BROOKE GLADSTONE Hi, it's Brooke, and you know what that means, it's holiday time. At this time last year, I mentioned that only about one percent of listeners, it's one point two percent precisely, actually contribute to this podcast. Now, none of us could have possibly imagined what sort of year this would turn out to be. The station has been hit pretty hard, and so I now have many of you. Believe me, I know. But some of you are doing not so bad. And so I'm talking to you guys. You've listened to us this year. I think the show has helped us all get through it. And you can count on us being here next year too. In fact, you know, 2021 is actually going to be our 20th year. Sure. It seems weird to shell out for something you can get for free, but that's not a sustainable model. A quick look at the news biz will tell you that. Sustain us and we'll sustain you. Just go to onthemedia.org and hit the donate button, or text OTM to 70101. That's OTM to 70101. Thank you. Really, thank you so very much, and have a great New Year.
BROOKE GLADSTONE On this week's On the Media, even though we're still in it, just it's time to consider the lessons of the Year of our Lord or a random chance 2020.
LAURIE GARRETT We've not had a serious epidemic in the United States except HIV in well over 100 years. We witness the pain, the agony of the struggles from afar.
KAREN ATTIAH As the country marks 100000 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic. The former British colony finds itself in a downward spiral of ethnic violence.
BRANDY ZADROZNY QAnon at its core, is this belief in good versus evil. Right versus wrong of biblical proportions.
PAUL WEYRICH I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country - and they are not now. [END CLIP]
MATTHEW SITMAN One person, one vote. That is what they're rejecting. They're saying that actually they know better.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's all coming up after this.
BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is on the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. How to sum up the terrible, horrible, no good year of 2020? It was a train wreck, a dumpster fire, a metal muffin sandwich soaked in hogwash.
BOB GARFIELD We were, most of us, only dimly aware of a far-off virus that was slowly perhaps making its way to the United States. Our first COVID story was back in January with Alexis Madrigal, one of the journalists behind the COVID tracking project. We discussed the relentless spread of confusing, conflicting information online, including the viral primal scream from a tweeting Harvard affiliated public health researcher.
ALEXIS MADRIGAL So, you know, he's sitting at home, is reading a paper that has not been peer reviewed, but that researchers had put up on the Internet so that they could kind of share it with each other. And he tweets, Holy Mother of God, the new coronavirus is a three point eight. How bad is that reproductive r-naught value: it is thermonuclear pandemic level bad. Multiple exclamation points. In this thread took off and of course, attributed to Harvard epidemiologist.
BOB GARFIELD Madrigal called it a socially constructed number describing both the initial contagion and what the government does in response. He said that the tweeting public health researcher, though ultimately justified in his panic, had gotten a little ahead of his skis. It was one of the first bits of COVID arkana we would encounter: the r-naught.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But as the virus burned through us, so did the associated lexicon. Words and phrases like case fatality rate flattening the curve, social distancing, droplet transmission, viral shedding, super spreader, cytokine storm and COVID-19. In February, we heard this from Dr. Nancy Mesnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
NANCY MESNIER It's not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness. I had a conversation with my family over breakfast this morning, and I told my children that while I didn't think that they were at risk, right now we as a family need to be preparing for a significant disruption of our lives. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Also in February, we spoke with Pulitzer Prize winning science writer Laurie Garrett, an interview that frankly electrified our staff for what it revealed about what we then knew and didn't. I told Laurie we had advised listeners that if the CDC says to worry, then we should but if it says don't worry, then don't. I asked, is that still true?
LAURIE GARRETT Well, let's see how that played out this week at the White House.
NEWS REPORT Here's the president's tweet from a short time ago, blaming the media. He says, low ratings and fake news. Comcast and CNN are doing everything possible to make the coronavirus look as bad as possible. [END CLIP]
LAURIE GARRETT Rush Limbaugh had fueled this.
RUSH LIMBAUGH The coronavirus being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump. [END CLIP]
RUSH LIMBAUGH I clarified this. Dr. Nancy Misophonia of the Centers for Disease Control today warned it could be bad. It might be bad, is the sister of the former deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. [END CLIP]
LAURIE GARRETT The president will make some assertion or one of his economic advisers will make an assertion all intended clearly to calm the stock markets.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Like the director of his National Economic Council, Larry Kudlow.
