The Ebola panic, the media, and the limits of government

The federal government, like almost any large institution, will nearly always be wrong-footed when confronted by the unexpected, especially if it’s an emergency. The feds will be slow off the mark and too many of their initial decisions will be wrong. We saw this with Hurricane Katrina and we’re seeing it now with Ebola.

Conservatives, of all people, shouldn’t be surprised. If the federal government were capable of performing well from the outset in times of unexpected crises or panic, the case for limiting it would be weaker.

It is fair, even so, to point to the shortcomings of the government’s initial response. In this case, some poor decisions were made. More could have been done. Maybe a travel ban should have been imposed weeks ago. At a minimum, there’s a case for imposing one now.

But like the braying that occurred in the days after Hurricane Katrina, some of that which is occurring during the Ebola scare strikes me as over-the-top. And now, as then, some of it seems politically motivated.

Should the director of the CDC be fired, as some talking heads are demanding? I don’t know. I think the answer depends on how well he has performed his job during his tenure, which extends back to 2009, not on whether he was wrong-footed in the past few weeks.

Do we need an “Ebola Czar,” as Geraldo Rivera insists? Don’t be ridiculous; that’s a knee-jerk liberal answer.

The media, like any outfit that can make a buck through fear mongering, will always sensationalize a story that induces fear. This is especially true of outlets that are constantly on the air. Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised when news channels become, in effect, Ebola networks.

What’s surprising is when a cable news host tries to provide perspective about Ebola. As John Fund reports, this is what Fox News’s Shepard Smith (of whom I’m generally not a fan) did. Smith told his viewers:

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. . . .

We do not have an outbreak of Ebola in the United States. Nowhere. We do have two health-care workers who contracted the disease from a dying man. They are isolated. There is no information to suggest that the virus has spread to anyone in the general population in America. Not one person in the general population in the United States.

Smith is right. And I agree with Fund, who concludes: “Concern is one thing, but raw, unreasoning fear is something that must be combatted as a public service.”