Joe Scarborough's Ebola panic: He's just "asking questions" about how we're all going to get sick

After being called out for stoking Ebola fears, here's how Joe Scarborough turned "Meet the Press" into a shoutfest

Published October 6, 2014 5:00PM (EDT)

Joe Scarborough                (NBC/Today)
Joe Scarborough (NBC/Today)

When “Meet the Press” relaunched with Chuck Todd in the moderator’s chair, NBC News made clear that the network’s strategy for returning the show to relevance was to re-establish “insider” credibility. As such, one of their first big moves was to make Joe Scarborough, a man who exists solely to be in close proximity to the powerful, the show’s senior political analyst. “His love of politics and passion for debate will guarantee the kind of robust conversation that has always been a hallmark of Meet the Press,” Todd said in a statement, “and I look forward to the reported analysis he’ll bring to the table.”

That Scarborough variety of “reported analysis” was in evidence yesterday morning as Scarborough, appearing on the for-some-reason-still-necessary pundit panel, got into a shouting match with David Axelrod over the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the one patient in Dallas diagnosed with the disease. Why was Joe Scarborough commenting on Ebola? Because he’s Joe Scarborough, and his “reported analysis” on the issue is indispensable.

Let’s take a closer look at that analysis. Scarborough did everything he could to feed into public fears over Ebola and the government’s ability to protect the public from the disease, employing the classic pundit trick of voicing his own opinion and then ascribing it to the broader American population:

And right now, a lot of Americans are seeing what happened in Dallas and looking at your laundry list, what happened with the secret service, what happened with the IRS, what happened with the VA, what happened with ISIS being a JV team. So when anybody, any member of the government says, "Hey, just relax, everything's going to be okay," Americans don't believe that.

PBS’s Gwen Ifill, also appearing on the program, made the point that the “panic” in the U.S. comes from one single case, while the 3,000 people who’ve died from the disease in West Africa earned far less attention. This prompted Scarborough to say something (it’s difficult to hear over the crosstalk) about a “tipping point.”

“One case is a tipping point?” Ifill shot back. Scarborough argued that it’s become so bad in Africa that it’s only a matter of time before it reaches the U.S. “It’s growing to such a level in West Africa, that now is when you would start saying – Kent Brantly said, a guy who knows something about this because he had it. He said this is a fire from hell, and if you think that the Atlantic Ocean is going to stop it from coming over here, you’re kidding yourself.”

Kent Brantly, an American doctor working in Liberia who survived the disease after receiving an experimental Ebola drug, did indeed say something similar to that during testimony before the Senate last month. But he said it as part of his argument for a strong U.S. response to prevent Ebola from spreading, not as a warning that the disease has reached an intercontinental “tipping point.”

That’s when Axelrod jumped on “Dr. Scarborough” for promoting this panicked vision of an inept public health infrastructure combating a nigh-unstoppable disease. The shouting began as Scarborough grew insulted that Axelrod dared to question him for merely “asking tough questions.”

“I’m just asking questions” is another classic dodge used by pundits who want to offer an opinion on a controversial topic but also want to disavow ownership of that opinion. See, Joe Scarborough wasn’t saying that nobody trusts the U.S. government to protect us from the coming Ebola plague – that’s just what “a lot of Americans” think based on one (out-of-context) quote from an Ebola doctor. He’s just putting the question out there by stating it as fact and not asking any actual questions. It’s “reported analysis.”

An obviously frustrated Chuck Todd tried to intercede and prevent his program from being derailed by the sort of ridiculous personality clash that makes cable news unwatchable, but Scarborough and Axelrod kept right on talking over one another. As Mediaite’s Evan McMurry rightly points out, such things are bound to happen when you make the host of “Morning Joe” your go-to political analyst. “We already have five days a week of Joe Scarborough yelling over people who intersect his rhetorical momentum,” McMurry wrote. “Must we add a sixth?”

By Simon Maloy

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