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.