Someone will discover the vaccine: How will the media (and we) treat them?

It’s an odd question, to be sure. But why any question at all?  That person should receive the highest civilian Medal possible – the Presidential Medal of Freedom or the Congressional Gold Medal. They should have an audience with the Pope. A hero’s welcome at the United Nations General Assembly. A parade through Broadway’s Canyon of Heroes. Right?

At a time when the world’s entire population remains teetering and at risk of deadly infection, one wonders who will be the hero who saves humanity. He or she will most likely be a previously unknown (at least to us) or unheralded scientist, someone who has been quietly secluded for a lifetime in a university laboratory.  A Bunsen burner recluse of sorts. A Steven Hawkings, or a Twenty First Century Jonas Salk or Louis Pasteur.

The successful scientist, likely lead scientist of a team, would likely be a rather typical individual, warts and all. But let’s assume those warts.  We all have them.  So how will a society treat him or her? Because – let’s face it – after the initial well-deserved, congratulatory celebration, some tabloids will report a discovery about his or her “troubled” past. And some politician, fanatical group or one who claims to be the actual “discoverer” will exploit it.

But what will the public do?  Will our hero receive exoneration from the masses, with forgiveness for sins past?  Put differently, does John Q. Public ever totally forgive what someone did in their deep, dark past, no matter how gifted and earthshaking their current contribution to society?  Are we, at bottom, a forgiving people willing to accord indulgence to a seismic hero who has been a past sinner? Or are we, as a society, an automaton Wikipedia page incapable of omitting a dark moment in a celebrity’s past, however valuable the reason for his current celebrity?

If the “hero” had cheated on their spouse, or failed to pay child support; if a bankruptcy filing left creditors in the lurch; if he had previously or even currently committed malpractice as a surgeon; if he belonged to a religious cult; if he lavishly supported a politician with weird concepts about public health  — would the tabloids, social media or unauthorized biographers concentrate on these “offenses”?  Why must it be that this “world treasure” cannot be permitted to escape the negativity excavated by those armed with a mobile phone?  Why may no one avoid attack no matter how much they may have contributed to society?

Society has become entirely polarized.  There are those who forget – who look only to the good.  There are those who are simply unforgiving – no matter a person’s heroically good deeds, they are haunted by an outsized obloquy over past misdeeds. This form of negativity almost encourages a monastic life of anonymity as preferable to public excoriation by self-appointed critics, who publish wantonly on the internet or in tabloids, simply because they can.

The writer here is of course anticipating disclosures of fault when the public comes to learn the identity of any hero, whether he be a weatherbeaten scientist who finds a cure for a grave disease or a whistleblower who points her finger at a public official demonstrating that he or she is at fault for the disease‘s viral spread.

And, surely, there’s truth to that. Even more so in our society today where everything is polarized and politicized – politicians disagree with one another, scientists can’t decide what testing can practically be performed and the current administration even lashes out at the leading public health professional of the day.  Is everyone frustrated?  Sure.  But, there are genuine heroes who every day put their lives on the line — whether in protecting national security or treating the sick. And whether or not citizens might loudly applaud each evening at 7pm in gratitude, we still typically allow them to be exposed to negativity, unwilling to soften or even eliminate past offenses in deference to their willingness to have scaled dangerous mountains for us — perhaps, e.g., scientists risking COVID 19 death for themselves in an effort to produce the vaccine.

The Talmud says that “if you save one life you save the world.”(Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). Especially for those who will have saved lives in this catastrophe (whether we’re able or not to pinpoint those specific lives), in the capacity of public health officials, scientists, physicians, nurses, first responders, police and firefighters, food service workers, pharmacists, shouldn’t we focus solely on the good they’ve done in the cause, not what has been a failing on their part in the past?  For, after all, they have saved the world!

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” Dale J. Degenshein assists in preparing the articles on this blog.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers.
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