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.