Media Matters

One Flu Over the Editor’s Desk

Flu pandemics then and now -- as covered by the Bush-bashing, Obama-protecting New York Times.

By 11.25.09

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When British regulators discovered bacterial contamination at a Liverpool pharmaceutical plant, the resulting shut-down order placed America's flu vaccine supply in jeopardy. The incident occurred on October 5, 2004 and it affected nearly half of the approximate 100 million doses of seasonal flu vaccine the U.S. had ordered for the 2004 flu season. In comparison, the rest of the world's nations planned to dispense an identical 100 million doses to their citizens.

Most of the nation's flu vaccines were ordered from two major suppliers, Avantis Pasteur and Chiron, whose UK plant faced the shut-down order. About 36,000 Americans, mostly the elderly and those with underlying health issues, die from seasonal flu each year.

As the Department of Health and Human Services swung into action to locate new supplies to make up for the 48 million dose shortfall, the New York Times also got cranked up in covering the news event.

In the one month between the contamination announcement and the November 2004 presidential election, the New York Times published eight news stories, three editorials and three letters to the editor addressing the topic. Virtually every single item was critical of Presidential George W. Bush, blaming him for failing to safeguard the nation from that year's seasonal flu.

In a nearly 3,000-word front-page story titled "Before Shortage of Flu Vaccine, Many Warnings," the Times attempted to make the case that the potential for a shortage should have been anticipated by the Bush Administration and contingency plans put into place. Although the Bush Administration increased funding to fight the flu from $47 million in 2002 to $283 million in 2005, the Times countered "those sums are small compared to what the nation plans to spend on vaccines against diseases that the government fears terrorists might use."

One letter-writer demanded, "How can we trust the Bush administration to protect us from a biological terrorist attack when it can't even manage to provide flu shots?" Another writer called it a Bush Administration "debacle." Still, another writer observed "this fiasco seems emblematic of the apparent failure or inability of the Bush administration to pan for when things go awry."

Bush's opponent in the 2004 race was Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. The Times reported Kerry's claim that Bush did not heed warnings of a flu vaccine shortage. Moreover, the paper did not challenge Kerry's patently false claim that as president he would establish a reserve of flu shots. Technology has yet to be developed that permits the stockpiling of flu vaccines. Unused vaccines must be disposed after each season as new strains develop the following year.

In an editorial the Times wondered "whether the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] was asleep at the switch" and "whether more aggressive intervention by government experts might have helped the [pharmaceutical] company surmount its difficulties."

In another editorial, the paper slammed the "[Bush Administration's] political philosophy that favors free markets and the rights of responsibilities of state governments over federal intervention."

In all, the New York Times was very critical of Bush and his administration for a shortage that only became known to U.S. authorities on October 5th.

However, the paper did not have nearly as much to write about when the U.S. faced an even more dire shortage of vaccine for the H1N1 virus in spite of months of stories about a potential pandemic.

Last April, President Barack Obama was very public in how his administration would prepare and safeguard the nation from the H1N1 virus. HHS declared a public health emergency six months before the fall 2009 swine flu season would begin. The White House predicted that nearly 100,000 Americans would likely die from the virus. To counter this, the Obama Administration announced that 120 million doses of H1N1 vaccine would be available by October and 200 million doses by the end of the year.

Late last month, it was learned that only 16 million doses or a little more than ten percent of the needed vaccine was available. Those most susceptible to the virus, youth and those with underlying health issues, faced critical vaccine shortages.

In response to these revelations, the New York Times published four stories and six letters to the editor but chose not editorialize on the topic. Nearly all of the stories were generally neutral on the matter, although there were several comments lauding Obama's leadership and handling of an anticipated H1N1 pandemic.

In one article, the Times quoted a public health official as saying, "I would give them [the Obama Administration] a B for performance so far." Further, the paper reported "the administration gets high marks for its public education campaign, as well as the scientific effort to develop and test a vaccine."

In contrast to the paper personally blaming Bush and his administration for the seasonal flu vaccine shortage, the paper took a decidedly different position regarding Obama and the massive shortage of swine flu shots. The matter "was beyond the government's control," "Obama is unlikely to come in for personal blame," and it is "a situation that is beyond his control."

Only one of the six letters from readers was critical of Obama. That letter writer observed, "In August, a presidential panel estimated that up to 90,000 Americans could die from the H1N1 virus.… Why is no one holding the Obama administration accountable for this looming public health disaster?"

The wide differences in reporting and the obvious bias in the New York Times' approach to the vaccine shortages can be easily explained. That was then and this is now.

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About the Author
Mark Hyman hosts "Behind the Headlines," a commentary program for Sinclair Broadcast Group. You can follow him on Twitter at @markhyman.