Obama meets Ebola survivor Nina Pham in the Oval Office

Credit where it’s due: This is a nice move by O, not just as recognition for someone who risked her life to help a sick man but as a signal to the world that survivors needn’t be shunned. Members of Thomas Duncan’s family claim that people in Dallas’s Liberian community are running away from them when they see them; some other Dallas residents say they’re anxious about meeting people who were on the CDC “watch list” for having spent time around Duncan. Others who live in the same Dallas neighborhood as Duncan feel they’ve been stigmatized, and Liberian-Americans generally are living under a cloud of suspicion now for fear that they’ve been to Africa and back recently. (Meanwhile, Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital has seen ER visits drop by 50 percent and revenue by 25 percent over the last few weeks.) Sending someone who had the disease a few days ago into the president’s office is one way to show people that it’s safe to interact with former patients (and people who had contact with them). And of course it’s good politics for Obama, who somehow seems to be on the golf course every time a crisis erupts. This is his way of showing the public that he’s on top of this.

The stigma against survivors is even worse in west Africa, I’m sure. Won’t surprise me if this photo ends up on the front page of a few newspapers there this weekend.

Meanwhile, read the Hemingways — Mollie and Mark — on what the latter is calling an Ebola “hacklash” brewing against the media. Why is it, they ask, that reporters seem so eager to shift into “calm down, yokels” mode about Ebola jitters lately? The more they try to reassure the unwashed masses that the risk is zero and that the CDC’s got this, baby, the more anxious people get when they hear that two nurses contracted the disease despite wearing full protective clothing and a doctor just back from the hot zone decided to break his self-quarantine to go bowling. That’s the “hacklash” that Mark Hemingway describes — a backlash to the smug hacks of the press establishment, who end up stoking public fear while trying to tamp it down by peddling ultimately incorrect assurances. Why do they keep doing it?

A few reasons. One: Unfortunately, for the lowest of low-information voters, it’s necessary. I made that point last week in my post about Shep Smith’s “calm down, yokels” lecture on Fox. The knowledge that some not insignificant portion of the electorate can’t name the vice president after five years in office makes me shudder to think what that portion must have absorbed about the risk of Ebola. Some people need to be clubbed over the head with the “low risk” message until it penetrates those thick skulls. Two: Per Mollie Hemingway, some of these hacks may be secretly nervous themselves and are practicing a form of “self-soothing.” Think of a parent huddled with her child in a basement as a tornado passes overhead. That parent’s going to be anxious, but she’ll do her best not to let on; her dumb, innocent, frightened kid will be calmed if mama shows strength. Three: Related to that last point, I think they enjoy the faux-expertise they derive from repeating the CDC’s “no worries” message, even if that message occasionally proves wrong. It gives them the patina of superiority they crave as liaisons between the ruling class and the unwashed, and that superiority is important to an industry charged with explaining the world to the wider public. If the anchorman seems worried about Ebola, he’s tacitly admitting there are unknowns here. Unknowns aren’t good for the media’s image.

I think Mark Hemingway’s got the best explanation, though:

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 they were before, and this necessitates even more aggressive attempts to ratchet down 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.

It’s also the story of immigration this year, with U.S. border security treated as perfectly adequate by the political and media establishments until kids from Central America started crossing the southern border by the thousands, blowing up the narrative. The question left open by Hemingway’s framing of the “hacklash” is whether this practice of knee-jerk apologetics for failing institutions will change once there’s a Republican in charge of the federal mess. If President Jeb Bush and his CDC screw up on Ebola, well, maybe that’s just proof that wingnuts are incompetent and can’t be trusted to run a complex mechanism like the U.S. government. When President Obama and his CDC screw up, that’s bad news — either the Democrats are incompetent too or government just isn’t all that great at crisis management anymore, which is a hard lesson to swallow if you’re a fan of ever-expanding government. The question for 2017 and beyond, I guess, is what motivates the media more: Fear of Republicans, in which case there’s no need to spin the feds’ institutional failures, or fear that their audience is a bunch of hotheaded yokels, in which case there’s every need to shore up faith in government institutions to hold society together.