his presidency, Ogden papers have matched and reinforced the conservatism, or more precisely, the support for Trump found in the state. It’s no surprise that West Virginia is Trump’s favorite state – with few exceptions, we still uncritically support him. (60% approval by the most recent Morning Consult poll). What if the state’s newspaper chain with the widest reach were to finally criticize him? President Lyndon Johnson knew he was in trouble when he lost Walter Cronkite on the Vietnam War. Would losing Ogden and other conservative media cause Trump to rethink his policies? Sadly, I don’t think it’s going to happen – I doubt Ogden would criticize the president and even if they did, Trump would write them off as he has done with the rest of the media sources that criticize him – they’re “fake news.”
This is going to be a long haul.