The Whispers Blog
Arkansas' breaking business news blog, with news and commentary from the Arkansas Business staff.
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After I wrote my last column, in which I mentioned that polio might be the closest thing to the COVID-19 health crisis in living memory, it occured to me that I actually know someone who was on the front lines of the polio epidemic. Earlene Frank Moritz — my mother-in-law, Grandma Frankie to 12 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren — was a student at City Hospital School of Nursing in Cleveland from 1949-52, and two months of her training were spent in a polio ward.
I didn’t know these details until last week because it never occurred to me to ask. She and Papa John — who had their first date 70 years ago this month — are now stuck in their house in Benton, and it turns out this isn’t the first time she’s been quarantined during an epidemic. One of her roommates in nursing school came down with polio — a diagnosis confirmed with a lumbar puncture — so Frankie was sent to her parents’ home in nearby Lorain, Ohio, for two weeks. “I was at home, bored, no computers or anything, and I was angry,” she told me. She never had any symptoms, and her roommate recovered quickly.
Polio epidemics were essentially unknown until about 1900, although the disease was recognized due to occasional localized outbreaks. The first widespread polio epidemic in the U.S. was in 1916, with 27,000 cases and a mortality rate above 20%, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was diagnosed with polio in 1921, at age 39, and he was paralyzed below the waist until his death 24 years later. Diagnosticians now suspect that the future president actually had a different illness, Guillain-Barré syndrome, but he became a champion of polio research.
Prevention and cure became increasingly urgent as epidemics became more frequent and widespread. There were 57,628 cases at the peak in 1952, the year young Earlene Frank became a registered nurse. Improved treatment, including body-sized “iron lungs” for patients whose paralysis reached the respiratory system, had lowered the mortality rate to less than 6%, but more than a third were left with varying degrees of disability. Jan Cottingham, our managing editor, had an older brother who was disabled by polio as toddler in 1952, and he was in pain until he died at age 60.
At City Hospital in Cleveland, my mother-in-law worked in a ward with six or eight children in iron lungs. “The only things that were sticking out were their heads,” she said. “I remember the horror of it because there were so many children.”
While polio could be transmitted by coughs and sneezes, that wasn’t the most common path, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Instead, the polio virus was spread mainly through feces — poop, the CDC helpfully translates — which is why children (nasty creatures who play with other nasty creatures) were more susceptible and nurses like Frankie were trained to be exceptionally careful when cleaning polio patients.
The first vaccine for polio was introduced in 1955, and the number of cases plummeted. The fear and dread were over. The last cases in the United States were recorded in 1979 in an Amish community that had rejected vaccination.
The first case of COVID-19 in the United States was confirmed on Jan. 20, just three weeks after the government of China belatedly reported to the World Health Organization a cluster of cases of “pneumonia of unknown cause.” Within 10 weeks, the number of cases in the United States zoomed past the number of polio cases in 1952, the worst year. Granted, the population of the U.S. is more than twice what it was then, but this year isn’t half over, and the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. was growing by more than 10,000 a day last week.
In the U.S., mortality from COVID-19 has been kept to about 1.5%; but globally, with total confirmed cases exceeding half a million last week, the death rate has been about 4.5% — almost as deadly as polio was when iron lungs were the cutting edge of technology.
Every graph is still showing exponential spread of the coronavirus in the United States. South Korea seems to have been the only country that got ahead of this thing, but that’s easier to do when your land mass is about 70% the size of Arkansas.
I’m weary of COVID-19, tired of social distancing and disappointed that regular dinners with my in-laws have been discontinued for the duration. I’m worried about the economy, my 401(k) and the financial health of my employer and the thousands of business executives who are loyal readers of this publication.
Most of all, I’m scared that we still aren’t taking this thing seriously enough and that we’ll let our guard down too soon.
Email Gwen Moritz, editor of Arkansas Business, at GMoritz@ABPG.com and follow her on Twitter at @gwenmoritz.
Someone I respect posted this comment on Facebook:
“If the media reported every incident of regular flu mortality, automobile fatalities, gunshot victims, etc., no one would be paying any attention to the coronavirus — it would be too insignificant to mention by comparison.”
Naturally, I’m sensitive to complaints about “the media,” a term so broad as to be almost meaningless. It’s as if everyone who lends money, including loan sharks, was included in the word “bankers.” Or every snake oil salesman on late-night cable TV was included in the term “health care providers.”
In this case, the commenter missed some vital points: Gunshot deaths (other than suicides) and automobile deaths are reported routinely — so routinely that they are no longer shocking unless you know the victim personally. And mass shootings still do get comprehensive coverage and are treated as national news, even though they are a small fraction of gunshot deaths. (And we are starting to be numb to those too.)
