BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is On the media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Today, a thousand and another thousand and another thousand is our lead.
NEWS REPORT This morning, with nearly every state in the nation relaxing at least some restrictions, the U.S. reaching a grim milestone. One and a half million cases of COVID with the death toll nearing ninety thousand. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT The U.S. death toll stands at eighty eight thousand one hundred one. The CDC projected today it'll be at one hundred thousand by June 1st. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Earlier this year, we struggled to comprehend the ominous arithmetic of the nascent pandemic. But we don't need projections for big numbers anymore. We have them. So we compare old losses, with new ones by the numbers.
[CLIP] NEWS REPORT But each day we're seeing a thousand two thousand people dying as if we're having a new 9/11 every two days. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT I'd like to say that's two 747s a day, maybe three a day. Of passengers who would be dying. That's what that's what the coronavirus is doing. And I don't like to…. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's the rough equivalent of thirty-two Hurricane Marías, forty-three Johnstown floods. Five hundred and sixty five Oklahoma City bombings, six hundred and fifty Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fires with at least thirty four more to come by months end. But even those scales are too abstract. Maybe to really take the measure of this pandemic, we simply have to count one by one.
VIGIL Julia Rivera Coyaso, 73, Bronx, New York. Gladys Hernandez, 75, Bronx, New York. Victor Olivero, 60, Bronx, New York. Mary Bello, 86, Manhattan….[END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE On Wednesday, a group of people who've lost loved ones and faith leaders joined in a 24 hour online vigil called Naming the Lost. Those Casey Cep pointed out in The New Yorker last week. Reading all the names of all the Americans who we know have died would take at least three days. And that assumes there's a list, and there isn't. The City is a nonprofit news site covering New York City, and it plans to build a list - at least here in the epicenter. It aims to turn statistics into names and ultimately into an archive of obituaries for nearly every New Yorker killed by this disease. Because, as the city and its partners have found, the obituaries so far failed to accurately represent the dead. Too many people, too many communities are missing.
TERRY PARRIS JR We want to find a way where every person has, you know, 20 lines, 20 words, three paragraphs of their life that makes them unique to their family and makes them unique to New York.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Terry Parris, Jr. is the engagement editor of The City.
TERRY PARRIS JR Were trying to crowdsource stories. We will rely on social shoe-leather journalism. We're going to call every single funeral home. We will be partnering with various local news organizations, some of which will be in different languages. And we're also going to be translating this ourselves into Spanish, Korean and Yiddish. It will take a year or so. Who knows? But we want to figure out a way to track as many of those deaths, as many of those people, talk to as many of those families as we possibly can.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A lot of these deaths happen in hospitals that are overrun, at home, in the loneliest parts of society. I mean, this has to present a hurdle that's hard to overcome.
TERRY PARRIS JR My heart just sunk when you said that because it is such an enormous project and is such an enormous hurdle. And so we want to sort of be investigative reporters and be incredibly empathic with what we're doing and figure out the best ways to reach those folks. And we, for example, have a list of deaths on Hearts Island, but we don't exactly know where they're all coming from. Or we have their names and their last known addresses.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm guessing that you have a lot of lists, right? I mean, lists from the Hasidic community news, lists from unions, the United Federation of Teachers. A lot of groups keep track of their own.
TERRY PARRIS JR This is exactly right. COVID, in terms of thinking about the deaths, have made lists, upon lists, upon lists - and they're all in different places. We wanted to tie these all together and make basically this clearinghouse. And bring all of these names, and all of these faces, and all of these stories into one place. How do we make these lists publicly available? How can they be searched? How can they be grouped? How can the display be something that is sophisticated and honorable for what we're losing? Just like folks who have come to New York to volunteer in the healthcare industry to come out of retirement in some cases, we want reporters to help us tell these stories. To sort of give back in the ways that we know they want to. Immediately publishing this story, got dozens of emails from reporters asking me exactly this - how can I volunteer my time to help tell these stories?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now, what do you mean by. Tell these stories? Do you mean write an obituary?
TERRY PARRIS JR We mean reach out to this family. Talk to the person who knows about the taxi driver or the MTA conductor. The longtime Little League coach. Create some memorial of an obituary that isn't 20 lines and costs $150. That isn't a string of words separated by semicolons, but are full sentences. There is this disproportionate skew towards wealthier folks in wealthier neighborhoods.
