NY Post Writer Omits Wilson's Role in Spread of Spanish Flu, Repeats Tired Reagan/AIDS Myths

February 14th, 2017 3:58 AM

The New York Post, though usually perceived as a right-leaning newspaper, has room for columnists from the "other side" — including selective and truth-challenged ones like Jennifer Wright.

Wright's February 11 column covers "some of the most gruesome plagues" in human history, in the process promoting a new book that is quite a departure from her previous ventures "covering sex and dating." Much of her work may be fine, but two of her topics, the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak and AIDS, are clearly marred by her political blinders.

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It doesn't take very long to find evidence of the existence of said blinders at Wright's Twitter account. In fact, one only needs to go back through four days' worth of tweets (with minor profanity cleanups):

  • (ridiculing conservative collegians' complaints about marginalization and poor treatment) "Blacks: Shot by police; Women: Denied health care; Immigrants: Taken from families; GOP: Half of sorority unfriended them on Facebook."
  • "Trump voters didn't care whether Hillary handled classified docs securely. They just wanted a reason to say 'THAT'S why I hate that b*tch.'"
  • "Support Our Troops — During the increasingly inevitable military coup."
  • (describing Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway, and Steve Bannon) The Liar, The B*tch and The Warlord."

The Post can apparently handle having writers with diverse opinions. Carlos Slim's Manhattan blog, aka the New York Times, ought to consider embracing such open-mindedness.

Given her political outlook, it hardly seems coincidental that Wright's section on the Spanish flu has a glaring omission and fails to name an historically important and horrid U.S. law associated with a certain U.S. president (bolds are mine throughout this post):

If you don’t allow for investigative journalism, people die. There’s no clearer time to witness this fact than during 1918 when the Spanish Flu broke out.

... But if you’ve never heard of it, don’t worry — that’s because journalists were afraid to report on it.

The plague broke out during WWI after a morale law had been put in place in 1917. The law dictated that journalists shouldn’t report anything negative about the US government that might demoralize the populace — for instance, that a disease was spreading through the populace that they had no idea how to combat. If you defied the law, you could go to jail for up to 20 years. The epidemic was called the Spanish Flu not because it originated there (it most likely came from Kansas) but because Spanish newspapers, who had no such laws, reported on it with great frequency as early as May 1918.

Back in the US, as late as September 1918 the El Paso Herald was still running articles like “Vicious Rumors of Influenza Epidemic Will Be Combatted.” This ignorance led to calamitous results in late September in Philadelphia when thousands gathered for a parade. A health expert named Dr. Howard Anders begged newspapers to warn against gathering in close proximity, but they refused. By early October, 117 Philadelphians had contracted the disease, prompting the Philadelphia Inquirer to write, “Worry is useless! Talk of cheerful things instead of the disease.” By Oct. 10, 759 people in Philadelphia had died. The disease would ultimately kill 675,000 Americans. It was never cured. It simply faded away as mysteriously as it broke out. Really, it would have been better if people had worried a little more.

It also would have been better if Wright had told readers the name of the specific "morale law" involved, i.e., the Espionage Act of 1917. It was promoted by Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, whom she also did not name.

As seen in a detailed analysis of the Act's provisions and history published in 2003, Wilson insisted that during wartime, "authority to exercise censorship over the press ... is absolutely necessary to the public safety."

Congress wasn't convinced. It defeated the Act's original "press censorship" provision "by a vote of 184 to 144, with 36 Democrats joining the Republican opposition," and sharply narrowed other civil liberties-threatening passages. When the Act passed, it:

... made it a crime when the nation is at war for any person: (a) willfully to "make or convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere" with the military success of the United States or "to promote the success of its enemies"; (b) willfully to "cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty,in the military or naval forces of the United States"; or (c) willfully to "obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States."

The Espionage Act also gave the Postmaster General the power to exclude from the mails any writing or publication violating the act or "advocating ... treason, insurrection or forcible resistance."

Wright was incorrect in claiming that the law "dictated that journalists shouldn’t report anything negative about the US government that might demoralize the populace." In fact, Congress thought it had limited Wilson's encroachment with "a carefully considered enactment designed to deal with very specific military concerns." But in the real world, it didn't work out that way.

Wartime fervor, combined with the Wilson administration's publicly expressed deep "disappointment in the legislation as enacted," made "Most federal judges ... 'intent upon meting out quick justice and severe punishment to the disloyal, and no details of legislative interpretation or appeals to the First Amendment were likely 'to stand in the way.'" The press quickly figured out that toeing the line made more sense than risking shutdown. Journalists' failure to adequately cover or even recognize the Spanish flu can thus be traced directly to the heavy-handed Democratic presidential administration of Woodrow Wilson.

Wright's clear reluctance to tag Wilson contrasts sharply with her blithe blaming of Ronald Reagan and his administration for the spread of AIDS. Her mythology doesn't withstand scrutiny, and includes one drop-dead obvious error:

If you want an example where everyone does everything wrong — basically the polar opposite of the handling of polio — then look back at the history of the AIDS virus.

AIDS — acquired immune deficiency syndrome — first appeared in the US in 1980. In 1982, when the Reagan administration was asked about it, they ignored it.

Reagan himself didn’t discuss AIDS until 1985, by that time it had killed tens of thousands. That same year, he cut federal funding to combat the disease.

Let's take Wright's fictions bolded above one at a time.

Someone in the Reagan administration must have mentioned AIDS during fiscal 1981, because the disease got $8 million of federal funding in fiscal 1982, the first year after it was detected in "young gay men in Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco."

As the Media Research Center, which has done extensive work to fight the leftist smears of Reagan, has observed:

  • "Reagan's secretary of Health and Human Services in 1983, Margaret Heckler, declared AIDS her department's 'number one priority,'" when the two-year death toll had reached 550, or 0.6 percent of Americans killed in auto accidents during that time (and whose fault is it that the New York Times only gave Heckler's declaration Page A18 coverage?).
  • "Try finding Walter Mondale 'mentioning AIDS publicly' when he ran against Reagan in 1984" (you won't).
  • More broadly, "Using this phony-baloney spin line - that federal policy hinges exclusively on the presidential bully pulpit - is an exercise in liberal hyperbole over hard data."

This takes us to Wright's 1985 funding-cut claim, which is utterly false and requires a correction:


Wright claims that "the only reason this plague didn’t spread faster is due to groups of largely afflicted individuals like ACT UP and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, who protested and fought relentlessly for their right to live" — as if funding that went from virtually nothing to over $900 million in six years was irrelevant.

One certainly hopes that Jennifer Wright did a far better job recounting the history of the other plagues in her column and her book than she did with the Spanish flu and AIDS.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.