The New York Times, a Prime Carrier of Unfounded Ebola Assurances from Obama White House

October 20th, 2014 11:33 AM

The New York Times is one of the media's prime carriers of sickly White House assurances about Ebola, dictating unfounded claims that it has the disease under control, while dismissing calls from Republicans and health experts for banning flights out of infected countries as paranoid, unscientific overreaction.

Reporter Jennifer Steinhauer made Monday's front page under a headline that encompassed both her story and one from colleague Helene Cooper, based in Liberia, the heart of the outbreak: "Panic Where Ebola Risk Is Tiny; Stoicism Where It's Real."

In the month since a Liberian man infected with Ebola traveled to Dallas, where he later died, the nation has marinated in a murky soup of understandable concern, wild misinformation, political opportunism and garden-variety panic.....On the eve of midterm elections with control of the United States Senate at stake, politicians from both parties are calling for the end of commercial air traffic between the United States and some African countries, even though most public health experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a shutdown would compound rather than alleviate the risks.

And one columnist considered the Times'  lead story Saturday on the White House response to the Ebola outbreak, "Amid Assurances on Ebola, Obama is Said to Seethe," to be Exhibit A in the paper's pro-Obama bias.

Unlike typical Times profiles of George W. Bush under crisis, the report by Michael Shear and Mark Landler (both with long-standing pro-Obama histories) is less concerned by what President Obama is failing to provide the American people, than by how Obama's own government is disappointing him.

Beneath the calming reassurance that President Obama has repeatedly offered during the Ebola crisis, there is a deepening frustration, even anger, with how the government has handled key elements of the response.

Those frustrations spilled over when Mr. Obama convened his top aides in the Cabinet room after canceling his schedule on Wednesday. Medical officials were providing information that later turned out to be wrong. Guidance to local health teams was not adequate. It was unclear which Ebola patients belonged in which threat categories.

“It’s not tight,” a visibly angry Mr. Obama said of the response, according to people briefed on the meeting. He told aides they needed to get ahead of events and demanded a more hands-on approach, particularly from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “He was not satisfied with the response,” a senior official said.

The difference between the public and private messages illustrates the dilemma Mr. Obama faces on Ebola -- and a range of other national security issues -- as he tries to galvanize the response to a public health scare while not adding to the sense of panic fueled by 24-hour cable TV and the nonstop Twitter chatter.

On Friday, Mr. Obama took a step to both fix that response and reassure the public, naming Ron Klain, a former aide to Vice President Joseph R. Biden, to coordinate the government’s efforts on Ebola.

The paper failed to mention criticism of Obama appointing a political fixer to help solve a public health crisis.

The buck doesn't stop with Obama but with the Centers for Disease Control:

At the meeting on Wednesday, officials said, Mr. Obama placed much of the blame on the C.D.C., which provided shifting information about which threat category patients were in, and did not adequately train doctors and nurses at hospitals with Ebola cases on the proper protective procedures.

But now all is well:

On Friday afternoon, even before Mr. Klain started, the White House showed signs of returning to normal.

The story was criticized by John Podhoretz in Sunday's New York Post: "The only thing missing from it was the opening line that all political commercials are now required to include: "I'm Barack Obama and I approve of this message.'"

On Sunday, Alan Feuer reported on "The Ebola Conspiracy Theories," with conservative radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham cast among the villains.

While most of these theories have so far lingered on the fringes of the Internet, a few stubborn cases have crept into the mainstream. In the last few weeks, conservative figures like Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham have floated the idea that President Obama had sent aid to Africa, risking American lives, because of his guilt over slavery and colonialism. And just days ago, the hip-hop artist Chris Brown took to Twitter, announcing to his 13 million followers: “I don’t know ... but I think this Ebola epidemic is a form of population control.”


The notion, for example, that health officials are conspiring with Big Pharma to consciously spread -- and then cure -- Ebola as a profit-making venture might sound like the plot to a cheesy summer thriller, but in fact it touches on a genuine aspect of our health care system, said Mark Fenster, a professor at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law and the author of “Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture.”

“The truth is that we do rely on private corporations to develop and produce our pharmaceuticals,” he said. “While we may not like that fact, it’s not so hard or paranoid to imagine private companies acting in their own best interests.”

Feuer quoted left-wing comedian Stephen Colbert to bolster his theory:

The theory works, Professor Fenster added, because it is “truthy,” to borrow from the comedian Stephen Colbert. Which is to say, it has just enough veracity “that it rings true when carried to Ebola,” he said.

(Feuer is a fan of conspiracy theories. In 2006 he treated respectfully and affectionately a convention of left-wing conspiracy theorists who insist that 9-11 was inside job by the Bush administration.)

On Saturday, reporter Jad Mouawad all but accused the GOP of spreading paranoia over the disease for political gain.

Fear of Ebola is spreading faster than the disease itself, and the growing paranoia in the United States is fueling calls to impose a travel ban on people coming from the three West African nations struggling with the outbreak.

In a politically tense climate, with the Nov. 4 elections just weeks away, the issue is being supercharged by partisan considerations with prominent Republicans calling for a ban, including John Boehner, the House speaker.

But public health officials say a travel ban would be ineffective and difficult to carry out and would not entirely prevent people in Ebola-hit countries from entering the United States.

Ultimately, health specialists said, a ban would do more harm than good because it would isolate impoverished nations that are barely able to cope with the outbreak, and possibly cut them off from the international aid workers who provide critical help to contain the disease.

Mouawad, an instant expert on the topic, knows any fears about Ebola are "irrational," since it's so hard to catch.

But Ebola evokes irrational fears -- the disease is extremely infectious but also tremendously hard to catch -- and authorities must tackle a public health crisis as well as manage public confidence.

He issued a series of lame excuses to avoid a travel ban, among them that such a ban might not be perfectly effective. Then he peppered an invisible critic with questions:

What would happen with United States citizens visiting those countries and returning home, for instance? How about dual-nationals who don’t need a visa into the United States? How about other foreign nationals who visited West Africa?

(Interesting that the same liberals who embrace the precautionary principle when it comes to genetically modified foods dismiss concerns about the spread of a deadly virus as hysterical and paranoid.)

And Michelle Malkin found yet another Times reporter, foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi, snottily defending the administration from critics on Twitter: "What have they done to lose your trust?"