President Donald Trump is preparing to nominate the third Supreme Court justice of his tenure, seeking to replace the progressive icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who passed away on Friday, with a reliably conservative judge. If he succeeds, the resulting 6-3 majority of Republican appointees would be positioned to gut voting rights, dismantle labor rights, overturn Roe v. Wade’s enshrinement of abortion rights, roll back protections on civil liberties, forestall climate action, destroy federal capacity to regulate big business, and much more. A president who lost the popular vote and a Republican Senate “majority” representing fewer voters than the Democratic “minority” could enshrine a radical agenda for decades.
You can draw a straight line to this moment from what is perhaps the least-discussed but most consequential major press failure of the 21st century: The media coverage of Ebola in the weeks before the 2014 midterm elections.
An outbreak that reached critical levels that summer in West Africa led to the first-ever case of Ebola diagnosed in the U.S. late that September. Four people would ultimately be diagnosed with the virus in the U.S., and 11 Ebola patients were treated in the country, two of whom died.
Republican political operatives and their right-wing media allies decided that terrifying people over Ebola would be a good way to win elections. So they turned the virus into the centerpiece of their midterm strategy, accusing President Barack Obama of leaving Americans vulnerable to the outbreak -- perhaps deliberately. Trump himself played a major role in stoking fears of the virus, on Twitter and during his regular Fox News appearances.
And U.S. media outlets helped. The press commands a potent ability to shape the agenda around elections. Print, radio, TV, and digital reporters and their editors and producers decide which stories are important, and the amount and tone of coverage they give to stories helps prime the audience as they make their voting decisions.
In the weeks leading up to the 2014 midterms, journalists used that power to provide nonstop coverage of Ebola, effectively aiding the GOP effort to turn fears about Obama’s handling of the virus into a crucial voting issue. In the four weeks before the midterm elections, for example, evening broadcast and cable news collectively aired nearly 1,000 segments on Ebola. Once the election was over and Republicans were no longer interested in panicking the country over the virus, that coverage dwindled to almost nothing. Some journalists would ultimately acknowledge that this coverage had been hysterical and irresponsible -- but it was too late.
The GOP’s Ebola-centric strategy -- and the media’s willingness to treat the party’s wildly cynical fearmongering as if it were on the level -- helped Republicans win an Election Day victory of historic importance.
The GOP picked up eight Senate seats, seizing control of the body and making Mitch McConnell its majority leader. He used that power to effectively end Obama’s legislative agenda and bottle up his judicial nominees -- including Merrick Garland, Obama’s pick to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.
By keeping that seat open, McConnell ultimately motivated Republican voters to turn out for the 2016 presidential election. In an election decided by a tiny number of votes, that may have helped Trump to victory.
That, in turn, put Trump in position to nominate right-wing successors for Scalia, Justice Anthony Kennedy, and, now, Ginsburg.
Notably, the media's agenda-setting did not help voters decide which party would be better at handling an outbreak. Republicans were very effective at conning journalists into credulously trumpeting their alarm about the possibility of a lethal pandemic, but have since proven devastatingly ineffectual at actually dealing with one. Under the oversight of Trump and his administration, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has killed more than 100,000 times as many Americans as Ebola did.
In a Fox & Friends interview Monday morning, Trump argued that his pending nomination to the Supreme Court is simply a response to the will of the public. “Losing elections, that has consequences,” he said, like “the other side gets to pick Supreme Court justices.”
But elections don’t happen in a vacuum -- they occur on the battlefield that the press shapes. If Trump and McConnell succeed in their effort to radically remake the judiciary and secure conservative victories that would have been impossible to achieve as legislation, they will owe journalists a big thank you. It wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t treated the GOP’s Ebola scare tactics as if they had been offered in good faith.