12/16/2014 02:59 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2014

Ebola Panic Wins 'Lie Of The Year,' But The Real Culprit Goes Free

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As is their wont, the folks at PolitiFact have gone back and conducted a thorough review of a year of lies and falsehoods to offer readers their "Lie Of The Year" -- trusting, with the faith of a small child, that here in these last two weeks of 2014, no one will offer up the sort of reality-capsizing deception that has earned this distinction in the past.

Previous winners of this dubious honor have been lies that stood out as zeitgeist-marauding deceits whose distortions reverberated across the political landscape. 2009's honoree, Sarah Palin's claim that the Affordable Care Act called for "death panels," set the woolly-eyed tone that would come to define conservative opposition to Obamacare. Last year's Lie Of The Year, President Barack Obama's assertion that "if you liked your plan, you can keep it," blew a gaping hole in the president's approval ratings, which subsequently played a major role in the Democratic Party's midterm wipeout.

This year, PolitiFact returns once again to that intersection of politics and public health, attaching its shameful accolade to all of the nonsense that occurred after Thomas Eric Duncan -- a Liberian man who traveled to Texas in September -- became the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States:

Duncan’s case is just one of two Ebola-related fatalities in the United States, and since Duncan traveled to Dallas, more Americans -- at least nine, and likely many more -- have died from the flu.

Yet fear of the disease stretched to every corner of America this fall, stoked by exaggerated claims from politicians and pundits. They said Ebola was easy to catch, that illegal immigrants may be carrying the virus across the southern border, that it was all part of a government or corporate conspiracy.

The claims -- all wrong -- distorted the debate about a serious public health issue. Together, they earn our Lie of the Year for 2014.

PolitiFact says that one of the factors its researchers weigh when determining the "Lie Of The Year" is the extent to which "a myth or falsehood infiltrates conventional thinking." There's no doubt that America's first Ebola outbreak provided a fertile space for the paranoid style in American public health crises, a space in which outsized panic and conspiracy flourished.

So why does this feel oddly unsatisfying as a "Lie Of The Year?" Maybe because lots of what was wrong about the way people talked about Ebola was less about an active attempt to deceive, and more about people simply being complete idiots.

Take, for example, George Will, one of the people PolitiFact singles out for making false claims about the virus. As PolitiFact itself reported at the time, Will went on "Fox News Sunday" in October and said a bunch of wrong things about Ebola, including likening it to an airborne disease. It turns out that Will got his information from a commentary posted by two University of Illinois professors on the website of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. Per Politifact:

The commentary, co-written by Lisa Brosseau and Rachel Jones, argued that health care workers treating patients with Ebola should wear respirators. Face masks, they said, are not enough.

We asked Brosseau if Will had correctly relayed her work. Brosseau said her views had nothing to do with Ebola spreading among the public at large. The focus was on health care workers treating people in the isolation wards.

"We were concerned about aerosols generated by infected patients in the most severe stage of the disease," Brosseau said.

Will had mistakenly connected the pathway of infection in a hospital room with someone coughing or sneezing in public.

The key phrase here is "mistakenly connected." See, when George Will actually wants to misrepresent scientific research in order to concoct an elaborate lie, he knows how to do it and he goes for it. (He also knows that he has a cretin of an editor who sees the controversy created by misinformation as nothing more than a monetization opportunity.)

In this instance, however, I'm not sure if you can call Will a "liar." Rather, he's just being vastly stupid -- a descriptor I'd attach to many of the people PolitiFact blasts in its "Lie Of The Year" examples:

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., described Ebola as "incredibly contagious," "very transmissible" and "easy to catch." Mostly False.

Internet conspirators claimed President Obama intended to detain people who had signs of illness. Pants on Fire. Bloggers also said the outbreak was started in a bioweapons lab funded by George Soros and Bill Gates. Pants on Fire.

A Georgia congressman claimed there were reports of people carrying diseases including Ebola across the southern border. Pants on Fire. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Americans were told the country would be Ebola-free. False.

See, that, to me, is a piquant mix of people who are utterly clueless about Ebola and yet still bent on talking about it, and fever-swamp denizens, lost to reality, doing what comes naturally to them.

Of course, when it comes to the elaborate fearmongering about Ebola potentially coming over the border -- which nested public-health paranoia within nativist fears of immigration amnesty -- it's worth questioning whether the people enunciating this sort of demented wrongness are doing so because they're actively operating in bad faith, or because they're just nimrods. Having examined this phenomenon myself, I can tell you it's not perfectly clear whether the people who spread these fears were truly seeking to deceive, or whether they were simply swept up in genuine -- if uninformed -- concern. With that in mind, I might have given Sen. Mark Pryor's (D-Ark.) willfully false Ebola attack ad against his Republican opponent (and eventual conqueror), Rep. Tom Cotton, higher billing than multiple examples of Rand Paul just not knowing what he's talking about.

PolitiFact does note that politicians became much less concerned about Ebola after the midterm elections were over -- which suggests that many of the political figures peddling Ebola-paranoia may have done so simply to win an election. But what that decline also suggests is that there's a target more worthy of blame. As PolitiFact notes:

Over the course of November, Ebola mentions on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC dropped 82 percent, according to a review of closed caption transcripts. Mentions on the three cable networks dipped another 35 percent in the first week of December.

At the same time, at least 3,578 more people contracted Ebola, according to the World Health Organization, and another 1,119 people died. Overall, the death toll has crept near 6,400.

"Look where we are now, do we hear much about the epidemic in Africa any more? Do we hear about the effective measures that hospitals have put in place? The list goes on and on," said Adam Lauring, assistant professor at the University of Michigan Medical School’s division of infectious diseases. "Perhaps some of it is the 24-hour news cycle, the Twitter-verse, etc. Perhaps some of it has to do with the fact that this all hit right before the election and it was easy to politicize."

Here, Lauring bring us closer to identifying the actual culprit behind the Great Ebola Lie: a media -- especially a cable news media -- that went out of their way to amplify whatever Ebola nonsense came along. If anything, the media gets off very lightly in PolitiFact's retelling of the Ebola scare. But make no mistake, it was the media that turned "being obviously wrong about Ebola" into an airborne, infectious disease. Without them, this is a story about isolated idiots being incorrect in the privacy of their own homes.

It's a pity that this only gets glancing mention in PolitiFact's round-up, but that's probably the nature of things. PolitiFact exists to police what is true and what is not on a case-by-case basis, not necessarily to criticize the means by which wrongness becomes transmissible. And taken as a whole, our brief interaction with Ebola in 2014 did feel like we were swimming upstream in a river of misinformation -- and we're lucky that we didn't pay a higher price for being so misinformed.

Still, it's strangely unsatisfying to have a "Lie Of The Year," that points its harshest finger at the idiots and the dupes, and not at an actual liar.

Could there have been a better example of a "Lie Of The Year?" Perhaps! I'm guessing that "Rolling Stone rigorously and vigorously fact-checked Sabrina Rubin Erdely's story" and "torture was an effective means of extracting critical information from suspected terrorists" came in too late in the year to qualify for consideration.

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Ebola virus myth-busting