If you look at the obituaries, they're cost-prohibitive. In the New York Daily News, an obituary can cost six hundred dollars. The New York Times at the cheapest, it's 250 bucks. And that gets a one day run in the paper and on digital. With so many folks dying right now, and with the terms of grief changing so dramatically, we believe that something like this might just help us better come to terms. You know, it's a big project, but it's a small little thing that we as journalists might be able to do to help folks better celebrate that taxi driver, or that MTA conductor or that longtime Little League coach.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How much trouble do laws on privacy, especially health, privacy, HIPA restrictions and so forth pose in this effort?
TERRY PARRIS JR We are not encouraging doctors or those who may be working with families in a social work capacity or a therapy capacity to share the names. We're merely asking them to share this information with their networks in the hopes that those folks might want to participate.
At the same time, as the names come in, we have an army of folks -- that's a small army, but it's an army nonetheless, of folks who are proactively reaching out to these groups. We are asking in our call out the name, the age when they died, something that makes them unique, if they have any underlying conditions. As the names come in, we call people or e-mail people and we'll verify these items. This doesn't go right from the submitted form to the internet in public. We're journalists, we trust but verify. And that's what we'll be doing with this project, too.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You talked about your army, that isn't very big. Exactly how big is it? I mean, how close do you think you can get to meeting your goal? Because even as you address the numbers, they keep going up.
TERRY PARRIS JR Right now, we have slotted between five to 10 researchers, post-grad fellows and interns. The Phase 2 component of asking reporters to help us verify and report out these stories has not happened yet. And so we hope that dozens would sign on to this. But we will see where we get through this summer and then we'll have to figure out a way to increase the size of that army for the fall and for the spring and through next summer, because it's not something that's going to happen within the next six months. These numbers are going to keep going up. We're not done. We're not out of the woods yet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Why do this? I mean, I know The New York Times is making an effort to feature people who are beloved in their communities but are not famous, or rich, or even white. It's a drop in the bucket. I know so many people will be overlooked. What drives you?
TERRY PARRIS JR Not from COVID, but my mother and brother passed away within a year of each other. And one of them got an obituary, and one of them didn't. And even in that obituary, was a handful of sentences and a bunch of semicolons. And I really believe that that does not do anyone justice. There's a full life lived, and twenty words at one hundred dollars is not a full life.
Oftentimes we look to the media, to TV and newspapers for validations of a life well lived. And when that is hard for lots of people to attain, particularly in a time like this, that feels bad, that feels unjust. I think sometimes we forget who we're serving, and we forget why we're serving them. You see, some really great things happen. But you also see people being left behind when it comes to news and information and story. I think this is the project that could help us think differently about who we're trying to reach and why we're trying to reach them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There was a piece in The Washington Post earlier this week titled This Feels Great, and it described a mall in suburban Atlanta where people were delighted to return to, quote unquote, normal.
As one man put it, when you start seeing where the cases are coming from and the demographics. I'm not worried.
TERRY PARRIS JR When I saw that, I had to close my computer and it was like, this is why we're doing this. Because there is this sort of callousness, because we just see the number. In that man's quote, it's just heartbreaking to hear and see something like that when so many people are losing so many loved ones to this disease. And frankly, who will just be forgotten. It's yet another example of why this project is so important.
BROOKE GLADSTONE To end the isolation.
TERRY PARRIS JR To absolutely end this isolation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Terry, thank you very much.
TERRY PARRIS JR Thank you for your time, Brooke.
TERRY PARIS JUNIOR Terry Parris, Jr. is the engagement editor for the city.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, can we mourn as a nation anymore?
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield.
Obituary projects like the one run by The City, in New York, are an attempt to reckon with the ongoing disaster and create a record for the future. But according to the historian Janice Hume, author of Obituaries in American Culture, we’ll only truly understand this pandemic when it's over. And years from now, COVID-19 obituaries will help researchers tell the story of our time, who we cared about, and what we cherished. Janice, welcome to the show.
JANICE HUME Thank you so much. Happy to be here.
BOB GARFIELD You studied 8000 obits from 1818 to 1930 and you saw a reflection of the changing society and of the collective consciousness.