There is coverage of the seasonal flu, with both local and national statistics, on a regular basis. Local and national news organizations try to get ahead of it every year with stories about the importance of vaccines — and they fight an uphill battle against the anti-vaxx movement that was an early harbinger of the breakdown of trust in traditional institutions. And still people miss school, miss work and die of flu, some because they don’t take it seriously. (A few years back, my husband’s students at the University of Central Arkansas were fretting about Ebola but couldn’t be bothered to get a flu shot available free at the clinic on campus.)
What makes COVID-19 so newsworthy is that it is new. It is poorly understood and potentially lethal. It’s too soon to know exactly what the mortality rate is, mainly because deaths are hard to overlook, but the correct divisor — the number of infections — should include cases either so mild or so early in the pandemic that they escaped detection. Of the cases that have been confirmed as of Thursday morning (127,749), almost 3.7% (4,717) had been fatal. Even if the number of nonlethal cases has been underestimated by a factor of four, COVID-19 is still many times more lethal than the seasonal flu, which kills perhaps 1 in 1,000 cases.
If the seasonal flu began to kill many times more than it traditionally had, how would you want “the media” to react? In 1918-19, while the United States was involved in the “Great War” in Europe, a new strain of influenza spread across the globe, infecting as many as 500 million people and killing between 20 million and 50 million. It was called the Spanish flu even though Spain is not suspected of being the epicenter of the pandemic.
“Spain was one of only a few major European countries to remain neutral during World War I. Unlike in the Allied and Central Powers nations, where wartime censors suppressed news of the flu to avoid affecting morale, the Spanish media was free to report on it in gory detail,” Evan Andrews explained in an article for History.com. (Blaming foreigners for a disease is still fashionable, as demonstrated last week by U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton.)
The Spanish flu killed at least 4% and possibly 10% of its victims. When considering the right balance for “the media” to strike on COVID-19, it’s useful to ask whether you think wartime censorship saved lives or cost lives.
Since “the media” are not a monolith, it is undoubtedly true that some news organizations have handled this growing news story poorly. But the rapid spread of the virus has made the early warnings seem less overwrought and more prescient. Panic never leads to good decision-making, but knowledge is power. The cost of awareness is high, but will more people be infected because of the reporting or fewer? Will people who feel ill be more or less likely to get timely treatment?
If you are having trouble deciding how you, your family and your company should respond to an unprecedented health crisis, you might cut some slack to the journalists who are also trying to strike a balance that contributes to public safety while not fomenting panic.
It would have helped if our federal government had reacted from a position of honesty and preparedness rather than sending mixed messages that seemed more focused on the health of the stock market than on public health. That’s been part of the story too — that Americans cannot trust their government to respond appropriately or to tell us the truth.
Suicides, whether by gunshots or any other means, are generally not reported unless the victim is a prominent person or the death happened in a public place. This is because suicides truly can inspire more suicides, and the public’s need to know has to outweigh that risk. Reporting on a new virus does not create more illness.
Email Gwen Moritz, editor of Arkansas Business, at GMoritz@ABPG.com and follow her on Twitter at @gwenmoritz.
You may have heard this story before. In 1995, the year Olivia Farrell established Arkansas Business Publishing Group as a company separate from the Arkansas Times, she heard a Little Rock business executive explain his all-male board of directors in a way that infuriated her: There just weren’t any women qualified for the role.
One of the reasons I adore Olivia, who retired last year, is her ability to turn fury into action — and profit. She created a publication, Top 100 Women in Arkansas, and published it for five straight years specifically as a catalog for companies looking to diversify their boards.
In 1999, the last year of the Top 100 Women and the year I arrived as editor, only 10% of directors in the Fortune 1000 companies were women, according to the “Catalyst Census of Women Board Directors,” a project sponsored by Sara Lee Corp. Beverly Enterprises, the nursing home operator that was headquartered in Fort Smith, was a standout with four of its 10 directors being female.
Back then I was naively optimistic that professional doors would just naturally keep opening for women, who by Y2K were earning as many college degrees as men. It wasn’t until 2008 that Arkansas Business did specific research on the number of women on the boards of public companies headquartered in Arkansas, and the data was not encouraging. Only 16 of 188 directors at 20 corporations were female — that is, 8.5%. Larger companies tended to do better, but 11 of those 20 companies had no women directors at all.
Progress was maddeningly slow in boardrooms everywhere, not just in Arkansas. In 2010, women were still fewer than 15% of directors at Fortune 1000 companies. A nonprofit called 2020 Women on Boards Inc. was founded that year in Boston specifically for the purpose of encouraging corporations to bring gender diversity to their boards, and it was expanded nationally in 2011.
