Dictatorial sway over the press so alarmed Carl W. Ackerman, the first dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, that he set out to map it. From his office in Morningside Heights, Ackerman observed a “world-wide epidemic of governmental domination” radiating out of China and the Soviet Union and spreading throughout Asia, Europe, and parts of Africa. By the time he finished, in late 1937, pockets of North and South America, including Quebec and Alberta, had already been infected with “varying degrees of control, censorship and intimidation.”
The New York Times ran Ackerman’s map on January 3, 1938, and was followed by hundreds of other papers — from the Globe and Mail to the Lincoln Evening Journal, from the Oakland Tribune to the Orlando Sentinel — that either reprinted or described it for their readers. In today’s parlance, “The Black Plague of the Twentieth Century” was a cartographic meme that went viral.
“As I studied the content of the daily political news,” Ackerman wrote of his map, “I learned that its effect upon the state of mind of the nation was to raise doubt in regard to the efficacy of democratic institutions.” This ailment was especially pronounced when the world faced existential threats. As we know all too well, we’ve yet to find a vaccine.
On February 2 this year, when there were 14,557 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and just 146 outside of China, the World Health Organization diagnosed a global “infodemic,” which it described as “an over-abundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance.” We might chart this infodemic in ways that Ackerman would find familiar: Disinformation campaigns emanating out of China and Russia that suggest the virus was developed in U.S. labs. That it’s caused by 5G networks. That it’s a Deep State ploy to control populations. That it’s all a hoax. Then there’s plain old censorship, epitomized by Turkmenistan, which in late March went so far as to ban the word “coronavirus” from state-controlled media as well as health brochures. As Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, put it on April 3, “We are facing an infodemic with dangerous impact on public health.”
What would no doubt surprise and alarm Ackerman is how far this infodemic has spread in North America. Wear masks in public, we’re told one day. Don’t bother, we’re told another. Besides, hydroxychloroquine might actually solve everything. An abundance of dubious and contradictory information can be just as dangerous and dispiriting as the lack of it.
And then there’s the intimidator-in-chief. On March 20, an NBC News reporter lobbed an easy question at Donald Trump: “What do you say to Americans who are scared?” It’s the type of question that Ontario premier Doug Ford, looking more statesmanlike by the day, would have knocked out of the park that’s now off limits. Trump, however, is no Doug Ford. “I say that you’re a terrible reporter,” he responded. “That’s what I say. I think that’s a very nasty question.” A few days later, a journalist from CBS News asked if “political interests” were behind the president’s push (later abandoned) to get the country open for business by Easter. “I think there are certain people who would like it to not open so quickly,” Trump shot back. “There are people in your profession that would like that to happen, I think it’s very clear.” Comforting fireside chats these daily tirades are not.
Ackerman’s map was so popular that David A. Smart and Arnold Gingrich featured a full-spread adaptation in their inaugural issue of Ken magazine, in April 1938. Their version, colourfully drawn by Will Cotton, features caricatures of the “Carriers of the New Black Plague,” so that we might know whose brand of misinformation we are fighting. Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and other usual suspects are among the most dangerous “adult bipeds, each equipped with distended ego and outsize adrenal glands.” How is it that today’s president of the United States would feel right at home among that map’s “mangy motley pack” of little strongmen?
Intimidation and lies don’t care about national borders. They just spread. Whether we call it a black plague or an infodemic, the disease is the same. Sadly, COVID-19 is not the only threat we need to knock down.