JANICE HUME I did. I found that in the 19th century, for example, people were remembered more for attributes of character than for their resumé. And so men were remembered for being brave and valorous and women were remembered for being patient and obedient and affectionate. And that's not just a general impression. I literally counted the words in those eight thousand obituaries. Every time the word obedient was used I counted it. It was so common for them that I don't think anybody would have thought anything of it at the time.
And if somebody called me obedient in my obituary, I think I would come back and haunt them. It's very interesting that when we move into the 20th century and we move past the industrial revolution, people were remembered not so much for attributes of character, but men were remembered for how much money they made and how much land they owned. And women were remembered for their connections with men.
BOB GARFIELD The whole nomenclature of death has changed a great deal. At some points it's quite, oh, I don't know, gothic or perhaps rococo.
JANICE HUME In my earliest obits, in the early eighteen hundreds, people were resigned to their fate and their obit would say she was ready to meet the summons of her God. But when we moved further into the 19th century, the language got a lot more colorful, and so rather than an obituary saying that someone died. It would say they were scathed by the wing of the destroying angel, or removed from our midst by the fel destroyer. And then post-Civil War, most of that language stopped and a lot of scholars have noted how there were so many lives lost in the Civil War that it became almost unpatriotic to dwell on death, post-Civil War. And so you really saw that in those obituaries. That language went away. People went back to just dying of a particular cause.
BOB GARFIELD I suppose the battlefield photographs by Mathew Brady and others would make you disinclined to be flowery. Those soldiers didn't look scathed. They just looked dead.
JANICE HUME Those photographs weren't published in newspapers because we didn't have that technology yet. But people saw them in showings galleries and were horrified by them. They were so lifelike. It was a stark reminder of what war was really like.
BOB GARFIELD Obits are not typically gimlet-eyed views of a person's life. You'd never see John Doe, a drunken abuser of his family, died in agony and shame. And yet, even if they aren't great journalism, you still find them useful.
JANICE HUME I'm not looking necessarily for those obituaries to reveal fact to me. I'm looking for those obituaries to reveal culture. Now, if I were a genealogist and I'm researching the history of my family. Getting the names right, getting the dates right -- all of that is critically important to my research. But if I'm looking at the media as a reflection of culture and helping us understand it over time, the factuality of that obit is less important to me for that purpose.
BOB GARFIELD What about modern American obits? Clearly, we're past scathed by the wing of the destroying Angel.
JANICE HUME That's correct.
BOB GARFIELD Where have we landed in 2020?
JANICE HUME I think in 2020 we're less concerned about the stigma of a cause of death, I hope. Though, there have been times over history that people didn't want to use the word cancer. Certainly, people at a certain point didn't want to use HIV/AIDS. But, you know, I think we've moved a hope past that to where we're honest about a cause of death, particularly with the online obituaries, with the legacy dot com. I think you see a lot of, I guess, loosening up. Pets are sometimes listed in the survivors. I know that there have been a couple of occasions of people that I know who are who wrote their own obituary, which again brings a totally different perspective than an obituary written by a journalist or by a family member. And those typically are a little bit self-effacing. They can be humorous. But I still think no matter who writes them and where they're published, they still serve that function of helping us understand who we are, and what we value at a particular point in time.
BOB GARFIELD I think pretty much universally obits are written for a contemporary audience, you know, with little or no thought to whether a century later someone like you will be mining it for insight about 2020 culture.
Is it better that way? Or should journalists and survivors have somewhere in the back of their minds that this obituary is also a time capsule?
JANICE HUME I think that journalists should serve their audiences, and leave the historians to figure it out. Mainstream newspapers reflect mainstream culture. And I really looked at and considered and wrote about what I call the silences on obituary pages. Who's left out? If you were African-American in the 19th century, for example, you were gonna be remembered only if you served some sort of other news value. There were a number of African-Americans who were remembered in obits because they were over 100 years old. And that's going to be newsworthy in that era. There were vastly more men remembered than women. So we have to be careful when we take a look back at history at the prism that we're looking through.
BOB GARFIELD Well, on the subject of prisms, it strikes me that in a pandemic whose toll is measured in such unimaginable death counts, that death itself becomes more abstract.
What role does the obituary have in keeping us uninured, by just the sheer scale of it all?
