Where's The Media's Ebola Mea Culpa?

05/14/2015 02:03 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2016

"The outbreak of Ebola virus disease in Liberia is over," announced the World Health Organization on May 9, declaring a cautious end to the deadly wave that claimed 4,700 Liberian lives since last summer. That outbreak, of course, eventually sparked panic in the United States last September and October when a handful of Ebola cases were confirmed domestically. Ebola mania raged in the media for weeks and became one of the biggest news stories of 2014.

So, how did the American media cover the latest, good-news Ebola story in the days following the WHO announcement? Very, very quietly.

By my count, ABC News devoted just brief mentions of the story on Good Morning America and its Sunday talk show, This Week. On NBC, only the Today show noted the development, while CBS This Morning and the CBS Evening News set aside brief mentions. None of the network newscasts have given this Ebola story full segments, according to a transcript search via Nexis.

A scattering of mentions on cable news and a handful of stories in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal rounded out the remaining coverage in the past week.

Pretty amazing, considering that late last year the U.S. news media were in the grips of self-induced Ebola hysteria. During one peak week, cable news channels mentioned "Ebola" over 4,000 times, while the Washington Post homepage one night featured at least 15 Ebola-related articles and columns, many of which focused on both the international crisis and the political dynamic, and the problems Ebola was supposedly causing President Obama.

That's not to say the tragic outbreak was not a big story worthy of any news coverage. It was, but American media went into overdrive hyping concerns that a deadly domestic outbreak was imminent -- only to rapidly forget.

The recent look-away coverage from Ebola shouldn't come as a surprise. The American media lost complete interest in the story right after Republicans lost interest in the story, which is to say right after last November's midterm elections, when they brandished Ebola as a partisan weapon.

It was a classic lose-lose for the White House, constructed by the national news media and cheered on by Republicans: Bad news about Ebola was big news; good news was no news.

"Reporters can be part of the problem or part of the solution," Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings announced at press conference on October 2, as the city began to deal with its local health crisis following the disclosure that a local patient with Ebola was being treated in a city hospital.

Sadly, way too many reporters and news outlets opted for the "problem" option. What else explains the fact that one survey found that the people who were paying the most attention to the Ebola story were the ones least informed about it?

Yet to date, there's been very little introspection about the media's inexcusable performance and its central role in trying to create an Ebola panic in America. Voices from the world of public health have certainly weighed in and expressed their dismay at how so much of the U.S. media lost their collective minds while covering the story. (Thankfully, there were some sterling exceptions.)

I don't blame editors and producers for wanting to move on from the mess, but that's not how accountability for the free press is supposed to work. Endowed with extraordinary rights and privileges, a free press has a responsibility to own up to its shortcomings in order to avoid repeating them in the future.

And Ebola represented a colossal blunder.

I'd suggest the news media's collective malfeasance ranks not far behind the run-up to the Iraq War in terms of a fundamental failure to inform the public about a life-and-death issue. Thankfully, Ebola did not plunder the U.S. Treasury and cost thousands of American lives like the Iraq War did. But Ebola did require leveled-headed journalism, which was often missing.

"Instead of focusing on the medical literature and the facts related to Ebola, many of your colleagues fanned the hysteria and the frenzy and the fear," Deane Marchbein, M.D., told journalists at the Association of Health Care Journalists' annual conference last year. "An opportunity to educate, inform and reassure was, to a great degree, missed."

That's putting it politely.

One problem was structural: Mainstream news organizations have gutted their science coverage in recent years. "In 1989 there were 95 weekly science sections in U.S. newspapers. By 2012 there were just 19. In 2008, CNN eliminated its entire science team," according to the Columbia Journalism Review. "The Ebola story has underscored the shortsightedness of journalism's abandonment of specialized science coverage." So instead of science being at the center of the Ebola storytelling, it was often politics.

The second problem was the media's insatiable and reckless desire to simply amp up a unique and potentially frightening story. In terms of sheer fear-mongering, Fox News, of course, led a parade of right-wing media idiocy. Elisabeth Hasselbeck suggested the country be put on lockdown. Steve Doocy suggested that the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention was lying about Ebola because it's "part of the administration." Andrea Tantaros suggested that people who traveled and showed symptoms of Ebola will "seek treatment from a witch doctor" instead of going to the hospital. And Rush Limbaugh even implied Obama wanted Ebola to spread in America.

Unfortunately, that dark neurosis became embedded in the mainstream media coverage, too. "Here's What Should Scare You About Ebola" read one overexcited New Republic headline. The Boston Globe announced that Ebola had "moved closer to becoming the next great American panic -- an anthrax or SARS for the social media age," while CNN's Don Lemon lamented that government officials seemed "too confident" they could contain the disease.

And then there was Bloomberg's inexcusable magazine cover, featuring "Ebola is Coming," ominously portrayed by swaths of dripping blood on a wall. Months later, it still represents, for me, the low point in terms of U.S. news media completely losing touch with reality and purposefully trying to stoke run-away fear about a disease that had infected a handful of people in a nation of more than 300 million.

Meanwhile, the not-so-subtle theme for much of the coverage was that Obama wasn't protecting Americans and that 'big government' was putting the population at peril. In others words, Ebola was, inexplicably, a political story.

Here's how USA Today's Susan Page put it on Face the Nation, as she echoed Republican talking points, virtually word-for-word:

I think that's a very dangerous thing for President Obama, the sense that his administration is not competent to protect the American people that is the most fundamental job of a U.S. President.

CNN's Wolf Blitzer announced, "Ebola has certainly eroded the confidence in the way the Obama administration and medical professionals have handled it." Colleague Gloria Borger insisted Americans were "frustrated" and "fearful" and "angry" about key events, including the administration's handling of the Ebola virus' scare. And New York Times columnist Frank Bruni claimed the disease was "ravaging Americans' already tenuous faith in the competence of our government and its bureaucracies."

The GOP-friendly punditry churned for days, weeks, and months. Yet at the time, poll after poll after poll (included one from CNN) showed Americans by clear margins did trust the government to deal with the disease. (And, clearly, rightly so.)

As Liberia frees itself from the grip of Ebola -- as the United States has done -- it's another reminder that the press still owes lots of people apologies for its embarrassing Ebola coverage. Starting with Obama.

Crossposted at Media Matters.

This Blogger's Books and Other Items from...