Networks Confident in CDC Over Ebola, Ignore Agency Failures in 98 Percent of News Reports

In spite of revelations in recent months the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) mishandled strains of deadly bird flu, anthrax and botulism, the broadcast networks remained confident the government’s “disease detectives” could handle the Ebola outbreak.

On Sept. 30, the CDC announced that a patient in Texas was the first instance of Ebola in the U.S. But from the very beginning of the Ebola outbreak in March 2014, networks’ evening news programs have demonstrated their resounding faith in the capability of the CDC by ignoring agency failures in 98 percent of stories on Ebola (53 of 54).

Contradicting their previous coverage of CDC failures, these news segments almost universally echoed the sentiment of an Atlanta citizen plucked off the street by NBC “Nightly News” on Aug. 1 who said, “I don’t have a problem as long as CDC’s involved.”

Rather than calling the CDC out for past problems, CBS’s Chief Medical Correspondent Jon LaPook repeated CDC complaints about the way the Dallas hospital handled the Ebola situation.

“The organization, the CDC, has real concerns about what went on there and why protocol was apparently fumbled,” LaPook said on the Oct. 1,“Evening News.”

There were 54 stories on the network evening news programs about the Ebola outbreak since March 2014, which mentioned the CDC in some capacity. The vast majority failed to remind viewers of the “sloppy handling of anthrax by scientists” at the CDC, that The New York Times and many other media outlets reported in July. The headline of that article said it all, “After Lapses, C.D.C. admits a Lax Culture at Labs.”

The exposure of CDC scientists to anthrax was just one of the terrifying lapses of the CDC, yet when it came to Ebola the networks only mentioned concerns in one story. One.

That story, which was an exception to the dozens of stories affirming the CDC’s competency, ran on CBS “Evening News” Aug. 27, 2014. The story expressed only mild concern. CBS correspondent Maurice Dubois, acting as a fill-in anchor, told viewers that a CDC worker may have been exposed to Ebola, and asked LaPook why this staffer was “not being quarantined.”

LaPook brushed off the question, saying a CDC official “confirmed that the person is felt to be a low risk for getting Ebola.” Apparently for CBS, the CDC’s word was enough to assuage any misgivings.

Although these very same networks have repeatedly blown the whistle on numerous CDC failures over years, yet these events were not discussed at all in connection to the Ebola crisis. It was a strange contradiction by the networks which had previously reported problems like these:

  • NBC “Nightly News” recounted CDC staffers’ history of mishandling anthrax: “Government inspectors have been warning for years that labs used to handle dangerous agents such as anthrax have been poorly regulated and that the lack of oversight has put the public at risk…” (July 16, 2014)

  • ABC “World News” reported on an air leak at a CDC bioterror lab in Atlanta, stating that “a poorly engineered airflow system in the CDC's Building 18 could expose unprotected staff and visitors to dangerous airborne pathogens.” (June 13, 2012)

Each of these stories generated in-depth concern among the networks’ evening news programs, as well as garnering widespread attention of the news media. The CDC had also been accused in the past of data falsification and propagating pseudo-science. For at least a decade, CDC has been making suspect claims about what it views as vices - food, alcohol and tobacco. CDC officials were caught trying to alarm people just enough so they would get the H1N1 vaccine.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., Chairman House Energy and Commerce Committee, called out the agency in a July 11, 2014, hearing saying, “The repeated breakdown in protocols and safety failures involving the world’s deadliest germs and pathogens is wholly unacceptable.”

The revelations of the CDC’s incompetence were shocking and damaged public trust in the government agency, but apparently not the networks news media’s.

NBC’s Chief Medical Editor Nancy Snyderman said on July 31, “I don’t have to tell you that Americans are worried” about the Ebola outbreak. Such fears are justifiable given the danger of the disease and the serious problems with the CDC, which is why the networks’ failure to question the agency’s competency in this case was so troubling.

Dr. Jon LaPook Nancy Snyderman Fred Upton

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