The goal was modest enough — increase the number of women on the boards of Fortune 1000 companies to 20% or more by 2020 — that it was reached in 2017. (This is an average, naturally. Not every company has made the effort.) So 2020WOB turned its attention to smaller public companies, the Russell 3000. The organization reported even more success: from 17.7% in 2018 to 20.4% in 2019.
Still, the trend is spotty. “The percentage of women in the 100 largest companies is 27.7%; in the 1,000 smallest companies it is 15.7%,” 2020WOB reported late last year.
And how are Arkansas’ corporate boards shaping up? As of last week, the state’s 17 publicly traded companies had 170 directors and 32 of them were women. That’s almost 19%. And while that is a mighty improvement over the past dozen years, it’s still nothing to write home about. Women earned 61% of college degrees awarded in 2019 and after decades as the majority on campuses, there are finally as many college-educated women in the workforce as college-educated men. As the mother of sons, I find several things about that trend to be worrisome; the fact that more academic achievement still isn’t translating into a lot more boardroom respect for women is just one of them.
So which of Arkansas’ publicly traded companies have gender-diverse boards?
Uniti Group Inc. of Little Rock, the REIT spinoff of Windstream, has a board that is fully one-third female (2 of 6), and ArcBest Corp. of Fort Smith is a close second with 3 women among 10 directors.
Other companies that have reached the 2020WOB goal are:
► USA Truck Inc. of Van Buren, 2 women of 7 directors, or 29%;
► Walmart Inc. of Bentonville, 3 of 11 (27%);
► Bank OZK of Little Rock, 4 of 16 (25%);
► Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale, 3 of 12 (25%);
► Murphy USA Inc. of El Dorado and Windstream Holdings Inc. of Little Rock, each with 2 of 9 (22%); and
► J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. of Lowell, 2 of 10 (20%).
Two state companies have no women on their boards: PAM Transport Inc. of Tontitown, with seven men, and Inuvo Inc. of Little Rock, with five men. Next to the bottom is Dillard’s Inc. of Little Rock, which has one woman on its 12-member board, despite having a merchandise mix heavily targeted at women.
Email Gwen Moritz, editor of Arkansas Business, at GMoritz@ABPG.com and follow her on Twitter at @gwenmoritz.
I’ve been trying to lay off national politics in this space, but while the Democratic Party seems dead set on crushing my soul, Republicans seem determined to turn me into the living embodiment of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Since this column will appear before Super Tuesday, I’m going to try to hold out some hope that Democrats don’t actually tumble for Bernie Sanders. Right now I want to talk about the mixed messages about the new strain of coronavirus that Americans are receiving from their president, his administration, its friends in Congress and conservative media figures.
Last week began with a selloff on Wall Street after alarming weekend reports that COVID-19, the newly identified virus, had surged in locales as far-flung as Italy, Iran and South Korea. President Trump, as is his wont, took to Twitter to assure Americans that the virus “is very much under control in the USA” and to observe that the stock market was “starting to look very good to me!” even as the Dow Jones was losing 3.5% of its value.
Monday’s 1,000-point drop in the Dow grew to more than 3,200 by the end of trading on Thursday — more than 11%. Perhaps that’s because Tuesday’s message from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention was somewhat different from the president’s. The CDC said COVID-19 could create “severe” disruptions to our daily lives, even as the president was tweet-blaming the “Fake News” and Democrats for “doing everything possible” to stoke fear — “including panicking markets, if possible.”
But even Americans who wouldn’t listen to a Democrat or the mainstream media if they were paid would have no idea what to make of COVID-19.
In the lead-up to the presidential reassurances, our own U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton took a different position. He suggested — while admitting that he had not a smidge of evidence — that the virus could somehow be connected to the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory, a facility in the massive Chinese city where the outbreak was first detected. In an appearance on Fox News, he declared with confidence but without evidence that “This virus did not originate in the Wuhan animal market,” although that seems to be the working theory of actual epidemiologists.
Rush Limbaugh didn’t pick up on the lab-created biothreat angle. Instead he joined Trump in accusing “the media’’ of weaponizing the virus to hurt the president. But he took minimizing the danger a giant step further by dismissing the new disease as just “the common cold.”
The common cold is caused by a variety of coronavirus strains, but COVID-19 is a new strain that is more serious and far more likely to be fatal. I would never wish illness on anyone, but you’d think that a man being treated for advanced lung cancer after insisting for decades that smoking was safe would be cautious about giving medical advice to his trusting audience. Nope. “I’m dead right on this,” Limbaugh said.
