Crisis, that old broad, brings out the best in people. It also brings out the worst in people. Consider the single Ebola case that’s caused so much panic in Dallas. On the one hand, you’ve got Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. On the other, you’ve got Breitbart Texas.
People are losing their minds about this Ebola thing, and a lot of fear and anger has been directed toward the family Thomas Eric Duncan was staying with when he got sick. The terribly unlucky people, quarantined in their own apartment, have been isolated and stigmatized by the world even though they haven’t shown any symptoms of Ebola—and in fact, helped identify the reason for Duncan’s illness after the hospital failed to do so, possibly saving lives.
To reassure the people of Dallas, and as a gesture of compassion, Jenkins paid the family a visit at their apartment last Thursday, and then came back the next day to personally drive them to new donated lodging away from the public’s glare. On the advice of experts, he didn’t wear protective clothing. Christine Gorman, the health and medicine editor of Scientific American, called Jenkins and Dallas County HHS head Zachary Thompson “heroes.”
Jenkins and Thompson (and others like them whose names I don’t know) are heroes to me because they took compassionate action based on facts and not unfounded fears. Ebola is scary enough without trying to make things worse than they are.
Gorman’s right. Misinformation in the face of a possible health crisis is a terrible thing, and dangerous. Straight talk and straight deeds should be lauded. As Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner Dr. David Lakey said, the “fear of this could be more damaging to this community than the virus itself.”
But in fairness, there’s another take on what Jenkins did—a very hot take. That take is: Clay Jenkins has Ebola now, and we’re all going to die, and not just at the end of our natural lives, but probably pretty soon. Because Clay Jenkins is going to give you Ebola.
The fun started on Friday, when Breitbart Texas ran a story with a charming title: “NAIVE LIBERAL TEXAS JUDGE ENTERS EBOLA APARTMENT WITHOUT PROTECTION.” Resident Breitbart virologist Bob Price knew the truth, and saw through the science-man lies: Jenkins was in great danger, and so was the public. Price implies that Jenkins can now spread Ebola to anyone he touches, even without showing the sickness himself.
No explanation was given Thursday night for the Judge’s appearance at the apartment. It is not known at this time if the Judge will cancel any public appearances where he would normally be shaking a lot of hands after being inside the still contaminated apartment without protection.
This is bad information for a couple of reasons. We should keep Duncan in our thoughts, but his illness poses very little danger to the rest of us—even if more people who were around Duncan eventually get sick. Ebola is difficult to transmit, and not contagious until a person shows symptoms. In a rich country with a good public health system, isolated cases are relatively easy to contain, unlike really deadly diseases such as the flu. That’s according to the people who have dedicated their lives to studying infectious disease.
As far as that apartment goes: According to the Centers for Disease Control, Ebola can stay alive on dry surfaces for a couple hours, and in expelled body fluids for several days, but the family has gotten past that point. No one has gotten sick. They could still get sick, but they won’t be contagious until they show symptoms. And they’re being checked twice a day to ensure they’re not.
After his first trip, Jenkins returned to drive the family to the house where they’ll wait out the quarantine, then showed up to a press conference at “the same building from where Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly shot President John F. Kennedy,” Price writes helpfully. He again implies Jenkins is an idiot, reeking of disease:
Jenkins bragged to the reporters that he was “wearing the same shirt” he wore while he was in the apartment that had been exposed to the Ebola virus and while he was driving the family who had slept for days on the same mattresses the Ebola patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, had been sleeping. He slept on all three mattresses in the apartment for at least two days while he was symptomatic. Jenkins then very proudly stated he was going home to his wife and nine-year-old daughter.
A day later, the cheerful conclusion. One of Breitbart’s loyal readers saw the bit about the 9-year-old daughter, decided she could die soon, and clamored to take action. He or she filed a report with Child Protective Services. No, really. This person was so proud that they took pictures of the report, and sent them to Breitbart, which dutifully wrote it up. “EXCLUSIVE: CPS COMPLAINT FILED AGAINST TEXAS JUDGE OVER DAUGHTER AND POTENTIAL EBOLA EXPOSURE,” reads the story’s headline.
The concerned citizen said he felt Jenkins’ conduct was inappropriate when he unnecessarily exposed his child to potential danger. “I am doing this because I am concerned about the child,” the complainant said, “and I am concerned for the children in her school who might become exposed if the virus were to spread.”
Again—that’s not how Ebola works. The courageous anonymous complainant keeps digging:
“There seems to be a lot of dispute about how the disease is transmitted,” he continued. “I was very concerned that he would take this unnecessary risk with his own daughter for what appears to be his own political purposes.”
A lot of dispute! After quoting the anonymous person who thinks no one understands how Ebola travels—a wholly idiotic, wrong and dangerous idea—it would have been very easy to include information from experts about Ebola transmission. This did not happen. Instead, the piece says the family members could still get sick—at which point they would be a transmission risk, though let me again emphasize that hasn’t happened yet—and raises the possibility that Jenkins faces, under the child endangerment statute, “termination of [his] parental rights.”
That seems as unlikely as the appearance of Black Death in Deep Ellum, but it’s still a nice demonstration of the consequences of a feedback loop of misinformation. What if—God forbid—there’s a more serious outbreak of Ebola somewhere in the United States down the road? Breitbart has helped spread damaging misinformation about the disease that does nothing but harm. “If people with the sniffles convinced they have Ebola start overfilling the Dallas-area’s already stressed emergency rooms,” Time magazine notes, in a piece about Jenkins and the consequences of wrong-headed disease panic, “perfectly treatable infirmities could become more lethal.”
One thing that’s necessary for good journalism is empathy. Without it, reporting can be a powerfully destructive activity, a terrible act of violence. It can rip people apart from each other, frighten and harm, and alienate whole communities. The best journalists know that and struggle with it. The worst are unaware, or don’t care, and it’s hard to say what’s worse. Imaging writing something that sics Child Protective Services on a father for no good reason while burdening a trauma-afflicted family with a greater stigma—or reducing the sacred, lost life of a border-crossing immigrant to the headline: “ANIMALS FEAST ON BODY OF DEAD MIGRANT.”
But the most basic, important element of journalism is a commitment to accuracy and a relative sense of fairness. Why spend so much time thinking about Breitbart Texas? Well, it’s not just a fringe publication. There’s an unbelievable amount of paranoia and fear floating around this state, looking for hosts. Breitbart feeds on that, multiplies it, and returns it to the ether. It’s the primary news source for a lot of people who don’t read news. It’s bad for us.
As of mid-day Tuesday, the three Ebola pieces cited above boast almost 1,600 comments, a swamp of contagion I will leave to you to explore.To support journalism like this, donate to the Texas Observer.