LARRY KUDLOW I don't want to negative that. I'm just saying all I can do is look at the numbers. Yeah. And Larry are saying the U.S. is holding up nicely. [END CLIP]
LAURIE GARRETT All of it meant to undermine this notion that America is facing a grave risk. So the question is who are we believing. We've not had a serious epidemic in the United States except HIV in well over 100 years. We witness the pain, the agony, the struggles from afar, you know, Zika in Brazil or Ebola in Democratic Republic of Congo. Now, we're really facing the probability that we will not just be witnessing, will be experiencing, and then we'll find out what is the mettle of Americans.
BOB GARFIELD And as she predicted 10 months ago, we saw reflections of ourselves in its terrible wake, suspicious and resentful, just as we had been in kindred disasters centuries ago.
FRANK SNOWDEN The bubonic plague in the 14th century shows what are our relationships to our whole human beings.
BOB GARFIELD In March, we spoke to Frank Snowden, professor emeritus of the History of Medicine at Yale University and author of Epidemics and Society From the Black Death to the Present. An epidemic, he writes, holds a mirror to the civilization.
FRANK SNOWDEN You read and vocal about the terror from the plague. Husband left wife and vice versa. Parents fled their children. One can see the scapegoating, the search for a demonic influence. This is not something that we ourselves did. Of course, it's always some other group of person that we want to blame. The hunt for witches, pogroms against Jews, xenophobia unleashed societies coming to a halt. It's something that seems, alas, to be with us since the very beginning. We can see it in homophobia in the American epidemic of HIV/AIDS and the assault on Asian people today.
BOB GARFIELD I want to move on to an infection bedeviling Napoléon. Let's start with his invasion of Russia in 1812, where his superior armies were overrun not by the czar's troops so much as what?
FRANK SNOWDEN Oh, dysentery and typhus. His military tactics were predicated on lightning strikes and sudden rapid movement. He wanted his army not to be laden down with supplies and with food, but to live off the land. And so he marched an army that was half a million men. Imagine the whole city of Paris going into Russia. And Napoleon, having decided not to take medical supplies, bandages or sanitary precautions of any kind of at the time. And so they went into Russia marching for this vast distance in what was the immediate creation of what we might call a terrible urban slum living in the dung of the animals and that they themselves made drinking water that was polluted in the rivers. And very soon they were immersed in a tremendous outbreak of dysentery that was killing something like three thousand men a day. Then after Moscow, Napoleon finally decides that they can't survive a winter in Moscow. He has to return to France. Napoleon himself took off in a sled with a bodyguard and abandoned his troops. Only about ten to fifteen thousand returned to France, and almost all of those 480000 or so died of first the dysentery and then the typhus. And there was regime change in France and disease had a major role in that.
BOB GARFIELD In the midst of coronavirus, you're thinking of Napoleon and feeling a bit of deja vu.
FRANK SNOWDEN I think about Napoleon a lot because it seems that he's a model of how not to react to the threat of disease that was about to overwhelm the 500000 men he was commanding and the larger society and empire for which he was responsible. He reacted by doing something that sounds very similar to the present day by saying it was false facts. We don't need to think about these diseases we're going to march on ever forward. So Napoleon seems to be someone who had contempt for the impact of the environment, nature, disease and the threat that it posed. Not willing to think of this in terms of planning and mobilizing resources and deploying them and the way that people with knowledge and science and the lessons of history all urge should be done.
BOB GARFIELD And to your earlier point, he seems to take as a personal political assault the behavior of microbes.
FRANK SNOWDEN Napoleon took great umbrage that a disease could harm the the almighty emperor of the French.
BOB GARFIELD Month after month, the virus taught us more about how our nation works and how it doesn't. The disproportionate impact on communities of color and on warehoused elderly alone in their final hours. But for the health care workers, so-called essential workers, who put themselves so much at risk. Essential worker, that's another term with which we've grown familiar, usually low wage workers who can't afford to stay home, they keep the wheels from falling off the jalopy that is our national life. So they are celebrated as essential, but too often treated as disposable. Taken for granted.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So much taken for granted. Human beings most of all, but also classroom chatter, weddings, movies, concerts, theaters and bars and especially well, let's just say we had to learn a lot more about the supply chain. Another phrase now in vogue just to comprehend where all the TP went.
NEWS REPORT As everywhere, there's been an inexplicable run on toilet paper. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Fights over toilet paper, breaking out in grocery store shelves run empty. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT The shelves are empty, no toilet paper. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Turns out we weren't hoarding, at least not that much, at least not at first. It's just that the toilet paper didn't follow us home when our offices closed. The reason tech writer Will Oremus explained, is that it's not the same paper.
