Honesty and Policy

Daily Best of the Web   —   Posted on October 28, 2014

The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at WSJ written by the editor, James Taranto.

Andrew Cuomo

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo

Honesty and Policy
Ebola arrived in New York last week, as officials announced Thursday night that Craig Spencer, a physician who’d recently returned from a Doctors Without Borders volunteer mission in Guinea, had developed symptoms after returning to the city. Spencer is receiving treatment at Bellevue Hospital; his fiancee, who is thus far asymptomatic, is under quarantine at the couple’s Harlem apartment.

At the press conference, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said of Spencer: “He was familiar with the possibility and the circumstances, so he handled himself accordingly.” The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber, in a Friday piece, disagreed: “This is clearly not true. Despite the fact that Dr. Spencer presented a miniscule [sic] risk to anyone around him when he decided to ride the subway, go bowling, and frolic at the High Line Park on Wednesday, he obviously should not have been out and about.”

Scheiber thinks the falsehood was deliberate. Yet “having said all that,” he writes, “I kinda think Cuomo et al were right to lie last night”:

The big problem these officials faced in the aftermath of the Spencer news was massive public anxiety. . . . In this context, publicly calling out Dr. Spencer for his failure to self-quarantine could have turned into its own minor disaster. . . . Had they taken the additional step of criticizing Spencer for not isolating himself beforehand, you can imagine that dominating the headlines, drowning out most of what they said, and generally contributing to the very panic they were trying to defuse. . . . Far better to play it cool while, behind the scenes, making sure any health worker who’s recently returned from the affected African countries has a month’s supply of Stouffer’s in his freezer and a complimentary Netflix subscription.

So one cheer for lying, Mr. and Mrs. Public Official.

It must be noted that the factual basis of Schieber’s argument is, to say the least, shaky. In a Saturday news story, the New York Times accused the governor of speaking untruthfully when on Friday he said the opposite of what he’d said Thursday:

Mr. Cuomo’s remarks at times veered beyond the facts, as when he criticized the New York patient with Ebola, Dr. Craig Spencer, accusing him of having failed to follow the protocols set by his organization, Doctors Without Borders.

“He’s a doctor, and even he didn’t follow the guidelines for the quarantine, let’s be honest,” Mr. Cuomo said. In fact, Doctors Without Borders said, Dr. Spencer had followed its guidelines. And he was not under quarantine.

One might construe that “let’s be honest” as an acknowledgment that Cuomo had been dishonest on Thursday. But there are other possibilities. Perhaps the governor made an untrue statement in good faith, believing it to be true. Maybe both his statements were “true” inasmuch as they accurately reflected the contrary opinions of different experts.

Or possibly by Friday Cuomo no longer trusted the experts. The last explanation would put Scheiber on Cuomo’s side and not the experts’. As per the Times, Doctors Without Borders, at least, holds to the view that Scheiber describes as “obviously” wrong.

Consistent with that last hypothesis is Cuomo’s decision—made in tandem with New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie and also announced Friday—to subject all medical personnel returning from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to a 21-day quarantine. That decision provoked “fierce resistance from the White House and medical experts,” today’s Times reports. Last night Cuomo partly backed down, announcing “that medical workers who had contact with Ebola patients in West Africa but did not show symptoms of the disease would be allowed to remain at home”—that is, to go home from the airport rather than to a hospital.

Even fiercer resistance came from Kaci Hickox, a nurse who became the first returning traveler to be subjected to the new policy. In an op-ed for the Dallas Morning News – written with the assistance of Seema Yasmin, a News reporter who is also a physician and onetime colleague of Hickox at the Centers for Disease Control – she told her story.

Hickox was returning from Sierra Leone, where she’d been volunteering for Doctors Without Borders. She arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport Friday afternoon. According to NJ Advance Media, she expected to catch a connecting flight to Maine, where she lives. But when she told the immigration officer where she’d been, “he put on gloves and a mask and called someone. Then he escorted me to the quarantine office a few yards away.”

The bureaucrats she encountered were officious: “One man who must have been an immigration officer because he was wearing a weapon belt that I could see protruding from his white coveralls barked questions at me as if I was a criminal.” They were inept, insisting she had a fever because a forehead scanner showed her temperature at 101. “I explained that an oral thermometer would be more accurate and that the forehead scanner was recording an elevated temperature because I was flushed and upset.”

She was taken to Newark’s University Hospital, where a doctor confirmed her opinion: “After my temperature was recorded as 98.6 on the oral thermometer, the doctor decided to see what the forehead scanner records. It read 101. . . . ‘There’s no way you have a fever,’ he said. ‘Your face is just flushed.’ ”

On Sunday she gave a phone interview to CNN’s Candy Crowley, in which she complained about the conditions at the hospital: “She was put in an isolation tent. . . . Hickox said she has no shower, no flushable toilet and the hospital gave her no television or any reading material.”

She also “slammed” Gov. Christie “for describing her as ‘obviously ill.’ ‘First of all, I don’t think he’s a doctor; secondly, he’s never laid eyes on me; and thirdly, I’ve been asymptomatic since I’ve been here,’ Hickox told Crowley.” She retained Norman Siegel, a former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and threatened to sue.