JANICE HUME Well, by definition, an obituary about a single person. A single American life. And if we are a society that values lives equally, remembering somebody in an obituary becomes, I think, really important. It helps us focus on that these are human beings and not numbers. People who are different from each other and who have different triumphs, different contributions that they've made. And how can you do that? Except in an obituary, of course. We have news coverage and they've done a really nice job of highlighting individuals who've died. But if you're going to really get a sense of the vast majority of the people who passed away during this pandemic, you're going to have to look at obits.
BOB GARFIELD Well, we have had exhaustive news coverage. We've also had a lot of anxiety, a lot of horror. What we haven't have, it seems to me, is a lot of mourning.
Am I imagining this, that communal grief is absent and that as a consequence, the obit has taken on a more outsized role?
JANICE HUME You know, we have people standing in windows in applauding health care workers is about the only communal ritual that we've seen. But we are still in the midst of it. We're all afraid to leave our houses, you know, and it's hard to grieve alone. But the obit remains, and that is something that we can use.
It's only a small part of the grieving process. I'm not trying to make out like it's the be all, end all of everything, of course. But remembering the deceased in an individual article that people read and share is an important part of the grieving process.
BOB GARFIELD Janice, thank you so much.
JANICE HUME Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed talking with you.
BOB GARFIELD Janice Hume is a professor at the University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Hume says that moments of large scale communal mourning are rare, in this moment, despite the ever mounting death toll. On Friday, following public pressure from congressional Democrats, President Trump did tweet his intention to order flags to half staff on Memorial Day weekend. Was it perfunctory? As Colin Dickey observed in a recent piece for the magazine Gen, previous presidents have not hesitated to unite the nation in communal grief.
RONALD REAGAN Today is a day for mourning and remembering. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Ronald Reagan following the Challenger disaster of 1986, for instance.
RONALD REAGAN We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD The Challenger tragedy, of course, happened in one split second. The pandemic has raged for months with no end in sight. Is it just too soon to grieve?
More than the fact that it's an open ended tragedy?
COLIN DICKEY It is a politically inconvenient tragedy, at least for the Trump administration and for state governors like Andrew Cuomo, because it's impossible to look at this scale without starting to think about what could have been done to prevent it.
To be fair, I mean, this has always been true. 9/11, there was the question whether or not the Bush administration should have seen it coming. There were questions raised about the Challenger disaster, whether or not NASA was asleep at the switch. But we have in the past been able to at least set aside those political concerns long enough to come together and grieve. So something has changed dramatically with regards to our ability as a nation to set aside politics and mourn together.
BOB GARFIELD I guess it's easy to understand in the case of mass shootings, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Las Vegas, Orlando, why the national horror did not yield a national grief consensus, because gun violence yields gun control debate, which in this country yields reflexive denial and even perverse conspiracies of doubt. We seem to be seeing from the same sectors of the right wing, similar attempts to question the simple reality of the COVID death toll.
COLIN DICKEY Once you start downplaying the effect of mass shootings because it's politically inconvenient, you reach a point where you invite people like Sandy Hook truthers who suggest that there was no tragedy here at all. That this was a false flag, and that starts to pollute the discourse in a way we're seeing now. Where, you have people on the right trying basically to downplay the number of deaths by COVID-19.
BOB GARFIELD The notion of suppressing grief as an instrument of politics, and even revisionist history, is not a novel result of the rise of Alex Jones-ism. You write that we saw it in Iraq and Afghanistan as well.
COLIN DICKEY In 2005, There was a Freedom of Information request filed by a muckraker website called Memory Hole to get the photographs of the dead soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan coming home to Dover Air Force Base. And these photos had been suppressed by the Defense Department. They were not released to the public. The policy was out of respect for the victims' families. But when the photographs were finally released, they were, by all accounts, very respectful. There's no denigration of the bodies of these soldiers. They're being treated reverentially. But the mere fact that you were documenting dead soldiers from these unpopular wars was too much of a political hot potato that the Bush administration was afraid that these images would get out.
BOB GARFIELD And similarly, in the midst of Katrina, the grotesque harvest of government incompetence and indifference featured only the most boilerplate expressions of mourning from our leaders. In this case, again, President George W. Bush.
COLIN DICKEY Exactly. And when Bush finally gives his speech about New Orleans,.
