It is barely worth mentioning what a poor job 24-hour cable news media do of delivering substantive news. In real news' place we get a cloying mixture of celebrity news, personality-driven political "coverage," and bald efforts to create, or fan the flames of, mass hysteria. Common household products are killing your kids! Immigrants are coming in sweaty, brown, job-taking, daughter-raping droves! Terrorists are lurking behind the Wal-Mart! Know the 10 signs that your middle schooler is involved in a satanic gay sex orgy cult!

Cue the CNN masterpiece "Docs list who would be allowed to die in a catastrophe" from this week. The story (and its corresponding TV segment, of which I could not find a video clip) details the manner in which hospitals are prepared to respond to a pandemic or disaster that overwhelms the healthcare system. It's laden with even-handed gems like:

To prepare, hospitals should designate a triage team with the Godlike task of deciding who will and who won't get lifesaving care, the task force wrote. Those out of luck are the people at high risk of death and a slim chance of long-term survival.

Wow, this is all very shocking. Doctors – real ones, not those cool ones on House – sitting around playing god and grimly plotting the deaths of millions. Beware, America. Soon your doctor-turned-Soup Nazi will sternly point in your direction and declare "No treatment for you."

My question is how or why, in the first week of May 2008, this is news. What this story describes is a simple triage system, and it's a basic emergency management plan that every healthcare provider on the planet has – and has had for decades. Hospitals and doctors are, and have been, trained and prepared to deal with a pandemic or major disaster that would overwhelm the ability of the system to treat every single patient according to severity. In such instances, patients are treated according to their prospects for long-term survival. If a bomb levels the Superdome during a Saints game and 100,000 people show up at the hospital at once, the patients with severe and likely mortal injuries will not be treated before people who are badly hurt but can be saved with immediate care. If vaccines or medication to treat a disease are scarce, the 23 year old mother of two gets treated before the 91 year old guy on dialysis. This is not new. This is not shocking

While the CNN story darkly hints at "lists" of who gets to live and die (Blacks? Jews? Short people? Muslims? White males?) the truth is pretty banal. The list includes people over 85, patients with severe trauma, patients over 60 with 3rd-degree burns on more than 40% of their body, and people with advanced mental impairment (late stage Alzheimer's, for example). I know that this "story" is intended to provoke moral outrage, but if a catastrophe overwhelms the system I'm OK with bumping the 70 year old with 75% burn coverage to the bottom of the list. If resources become scarce, the person who is going to require $1 million worth of care and die anyway should not be treated first. Shocking, I know.

Hurricanes, earthquakes, nuclear war, and a global disease pandemic have inspired healthcare providers to make these plans long before CNN decided to report on them. Therefore one of two things is true of the coverage. It is either entirely ignorant of the fact that this is not a new phenomenon – i.e., the work of a 25 year old reporter who skidded out of Rutgers journalism school with a C average and no understanding of how to do research – or it is interested solely in shock value. Neither would surprise me and both are equally embarassing.


  • Ah, this post reminds me of my fond memories of the fourth grade, when I would get on my bike after school and head down the street to my weekly satanic gay sex orgy cult meetings. Those were really the halcyon days.

  • I think part of the reason we see so many of these gems is the same reason you may get pulled over for going 5 mph over the speed limit at the end of the month – they need to reach their quota. The fact is, the vast majority of the time, there is not enough important news to warrant the amount of airtime that the major news outlets have to squander. So, (instead of using the time for something more important – such as displaying static for example), they search around for something that can be sensationalized enough to fill the void. Just another reason to not bother turning on the TV.

  • To pass the time on the treadmill at the gym, I flip between CNN and CNN Headline News. But with all the witty banter, fluff pieces, and investment firm ads, I usually end up with Walker, Texas Ranger and often find I am significantly more informed. About roundhouse kicks.

  • The problem is not so much that we have a lot of 24/7 news channels as it is that those that run the news channels think what they show has to be entertaining. There would be plenty of hard news for them to put on 24/7 but that would be boring. The important thing is to keep the people entertained (think bread and circuses) not informed. If the people really knew what was happening, it would be torches and pitchforks time.

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