Ebola: Networks 91% Confident Travel Screenings are Sufficient

But in 2010 Obama administration killed tougher regulations proponents called ‘critical.’

Is the U.S. government doing enough to screen travelers potentially carrying Ebola into the country?

That question was ignored by the vast majority of stories on the three broadcast network’s news programming, even after Thomas Eric Duncan was diagnosed with Ebola after coming to the U.S. from Liberia. Duncan died from the disease in a Dallas hospital on Oct. 8.

“Duncan passed an airport health screening in Liberia, where his temperature registered as normal and he showed no signs of Ebola symptoms. But a few days after he arrived, he began to have a fever, headache and abdominal pain,” Associated Press reported.

In more than 91 percent (75 out of 82) of stories about Ebola mentioning key terms connected to screening, ABC, CBS and NBC news reports journalists failed to ask whether the government was doing enough to screen travelers arriving in the United States.

According to ABC, President Obama said on Oct. 6, stronger rules would be implemented soon, but that White House officials later the same day said “no decisions have been made.”

Although the White House sent those mixed messages in the past week about implementing stronger screening regulations, Politico reported on Oct. 8 that additional screening requirements for passengers could be announced as early as that day. And in fact, on Oct. 8, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in a press briefing that screenings would now be conducted at five U.S. airports, KUAF public radio said.

Politico indicated flight bans would not be employed, despite calls from several legislators, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Texas, and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

However, tougher regulations were proposed several years ago, and quietly killed by the Obama administration itself. In 2010, the administration “scrapped” plans backed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that the agency said were “critical.” The regulations would have increased federal power to detain sick travelers and required more reporting from airlines in case the CDC needed to trace people later.

“The Obama administration has quietly scrapped plans to enact sweeping new federal quarantine regulations that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention touted four years ago as critical to protecting Americans from dangerous diseases spread by travelers,” the USA Today reported on April 1, 2010.

After opposition from the airline industry, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other similar groups, the Obama administration killed the proposed plans.

In the wake of Ebola, not only was the Obama administration mum on its decision to scrap those regulations, so were the network news programs.

Instead of looking into that, the networks generally accepted the administration’s current protocol for stopping Ebola at the border and mostly avoided serious questions about whether these efforts were sufficient. Even in the 9 percent of stories that asked questions about the effectiveness of current screening procedures, many still assured viewers that these efforts were working well.  

That’s what happened on ABC’s “World News” Oct. 5. Chief Business and Economics Correspondent Rebecca Jarvis, acting as a fill-in anchor, asked Dr. Richard Besser, ABC’s Chief Health and Medical Editor, “Do you believe we can stop this disease at the border?”

Besser sidestepped the question, and responded with praise for the screening protocols in African countries for exiting travelers, describing them as “pretty incredible.” Skipping over American screening efforts entirely, he said that African screening “makes me a little more comfortable that people who are sick aren’t getting on the plane.”

The very next night, Besser said it would not be helpful for CDC to require that travelers be asked about their travel history, claiming that African screening efforts were good enough. Besser made that claim in an exchange with “World News” anchor David Muir about CDC screening practices:

MUIR: But were they asking other passengers where they had traveled to? 

BESSER: They hadn't. 

MUIR: And you’re convinced that might not even help? 

BESSER: It, it wouldn't.

Besser then proudly showed off a chart African screeners gave him on how to watch out for Ebola symptoms. His online bio noted that “he served as Acting Director for the CDC from January to June 2009,” but in many stories about the CDC’s response to Ebola ABC failed to remind viewers of how this might result in bias from Besser.

NBC and CBS news shows also rarely suggested that the Obama administration could possibly improve current screening efforts.

The result was that the networks faithfully passed on the Obama administration’s own message that officials are doing everything within their power to combat Ebola and others must do more, when in truth the administration revoked regulations in 2010 that the CDC wanted for just such a scenario.

CBS “Evening News” Oct. 6, unquestioningly broadcast President Barack Obama’s statement claiming he would pressure other governments to do more: “I’m going to be putting a lot of pressure on my fellow heads of state and government around the world to make sure they are doing everything that they can, uh, to join us in this effort. Uh, you know, we've got some small countries that are punching above their weight on this, but we have some large countries that aren't doing enough.”

Methodology: The MRC’s Business and Media Institute analyzed all the stories which included the word “Ebola,” plus the terms “quarantine,” “travel restrictions,” and/or “screening” that ran on the broadcast network news shows from Jan. 1, 2014, through Oct. 7, 2014. Specifically, the shows reviewed were “Today,” “Good Morning America,” “This Morning,” “Nightly News,” “World News,” and “Evening News.” Of the 82 stories that resulted, only seven questioned the effectiveness of government efforts to detect individuals potentially infected with Ebola when entering the United States.