Mike Buffington

Mike Buffington

editor

The Jackson Herald

I’ve been in the newspaper business for a long time, but I’ve never see a time as we’ve experienced in the last seven days.

As a kid, I watched as the nation mourned the JFK assassination, saw the tragic events of 1968 on television, watched the moon landing, saw the gas crisis and listened to hours of Watergate hearings.

Later, there was the Iran Embassy takeover, the fall of the Soviet Union, the invasion of Iraq, 9-11 and the great financial crisis of 2008.

Each of those events was a singular moment in our history and each had a lasting impact on our nation.

I have a sense that this moment, the virus crisis, may equal or surpass all of those with its potential to restructure our social, political, economic and medical standards.

•••

On March 12, everything changed as people in the U.S. began to realize the threat of COVID-19 could be serious.

We knew it was coming, of course. Since mid-January, the world has watched as the outbreak hit China, then spread throughout Asia, the Middle East and then Europe. Health experts told us for weeks that it would be only a matter of time until the U.S. would see cases turn up.

By early March, the West Coast got hit, especially Washington State.

Still, there has been a sense of denial, a feeling that whatever this virus is it wouldn’t be too bad, or affect us too much. Our nation's top leaders played down the virus and some politicians said it was just a "hoax."

Despite that, medical professionals warned us — in very stark terms — that the nation should take this threat seriously.

I’m not sure exactly what happened on March 12. Maybe it was the president’s address the night before when he stopped all European flights coming into the U.S., a shocking and unexpected move by a president who had spent weeks downplaying the virus as no big deal.

Whatever the cause, things changed on March 12 — many people woke up and knew something big was happening, something surreal.

•••

Not everyone got that memo, however. Some continued to downplay the seriousness of the virus epidemic.

I saw that Thursday at a meeting of local emergency and health officials where GEMA field coordinator Don Strength pooh-poohed the seriousness of the virus to a room overflowing with people who are having to deal with this crisis.

He compared it to the flu and said it was being hyped by the media. He was arrogant and condescending both in words and tone. He suggested it was nothing that a little Ibuprofen couldn't deal with.

A lot of people seemed to agree with that view over the weekend. We drove around Jackson County Saturday night to get a sense of what was happening. Most restaurants and bars were open and crowded. Not much social distancing was going on that we could tell.

And on Sunday, some local churches didn't cancel services, seemingly unconcerned about the virus and it's potential spread among the flock.

By Monday, all of that seemed to shift again. Many restaurants announced they were closing, or going to drive-thru and pick-up service only. A Jefferson brewpub said it would only open to sell growlers to their customers. Local governments began to cancel meetings and public hearings. The court system began to limit its operations.

That shift could be because this area's first virus cases were announced over the weekend at the Braselton hospital and in neighboring Clarke County. That's hitting close to home.

•••

One of the things that has really chafed my cheeks during all of this has been the effort by a few know-nothings to blame the media for whipping up  "fake" crisis.

For weeks, that idea came from our top government officials in Washington D.C. Last week, that notion came from GEMA here in Jackson County when Mr. Strength suggested the media was just hyping the virus concerns (see other story.)

And it came over the weekend from a local Jefferson pastor who, in a video to his congregation, suggested the media was just whipping up fear.

We in the press always seem to get blamed when people don't like what we report. We get branded as "fake news" by politicians any time they don't like a story.

Frankly, I'm tired of being the whipping post for those who spew anti-media rhetoric. It's our job to ask questions, like why did the U.S. fail to have enough Coronavirus tests ready to deal with this crisis? It's our job to report what doctors and medical leaders are saying about the virus and whether or not it is a threat to our lives. It's our job to report about the economic impact this crisis could have on our economy.

We don't make this stuff up. And unlike social media sites, the working press doesn't peddle rumors and misinformation just to get clicks.

The press is trying to report a very difficult story in a very difficult environment. We would be negligent to downplay this medical emergency just to appease the political class and their minions.

Most members of the press believe that if the public has accurate information, citizens will be able to make better decisions for themselves and their families. Politicians, on the other hand, want to control the flow of information to suit their own agendas. When they can't control the message, they shout "fake news" in an effort to destroy the credibility of real reporting.

The press isn't the bad guy in this crisis and those who are saying otherwise, including politicians, preachers and low-level government officials, are simply ignorant and lazy.

•••

Here's the reality: Nobody knows just how bad this virus may turn out to be. We do know what it's doing in other countries, such as Italy where the healthcare system is overwhelmed with sick and dying patients.

And we know that viruses don't give a damn what political party you belong to, or your status in life. We're all at risk.

For those who don't get sick, there will still be a huge economic fallout from this crisis. None of us are going to escape unchanged. The contours of our lives is being dramatically altered.

None of that is to say we should panic, or wallow in fear.

But we do need to be prepared for some difficult days ahead. In the meantime, we should protect the most vulnerable in our society, especially the elderly who seem to be most at risk with this virus.

Today, we're being told to hunker-down. But as a community, we should stand together until this storm is over.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers and editor of The Jackson Herald.

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