GEORGE W. BUSH When communities are rebuilt, they must be even better and stronger than before the storm within the Gulf region or some of the most beautiful and historic places in America. [END CLIP]
COLIN DICKEY He talks a lot about the devastation. He talks a lot about how the city is going to rebuild. He mentioned some initiatives and some funds that are going to be freed up. He talks about a brighter future. What he cannot bring himself to bring up is the simple fact that people have died.
He ends his speech by evoking the New Orleans jazz tradition of a second line where there's a somber parade to the funeral grounds. But once the body is buried,.
GEORGE W BUSH The band breaks into a joyful second line, symbolizing the triumph of the spirit over death. Tonight, the Gulf Coast is still coming through the dirge. Yet, we will live to see the second line. [END CLIP]
COLIN DICKEY He uses it as a metaphor to talk about what's happening, but he doesn't seem to also admit. That is a literal description that there are actual dead that defined Katrina that were too difficult, I think, for politicians to address head on. And so they can only be broached through these roundabout uses of metaphor.
BOB GARFIELD Even after 9/11, when the country was joined in abject grief, Bush quickly went from president as pastor to president as, I don't know, vigilante. Using the enormity of the attacks to rally the nation to war.
COLIN DICKEY Bush climbs the rubble with a megaphone and an American flag, and he says to the emergency crews and the construction workers.
GEORGE W BUSH I can hear, the rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings will hear all of us soon. [END CLIP]
COLIN DICKEY Immediately telegraphing that any kind of morning that we were going to do for the victims of that attack could only be conceived of in terms of revenge and getting back at the people who did this to us.
BOB GARFIELD And vengeance, I'm pretty sure it's not the same thing as mourning.
COLIN DICKEY Right. Dr. Jonathan Shay, who worked with Vietnam veterans, wrote a book called Achilles in Vietnam, where he talks about part of the reason they had been suffering so severely from PTSD is because they had been more or less prevented from mourning the deaths of their comrades who had fallen in war. Because Defense Department policy in the Vietnam War was to channel that grief directly into rage. Fighting the enemy and killing more people.
BOB GARFIELD During the Obama administration, after Sandy Hook, he expressed his grief. And when he actually came to tears...
BARACK OBAMA Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD He was ridiculed by Fox News and other outposts of the right.
COLIN DICKEY When people like Meghan McCain are saying that Obama's tears over the dead children at Sandy Hook are not authentic.
MEGHAN MCCAIN I don't understand why he's doing this. I agree with Andrea. The reason why I was reacting the way I was reacting when he was crying is because it just didn't seem horribly authentic. And maybe it is. I don't know him at all. [END CLIP]
COLIN DICKEY One of FOX's hosts suggested that he had hidden onion under his lectern. But I think most Americans saw in Obama's emotions a very real human response. Giving weight and voice to what many of us were feeling around the country in a way that terrified the GOP.
BOB GARFIELD Like almost everything else about the past four years, we cannot have this conversation without talking about the influence of Donald Trump. We for sure have no mourner in chief.
COLIN DICKEY This is only a tragedy or even a thing of interest to Trump. As it relates to Trump, and that is different from, you know, even somebody like George W. Bush at least understood that his job was to represent the nation as a whole, for better or for worse. Trump sees his job as to be lauded for what a good job he is doing. And the best way to do that is simply to deny that people are actually dying. The actual lives and deaths of American citizens are all just pawns in a very complicated, paranoid game of people who are out to get him, personally.
BOB GARFIELD We are still right in the middle or not even the middle of the pandemic. But what is the toll, to the national psyche, the national soul, of not going through the process of coming to terms with the sheer scale of devastation? Where does this lack of communal grieving take us as a society?
COLIN DICKEY Where we're at right now, is this increasing push to get back to, quote unquote, normal life. I mean, if you've lost a loved one, you know that it takes time to get back to normal life, even during normal circumstances. And if you don't have that space to grieve, if you're not given that space by friends and colleagues and coworkers, what happens is you end up in a lot of cases just repressing that. And it starts to affect you negatively in a whole host of ways. And I think the danger for this country is if we, quote unquote, get back to normal without, in the process, attempting to come to grips with everything that we've lost in the past couple of months and we'll continue to lose in the time going forward, then we're going to end up with a country that is deeply traumatized and unable to process that trauma.
