Last week we discussed how the “Media Should Stop Lecturing Americans About Their Ebola Concerns.” It seems that every time new information about Ebola’s spread comes out, media schoolmarms lecture people who are discussing it. Normal discussions are labeled “hysteria” and “panic.”
In a 2004 pamphlet, Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard describe this as “Panic Panic.” They tell people that actual panic is rare and that people usually act fairly calm during crises. They also say not to ascribe panic to what is normal disobedience, mistrust, worry and even excessive caution. These things are not panic, they say. “[B]e careful not to project your own panic (or your performance anxiety) onto the public,” they write. Finally, don’t try to over-reassure or mislead people as this ends up provoking the very thing you claim you’re trying to avoid.
Sandman and Lanard also talk about the “Fear of Fear.” They tell people to neither overestimate the harm done by fear nor underestimate the good done by fear. Fear will not inevitably escalate into panic and people can usually handle fear and end up being resilient and even heroic.
Fearful people are more vigilant, more likely to take precautions, more tolerant of preparedness inconvenience and expense.
Fear is a completely rational and inevitable response to new and frightening risks, they say. So people in positions of authority shouldn’t do harmful things: “[M]aking over-reassuring statements, and expressing contempt for people’s fears tend to backfire.”
So you’d be forgiven for thinking that journalists lecturing people to calm down already are having a bit of Panic Panic and Fear of Fear when it comes to Ebola.
Which brings us to the quarantine story.
I first noticed this with Ben Smith’s tweet linking to a BuzzFeed story about a nurse who’s been quarantined in New Jersey:
Is he confused about how terrible the politics of this are for Governors Christie and Cuomo? I’d say yes. I want to be clear that what happened in response to that tweet was a helpful discussion among many about how the politics of this are actually in Christie and Cuomo’s favor. Smith later referred to this quarantine as “imprisoning” but also said he was “in the process of being talked out of” the idea that this was a politically disastrous move.
Trip Gabriel, the New York Times national correspondent covering politics, referred to these gubernatorial moves as “pandering,” in case you wonder how he’ll cover this move.
Speaking of smug silliness, Washington Free Beacon reporter Bill McMorris caught a funny second paragraph of a story written by the comedy troupe of Matt Flegenheimer, Michael Shear and Michael Barbaro:
As one reader noted, “This conclusory invocation to “science” w/o reference to any study is an IQ test for the American intelligentsia.” I’m sorry, but if you read the phrase “based on science” and don’t immediately guffaw at the unfounded arrogance and unchecked assumptions of it all, you are probably a typical reporter.
Out of touch with readers and viewers?
CNN was pushing pieces highly critical of quarantines throughout the weekend. Here’s one promotion of a story:
To which some found the responses — basically 100% unsympathetic to the nurse — alarming.
Because, see, most Americans find the idea of short-term quarantines to be not as radical as they seem to a media that might be invested in, oh, I don’t know, a pre-election narrative that things aren’t being poorly managed by, say, the Obama administration. To just take one hypothetical.
Yes, our media are beyond trusting of what they term “expert” opinion, while most Americans have noticed that experts might not be as expert as they themselves think they are. See, for example, “President Obama Already Has An Ebola Czar. Where Is She?” Quick side note that this expert — Dr. Nicole Lurie — finally showed up in public at a Hill hearing to tell everyone “There is an epidemic of fear” in the United States. Some people in the media look at these almost religious statements and nod their heads and feel superior and others in the rest of the country point at her and say, “Wait, she was the one who passed over the Ebola drug that works to give money to a now-bankrupt firm owned by a big Obama donor, right?”
Enough with the ‘epidemic of fear’ gobbledygook
Speaking of this “epidemic of fear” phrase that our esteemed first Ebola Czar (not to be confused with the Democratic political strategist Ron Klain, who Obama appointed to be another “Ebola Czar) used in her testimony last week … note that this is the precise terminology also used by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of NIH’s Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He says, “we’re having an epidemic of fear” in the United States:
Which makes one wonder if, in fact, the Panic Panic and Fear of Fear is guiding the actual Obama administration talking points, contrary to what “experts” in fear say you should do.
To cleanse the palate, I’ll just add these twin tweets from risk analyst Nassim Nichol Taleb:
Fat Tony to Nero: "You need to submit to your instinct to panic early. The suckers are those who only panic late."
Nassim NicholنTaleb (@nntaleb) October 27, 2014
A word on quarantines
Now having defended the normal human response to short-term quarantines, and mocked the media elite response to same, one of the downsides of media treatment of this issue is that it makes us less likely to have a healthy, helpful conversation about civil liberties and public health.
Caroline Gorman at Thoughts on Liberty wrote up her civil liberty concerns regarding quarantines a few weeks ago. She noted how expansive laws permitting involuntary quarantine are and how quickly they can be used against marginalized groups. She said she worried about how public health threats can become yet another “permanent stage of emergency” that governments use to expand the administrative state.
A permanent state of emergency for a disease is not outside the realm of possibility. Since 2001, the United States has been in a “state of emergency” due to an unspecified terrorist threat. Bush first enacted this declaration in 2001, and thereafter renewed it every year; President Obama has continued to renew the declaration. The mere proclamation of emergency allows for the activation of more than 500 dormant laws, many of which invoke martial law or allow for curtailment of First Amendment speech. Were this “state of emergency” to be applied to a public health situation, the few civil liberties protections already in place would be elided.
USA Today ran a special report just last week on how we’ve been in a perpetual state of emergency, with no Congressional oversight, for decades.
Gorman notes that some say that involuntary quarantine is less effective than voluntary and that it comes at such a huge expense as to be not worthwhile. Still, she cautions those concerned to offer alternatives to dealing with public health threats, such as using hospitals instead of prisons, having judges sign off on quarantines, and reimbursing for lost wages and property.
Involuntary quarantine, even in times of public health threats, should be taken seriously. It would be sad if the media’s fear of fear and panic panic made such conversations more difficult to have.