The Asian flu outbreak resulted in the deaths of 10 rural Baja California residents. That’s old news but not fake news.
The shutdown from the coronavirus epidemic has given me more spare time to work on my sports history book projects, including a history of the Western Hockey League’s San Diego Gulls. I was filing a 1970 story about sports arena operations and noticed the article about the Asian flu deaths on the same microfilm printout page.
My investigative reporting is historical research, not watchdog journalism. I’m taking care of some phone interviews as well as some filing, but the libraries are now closed so I cannot conduct any microfilm or other library research.
Watchdog journalism is also adversely affected by the closures. The Freedom of Information Act requires the provision of public records but does not require that public agencies do so on nights or weekends of government holidays. In my case, the only public records I’ve obtained have been death certificates. I’ve also obtained some for my own ancestors as well as to confirm information for book projects, and that source is now shut off. Those who desire public records regarding elected or appointed public officials are also unable to obtain the desired information.
Newspaper or magazine articles on microfilm and public records can be used not only to advance a book or a case against a public official but also to confirm or deny claims. The shutdown thus could be causing an outbreak of fake news.
At this point, readers cannot verify my claim about the 1970 Asian flu deaths. Because I have the printout at home, I will also claim that it is on page B-3 of the March 14, 1970, San Diego Union, but readers also must take my word for that at this time.
The internet can be inaccurate, and there are other reasons for relying on microfilm rather than the internet. One of those reasons is that the historical information I am seeking usually isn’t on the internet. Going through microfilm also allows for finds of material I had not anticipated. The Asian flu story has been added to that.
While going through other sections of the San Diego Union, I came across an article about the retirement of the Food and Drug Administration director who denied the approval of thalidomide in the United States. Any comparisons of an upcoming coronavirus vaccine to thalidomide must currently be argued without that article. There is the trustworthiness of a person’s character and the trustworthiness of a person’s memory. Since I went through more than 30 years of microfilm, saying that the article was printed in 1974 and that the FDA decision to deny thalidomide was in 1959 is a guess rather than a claim. Once the libraries reopen, fact-checkers can determine what exactly happened when thalidomide was being considered for FDA approval and how that compares to the process of a coronavirus vaccine. Until then no arguments either way can be verified or disproven.
The shutdown of libraries and public records offices hinders the ability to confirm the accuracy of claims and increases the vulnerability to fake news.
Joe Naiman can be reached by email at email@example.com.