Epidemics, Inoculation and God’s Will

By Diane WinstonKnight Chair in Media and Religion, USC A deadly virus, a controversial antigen, a hot news story–sounds like … Continued

By Diane Winston
Knight Chair in Media and Religion, USC

A deadly virus, a controversial antigen, a hot news story–sounds like the breaking coverage of next week’s roll-out of the H1N1 vaccine. Health officials hope that mass inoculations will prevent the spread of swine flu. But stories swirling through legacy, online and social media claim the shots are risky, causing Guillain-Barre syndrome, heart attacks and, in some cases, death.

A similar storm roiled the populace some 300 years ago. In the spring of 1721, a smallpox epidemic gripped Boston–the sixth time that the deadly disease had ravaged the settlement since its founding almost 100 years earlier. During an outbreak in the 1670s, 700 people, or twelve percent of the population, had died from the plague. This time, it would strike 6,000 of the city’s 10,500 residents and claim 800 lives.

Even more might have died if Cotton Mather, a leading Puritan cleric and an amateur scientist, had not forcefully advocated for inoculation. The practice was new to the Western world; Mather had read about injecting healthy people with small amounts of a disease and knew slaves who had been inoculated in Africa. But when he suggested the idea to Boston’s doctors, all but one of the city’s ten physicians decried the procedure as dangerous and misguided.

Mather and his backers persevered, and as the debate deepened, medical fault lines paralleled religious and political divisions. Anglicans led the fight against inoculation, arguing that the practice was medically unsafe and theologically unsound since it challenged God’s sovereignty over human life. Eager to win support, the anti-inoculation camp started The New England Courant, a newspaper dedicated to attacking Mather, his allies and their campaign for preventive medicine. Supporters of both the British episcopacy and crown, the Courant’s writers opposed the Puritan majority’s religious independence and feared its nascent bent for political autonomy.

(N.B. James Franklin, Benjamin’s older brother, started the Courant. Initially a printer’s apprentice, Ben eventually succeeded James and ran the paper until its demise in 1727.)

In the guise of refuting Mather’s experiment, the Courant valorized divine authority and an acceptance of human limits. But other papers trumpeted the cleric’s call: God gave human beings the ability to reason in order to better their situation. Over the next several months, an all-out newspaper war used the disagreement over vaccination as a proxy for debating societal divisions over political power, individual autonomy and the role of God in everyday life.

Mather’s camp won the day when facts bore out his speculation: the fatality rate for those who were inoculated was much lower than for those who had not received shots. But even after the epidemic ended, the New England Courant kept up the fight–until its backers were finally worn down. The argument, however, remains salient today. Some believers still prefer to put their trust in God rather than in doctors and their medicine. Others see providence in the humanity’s scientific and technological breakthroughs.

I, for one, find reassurance in the longevity and role of the Fourth Estate. Then as now, journalism was a vital part of community life. Colonial papers took strong stands; editors at the time had no stake in objectivity since God, the ultimate cause and answer, rendered it beside the point. Today, for different reasons, objectivity and other journalistic axioms have been turned upside down by new media, citizen journalists and evolving business models. But as the smallpox crisis of 1721 shows, the underlying substance of social and political debates doesn’t change that much. The news may be delivered in different ways and the fine points of the story might be distinct from days gone by, but old tensions around the idea of “progress” persist. It’s still up to the consumer to weigh the information — notwithstanding sensationalized coverage, make an informed decision — choosing whether or not to inoculate herself against the latest contagion.

Diane Winston holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the USC Annenberg School for Communication.

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  • ccnl1

    This inane belief in miracles/god’s intervention is at the core of the problem. Miracles do not happen since miracles violate “god’s” natural law. If “god” were involved in our daily lives, cures would not be needed since no one would ever get sick. And there is no medical documentation of NT miracles because there was no diagnostic tools for said sicknesses in first century Palestine. And many NT “miracles” are single attestations and appear to be added to the NT to embellish Jesus’ biography. And as noted previously, the “miracles” were added to the NT to compete with the local “voodooers of the hoodoo”, the resurrection was added to compete with Roman and Greek gods and the “pretty wingie thingies” and “demons of the demented added to continue the fear and superstitions of the ancients!!!!!”I am getting my annual flu shot tomorrow. And will be getting my H1N1 vaccine as soon as it arrives.

