A few days ago, a good friend of mine, the brilliant John Barry, called me giddy about his op-ed in the New York Times illustrating the historical bridges between the COVID-19 crisis and the 1918 Spanish flu. The op-ed was excellent, a singularly informative read. Too bad the people who need to read it never will.
My logic is simple: We are at war and in this war it does not matter how many informed people we can reach, it only matters how many uninformed Americans we can reach before it is too late.
The media is doing a great job, generally, offering insightful coverage. President Donald Trump, on the other end of the spectrum, is holding near-daily press conferences where he mixes fact, fiction and hyperbole. Increasingly, people are arguing that the media should stop carrying these press conferences live because they are so often filled with misinformation. This debate, while understandable, misses the forest for the trees. How many Americans do you know — who aren’t journalists — tune in to White House briefings in the middle of the day?
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If we keep using our best communicators and talents to primarily speak with audiences that already know the danger of the current moment, it will be like shouting down a well and expecting anything other than some snakes to hear us. It’s time for a complete, scorched-earth change in strategy. It is time for the talents of Hollywood, giant tech conglomerates, advertising and public relations firms to show the same valor as the doctors and nurses fighting on the front lines. We need to create a coherent wartime messaging machine whose roots reach the furthest corners of America itself.
And that means even reaching out to the truly odious, or the flat out ignorant folks of the United States, because if they all get sick, the tentacles of this thing will wrap around us all.
Let’s start the chain of command with Hollywood. Instead of riding this thing out in their Bel-Air mansions, the Scorsese's, Speilberg's and Soderbergh's of the world should be using their talent and resources to create a piece of propaganda-like advertising so compelling you cannot pluck it from your brain once it’s viewed.
Hollywood can pass the baton on to Silicon Valley where tech giants like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Snapchat have the ability to microtarget those who still feel invincible as well as those who still may have no idea what’s coming.
Here’s a thought: All those young people wrapped up in this false notion that they are just fine should have to watch an arousing 30-second coronavirus hygiene video on Pornhub before they can begin their viewing pleasure.
On the flip side, who is digitally targeting the working-class black mother in Fulton County, Georgia who may not have access to WiFi in her home? Those who live in privileged bubbles like myself might not think so, but there is an entire America that does not have access to the resources needed to be informed about this crisis. And it is not an uncommon theme that the poorest among us end up bearing the brunt of a national meltdown.
The media can also be more mindful of its own bubbles. Our public relations experts and strategists should use their knowledge of the media landscape to create a pipeline that sends doctors and public health experts to local news organizations, especially in communities that still deny the severity of COVID-19.
Look at evangelical Christians as an example. A recent poll showed that over 70 percent of white evangelicals believe the media is exaggerating the coronavirus threat. That could mean tens of millions of Americans do not yet believe this is serious. We should be pitching doctors to Southern Sinclair TV stations and digital outlets like Christianity Today, which just a few days ago reported that a pastor will not stop holding services because of COVID-19.
Make no mistake: This virus has America backed against the wall, and it is the responsibility of every organ of our media, technological, and digital landscape to defeat it. And that’s with or without the help of the president.
During the Battle of Chattanooga in the Civil War, the Union’s army was backed against a wall by the Confederates with little hope, and no guidance coming from headquarters. The army needed to occupy Missionary Ridge if they were to overwhelm the Confederacy and survive. As Confederate soldiers circled closer like vultures, an 18-year-old boy — none other than Arthur MacArthur — picked up the Union flag unasked, absorbed two bullets, and charged the ridge with no orders. He just went. And they won.
In this war, like that 18-year-old boy, it is our responsibility to band together, unasked, and revive the American machine that has always responded in times of great peril. Because if we do, not even hell can stop us.
Fight. Fight. Fight.