BOB GARFIELD Colin, thank you very, very much.
COLIN DICKEY Thank you so much for having me on.
BOB GARFIELD Colin Dickey is the author most recently of Ghost Land: An American History in Haunted Places.
Coming up, the lessons of a pandemic past. This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. As we have heard this hour, in the absence of national leadership, we can grieve as individuals, as communities, as states, and we can mourn via stories and even statistics through the media.
But what if we were slammed with a pandemic many times deadlier than this one and the media were muzzled? What if the president never even mentioned it? Where would that leave our collective loss and our collective memory of it? Just a few generations later? In 1918 and 19, more than 50 million people died worldwide, including at least six hundred and seventy five thousand Americans in what has been called the Spanish flu. And yet President Woodrow Wilson never addressed the nation's loss in any way. The first wave hit Europe's First World War battlefields in the spring. Not wanting to look weak, the Germans, the British, the French and nearly everyone else kept mum, nearly. According to John Barry, author of The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. It was only covered by newspapers in neutral Spain. In fact, it was that coverage that gave the flu its name.
JOHN BARRY Spain was not at war, so it didn't censor its press. Plus, the king himself got sick. There was a lot of press about him and it got the name Spanish Flu.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So the Spanish flu is not because it originated there, but because it was written about there, because the king got it.
JOHN BARRY Exactly. It was well established elsewhere before it ever arrived in Spain.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We do know that it's spread on our shores out of control from a military base outside of Boston, right?
JOHN BARRY That was the first place that the second wave hit in the United States. I mean, the virus clearly changed in the first wave, it was generally mild. There were actually medical journal articles saying this looks and smells like influenza, but it's not killing enough people, so it's probably not influenza.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There was a mutation between the first and second wave?
JOHN BARRY Almost certainly. I mean, you can't prove that through molecular biology, but epidemiologically, it seems quite certain.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide were infected. That would equal if you adjusted for population somewhere between 200 and 400 million today. And there were roughly six hundred and seventy five thousand killed in the U.S.
JOHN BARRY An estimated 28 percent of the U.S. population.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The second wave was the deadliest, here. It was in the fall of 1918, right at the end of the war. But what would we have seen if we'd cracked open a local newspaper in autumn 1918?
JOHN BARRY Lots of war coverage, but very little about the pandemic. You know, there was an infrastructure that had been created for the war that the pandemic dealt into. Wilson had created something called the Committee for Public Information, a propaganda arm, and the architect for that committee said truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms. It matters very little if it is true or false. So that was the attitude of the government propaganda machine. It also had passed a law making it punishable with twenty years in jail to: "utter print, write or publish any disloyal, scurrilous, profane or abusive language about the form of government of the United States."
BROOKE GLADSTONE This was the Sedition Act of 1918, right?
JOHN BARRY A congressman was sentenced to more than 10 years in jail under that act. So, publishers were threatened with it. Wilson himself at one point told a cousin - thank God for Abraham Lincoln. I won't make the mistakes he made, allowing a free press to flourish during the Civil War.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But Lincoln closed 300 newspapers!
JOHN BARRY Plenty of negative press about him in the reelection campaign of 1864. And again, going back to that committee of the public information, the guy who ran that, George Creel wanted to create, quote, one white-hot mass with fraternity devotion, courage and deathless determination. They really tried to make Americans conform to one way of thinking. I don't think we've ever experienced that before or since more than the McCarthy period, more than any of the red scares.
The press was determined to be as patriotic as anyone. For example, the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote: what the nation demands, is it treason, whether thinly veiled or quite unmasked, to be stamped out. I could go on and give you other examples. You know, you had on the one hand, the carrot, the idea that the press was supposed to be patriotic and inspire people to help in the war effort. And on the other my hand, you had the stick of that Sedition Act. So, the result as a general rule was a very cooperative, complacent press. Where there was in fact fake news because they were cooperating with the government lie.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But all this intensity was also employed to muzzle coverage of the flu.
JOHN BARRY Exactly. There was a concern that any negative news, no matter what it was about, would damage the war effort by hurting morale.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But surely there were exceptions. The Jefferson County Union paper in Wisconsin you've talked about.