  • abhab1

    Those who do not believe in medicine should not take it, but at the same time should not pressure others to do likewise.

  • mydogshakespeare

    If most of the Believers in this country What’s more, if faith-healing actually I’m in line with CCNL1 for my flu shot.

  • Chops2

    When it really comes to the crunch, people trust science over god and see a doctor. Thats how much “faith” people really have. That is except for that poor child recently whose parents put their faith to the test, costing her life.They’ll rot in jail and deservedly so.Get a flu shot and dont trust Jebus. Simple.

  • katavo

    Normally we wouldn’t have to bother with people killing themselves and their family because of their silly beliefs. But this is a contagious disease, a potential epidemic or even pandemic.Quarantine the believers. Their right to practice their primitive faith ends with everybody Else’s right to continue breathing.The problem is – how do we identify one of these believers? How do we as potential future victims of any virulent infectious disease protect ourselves from these typhoid christians?We need to cull them from the herd. The first cut will be: are you a believer in primitive superstitions? The second cut will be: are you a phony believer, a sunday-afternoon believer, do you scream and holler about how science is destroying your religion but still line up at the doctor’s office for your vaccine?

  • cyber-man

    i [WE] “Desire” (nothing wrong w/that) to live over 300 Years old. AndTo [expect] live upto Justly only 100 Yrs/ole requires the loving Care of A educated/experienced “Specialist”, aka Dr/s + consuming their [prescribed] innately blesseth “Elemental-Concoctions”, so to speaketh Truth (opposite Myth), delivered for Us “HUe{MATE(s) for that “Purpose”, not for Ye ‘SuperStupidStitious’ “foolish” Human(s) Halo’s.!O’ LORD/E-KLAH/IT/Al-Mighty/Al-lah/YAWH/iSHVAR-ah..forgive them [not?] for they know what they DO! Pleazzzza. Listen to da Doc & taketh Ye “Prescriptions” Religiously, aye!Note: Because of for their [grown adults] children; WE [i] E-KLAH-ti-ON’s must protect them against [their own] SuperStupidStitious, thus enfore the [SECULAR] “Rule Of LaW” ahainst their (not OUR) [ReLIGIOUS] Commands via their (not our) “diety’s Signals” or “Signal Deity’s”!??

  • ccnl1

    .I am getting my annual flu shot tomorrow. And will be getting my H1N1 vaccine as soon as it arrives.

  • joe6

    Got my routine flu shot. Awaiting H1N1. Already inoculated against superstition.

  • coloradodog

    Wash your hands after touching everything. Try not to touch your eyes or your mouth. Sneeze into you bent elbow. If you still get the flu, its the wrathful punishment of your small and shallow god for your intolerance.

  • edbyronadams

    I will take my regular flu shot but will eschew the H1N1. First there is not enough for everyone and I am not much exposed. Second, it has bypassed many of the safety screening procedures that regular flu vaccines must undergo.Given the balance of factors, I will not try for the swine flu vaccine, no superstition required for the analysis.

  • ravitchn

    God helps those who help themselves. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!

  • JohninMpls

    That’s the same Cotton Mather who treated sick children with fasting and prayer, right? I guess that’s why he’s called an “amateur” scientist.It’s also the same Cotton Mather who was unrepentant of his role in the Salem witch trials.

  • Dermitt

    Independence is peace. Dr. Franklin was in Paris for a signing and wore an old and worn blue coat. Why? “To give it a little revenge, I wore this coat on the day Wedderburn abused me at Whitehall.” Blue is the new black. The virus war seems to always be heating up and it’s profitable. The bigger threat today may be getting killed by somebody driving and texting, but we all take our chances.

  • Dermitt

    Green is the new blue.

  • dem4evr

    god helps those who help themselves. get your shot/

  • LeeH1

    Those who do not believe in evolution should not take this vaccine. It is derived from evolved virus, and thus does not exist.This is God’s way of killing off all the Creationists.

  • GrainofSalt1

    It is irresponsible to add fuel to fears about swine flu by linking it, even subtly, to smallpox. The latter truly was a debilitating and deadly disease, while swine flu appears, by all accounts, to be mild. Furthermore, today’s vaccinations include toxic soup of adjuvants and preservatives, including formaldehyde, that should cause all of us to be wary of injecting them into our bloodstreams unnecessarily. Part of the role of journalists is to provide balanced coverage and full disclosure and to question the powers that be so that citizens can make informed decisions.

