The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at WSJ written by the editor, James Taranto.
Should Be ‘to WHOM’
“Canada to Ship Experimental Ebola Vaccine to WHO”—headline, NBCNews, Oct. 18
Excused from Syracuse
The Washington Post is displeased with Syracuse University, “home to a very prestigious journalism school,” as per the Post’s Mark Berman in an article sarcastically titled “Syracuse University Bravely Saves Students From Exposure to Journalism.”
Here’s what happened: The university’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications invited the Post’s Michel du Cille to talk about his recent work in Ebola-plagued Liberia. Then it rescinded the invitation owing to anxiety about exposure to the virus. “I am disappointed in the level of journalism at Syracuse, and I am angry that they missed a great teaching opportunity,” du Cille told News Photographer magazine. “Instead they have decided to jump in with the mass hysteria.”
Not surprisingly, Berman agrees with du Cille. He makes the case against Syracuse via a series of appeals to authority, beginning with the authority of du Cille’s, who Berman informs us right off the bat is “a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist.” In the next paragraph, he describes du Cille as “a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, which I should really say three times, because he has won the award three times.” But twice will suffice.
“This seems a little strange,” Berman repeats, “because if his 21 days of monitoring are good enough for the CDC, they are probably good enough for a college campus full of non-epidemiologists, right?”’
In a USA Today op-ed, the dean of the school, Lorraine Branham, more or less concedes the point. Disinviting du Cille, she writes, “was not a decision that we made lightly and we certainly understood that in doing so we opened ourselves to criticism about stoking fears among the public and spreading ignorance about the disease and how it is spread. This is not what you want to do as the dean of a premiere journalism school. But concern for our students, faculty and staff outweighs any concern I have about how this decision will be viewed by others.”
This column is inclined to agree that someone at Syracuse—whether Branham herself or the people who pressed her to snub du Cille—overreacted. Nonetheless, we take issue with du Cille’s and Berman’s suggestion that it was done out of hostility to “journalism.” This was not like the recent viewpoint-based collegiate disinvitations of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and George Will. Plainly the motive was anxiety over a horrific disease.
Yes, that anxiety is wholly unjustified, according to the experts. But Berman’s appeal to expert authority fails to take into account the reasons people at Syracuse might have had for distrusting their authority. To wit, as Scott Gottlieb and Tevi Troy, respectively a physician and a former deputy secretary of health and human services, observe in a Wall Street Journal op-ed:
The CDC’s lapses—such as failing to intensify the recommended protective gear for medical workers or tighten techniques for handling hospital waste—may have contributed to the unnecessary secondary spread of the virus to two nurses. Misstatements by its director, Thomas Frieden, about the risk to U.S. citizens and hospital personnel, have rightly fueled some of the criticism directed his way.
Gottlieb and Troy credit Frieden with “chasing down the agency’s errors and readily acknowledging its bad decisions.” But their criticism of the political leadership includes no such mitigation:
Much public skepticism about the government’s response to Ebola stems from the dogmatic pronouncements of Obama administration officials. In a video message early last month on stopping the virus, for example, President Obama asserted that “we know how to do it.” He was wrong.
They fault the administration for treating Ebola as a political “messaging problem,” one to be solved by a political operative, Ron Klain. That in itself sends a message of unseriousness and undermines whatever public confidence may remain in the government’s experts. We know of no reason to think the experts are wrong in giving du Cille a clean bill of health. But can one really blame the people in Syracuse for their distrust of authority?
Think of the decision as analogous to Pascal’s Wager. If the experts are right and Syracuse shuns du Cille, students and faculty miss out on an interesting lecture. If the experts are wrong and he goes, the consequence is Ebola hell. Chances are it’s a negligible or nonexistent risk, but the stakes are much higher if the experts are wrong. The administration ought to appreciate such logic. John Kerry employed it the other week with respect to “climate change.”
Du Cille and Berman might also consider the role that journalism plays in undermining trust in authority by covering those in authority in a partisan or ideologically biased fashion. “Amid Assurances on Ebola, Obama is Said to Seethe,” reads the headline of a piece by Michael Shear and Mark Landler of the New York Times. “President Obama was seething,” reads the lead sentence.
Oh wait, that was the lead sentence of another Shear piece, dated Nov. 9, 2013. The rest of the paragraph reads: “Two weeks after the disastrous launch of HealthCare.gov, Mr. Obama gathered his senior staff members in the Oval Office for what one aide recalled as an ‘unsparing’ dressing-down.”
Here’s how the Ebola piece starts: “Beneath the calming reassurance that President Obama has repeatedly offered during the Ebola crisis, there is a deepening frustration, even anger, with how the government has handled key elements of the response. Those frustrations spilled over when Mr. Obama convened his top aides in the Cabinet room after canceling his schedule on Wednesday.”
In a scathing New York Post column, John Podhoretz opines that the Times has “become the official stenographer of the Obama White House. . . . The only thing missing from [the Shear-Landler story] was the opening line that all political commercials are now required to include: ‘I’m Barack Obama and I approve of this message.’ ”
Well, one could argue that either way. While the Shear-Landler piece is sympathetic to the president, it isn’t exactly flattering. It portrays him as an inept manager who treats subordinates with contempt. On the other hand, that may be inadvertent. When Shear and Landler observe that Obama is angry “with how the government has handled key elements of the response,” they seem oblivious to the president’s position as head of government. It wouldn’t be the first time journalists have taken it upon themselves to minimize this president’s responsibility for government failures under his watch.
Meanwhile on the Times’s op-ed page, governmental incompetence has become a frequent theme of usually Obama-friendly columnists. Joe Nocera:
When you think about it, many of the Obama administration’s “scandals” have been failures of competence. The Secret Service let a man leap over the White House fence and get into the White House. The Veterans Health Administration covered up unconscionable delays in treating veterans. The error-ridden rollout of the Obamacare website was a nightmare for people trying to sign up for health insurance. The Republican right takes it as an article of faith that the national government can’t do anything right. Problems like these only help promote that idea.
And now comes the C.D.C.—the most trusted agency in government—thrust in a role for which it was designed: advising us and protecting us from a potential contagion. With every new mistake, it becomes, in the public eye, just another federal agency that can’t get it right.
For what it’s worth, the U.S. Postal Service claims it is the most trusted government agency. And the check is in the mail.
Right now in this country there’s a crisis of confidence, and of competence, and that’s the fertile ground in which the Ebola terror flowers. That’s the backdrop for whatever steps Obama and Frieden take from here. With the right ones, they can go a long way toward calming people who are anxious not just about Ebola but about America. I don’t even want to think about the wrong ones.
When even New York Times columnists (with the notable exception of former Enron adviser Paul Krugman) are talking like this, surely the worrywarts at Syracuse can be excused.
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