Coming soon after ABC’s made-for-TV disaster film "Fatal Contact," wiped out 25 million people from the bird flu, "Nightline" anchor Terry Moran promised to separate fact from fiction about the potential threat of the H5N1 virus.
Towards the end of the news program, Moran noted that experts such as the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) Dr. Anthony Fauci caution that "a real flu pandemic is unlikely to kill more than 5 percent of those who fall ill."
Moran’s attempt to present a nuanced picture in the face of his network’s hyperbolic disaster movie was surprising, since his colleague Jim Avila lent credibility two months earlier to a scientist predicting a mortality rate 10 times as bad as Fauci’s number.
In a March 14 "World News Tonight" interview Avila dubbed Dr. Robert Webster "the father of bird flu," and featured the virologist foreseeing a viral mutation under which "50 percent of the population could die."
"Society just can’t accept the idea that 50 percent of the population could die. I think we have to face that possibility. I’m sorry if I’m making people a little frightened. But I feel that it’s my role," Webster told Avila.
Avila did concede that most scientists wouldn’t "say it that bluntly" and that a 50 percent mortality rate "could be too high."
While too high for scientists who know better, Webster’s 50 percent mark was too low for TV executives looking for a scary sweeps month ratings hit.
The end of "Fatal Contact" featured a team of scientists surveying an Angolan village where every single resident has died from an even more virulent mutation of the bird flu.
"It’s not possible is it? All of them? Dead," asked one scientist. "It’s not only possible. It’s already out there," replied another as the movie ended with ominous music and a rolling body count of bird flu deaths exceeding 25 million.
The Business & Media Institute has previously documented the media’s pandemic of hype in covering bird flu, including an editorial by Dr. Elizabeth Whelan of the American Council on Science and Health.