  • KarenLS

    As with all flu cases some are mild and some develop secondary infections which in some cases can kill you. Some years the flu vaccine guessers strike gold when they guess what flu strains will circulate the globe the next year. Some years they strike out. Last year was one such year with a 0 for 3 record. No one knows how it will go this year. I get my flu shot each and every year. I get my children the same as long as they are under my insurance. I nag the rest to get theirs. If you don`t want to get a flu shot that is your choice. You should not, however, clog up the medical system by then using medical resources to treat an extreme case of the flu and its secondary infections. You made your choice now live….. or die, with it.And as for worrying about what they put in the flu vaccines …. well, you should really be worried about what you eat, drink or breath in on a daily basis. Those pollutants will kill you. Probably are killing all of us.

  • George20

    Sounds like a good test of folks’ religious faith and faith in other things.

  • harrumph1

    Anyone who believes it is God’s Will for us to suffer and die of a stupid disease that we have the power to stop or limit is an idiot. And this kind of argument completely undermines the notion of any value to religious belief. Why do you even post a topic like this on this particular website? It is one thing to discuss medical issues, even if it means tolerating the foolish notions that these vaccines cause significant disease compared to the lives they save. But religious objections like these are the kinds of things that have made religion increasingly less relevant in modern society.

  • alance

    Epidemics, Inoculation and God’s Will by Diane Winston is the most convoluted and stupid story to ever appear in the Washington Post.Mexico City proved last April that this is not a dangerous flu. Our government has wasted billions on a flu vaccine that is not only unnecessary, but potentially dangerous.

  • semidouble

    Funny, all the religious wingnuts who poopoo evolution and other scientific facts, trust science when they get into their cars, an elevator or get sick.

  • Fate1

    I’ve been waiting for the right wingers to refuse the swine flu vaccine en masse. Ya know, the Obamavaccine meant to kill us all as part of their socialist agenda? So I find it interesting we hear nothing from the wingnuts about any evil Obama agenda when it comes to this or other vaccines. Could it be they really do trust science, except any science that disagrees with their religion?

  • edbyronadams

    KarenLS wrote:”No one knows how it will go this year. I get my flu shot each and every year. I get my children the same as long as they are under my insurance. I nag the rest to get theirs. If you don`t want to get a flu shot that is your choice. You should not, however, clog up the medical system by then using medical resources to treat an extreme case of the flu and its secondary infections. You made your choice now live….. or die, with it.”That’s an interesting proposition. Perhaps we should show all the people who are in the hospital with heart and lung problems but who chose to smoke and/or overeat earlier in their life the hospital door as well.

  • Fate1

    edbyronadams wrote: “Perhaps we should show all the people who are in the hospital with heart and lung problems but who chose to smoke and/or overeat earlier in their life the hospital door as well.”If you knew anything about smoking you would know that no one chooses to continue smoking after they started. Its addictive effects are akin to heroin, but this product was marketed to kids by companies intent on making profits. As for “choosing” to overeat, have you tried buying the smallest item at a fast food joint lately? Do you understand the greedy reasons behind supersizing? Have you wondered why overeating is a relatively recent phenomenon? I’ll bet not.

  • meadowrock

    During the first Gulf War, our soldiers were forced to receive vaccines that contained the same adjuvants as the swine flu vaccine. 95% of them are now dead or suffering horribly. It is not the vaccine that is bad but the adjuvants and the preservatives, like mercury, formaldehyde, etc, and other additives like cancer cells which were recently discovered amd a warning issued by a German Government Health Official.

  • chatard

    “objectivity and other journalistic axioms” have NOT been turned upside down by ‘new media’ and ‘citizen journalists’. They have been turned upside down by Dan Rather, the Associated Press, Eugene Robinson, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Bill Keller, et al. Please revise the curriculum at the “Knight” school of media accordingly.

  • alance

    The gods of science of spoken – thus spoke Zarustha. We are supposed to quiver and shiver when they give us pronouncements of impending disasters – swine flu – global warming, etc.Here take this, do that or we will all burn in an epic disaster. We will all die – OMG.Science has simply replaced religion in the minds of the ACLU God Squad and other fringe groups. Right, AL?

