There was widespread suspicion last month that as cable news gorged on the “Ebola in America” story, feasting on overheated coverage that played off anxiety and outright panic, that the programming was driven, in part, by a cynical attempt to boost ratings. After all, fear sells. And what better way to draw millions of additional viewers to cable news than pumping up a story about an impending virus doom and wrapping it in a partisan pre-election narrative about President Obama's failure to lead?
As PBS science correspondent Miles O'Brien noted during an interview on CNN when the story first broke, and when he urged journalists to “take a breath” (many did not), “Unfortunately it's a very competitive business, the business we're in, and there is a perception that by hyping up this threat, you draw people's attention.” He added, “That's a shame to even say that, and I get embarrassed for our brethren in journalism.”
Longtime television observer Brian Lowry, writing at Variety, stressed that while television news has “long employed fear as a come-on to viewers,” it had “truly outdone itself” with its response to the virus.
Aside from marketing fear, there's some evidence that overreacting to a news story and blowing it up into its own brand (i.e. The Ebola Crisis), can help lift cable news. Recall that back in the winter, CNN was widely mocked for its truly relentless coverage of missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. That story helped deliver a significant ratings increase for CNN, at least in the short term.
Yet despite the endless Ebola coverage, the virus health scare did nothing for cable news in terms of inflating ratings during October, when the story dominated the headlines. In fact, total cable news viewership dipped during the month.
For the month of October, CNN's viewership was down 5 percent compared to October 2013. (In primetime, its audience fell 18 percent last month compared to October 2013.) Fox News and MSNBC also suffered rating decreases in October. And if you compare the cable news channels' primetime ratings in October to its primetime ratings during this past summer, viewership was also down.
The ratings story was similar for the three network evening news programs, where viewership for CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and ABC's World News Tonight failed to generate an audience bounce during the news media's unofficial Ebola Month. Combined, the three news programs attracted roughtly 23 million viewers each week in October. That compares to the 23 million viewers who tuned in each week during October 2013.
So if all of that overwrought television coverage didn't produce ratings gains, what was the point since, as Chris Hayes noted this week, too much of it seemed irrational:
The unfolding Ebola event undoubtedly represented a major news story. But so much of the coverage --particularly on cable news - prioritized fearmongering over solid information. It became a drumbeat synonymous with fear and uncertainty, which dovetailed nicely with GOP's preferred talking point this campaign season.
Indeed, the cable coverage, echoing Republican talking points, often stressed how the federal government had badly mishandled the disease, which led to increased public distrust. “Ebola has certainly eroded the confidence in the way the Obama administration and medical professionals have handled it,” announced CNN's Wolf Blitzer on October 20.
Both claims were false.
The fact that the United States today is Ebola-free and not a single American has died after contracting the disease domestically completely undercuts the claim, repeated ad nauseam, that the government wasn't prepared to handle the budding health crisis. Also, poll after poll after poll showed Americans did trust the government to deal with the disease, no matter how many times television commentators claimed the opposite to be true.
Instead of insights, news consumers were fed fear, as Amanda Marcotte explained in a USA Today column:
To turn on the cable news, you'd think that the zombie apocalypse is upon usCNN ran the absurd headline “Ebola: The ISIS of Biological Agents?” CNN also brought fiction writer Robin Cook on to speculate that Ebola is about to run rampant through the country. Stacy Dash of Fox News argued that each state should have a special quarantine hospital for Ebola patients, even though such centers would be completely empty, except for two people in Texas. Also on Fox News, Elisabeth Hasselbeck demanded a shutdown to international travel in response to a pandemic that is not happening. Bill O'Reilly is even demanding the resignation of the CDC director, over an epidemic that is not actually happening.
“Fear-mongering about Ebola is an easy way to get ratings or score political points,” wrote Marcotte.
It seems clear Republicans scored easy political points via the Ebola scare story. But cable news had less success notching a ratings win.