WILL OREMUS It's two totally different products. One of them is thin, flimsy. It comes in huge rolls, whereas the kind you buy in the store is often embossed and layered and cushy, and it's actually often different companies producing these two different kinds of toilet paper. If you were making toilet paper for the commercial market and now you want to send it to drugstores and grocery stores, you've got to make new contracts. You've got to figure out new shipping routes. Who's going to be driving that toilet paper? Who's going to be dropping it off and when, how it'll be priced, how it'll be packaged. That will take time. It's not the only product that works like this. Grocery stores have been selling out of bananas. The bananas that you get at your workplace, you know, at the cafeteria, they are small and they come loose, whereas the ones you buy in the store are big and bright and they come in bunches. And again, we have two different supply chains there. And then there's the beer industry where a company like Anheuser-Busch, usually a lot of its beer is put into kegs and sent to restaurants and bars. Well, that is kind of out the window.
BOB GARFIELD Another big lesson we learned is that in our overheated, enraged nation, everything but everything is politics. Even when hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake, people are still moved like pawns by evasions and lies. And now it has finally come to pass that trusted media outlets know they are obliged to call out the lives. Other influential outlets, merely amplify them.
NEWS REPORT An Arizona man died after taking chemicals that he thought would protect him from a coronavirus. And his wife is in the hospital this morning. The couple took chloroquine phosphate. Now, that is similar, but not exactly the same as the prescription drug chloroquine, something that the president had talked about. [END CLIP]
REPORTER What would be your message to the American public?.
MAN Don't believe anything the president says [END CLIP]
REPORTER Now, why would you send a lie like that to your followers?
TRUMP I know nothing about it
REPORTER You retweeted it.
TRUMP That was a retweet, that was a opinion of somebody.
REPORTER but -.
TRUMP And that was a retweet. I'll put it out there. People can decide for themselves I don't take a position.
REPORTER I don't get that. You're the president, you're not like someone's crazy uncle. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD According to a Cornell University study, the president was the largest driver of the coronavirus misinformation infodemic. But he found able amplifiers in Sean Hannity, Laura Ingram and Rush Limbaugh and countless politicians. Also making a striking cameo vaccine science denier Judy Mikovits, who sold a heap of books after starring in the 30 minute video Plandemic.
NARRATOR The man who is heading the pandemic task force, was involved in a cover up.
JUDY MIKOVITS He directed the cover up and in fact, everybody else was paid off and paid off big time. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Plandemic fueled the paranoid notion that the COVID-19 virus was concocted in American and Chinese labs. That flu vaccines actually increase your chance of getting COVID-19 as did wearing a mask.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In time of plague, lies may kill you, but the truth won't set you free. We've also learned this year about the perils of pandemic media overconsumption and the limits of our battered psyches of even the luckiest of us to stay focused on the devastation. Even those whose job it is to sound the alarm.
MICAH LOEWINGER You know, there was a statistic this week, and I'm sure by the time this goes to air, the statistic will be worse. But it was that more people had died on a day this week than on 9/11.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This earlier this month from our own producer / reporter Micah Lowinger.
MICAH LOEWINGER And on 9/11, when I was a little boy, I cried a lot and I was very disturbed. And it shook up the way that I saw the world and. I haven't. Felt that intensely about this pandemic in a really long time, maybe at the very beginning, but the days just keep going and the world is telling me like, hey, there's as much tragedy as the biggest tragedy in recent American history. And so I should feel. An equivalent amount of sadness, and I really don't and I want to and I understand it. And it's our job on the show and as citizens to understand it and to care, but if I'm being utterly honest, I just don't feel that sadness every day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I asked what good it did, the dead and the dying to feel their pain.
MICAH LOEWINGER You know, it's something like a bell curve. If you feel nothing, you do nothing. If you feel too much, you do nothing. But in the middle, there's some kind of sweet spot of action and of productivity and inspiration and motivation. And I fear I'm too far to the inactive side of the bell curve. That doing nothing, feeling nothing. You know, I'm going to survive. I'm going to be fine. The people around me, for the most part, are going to be fine and do OK. This is not an existential moment for me, but that doesn't mean I don't have a responsibility.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, 2020's lethal lies and terrible truths about the uprising.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
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