  • ccnl1

    Meadowrock,You noted:”During the first Gulf War, our soldiers were forced to receive vaccines that contained the same adjuvants as the swine flu vaccine. 95% of them are now dead or suffering horribly. “Please support your claims with medical studies/conclusions published in established medical journals.

  • Attilaa

    Funny how the people that are stating that they will not be getting the vaccine because they have researched it and saw things they did not like (preservatives and adjuvants) or that this strain is not more lethal than the common flu and that’s why they are passing on the vaccine.

  • qballgeek

    To all of you people who believe God will save you from H1N1 and should not get the shot, I say thank you. That will leave more for me and people like me who DON’T belive. This will also lead to more of you believers getting H1N1 and therefor more of you leaving this planet.Thank you for that also.Please don’t pray for my soul after you read this, I don’t believe in hell or the tooth fairy, santa or the easter bunny.

  • jrzwrld

    I don’t really get the point of this article or why it’s in the “On Faith” section. More appropriately it should be in Science or Health. In any case, no, I will not be getting any flu shots this year. I’ve worked from home two years running and I have yet to contract even the tiniest cold. The odds of me getting any flu are rather miniscule.I’m in my early 30s and in excellent health. The vaccines I would be accepting would be vaccines that would not go to an elderly person or young child.

  • ATrueChristian

    I love it! All of these knee-jerk, know-nothing atheists seems to forget one major fact: The Catholic Church was the first organization to come up with the idea of permanent hospitals! Granted, I am sure the multi-deity Romans and Greeks, pagans and unbelievers had “doctors” in a rough sense of the word and I am sure there were battlefield “hospitals” to treat soldiers wounded during times of war. But, for the most part, medicine did not make very many advancements until hospitals came about. And guess what, hospitals came about in response to the call of Jesus to minister to the sick! Therefore, it is reasoned that much of what our modern medical culture is based on a religious founding, and it is divine providence that provides humanity with its cures, even if those who find the cures no longer believe in the God who provides the divinity. Of course, non-believers dominating modern medicine has caused some problems, abortion being one, but I still do not believe that God is angry enough to withhold his grace in finding cures to the diseases that plague us.That said, as a reasonbly healthy person who believes that the H1N1 vaccine is sent by God, I will eschew the vaccine so that someone who needs it more will get it. From everything I have read, anyone who is reasonably healthy prior to contracting H1N1 (with the exception of pregnant women, who have had a high mortality rate despite being in good health prior to contracting H1N1), the disease will be no more severe than the seasonal flu. Not to mention that if the disease were to mutate into a more agressive form, then the current vaccine will not protect anyone anyway.

  • legendarypunk

    Mexico City proved last April that this is not a dangerous flu. Our government has wasted billions on a flu vaccine that is not only unnecessary, but potentially dangerous.Will this pandemic be as terrible? Will the world come to an end if we don’t all get vaccinated? Probably not – but it’s a simple precautionary measure that will do infinately more good than harm should a worst case scenario come about.If you can provide evidence to back up either of your two statments about the vaccine being unnecessary or dangerous I would love to see it.

  • lepidopteryx

    I won’t be getting the H1N1 vaccine, and my reasons have nothing to do with my religion.And I have no confidence in flu vaccine in general. I used to take a flu shot every year, and I got the flu every year. The worst case I ever had, I came down with 2 weeks after taking a flu shot. After that, I vowed never to take another. That was over a decade ago, and since then, I have had the flu only twice, both times mild cases.

  • whocares666

    God’s will is the ulimate cop out.

  • Fate1

    lepidopteryx wrote: “And I have no confidence in flu vaccine in general. I used to take a flu shot every year, and I got the flu every year.”You really should give the thousands of public health doctors around the country who analyze results of these vaccines a little credit. You may not see an improvement but in general they do, a big one. And though you may have gotten the flu it may have only lasted a few days instead of a week or more. It also could have been because the flu they prepared for was not the one that went epidemic that year. Its not a crap shoot but its not a perfect vaccine either.lepidopteryx wrote: “The worst case I ever had, I came down with 2 weeks after taking a flu shot. After that, I vowed never to take another. That was over a decade ago, and since then, I have had the flu only twice, both times mild cases.”It usually takes most vaccines more than two weeks for your body to develop the appropraite antibodies (the current H1N1 vaccine takes 3 weeks for full immunity). If you had not stepped in the elevator with the sneezing flu victim, or however you contracted the bug, you might have been infected after it took effect and had no flu or a mild case. Luck does have something to do with it. But not taking the vaccine means you are the least protected. But I would agree that if you are healthy and don’t have other health issues then missing the vaccine is not a big deal, if you don’t mind missing a week of work that is.

