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Media and Journalism

It Must be Tough Being Dr. Fauci

Dr. Anthony Fauci testified before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions yesterday. During the testimony he expressed concern about opening the country too soon (which is probably a wise stance to take as a public health official testifying under oath and before the world scientific community).

For his trouble, Dr. Fauci (who has served the country for 36 years), was at least implicitly accused of holding himself out to be the ultimate decision maker on when the country should open again. Senator Rand Paul made a reasonably good point about why it is wise to re-open schools as soon as we can but then ended his statement with how Dr. Fauci is not the “end-all and be all” and then went on to imply that Dr. Fauci has positioned himself to be “the one person that gets to make the decision” (apparently about when to re-open schools or the economy). I did not hear Dr. Fauci hold himself out as sole decision maker on when schools would be re-opening and he did not seem to indicate that he was the “end-all and be all” of anything either.

Dr. Fauci politely stated (for the record) that he does not consider himself an “end all and be all” or a decision maker in these matters. He then stated that he is a scientist and gives advice to help inform others who are making decisions related to public health.

It is just hard to be a scientist in today’s sound-byte “digitally delivered” news content world. Poor Dr. Fauci was just trying to provide his opinion as a public health professional. It is too bad he had to suffer these comments.

This is why I don’t watch the news content much during the day. I just go into my office and try to invent the technology of tomorrow today. So during my lunch break I heard this testimony and then retreated to the world of bits and bytes.

As a consequence, it did not surprise me that by 4:30 P.M. the stock market was down 400+ points and the (CNN, CNBC) headlines were screaming: “Dr. Fauci paints dire picture of re-opening” and “Fauci says that schools opening in the Fall is a ‘bridge too far’” (he did not say that at all). I also saw the same headlines repeated on the Boston media when I awoke and turned on the television at 5 AM this morning.

During his testimony, Dr. Fauci was asked the direct question about vaccines being available when universities open in the Fall and other schools re-open in the same time period (presumably public and private high schools as well as Colleges and Universities). He said (and I saw this myself on video replay): “having or presuming a vaccine by the Fall is a ‘bridge too far'”. This is a lot different than him saying that schools/colleges/universities cannot open in the Fall with appropriate social distancing, hygiene measures, etc.

Dr. Fauci had to clarify this when it was clear that his words were mis-construed, but by then the “genie was out of the bottle” and the “journalists” in our midst were pronouncing that Dr. Fauci does not support educational institutions re-opening in the Fall of 2020.

I understand that it is important that media outlets “get eyeballs” on their content (and grab our attention). On the other hand, it seems like some editorial oversight would be useful to make the message match the context of Dr. Fauci’s comments. In this case it was rather irresponsible reporting to state a headline that was not backed up by the expert’s actual statements.

It must be tough being Dr. Fauci, because he is just trying to give his advice from a scientific perspective and not get us too hopeful or too pessimistic. As a person who has to communicate technical topics to audiences I am sympathetic to how eager the media are to boil things down to sound bytes. Sometimes it is not their fault when they state something incorrectly. In this case though it was pretty clear what Dr. Fauci was saying and for all of our sakes the media should be a lot more careful.

Back to the technology of tomorrow today for me…….

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