JOHN BARRY Correct. When the pandemic got there and they started to tell the truth about it, they were threatened with prosecution under the Sedition Act. There was no Tony Fauci back then. One national public health leader quoted by the Associated Press said this is ordinary influenza by another name. Another said the so-called Spanish influenza is nothing more or less than old fashioned grip.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That sounds a little familiar.
JOHN BARRY Yeah, a few miles outside Little Rock camp, like 8000 thousand soldiers were admitted to the hospital In four days. The camp commandant stopped releasing the names of the dead. The doctors there wrote a colleague, every corridor, and there are miles of them, have a double row of cots with influenza patients. There is only death and destruction. They can't call upon Little Rock to supply civilian doctors and nurses and linens and coffins. In the Arkansas Gazette, just a few miles away in its headline writes, quote, Spanish influenza is playing the grip. Same old fever and chills. You have essentially the same thing happening everywhere. Des Moines, Iowa, for example, the city attorney was part of the emergency committee running a response to influenza. He wrote publishers, quote, I would recommend that if anything be printed in regard to the disease would be confined to simple preventative measures, something constructive rather than destructive, unquote. And, of course, you know, that carries with it the potential for prosecution.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What was constructive, what was destructive in this formulation?
JOHN BARRY Public health guidance such as keep your windows open, avoid crowds, washing your hands, things like that. That would be considered constructive. Actually, printing news of what was happening was destructive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You also had remarkable details about the Espionage Act that involved the post office.
JOHN BARRY And the postmaster was not going to allow anything negative, in what they regard as negative was actually just the truth. In many occasions, anything that they regard as depressang to morale. Back then, of course, many of the news media was distributed solely through the mail. So that effectively was completely silencing publishers. Effectively putting them out of business.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It would seem to be a terrifying time to be an American.
JOHN BARRY It was a violent, terrifying disease. People could turn so dark blue from lack of oxygen. The book I quoted one physician writing a colleague that he couldn't distinguish African-American soldiers from white soldiers because their pallor was so similar. In some camps, fifteen percent of the soldiers with the disease had nosebleeds. But you could also bleed from your mouth and you could bleed even from your eyes and ears. And when they are being told that this is ordinary influenza by another name, there are people dying 24 hours after the first symptoms. People very rapidly know they're being lied to. They lose all trust in authority. Rumor and panic spread. It leads to a fraying of society. In the worst cases, almost a breakdown of society.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You contrast the cities of Philadelphia and San Francisco.
JOHN BARRY Philadelphia may be the most extreme example. Literally thousands of people are dying and they finally, belatedly, closed schools and bars, and theaters and so forth and finally took this act.
One of the Philadelphia newspapers actually said, quote, This is not a public health measure. You have no cause for panic or alarm, unquote. Beyond absurd.
Of course, you're not gonna believe anything you read either or that paper or anything. In Philadelphia, society really did almost begin to break down. There are reports of people starving to death because no one had the courage to bring them food. In San Francisco, by contrast, the mayor, medical leaders in the community, the business leaders, the trade union leaders all signed a joint statement in huge type in the newspaper. Full page said: Wear a mask and save your life. It turns out those masks were not very useful. But that is a very, very different message that this is ordinary influenza, if another name. San Francisco functioned, it seemed to come together when schools closed. Teachers volunteered even as ambulance drivers, which of course, is a pretty risky thing to do. Compare that to Philadelphia, where people could starve to death because nobody had the courage to bring them food. I think it's directly related to the fact that people were told the truth and the leadership trusted the public. Both Philadelphia and San Francisco were extremely hard hit by the disease. San Francisco was right around fifth in the country in terms of excess mortality, which was about the same as Philadelphia. But in one city, you can see an absolute fraying of society. And in the other city, you see the community coming together and helping each other.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Woodrow Wilson got the flu. It resulted in intense disorientation, decreased mental functioning. That was a symptom of this particular pandemic. At the absolutely wrong time.