  • acebojangles

    This is a perfect example of the problem with choosing superstition over reason.

  • Carstonio

    Faith-healing doesn’t prove that religion is bad. And the laudatory actions of Cotton Mather don’t prove that religion is good, either. We can praise Mather’s role here while condemning his actions as a Puritan theocrat, particularly during the Salem witch trials. The problem here is not necessarily religion but authoritarianism in any context, secular or religious. Faith-healing is actually an authoritarian concept disguised as a religious one. It falsely treats scientists and doctors as wannabe authority figures, where the believer falsely assumes he has to choose between them and the authority figures of gods. (I’m using “authority” to mean not knowledge but to mean power and hierarchy and absolutism.)But faith-healing believers make up only a small minority of Christians. I would like to know if the majority of Christians reject that belief because it causes harm, because they see it as heresy, or some of both. We shouldn’t automatically assume that Christians who reject faith-healing are engaging in compartmentalization. Like members of other religions, Christians vary in their beliefs, and there are many Christians whose beliefs in that religion’s god don’t involve authoritarianism, or involve it to a much smaller extent.

  • mirrorgazer

    The question is too ridiculous for an intelligent human being to even consider – especially an “in the light” Christian.Next time, challenge us!

  • oracle2world

    H1N1 is God’s way of “thinning the herd”.

  • lepidopteryx

    Fate1,I’m not suggesting that my choice is the right choice for everyone. I just know that I have gotten sick LESS often, and LESS severely, in the decade since I stopped taking the flu vaccine than I did in the decades that I did take it. When I took the vaccine and got sick, the illness actually lasted LONGER than either of the cases I have had since quitting taking the vaccines. Maybe I’m just an immunological anomaly.And I don’t take ANY new drug as soon as it comes onto the market.

  • Fate1

    lepidopteryx wrote: “And I don’t take ANY new drug as soon as it comes onto the market.”That is my phylosophy too. Drugs are like wine, better after they age on the market and side effects are discovered if they exist. I remember my wife’s podiatrist prescribing Bextra for pain when it was new on the market. I called him and asked him what the rationale was for such a new prescription drug for minor foot pain. He told be it was the best thing on the market. My wife took tylenol instead. As anyone who followed the news about Bextra it was pulled from the market for severe side effects, heart issues if I remember right.Of course aspirin ate a hole into a vein in my stomach, causing me to loose half my blood volume and almost killing me. Best to stay off all drugs if possible. But since I have asthma I’ll get the flu shot. Call it blind trust in government which so far has not tried to kill me, unlike the for-profit tobacco and some drug companies.

  • ebleas

    “That said, as a reasonbly healthy person who believes that the H1N1 vaccine is sent by God, I will eschew the vaccine so that someone who needs it more will get it.”There are so many problems with this statement, it’s hard to know where to begin. If God does indeed send it, why should one interfere with God’s will by getting the vaccine? Isn’t this directly interfering with God’s plan? And of course, the obvious question, why would any God be so malicious to want to send a virus that causes mass suffering and potential deaths in the first place?

  • Fate1

    ebleas wrote: “And of course, the obvious question, why would any God be so malicious to want to send a virus that causes mass suffering and potential deaths in the first place?”Have you read the bible? God destroyed the entire earth, including all non-human life, only sparing two of every kind and Noah’s family. He also kill all the people in Sodom/Ghamorrah, and in both of these cases innocent fetuses, which surely must have been growing in women, were killed too showing God’s level of love for the unborn. Then there is God’s instructions on many occassions for the Hebrews to kill their enemies down to the last woman (pregnant or not) and child, or keep them as slaves. At least with a virus God is giving people a fighting chance. This is God’s good side, don’t upset the nice God by calling him “malicious” for you-know-who’s sake!