This morning Christie seemed to yield, allowing Hickox to return to Maine (by private jet) where she’ll serve out the quarantine at home. The governor, as quoted by the Times, disputes that characterization:

I didn’t reverse my decision. Why are you saying I reversed my decision? If she was continuing to be ill she’d have to stay. She hadn’t had any symptoms for 24 hours. And she tested negative for Ebola. So there was no reason to keep her. The reason she was put into the hospital in the first place was because she was running a high fever and was symptomatic. If you live in New Jersey, we will quarantine you in your home. That was always the policy. If you live outside the state and you are symptomatic, we’re not letting you go onto public transportation.

Whether on not that was “always the policy,” it may be emerging as a de facto nationwide policy. The federal government has already decreed that travelers from the Ebola countries must fly into one of five international airports—Newark, JFK, Chicago O’Hare, Atlanta’s Hartsfield and Washington Dulles, which is in Virginia—and Illinois’s Gov. Pat Quinn ordered a 21-day home quarantine Friday.

There is an irony in Kaci Hickox’s public statements, in that the problems she identifies—heavy-handed and disorganized bureaucrats, incompetent politicians—are similar to those that the Obama administration’s critics have long noted. No doubt she lost some public sympathy with her own officious and self-righteous tone—“This is an extreme that is really unacceptable, and I feel like my basic human rights have been violated,” she told Crowley—but you know what they say about squeaky wheels.

The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway notes that there are an awful lot of squeaky wheels in the media—people who, unlike Hickox, do not have their own personal liberty at stake. “The very moment that the news was confirmed about Dr. [Spencer’s] Ebola, various reporters started telling everyone to calm down,” she observes. “These journalists telling people to stop panicking—whatever they mean by that—remind me a lot of a dude telling a woman who is disagreeing with him to ‘Calm down already!’ It’s not just inappropriate and dismissive, it’s also not helpful.”

She enumerates some examples from Twitter. The Atlantic’s David Frum: “All these people minimizing the NY Ebola outbreak are forgetting how avian flu wiped out the human population in 2007.” Politico’s Ben White: “You are not going to get Ebola, New Yorkers. No one you know is going to get Ebola. Have a good night.” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes: “New Yorkers: You’re not going to get Ebola.” Freelancer Zerlina Maxwell: “the man in my bodega told me he’s scared of Ebola. He’s like ‘Ebola’s coming!’ And then I told him about science. Lol.”

Hemingway rejoins:

Do you think reporters have any clue what they sound like when they speak about “science” and its just so powers? I get that some people have accepted “science” as their personal Lord and Savior. But you wouldn’t believe how unconvincing such Bodega proclamations are to those of us who don’t think freelance journalists are the equivalent of medical experts. . . .

I don’t know if we’re just witnessing some sort of dramatic self-soothing technique or if it’s disdain for typical Americans or if it’s some kind of psychological trauma related to journalists’ inability to deal with the failures of the administrative state and progressive ideology.

The Washington power couple’s other half, Mark Hemingway of the Weekly Standard, puts it this way:

 The Ebola coverage is just the latest example of a familiar process. It’s a common enough phenomenon that I suggested it needs a name, and a couple of smart friends suggested I call it “hacklash.” I’ll take a stab at fleshing out the problem: Again and again we see the media and political establishment, which frequently collude, trying to preempt calls for honesty and accountability by enforcing some elite consensus that’s dismissive of the need to address institutional failures. There’s a dismissal of legitimate concerns, right up until the facts finally overwhelm the preferred narrative and prompt some degree of public outrage. When the public inevitably gets wise, it’s often before the media catch up, but usually too late to have avoided some secondary consequence or disaster.

Each failure leaves the public more distrustful then [sic] they were before, and this necessitates even more aggressive attempts to ratchet up the elite consensus. Lather, rinse, repeat. This is basically the story of the Obama presidency, where nearly all of the staggering failures and crises—Ebola, ISIS, Obamacare, Benghazi, et al.—have played out in a similar fashion.

Anyway, I’m much less worried about contracting Ebola than I am about the dismissive reaction to it. Hacklash appears to be a cyclical problem, and as an indicator of the health of our Republic, I don’t see how this ends well.

Which brings us back to Noam Scheiber and his case for dishonesty. This is not the first time he’s sounded the theme; in a January piece, he wrote: “I’m still much more sympathetic to Obamacare than [Michael] Moore. He thinks it’s awful. I consider it a deceptively sneaky way to get the health care system both of us really want”—i.e., full socialism. As with Cuomo’s purported “lie,” we’re skeptical of Scheiber’s premises. But the point is that he views ObamaCare’s fraudulence as a virtue.

Scheiber’s argument regarding Ebola, however, fails even the test of expediency. It amounts to asserting that public officials have to lie to us so that we can trust them when they say there’s nothing to worry about. Incompetence alone is corrosive enough to public trust. If people in authority tell outright lies with the aim of soothing the public, then every reassuring official statement is cause for alarm.

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