JOHN BARRY You know, it was widely noted that people did become extremely disoriented, in some cases psychotic then recovered. And Wilson got sick at Paris while negotiating the peace treaty. Everybody around him from Erwin Hoover, who was a White House usher to Herbert Hoover, commented on how they had never seen him like this. His mind wasn't functioning. German territories were essentially ceded to France. France was allowed to economically exploit German regions. Germany was saddled with huge reparations payments. And essentially every historian of the rise of the Nazis, credits or blames that peace treaty for part of the rise of Hitler and subsequently World War 2. John Maynard Keynes called Wilson the greatest fraud on Earth after that peace conference.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The greatest fraud on earth. Wilson never, ever spoke about the flu, though, did he? We look at newspaper accounts. Those are muzzled and confused. What were you able to find about how people understood what was happening or how they mourned the dead or tried to protect themselves?
JOHN BARRY It was a very serious scientist, named Victor Vaughn, who during the war, became a colonel -- head of the communicable disease division for the army. And right at the height, he wrote: if the current rate of acceleration continues for a few more weeks. Civilization can easily disappear from the face of the earth.
That is how bad it was beginning to get, and he happened to write that right at the peak and things began to improve.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What about the artists, the novelists we know Catherine Ann Porter wrote Pale Horse, Pale Rider, but there doesn't seem to be a lot written by observers, even by survivors.
JOHN BARRY You know, that has always puzzled me. The lack of literature about this. Nonetheless, it is clearly out there in the public mind. Christopher Isherwood was in Berlin at Rock, Berlin, stories from which great movie Cabaret came to him. When the Nazis entered Berlin. He said You could feel it, like influenza, in your bones.
This kind of sense of deep dread. And this is fifteen years after the pandemic. Certainly expected his readers to recognize dread that he was referring to. So it was out there even if people weren't writing about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There was a period of generations, where there was nary a mention of the epidemic. I don't think I was an exception to the rule. We knew more about the bubonic plague than we knew about the 1918 pandemic. How do you account for that?
JOHN BARRY Oh, it was so fast. That's part of it. Probably two thirds of the deaths, worldwide, occurred in a period of 14 or 15 weeks. And in any given community, it was roughly half that length of time. The influenza would hit a city, in six weeks, seven weeks. Eight weeks later, it was gone. You know, there may have been a third wave. And depending on where that city was, that would come months later. And the third wave was still lethal enough, but it was nothing compared to the second wave. You had this incredible brevity and life largely returned to normal pretty quickly. And it was ending almost simultaneously with the end of the war, November 11th. People are out celebrating practically for the moment in many cities that they were coming out of their lockdown. I'm talking now I can sort of see part of the forgetfulness, except for those who personally suffered. Two thirds of the dead were people aged 18 to 45 and the elderly hardly suffered at all. But kids under the age of five died at a rate equal today to all cause mortality for a period of 23 years. Just think of that. Kids dying today from all causes over a period of 23 years, unprecedented to a period of a few weeks in 1918. Think of the toll that would take on parents.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But I have to ask you. Six hundred and seventy five thousand dead in the U.S. adjusted for population. That would be two million.
JOHN BARRY Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD And yet when it was over. Was there ever a moment of national mourning? Was there ever a monument erected to the dead? Was there ever a recognition of the immense tragedy?
In terms of individual recollection? Yes. I remember telling my aunt, who was about 10 years old during a pandemic, what I was doing. And she essentially grasped her chest, practically started crying. So it was not something forgotten by individuals, that tragedy.
As a society, no. I thought about this for 20 years and I haven't got a decent explanation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you so much.
JOHN BARRY Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE John Barry is the author of The Great Influenza The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. And Professor at Tulane's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.
A couple of weeks ago, when the number of American dead from COVID-19 surpassed that of the Vietnam War, USA Today opinion writer David Colten asked Why is the grieving so hard? We tried to answer some of that, this hour. It may be the isolation, those of us who are able, took on for our own protection, or the prospect of worse waves to come, or the implication of weakness that terrified the leaders who presided over the slaughter of the First World War and our own maskless commander in chief today. No, this president will not preside over national mourning, but we will find a way. In fact, this pandemic may enable us to do more than unite to mourn our dead. It has etched in sharp relief the even deadlier impact of inequality long residing in the shadows. The South African philosopher performer Mokokoma Mokhonoana once said: Some people are gone, but not forgotten. Some people are still here, but already forgotten. If we could really hold those people in memory, now, that truly would be a memorial for the ages.
BOB GARFIELD That's it for this week's show On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, John Hanrahan, Xandra Ellin and Eloise Blondiau. And our show was edited by... Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Josh Hahn. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield.