When the press buried Obama for Ebola — and two Americans died

Different rules for Democrats

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"The Ebola crisis in the United States has become an anchor threatening to sink the Obama presidency" — The Hill, October 16, 2014.

Appearing on CNN last week, Washington Post reporter Abby Phillip expressed bewilderment that Trump was using his Twitter feed to spread wildly dangerous misinformation about the GOP's supposed miracle cure for Covid-19. Trump has been doing this for months, purposefully contradicting established science and willfully endangering Americans, especially conspiratorial-minded ones who listen to Trump's unscientific rants. “I think we really do have to say, what’s going on in terms of the president’s Twitter feed last night is irresponsible,” Phillip stressed. "At this point, it’s on the verge of putting people in danger."

"On the verge"?

Trump has been irresponsibly spreading lies about Covid-19 for most of this year. Yet Beltway reporters are only willing to tiptoe up to a certain line and suggest Trump might soon be putting lives in danger? It's likely that 250,000 Americans will be dead from the virus come Election Day, and the press isn't sure if Trump's dangerous and erratic behavior might be responsible for the United States hosting the worse pandemic response in the entire world.

This represents an historic failure by the news media, and joins a pantheon of Trump-era shortcomings for the Four Estate as newsrooms timidly try to navigate what's true (the president is a madman), and what's acceptable to say in public.

Incredibly, just last week reporters were giving Trump credit for changing his "tone" about the pandemic and unveiling a new serious approach, while the leaderless country careened further into crisis. (He did the same thing in April and the media fell for it then, too.)

If President Barack Obama had overseen more than 100,000 Ebola deaths back in 2014 when the virus reached U.S. shores, do you think the Beltway press would have tipped its cap to Obama if he appeared behind a White House podium and, for one day, discussed the health crisis in a different "tone"?

How about if Obama lied relentlessly about the death toll, and ludicrously told reporters that if it hadn't been for his swift action more than one million Americans would've died from Ebola?

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In case you forgot, prompted by partisan hysteria voiced by Republicans the press lost its collective mind covering Ebola and crucified Obama for months, hyping concerns that a deadly domestic outbreak was imminent. "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,” lamented Deane Marchbein, M.D. said in 2015, addressing a group of journalists. "An opportunity to educate, inform and reassure was, to a great degree, missed."

There may not have not been much educating — CNN's Ashleigh Banfield famously suggested Ebola was the ISIS of biological agents and raised the specter of suicide attackers brandishing Ebola — but there was lots of Obama bashing. "I think that's a very dangerous thing for President Obama, the sense that his administration is not competent to protect the American people," warned USA Today's Susan Rice.

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.”

Reminder: In 2014 there were just two confirmed Ebola deaths in the United States — two. A grand total of four Americans were infected with the disease.

The coverage though, became all consuming, especially on television news. During a single week right before the midterm elections, as Republicans hammered the story for purely partisan reasons by claiming Obama could not keep America safe, Ebola was mentioned nearly 4,000 on the cable news channels, according to TVeyes.com. "The major broadcast and cable networks ran nearly 1000 evening news segments about the Ebola virus in the four weeks leading up to the midterm elections in November," Media Matters reported.

The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza dubbed the Ebola virus the “October surprise” of the 2014 election season and stressed that the panic associated with the story was bound to swing votes. At the height of the hysteria, one night the Post homepage featured at least 15 Ebola-related articles and columns, many of which focused on the problems Ebola was supposedly causing Obama. All that for four confirmed cases in the U.S. (By contrast, there have been 4.5 million confirmed Covid-19 cases in the U.S.)

Then what happened after the midterm elections? The GOP lost all interest in the story, since it no longer served a political interest. That meant the media suddenly lost interest, too: "The networks only aired 49 segments in the two weeks after November 4," Media Matters confirmed.  

On May 9, 2015, the World Health Organization announced that the Ebola virus outbreak was officially over. That night, none of the network newscasts gave the Ebola story full segments. If the story couldn’t be used to bash Obama, the press didn’t seem interested.

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My friend Eric Alterman has a timely new book out soon, Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie -- And Why Trump Is Worse.

A preview:

Alterman also reveals the cumulative effect of this deception—and how, together with the recent radicalization of the Republican Party and the failure of the media to clearly distinguish between politicians who lie and those who do not, this has led us into a world in which political misinformation and disinformation have become the rule, rather than the exception. Donald Trump, then, represents not an aberration but the culmination of an age-old trend.

Alterman has written many must-read books, with What Liberal Media? being at the top of my recommended list.


The Jonas Brothers, “Five More Minutes”

Ha, I make no apologies for my love of pure pop music, and I never will. I honestly think it’s one of America’s great cultural contributions — jewels of fun that reconfigure your brain for three minutes at a time and make everything all right.

For the last 15 years, the Jonas Brothers have perfected that feel-good craft. Here, it’s a nifty blend of finger snapping swing, an irresistible mid-tempo beat, and a falsetto vocal that lowers a sly bedroom boom.