  • lufrank1

    Interesting . . . . that Ben Franklin’s Paper supported the “God” view against innoculation . . .as Old Ben never accepted Jesus as a Divine Being!

  • Carstonio

    “And of course, the obvious question, why would any God be so malicious to want to send a virus that causes mass suffering and potential deaths in the first place?”We have no basis for making any assumptions about gods in the first place. I’m not sure if the statement by Ebleas is implying that it would be unnatural or abnormal for gods to be malicious, or if the statement is questioning the basis for the assumption of benevolent or just gods.

  • Carstonio

    Besides, even if we had proof that gods existed who were benevolent or just or malevolent or indifferent, I don’t see what difference that would make, since we couldn’t do anything about it.

  • Alex511

    I am DEFINITELY getting a flu shot, as soon as I get over this stupid cold.

  • Athena4

    Too bad Cotton Mather didn’t apply the scientific method when he was persecuting “witches” in Salem.

  • MGT2

    I find it very amusing, and telling, that those who deny the existence of God, like to blame Him for all the world’s ills. It is amusing because it show how silly their arguments are, confirmed by the verbal gymnastics they employ.It is telling because it highlights the ineffectiveness of their arguments to dismiss God, and it removes the scab from their fear that they may very well be wrong. God wins, always!

  • Fate1

    “I find it very amusing, and telling, that those who deny the existence of God, like to blame Him for all the world’s ills.”Can you give an example where someone who denies God also blames God? Or do you really mean they blame “God’s word”, which is acted upon by zombie believers to do both good and evil? If that is the case the blame lies with the zombies.

  • cmarshdtihqcom

    Got my seasonal flu shot and pneumovax. With type II diabetes I have an excuse to get the shots, plus the H1N1 shot when available.Why would people oppose contraception and line up for a flu shot, take antibiotics when sick, etc.?It is contradictory logic.Opposing contraception might say, “I accept faith and behavior changes, or the risk of pregnancy, in place of established medical technology.”Vaccines and antibiotics say the opposite, “I will accept modern medical technology to fight infectious disease.”Maybe the thought of millions of sperm as being like bacteria to be destroyed, rather than a life giving seed, is offensive. Or ovulation something to be ceased in its tracks like a viral infection.We already master and control nature on a daily basis, in the operating room, in the blood bank, in the pharmacy, where vaccines are administered. To not do so in the bedroom because “we have no right to interfere with God-given rules of nature” is hypocrisy unless we are willing to go backward in time to before Cotton Mather and Jenner and Pasteur.Is that what we want?

  • cmarshdtihqcom

    And of course, the obvious question, why would any God be so malicious to want to send a virus that causes mass suffering and potential deaths in the first place?Blame the Man in the Sky?There is a Man in the Ground too. The Man in the Sky kicked him out of Heaven, but isn’t going to destroy him, yet. Two reasons.1. If God had annihilated Satan immediately, the angels in Heaven would cower in fear because God Yahweh is a despot/totalitarian.2. What better chance to show what Satan would do if he could, either by malice, incompetence, or both?So the Man in the Sky says, Now let Me show you what I would do, and puts Satan in the lake of fire for a thousand years.Magnifico! Bravo!No sickness, no famine, no war, God is literally king on earth. And everyone knows God is better than Satan and knows why.God has to quash a revolt when Satan gets out of the stew, but when God reasserts control, Satan is going to Hell for good.Or so Revelations says.

  • Carstonio

    Cmarshdtihqcom asserted that the religious objection to contraception boils down to “we have no right to interfere with God-given rules of nature.” That doesn’t seem to be true. In my experience, the religious view is that non-procreative sexual activity is immoral, or against the plans by various gods for human relationships.

  • billoright1776

    As Ms. Winston points out “..old tensions around the idea of ‘progress’ persist.” However, it would seem this would also include the process of investigative reporting. Journalism can take many forms, and while some may view it as merely gathering and delivering (caveat emptor), I would hope that something “factual” emerges during the process and not something just generally “believed” to be true. This quality separates great reporting from the rest of the field in the Fourth Estate. It is obvious to those who have investigated our current H1N1 “pandemic” issue beyond that of a CDC or WHO headline, and have asked reasonable questions, that the general public (on both a state and national level), is yet again receiving “information” filtered for media consumption — and the media acquiesces.