Media’s Ebola hysteria deadlier than disease itself

“The president of CNN Worldwide, Jeff Zucker, attempted on Wednesday to defuse the brewing controversy over his decision to change the network’s official slogan from ‘The Most Trusted Name in News’ to ‘Holy Crap, We’re All Gonna Die.’ ”

That’s not a real news story, of course — it’s political satire written by the brilliant Andy Borowitz and published in The Borowitz Report online through The New Yorker. But you would be forgiven if you thought it was real, given the fevered frenzy members of the media have been spewing lately.

These illness-related figures of speech are done on purpose, as is the hyperbole in the headline. Use whatever imagery you want. So many members of the media — especially cable channels — are out of control with Ebola coverage.

News 24/7 means all-Ebola, all the time. We’ve seen interviews with doctors all around the country, government officials, nurses, and many others. Nearly all of the health professionals are giving thoughtful, measured, serious responses to Ebola questions. It’s still highly unlikely that the U.S. will see many other cases — except for possibly some health care workers. But the anchors and talking heads are driving fear into the hearts of ordinary Americans.

According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, two-thirds of Americans are concerned about a “widespread” Ebola epidemic in the United States. There’s no reason for such fears, but when that’s what you’re bombarded with constantly, people tune out the real answers and listen to the fear-mongering. Forty-three percent of those polled are worried that they or someone in their family will contract Ebola. Unless you’re caring for an Ebola patient and there was a slip-up in the infection control protocol, that’s just not going to happen.

Nurses — the unsung heroes of the health care system — are rightly concerned. Caregivers are those most as risk for being exposed to the Ebola virus, and the only two cases of people contracting the disease in this country are two nurses. According to a CBS report, the largest nurses union, National Nurses United, has been staging protests calling for more training and better protective gear since summer. Nurses are calling on President Obama to invoke his authority to protect health care workers. “Without action at a very high level, how can we expect the nurses to do this on their own?” asked National Nurses United Executive Director RoseAnn DeMoro.

Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, which treated the Liberian man who died and which employs the two nurses now infected, has apologized for mishandling the protocols. So listen to the experts, listen to the caregivers, and move on. Don’t spend hours of news coverage every day wondering if people who rode on a plane with a nurse should be worried.

It also would help if budgets to the National Institutes for Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and local and state health departments hadn’t been cut. The CDC can’t call every hospital, doctor, and nurse in America to deliver information on the best way to handle a possible Ebola patient — that’s the responsibility of local public health entities. But they can’t do their jobs when they’re underfunded and understaffed.

It would help if the U.S. had a surgeon general to be the public face of what the government is doing about Ebola, and to work to spread public health messages. That way, the CDC director could spend more time working on disease response and not testifying before House committees. But we don’t have a surgeon general, because the nomination of Dr. Vivek Murthy, the highly qualified candidate recommended by just about every medical organization in the country, remains blocked in the Senate because too many senators are afraid of the National Rifle Association — Dr. Murthy publicly backed the same common-sense gun restrictions supported by most Americans and most doctors and medical associations. Ironically, Fox News, which had led some of smears against Dr. Murthy, recently said the nomination was “tied up in politics.”

And speaking of politics — this being an election season and all — certain politicians are wringing out every drop of fear they can. According to GOP Senate candidates like Tom Tillis (North Carolina) and Scott Brown (New Hampshire), Ebola could come across the border by illegal immigrants and/or terrorists — it depends on which way they’re spinning the silliness. According to Colorado GOP Senate candidate Cory Gardner, the CDC is “wasting” money on certain programs that aim to cut obesity — why aren’t they spending that money on something important, like Ebola? I hate to tell you, Rep. Gardner, but one in five deaths in the United States is tied to obesity, according to a study in the American Journal of Public Health.

What else kills more Americans annually than Ebola, which has claimed one life? How about heart disease (over 590,000 deaths), cancer (over 570,000), or stroke (nearly 130,000), according to figures from the CDC? How about smoking, flu, or measles from people who aren’t vaccinated, just to name a few others? How about guns, which kill more than 30,000 people in the U.S. every year?

One moment of sanity came from one of the more responsible journalists at Fox News — Shepard Smith. According to a report in New York Magazine, he delivered a message on his show like the Angel Gabriel: “Unless a medical professional has contacted you personally and told you of some sort of possible exposure, fear not. Do not listen to the hysterical voices on the radio and the television or read the fear-provoking words online. The people who say and write hysterical things are being very irresponsible.”

It would help if more of his colleagues listened to him. More of his colleagues, and more of America, too.

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