PolitiFact, the nonpartisan fact-checking organization headquartered at the Tampa Bay Times announced Monday that exaggeration about the threat posed by the disease Ebola is its 2014 Lie of the Year.
In the weeks before the mid-term elections, Republican politicians, right-wing talk radio personalities and cable news networks seized upon the story as a way of attacking the public health system and, by proxy, President Barack Obama.
PolitiFact’s Angie Drobnic Holan and Aaron Sharockman wrote, “PolitiFact and PunditFact rated 16 separate claims about Ebola as Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire on our Truth-O-Meter in 2014. Ten of those claims came in October, as [Ebola patient Thomas Eric] Duncan’s case came to the fore and as voters went to the polls to select a new Congress.”
Former Reagan aide and Washington Post pundit George Will claimed against all medical evidence that Ebola can be passed from person-to-person via coughing or sneezing.
“The problem is the original assumption, said with great certitude if not certainty, was that you need to have direct contact, meaning with bodily fluids from someone, because it’s not airborne,” Will falsely said. “There are doctors who are saying that in a sneeze or some cough, some of the airborne particles can be infectious.”
Eager Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) claimed that the hemorrhagic fever is “incredibly contagious,” “very transmissible” and “easy to catch,” a set of claims that PolitiFact rated as “mostly false.”
“A Georgia congressman claimed there were reports of people carrying diseases including Ebola across the southern border. Pants on Fire. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Americans were told the country would be Ebola-free. False,” said the group.
Some critics point out that there are ugly racial undertones when white pundits attack a black president for a disease epidemic that is and was largely confined to continental Africa.
Fox News’ resident psychiatrist Keith Ablow even went so far as to say that Obama “welcomes” Ebola to the U.S. because “his affinities are with” Africa and its diseases.
All-in-all, only a tiny number of Americans were ever at risk for contracting Ebola. Even people who lived intimately with the health care workers and travelers who were infected remained uninfected after their quarantines.
Nonetheless, PolitiFact said, “When combined, the claims edged the nation toward panic. Governors fought Washington over the federal response. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stumbled to explain details about transmission of the virus and its own prevention measures. American universities turned away people from Africa, whether they were near the outbreak or not.”