Politicians and journalists will sometimes mischaracterize their opponents’ views and then argue against those phantoms rather than real views. It is a cheap but effective political and journalistic trick. Medical news sources have adopted this tactic during the pandemic, with disastrous consequences for public trust in public health and medicine.
The latest example comes from Medpage Today, a medical news site popular among doctors. Many physicians get their pandemic information from Medpage Today.
Once trusted sources that provided the latest medical information from a variety of perspectives, medical news sites like Medpage Today have turned into political mouthpieces for governments that imposed unsuccessful lockdown policies resulting in more than 750,000 U.S. Covid deaths and enormous collateral damage.
A population panicked by public health messaging closed schools and skipped basic medical care resulting in worse cancer, cardiovascular diseases, mental health, and educational outcomes. Universal lockdowns dragged out the pandemic over a longer time period.
Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries implemented more limited restrictions, focusing instead on protecting older, high-risk citizens. The result? Scandinavia has lower Covid mortality than most other European countries and less collateral harm. In the United States, Florida shifted to a similar approach, resulting in a lower age-adjusted Covid mortality than the national average and less collateral harm.
In October 2020, with Sunetra Gupta of Oxford University, we authored the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD). With multiple concrete proposals, we argued for better protection of high-risk older people while letting low-risk children and young adults live near-normal lives to minimize the collateral public health harm. Ours is a middle path between lockdowns and a let-it-rip strategy.
Unfortunately, Dr. Anthony Fauci and other President Trump government officials (save Dr. Scott Atlas) failed to engage seriously with our ideas. Fauci labeled the GBD’s focused protection strategy “nonsense,” claiming it was impossible to implement well-established measures to protect the elderly.
Indeed, the lockdowns did not protect the elderly; nearly 80 percent of COVID deaths were among people age 65 and up. Instead, they protected younger, low-risk, work-from-home professionals such as administrators, journalists, and scientists.
In a recent article about the newly formed Brownstone Institute, Medpage Today takes this pro-lockdown propaganda one step further by falsely claiming that the GBD “promoted the spread of COVID-19.” That is just as dishonest as claiming that work-from-home journalists promoted the spread of Covid-19 by ordering home delivery of pizza.
Medpage Today also falsely claims the previous White House “embraced” the Great Barrington Declaration. Public health scientists have an obligation to politicians of all stripes. In late August 2020, we met with President Trump, Vice President Pence, and others at the White House, with no effect.
The federal government and most governors continued to rely on the advice of the White House Coronavirus Task Force members Drs. Deborah Birx and Fauci. Our failure to sway White House officials was one reason we decided to write the Great Barrington Declaration a month later.
The most dangerous example of the politicization of medical news is the attempt to smear opponents with the false anti-vaccine label. Contrary to the claim by Medpage Today, the benefits of COVID vaccines are “readily accessible on the Brownstone website.”
The three GBD authors all favor vaccines, two have long careers as vaccine researchers, and none have spread any “vaccine misinformation.” To publish a claim that falsely alleges that the anti-vaccine movement has the support of professors of medicine and epidemiology at Harvard, Stanford, and Oxford universities is damaging for vaccine confidence. Such a false charge is highly irresponsible, damages public health, and is unworthy of Medpage Today.
All journalists can make a mistake, but Medpage Today has refused to correct these errors. Several members of its editorial board of physicians and scientists, such as Dr. Marty Makary and Dr. Vinay Prasad, have written excellent articles during the pandemic.
Surprisingly, the editorial board does not have much say over the journalistic content, as we have learned it was the non-medical editorial staff who refused to make the factual corrections. Just like the non-scientist Big Tech “fact-checkers” who censor public health scientists, journalists have taken over the dissemination of medical information, blindly following Fauci’s edicts.
We think the politicization of medical news has led to increasing distrust in public health and medical professionals. If public trust in medicine is to be improved, trade publications have an obligation to provide accurate medical and scientific information from a variety of perspectives.
The first step should be to correct errors, a minimal obligation of all ethical journalism. A second step requires more balanced reporting about the pandemic by, for example, honestly reporting about the success of the pandemic strategies employed by Florida and the Scandinavian countries. The alternative is a continuing erosion of trust in medicine and public health.
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