Although I’m neither a doctor nor a biologist nor a public health expert, I keep writing on Obama administration’s response to the ebola outbreak. For the president’s continued opposition to a travel ban to fight the disease speaks volumes about the political and governing establishments’ devotion to dogma about the virtues of completely Open Borders, economic globalization, and political correctness, and about the evils of any kind of nationalism, at the expense of public safety. I return to the subject today to deal with another angle – the mainstream media’s (MSM) role in upholding this establishment line.
No doubt many of you have already come up with reasons why: e.g., the reflexive internationalism and political liberalism of the MSM, along with its close social ties with these ruling elites – ties which have only intensified as journalists, public officials, and other political figures increasingly move back and forth among these occupations.
But recent commentaries have revealed another source of the MSM’s determination to banish support for an anti-ebola travel ban from the realm of respectable opinion: an uncritical worship of credentialed expertise.
At first blush, this claim sounds absurd. Doesn’t the MSM make its living by exposing official wrongdoing and ineptitude, as well as pretensions of public spiritedness, competence, and omniscience? Isn’t skepticism about authority practically the sine qua non of the journalistic personality, and of any reporting worth its salt?
Yes and No – but arguably for the most part No. There’s the aforementioned blurring of occupational lines reflecting the MSM’s growing tendency to come from the same backgrounds of affluence and elite schools as members of other sectors of the American establishment. As a result, they inevitably tend to marry one another, live in the same neighborhoods or the same kinds of neighborhoods, and/move in the same overlapping professional and social circles. Thus it’s not surprising that they share many of the same social and cultural norms and perspectives, even though their party politics often differs.
One natural result is the MSM’s strong support of the most important elements of the status quo – the existing structures, systems, and values that organize society, politics, and the economy, and give them purpose. And one of the most popular values (or myths – take your pick) in the United States entails the existence and superiority of a meritocracy.
Of course, the privileged lives led by most of the MSM powerfully incline its members toward meritocratism. A more conveniently self-serving way to explain its evident success – which consists not only of wealth but prominence and influence – is hard to imagine. Why, then, shouldn’t the MSM assume the same excellence in those anointed as experts by society in other fields of endeavor? Even those that are not personal friends neighbors of MSM members have passed the same test and been vetted by the same kinds of institutions.
In fact – and here I’m revealing one of its dirtiest, most important secrets – the MSM is even more inclined even than other successful Americans to lionize credentials in other occupations and especially professions. The reason? Despite the degrees conferred by schools of journalism, the professional-like societies they have created, and the multitude of awards they hand out to each other, journalists generally recognize, at least subconsciously, that theirs is not a genuine profession. Excelling requires the mastery of no body of technical knowledge – at least none that can’t be achieved in literally 15 minutes, like the standard form for writing a hard news story.
Hence the MSM’s built-in respect for those whose titles do require long years of study of famously complicated subjects, like the workings of the human body or centuries-old, constantly growing masses of statutes and jurisprudence. But it’s important to note the MSM’s inordinate regard for other pseudo-professions as well (like “public affairs”) and for pseudo-sciences (like economics).
Not that the MSM is incapable of skepticism. But the record seems to show that it usually reaches critical mass only after a group of experts has brought on disaster. Thus very few MSM members questioned the conventional wisdom among national security experts that a light was visible at the end of the Vietnam tunnel, or economists who insisted that the unprecedented indebtedness of American households and the equally unprecedented surge in home prices were signs that This Time It Was Different, not that dangerous bubbles were inflating. In other words, the MSM watchdog too often barks only after the break-in has succeeded.
Indeed, although skepticism skyrockets for a time after disaster strikes, MSM idolatry of expertise is so strong that, once the rubble clearing begins, reporters and commentators as a rule return to relying overwhelmingly on these proven failures as sources of information and analysis.
Thankfully, the United States so far has escaped an ebola disaster – so the MSM has energetically denounced anyone dissenting from the judgment of physicians and public health officials that a ban on visitors from West African hot zone countries would be not only ineffective, but counterproductive. Typical has been this lead from NBC News: “There are reasons the U.S. hasn’t enacted a travel ban on countries where Ebola has broken out: It wouldn’t work and could actually make things worse, health officials say. Still, that’s done little to quell the calls for a ban.”
And this lead from Politico: “The political momentum for a travel ban on West African nations continued to swell Thursday, but health and transportation experts were uniform in saying it wouldn’t stem the spread of Ebola — and could do more harm than good. That hasn’t stopped politicians and pundits — ranging from House Speaker John Boehner to former Obama press secretary Jay Carney— from calling for a travel ban.” And this headline from HuffingtonPost: Lawmakers Ignore Experts, Push For Ebola Travel Ban.”
Indeed, so strong is the MSM’s expertise worship that it’s even overcome Ana Marie Cox, a Daily Beast contributor who first gained fame through reporting on a sex scandal that titillating the publicly prurient Washington, D.C. branch of the chattering class. This proudly sauciest of wenches sternly admonished viewers of Fox News’ Media Buzz program, “There is an empirical answer to that question – there is an empirical, scientific answer as to what we should do to prevent the spread of ebola. If you have an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ after your name, you should not be talking about this. If you have an ‘MD’ after your name, you should be talking about this.”
Apparently Cox has never heard of a doctor blowing a diagnosis. Or of practitioners of the far softer art of “public health” mishandling an epidemic. Which perhaps points to additional problems with the MSM’s deference to authority: First, nothing could be clearer in recent weeks than the fallibility of so-called medical experts leading the fight against ebola. Whether neglecting the virus’ latest outbreak in West Africa or creating “protocols” for treatment that were in some cases not only flawed but fatally flawed, the experts themselves have acknowledged the kinds of mistakes that haven’t induced much humility on their part, but that rightly have cost them the confidence of many Americans.
Second, the ebola consensus in the healthcare community is not nearly as solid as the MSM typically suggests. Support for a travel ban is anything but nonexistent, and some researchers have even cautioned that knowledge about ebola’s transmission mechanisms could be substantially incomplete. Put differently, the science surrounding a disease discovered 40 years ago is anything but “settled.”
Combine the MSM’s pro-credentialed-expertise instincts with its clear political leanings on globalization- and political correctness-related issues and you have the scandal that constitutes its ebola travel ban coverage. Thanks to the emergence of alternative media, the public interest is increasingly likely to survive this dereliction of duty. But its declining audiences and worsening financial fortunes indicate that may not be true for the MSM.