THE BLOG
10/17/2014 10:01 am ET Updated Dec 17, 2014

How the Press Is Doing the GOP's Ebola Bidding

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As Republicans seek to gain a partisan advantage by ginning up fear about the Ebola virus in preparation for the midterm election cycle, they're getting a major assist from the news media, which seem to be equally anxious to spread anxiety about the virus, and to implicate President Obama for the health scare. At times, Republicans, journalists, and commentators appear to be in complete sync as they market fear and kindle confusion. ("You could feel a shiver of panic coursing through the American body politic this week.")

The result is a frightening level of misinformation about Ebola and a deep lack of understanding of the virus by most Americans. Indeed, despite weeks of endless coverage, most news consumers still don't understand key facts about Ebola.

If the news media's job is to educate, and especially to clarify during times of steep public concerns, then the news media have utterly failed during the Ebola threat. And politically, that translates into a win for Republicans because it means there's fertile ground for their paranoia to grow. (Sen. Rand Paul: Ebola is "incredibly contagious.")

"They have all caught the Ebola bug and are now transmitting the fear it engenders to millions of Americans," lamented a recent Asbury Park (NJ) editorial, chastising the cable news channels. "It turns out that fear-mongering translates not only into dollars and cents for news-gathering organizations, but also allows talking heads to politicize the issue."

If Republicans want the media to remain relentlessly focused on the anxious Ebola storyline prior to Election Day, they're in luck. Last night, the homepage for the Washington Post featured at least 15 Ebola-related articles and columns. Already this week, the cable news channels have mentioned "Ebola" more than 4,000 times according to TVeyes.com -- or roughly 700 on-air references each day. The unfolding crisis is undoubtedly a major news story, but so much of the coverage --particularly on cable news -- has been more focused on fearmongering than solid information. It's a drumbeat that eventually becomes synonymous with fear and uncertainty, which dovetails with GOP's preferred talking point this campaign season.

And for Republicans, it's not just Ebola. The election season scare strategy that has emerged revolves around portraying the virus as the latest symptom of an America that's in startling decline and without any White House leadership able to deal with the crisis. As the New York Times reported on October 9, what has emerged as the GOP's unifying campaign theme is "decidedly grim." It alleges "President Obama and the Democratic Party run a government that is so fundamentally broken it cannot offer its people the most basic protection from harm."

Message: Panic looms. We stand exposed. Nobody's in charge. It's worse than you think.

The truth? "The risk of contracting Ebola is so low in the United States that most people would have to go out of their way to put themselves in any danger," as Medical Daily noted this week. Added one Florida doctor, "I tell people you're more apt to be hit by lightning right now than you are to get Ebola."

Yet two weeks into the domestic Ebola scare and it's often not easy to distinguish who's pushing the doomsday themes more energetically, the media or the Republican Party. I understand, for purely partisan reasons, why Republicans and their allies in the right-wing press are touting fear and paranoia in place of facts. But what's the news media's rationale?

The Times noted that the media assist on the GOP scare campaign is unmistakable: "Hear it on cable television and talk radio, where pundits and politicians play scientists speculating on whether Ebola will mutate into an airborne virus that kills millions."

On Wednesday, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza dubbed the Ebola virus the "October surprise" of the 2014 elections and stressed that the panic and anxiety associated with the story is bound to swing votes. The next day, the Boston Globe announced Ebola "moved closer to becoming the next great American panic -- an anthrax or SARS for the social media age."

In fact, there are almost no outwards signs of an American Ebola panic. If there were a true panic, newscasts would be filled with reports of hospitals being flooded with patients terrified they might have the disease, travelers staying home en masse, people hoarding supplies, or tens of thousands of parents keeping their kids home from school. Instead, the virus hasn't hasn't yet infected anyone outside of a single hospital in Dallas. (And why, in a nation of 320 million people, would there be a "panic" over a virus that has killed one and infected two others?)

Nonetheless, echoing that Republican spin about faith and incompetence, Beltway pundits keep insisting Americans don't trust the government to deal with the Ebola threat, even though polling results keep debunking that campaign season talking point.

Appearing on Face the Nation, USA Today's Susan Page announced the following [emphasis added]:

I think both these stories, the Ebola virus and the threat from ISIS are feeding into a sense that a lot of Americans have that the world is not only a dangerous place but that the government is not competent to handle them. Even the Secret Service controversy I think contributes to that sense. 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.

False.

Last week, a Pew Research poll found a majority of Americans, including 48 percent of Republicans, were confident in the government's ability to deal effectively with the Ebola situation. And this week an ABC News/Washington Post survey confirmed that finding: A majority of Americans are confident in "the federal government's ability to respond effectively to an outbreak of the Ebola virus in the United States." That includes a majority of Democratic voters, independents and Republicans.

So why the GOP-friendly Beltway chatter about how the Ebola story has destroyed our trust in government? And why is the press effortlessly amplifying Republican fear just weeks before the midterms?

Crossposted at MediaMatters.