Monday, October 27, 2014

Selling Fear In The Time of Ebola

Panic and conspiracy theories can do dangerous things.

Mid-August, in Liberia, a mob stormed a clinic, attacking aid workers, freeing Ebola patients and stealing contaminated equipment. The mob’s trigger appeared to be mistrust of westerners and upside down conspiracy theory logic that noted wherever there were foreign aid workers, there was also Ebola, so the aid workers must be spreading it on purpose.
While all our news channels seem to be peddling panic, nobody sells it as cynically and willfully as Fox News.

Often humor says it best.
For a dose of fear mongering, misinformation and manipulation regarding Ebola, tune into Fox. It’s a prescription for intellectual poison: a 3-ring circus staring everybody willing to twist public safety to their own profit; politicians looking to demonize their opponents, pundits and anchors hoping to advance their careers, conspiracy theorists theorizing, and xenophobes selling fear of foreigners.

What’s the reality of the Ebola threat? The best data I’ve found says your chances of getting Ebola in America are 1 in 13.3 million. That means you have a 1,428 times greater chance of dying in a car accident, a 3.4 times greater chance of being killed by a shark and are more likely to be killed by lightening.

But like Jim Carrey’s character in Dumb & Dumber when told by his love interest that there was a 1 in a million chance she’d go out with him, America seems to be saying, “So you’re saying there’s a chance!”

How has our health care system handled the disease? Other than one stumble in one hospital, we’ve done remarkably well. After that initial stumble in Texas, we’ve managed to quickly find, isolate, and treat the tiny handful of people who have had the disease on our shores. And last Sunday’s 60 Minutes piece about the nurses and doctors at that Texas hospital painted a very different picture of that first Ebola death than the story of ineptitude we’d heard in the media thus far. Rather than ineptitude, it looked heroic. What’s more, it’s overwhelmingly our doctors, our professional medical folks, and our money on the front lines in Africa fighting the disease.

As prime international destinations go, when it comes to fighting Ebola, the U.S. is pretty much #1 in the world and Americans are safe.

But you’d never know that listening to 24 hour news channels, especially Fox, where fear-mongering was a fixture long before the first Ebola case in the U.S.

New York Magazine online documented this recently, posting videos of prime examples. The sorry highlights include Ashleigh Banfield breathlessly comparing Ebola with the terror/military group ISIS and asking a medical expert if both threats should be treated with the same strategy. The guest was stunned by the stupidity of the question. But Banfield pushed on, “All ISIS would need to do is send a few of its suicide killers into an Ebola affected zone and then get them onto mass transit [in America].” The doctor told her she was wrong.

I wish I could say that was an isolated case of bad reporting, but on Fox, it’s virtually the norm, a constant stoking of fear and mistrust, and of course there’s the relentless argument: the Ebola threat to Americans was caused by President Obama’s weak leadership and a bumbling federal government. GOP house and senate members line up to insist that our borders be closed (likely not doable), that direct flights from affected African countries be banned (no such flights currently exist) and to make dramatic conspiracy theory accusation that truly veer from misinformation into lala land.

There was one moment of wisdom and calm from Fox’s Shep Smith who put the Ebola issue in brilliant, level-headed perspective. But that was an anomaly.

On Fox News Radio’s John Gibson Show, psychiatrist Keith Ablow, a member of Fox News’ “Medical A-Team” claimed, and I’m paraphrasing here, that Obama affiliates himself with Africa, much more so than he thinks of himself as the American president and therefore he is allowing Ebola into our country to purposefully kill Americas.

Couple that with conservative radio nut-jobs who have claimed Obama is letting Ebola in to kill white American.

I blows the mind to stop and think about the times we live in. We’re so used to hearing loonies insist our president wasn’t born in America, that he’s a Muslim who doesn’t actually practice the Christian religion of the church denomination he’s attended his entire life, that he doesn’t really love America or want to protect our troops, that it’s actually not shocking to hear a supposed medical expert claim that, yes, now, our president actually wants to kill Americans.

For mainstream politicians, Rand Paul wins the award for making groundless, dumb accusations, suggesting on a number of shows that the government is purposefully misleading the public about the danger of the Ebola virus. When asked to present evidence or give examples, he offers none.

And this guy wants to be president.

At a time when our media and our leaders should be trying to calm the public and share the facts, why are Fox news and the likes of presidential wannabe Rand Paul urging panic and mistrust? In earlier generations when powerful figures in tense moments used their positions to sell fear it led us to deprive people of their civil rights – whether it was with Japanese interment camps or communist witch hunts or illegal wire taps on Vietnam War protesters.

In Africa, Ebola panic and conspiracy theories are born of poverty, superstition and poor education and when it plays out in the streets it’s dirty, and ugly and dangerous. In America, Ebola panic and conspiracy theories are born of greed, power lust and partisanship and when it plays out on the airwaves it is clean, and groomed and dangerous.

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