Tucker Carlson offered another theory entirely on his Fox News show: We’re on the verge of a deadly pandemic because Americans have been too welcoming to foreigners. “Wokeness is a cult. They would let you die before they admitted that diversity is not our strength,” Carlson said.
Carlson made this pronouncement a week after the State Department allowed 14 cruise ship passengers — Americans, not foreigners — who tested positive for the virus to return to the United States on the same flight from Japan as uninfected Americans, against the specific advice of the CDC. Wokeness indeed.
President Trump took the threat from COVID-19 seriously enough to request $2.5 billion in emergency funds to respond to the spreading epidemic. It’s a fraction of the funding cuts his administration has made to disease security programs, including disbanding the global health security team whose job was to prepare for and respond to epidemics and pandemics. Vice President Pence was named to manage the emergency because someone had to fill that void.
The coronavirus isn’t the only issue in which the administration can’t seem to get everyone singing from the same hymnal. Mick Mulvaney, the president’s acting chief of staff and director of the Office of Management & Budget, recently declared that the U.S. is “desperate” for immigrants to fuel economic growth.
This is a belief widely held among economists who see our declining birth rate as an ominous economic indicator. But it is completely contrary to the usual rhetoric coming from Mulvaney’s boss — “I’m sorry, we’re full.” — and the bill introduced by Sen. Cotton and endorsed by Trump, which would slash legal immigration in half.
Tone and timbre. Those represent the quality of what we hear. Now tone, as the word is sometimes currently used, may signal the point of view of those from whom we hear it, as in being “tone deaf.” It just didn’t sound right. Misunderstood at best, condescending at worst. Off key.
Wayne Cranford was a student of quality. A master of tone. Not only in the written and spoken word, but also in the way it was written and spoken. How it was presented. What impression it made, and how it fell on the ear.
Wayne was elegant. Not just in manner and dress, but more importantly adhering to what elegant truly means: simplicity. During the 15 years I was fortunate to work for Wayne, the power of simple ideas became clear.
In 1978, after being for only a month or so at the Cranford Johnson agency Wayne founded in 1961 with Jim Johnson, Wayne one day said, “Want to be an expert in advertising?” It was rhetorical. “You have to answer, and get our clients to answer, two fundamental questions: Who are we trying to reach, and what do we want them to do?” Elegant. Simple.
The agency employed all forms — called platforms today — of marketing communications. The messages and the media the agency created understood their intended audience. Wayne, and those he taught, knew how to talk to consumers of all stripes. In just the right tone.
Major businesses, institutions, nonprofits and professionals sought out the noticeable balance in Wayne Cranford’s communications skills: conspicuous yet discreet. And they came to appreciate, and were willing to pay for, advertising and public relations counsel that vested them with a high-minded credibility that ultimately fell to the bottom line.
The agency known originally as Cranford Johnson, and many times simply as Cranford, also strove to be the best rather than necessarily the first. But the firsts seemed to happen. Cranford was the first agency in the mid-South to place a national television advertisement. It was in color, which was also a first, and ran in the Sugar Bowl game for Middle South Utilities (now Entergy). The agency was the first in this region of the country to win a national Obie Award for excellence in outdoor advertising, thanks to the creative brilliance of Jim Johnson. Cranford was also, in the early days of desktop computers, the largest Apple network in the state. And Wayne Cranford, although shy in demeanor, mandated a bold move by insisting the agency compete in a national competition to create a new product for McDonald’s Corp. The agency won that competition by creating the breakfast burrito! (Who would have thunk it?)
Treating agency clients with respect was foremost. Meticulous instruction in how to show respect for clients was first evident when being trained by Wayne on how to set up the agency conference room for a client meeting. Coffee was always served in china. And every cup and saucer had to be set just so, with each cup handle angled exactly the same way. That attention to detail, not at all trivial, but critical and noticed, demonstrated how Wayne Cranford built one of the most enviable companies in our state and region. And how clients of Cranford Johnson, and the successor names of the company, but always starting with Cranford, achieved success after profitable success.
The company Wayne led was and is about people. The company’s inventory goes down the elevator and out the door every evening. Wayne took care of the business that took care of the people. Including an impressive, unselfish and benevolent profit-sharing plan. He didn’t have to do that.
Every aspiring advertising newbie or grizzled old pro who was paying attention wanted to work at Cranford. But to succeed there, you had to believe what was embodied in the names on the door: excellence, elegance, style and being the best at what you do, and how you do it. Consumers noticed.
Wayne Cranford died on Feb. 15 at age 87. Craig Douglass served as an account executive and director of new business and vice president of client services at Cranford Johnson from 1978-93. He is now executive director of the Regional Recycling & Waste Reduction District in Pulaski County. Email him at Craig@CraigDouglass.com.
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