Friday, October 17, 2014

Ebola is here and we're gonna die! (eventually, that is, and not from Ebola)

     Is it too early for the Ebola post-mortem?
     I don’t think so.
     While there are still a few weeks of frenzy left in the mania, you gathered here in this quiet corner of the media have my permission to exhale a collective sigh of relief and move directly to the soul-searching segment of the show, reflection that comes when we all grasp that the nation has been in a quiver over what is, in essence, nothing.
    Well, okay, not nothing, but close enough to nothing on the crowded sliding scale of Bad Stuff We Need to Be Concerned About.
     So let’s jump the gun together and pretend it’s already, oh, mid-November, when the media will shift into the holiday season, the War Against Christmas and such, and shake off Ebola like a dog shaking off water after a bath. Let’s look at what lessons we’re learned from all this. (And no, “people are morons” doesn’t count; that’s a one-size-fits-all truism applicable in every circumstance).
     Lesson #1: Sex sells.
     Media attention is not doled out due to relative importance on some objective index. It is not fair. I hear continually from readers wondering why some bit of nonsense gets huge play. A few Americans dying of Ebola (Africa, as always, barely registers) shouldn’t outweigh the millions dying of heart disease. But Ebola does, because it’s weird and graphically arresting. Wondering why Ebola gets so much press and diabetes doesn’t is like wondering why all those photographers trail Miley Cyrus and not your cousin Maude, given that Maude does such good work with the church choir
     Like Miley, Ebola is sexy. Not the black vomit- and diarrhea-inducing viral infection itself, of course, but as a subject. How many movies feature those oooh-scary biohazard suits and graphics of the outbreak rapidly spreading red across computer maps of the United States before the alarmed eyes of the young and attractive epidemiologists who have only 48 hours to find a cure, build a breeder reactor out of junk lying around the office and, of course, jump into the sack?
     Let me boil the above into a simple code you can refer to later: "They never did find that missing Malaysian airliner, did they?"

     Lesson 2: It's your fault.
     When CNN shifted to wall-to-wall breathless speculation and endless plumping of some nondevelopment perhaps related to the missing Malaysian flight, what happened? Did a disgusted public turn away from such craven manipulation? No, it was cravenly manipulated. CNN's numbers spiked, no matter what dim bulb non-news they ladled out. So blame the public, aka you. You didn't say, "This is idiocy" and turn to another channel. You lapped it up, bought the false sense of urgency and tuned in. "Please sir," you said, extending your empty bowl toward the bubbling pot of idiocy porridge, "we''d like some more." Ebola is the same. Works every time.
     In CNN's defense: The job of the media — those of us who still have jobs in the media — is to display the bright, shiny thing the public wants to see. Period. I wrote a scare-mongering Ebola column, too, last week, because it seemed the thing to do, though I also emphasized that, horrible as it is, you're not going to get Ebola, so sit back and enjoy the show. It isn't my fault nobody listened.

     Lesson 3: Better safe than sorry.
     Neither authorities nor media want to be the dopes who miss the next disaster's warning signs. In our post-Benghazi world (Congress is already holding Ebola hearings) there is a huge cost for failing to act, but little for overreacting. Thus, doctors order rounds of expensive, unnecessary tests; travel has become a crazy security Kabuki; and everybody treats Ebola like it's the next Black Death because the editors of The New York Times are terrified they'll someday be able to say, "If only we ran another 50 Ebola stories, we might have saved the world."

     Lesson 4: We're all cowards.
     People really, really care about their own precious selves, so much that actual threats — heart disease, fatal car accidents, cancer, suicide, taking your last breath in a grim, ammonia-reeking nursing home — are just too real and scary to actually think about.
     So we take all that anxious energy that should be spent whittling down the enormous cantilevered bellies hanging over our belts that really will kill us someday, and instead obsess over notional risks like Ebola.
     It's a perfect pre-election distraction. A new scandal for jackal-pack Republicans — Phyllis Schlafly already said that Obama intentionally let the outbreak occur so we'd be more like Africa. For Dems, a chance to focus on our broken health care system and the biblical woes of Africa, which Americans otherwise blithely ignore. And for everybody, a real-life thriller we can keep tabs on as a distraction from our plodding, pedestrian lives. We'll miss it when it's gone.

6 comments:

  1. Actually, my cousin Maude is pretty interesting and sexy.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Enter the heroic nurse felled by the evil Ebola monster and don't pay any attention to the likelihood that it was possibly, probably, almost certainly her fault that she was infected.

    Of course, if in mid November half the country is oozing blood from every pore, won't we be sorry we were so cold hearted.

    John

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm giving odds on that. Three to one says there aren't 10 new cases of Ebola reported in the United States in December.

      Delete
  3. >>"Africa, as always, barely registers."

    The most important parts of Mr. Steinberg's columns are often comments made in passing. What if Ebola is part of a long message from God to the West? As if "Just how much misery are you going to harden your hearts to. Genocides, mass starvations, now disease. So far I've kept them so they are hard to transmit by air, but surely you know that's not an absolute, don't you? Did you folks not read the Old Testament? Ok then, here it comes!" Of course, the conceit in imagining such a thing is that the Lord would punish legions of Africans in order to send a message to the West. Still, people insist on finding meaning in both natural tragedies and massive acts of evil, so if we're going to look for lessons in Ebola, why not that one?

    That said, the *potential* (even small) for Ebola to become an epidemic is a valid reason for the disproportionate media coverage, isn't it? Heart disease, however prevelant, isn't an existential threat (save to those who have it). And I think some of the coverage is, implicitly, due to the broader "what if" issue - "if we're caught this off-guard with a slow-moving hard-to-catch emergency, just how exposed are we to a "real" existential emergency." Ironically, the disproportionate coverage may be good in the long term in making us get our act together.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I found it hard to believe that even the odious Phyllis Schlafly would say such a thing, but Mr. Google confirms it.

    The CDC has become fair game, and if they really thought that publishing their mostly adequate protocols was a sufficient safeguard they would indeed be guilty of what Alfred North Whitehead termed the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. But the fact is that the CDC has very limited power to make individual doctors, nurses and hospital administrators to act, or even pay much attention. An irony of the situation is that the unseemly, and somewhat craven, hysteria being whipped up by the press just might do the job.

    That press coverage in such matters is seldom fair but might neverthess be beneficial was nicely noted a century and a half a go by Anthony Trollope in his 1848 novel "The Eustace Diamonds."
    The theft of the diamonds had gone unsolved for several weeks, and "...the matter was becoming very important. Two or three of the leading newspapers had first hinted at and then openly condemned the incompetence and slowness of the police. Such censure, as we all know, is very common, and in nine cases out of ten it is unjust. They who write it know but little of the circumstances -- and in speaking of a failure here and a failure there, make no reference to the numerous successes, which are so customary as to partake of routine. It is the same in regard to all public matters -- Army matters, Navy matters, poor-law matters, and post office matters. Day after day, and almost every day, one meets censure which is felt to be unjust -- but the general result of all this injustice is increased efficiency. The coach does go faster because of the whip in the coachman's hand, though the horses being driven may never have deserved the thong."

    ReplyDelete