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Ebola was incredibly important to TV news until Republicans decided it shouldn’t be

The hack gap in action.

The large, ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo is not attracting much coverage on American television news because TV news producers believe (likely for good reason) that the American viewing public is not incredibly interested in public health in sub-Saharan Africa.

That said, there was a time when TV news covered Ebola in Africa a lot: in the immediate runup to the 2014 midterms, when Republican Party political operatives decided that trying to alarm people about Ebola would be a good way to win votes.

As this 2014 report from Rob Savillo and Matt Gertz shows, Ebola coverage was widespread on both cable and network news, with over 1,000 segments airing in the four weeks before the election. Coverage then immediately plummeted when it no longer served the tactical interests of the Republican Party, with just 50 segments airing over the two post-election weeks.

Media Matters

Today, of course, a new ongoing Ebola outbreak that happens to coincide with a US midterm election is not something the Republican Party wants to emphasize in its midterm messaging. Consequently, the question of African public health continues to languish in its customary obscurity.

What Republicans want to scare people about instead is a group of a few thousand Central Americans who are currently in Southern Mexico. Some of them may make it to the US-Mexico border a few weeks from now, at which point they will be denied entry. Consequently, television news is doing a lot of coverage of this issue rather than of Ebola.

When pressed as to why they are allowing President Trump to serve as their assignment editor, most reporters tend to say that presidential statements are inherently newsworthy — if Trump says something is a national emergency, then that’s big news. I would urge people involved in the industry to think about this question honestly. When Barack Obama proclaimed that “no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change,” television news did not respond with weeks of nonstop climate coverage. When Obama was president, TV news took its assignments from Republican congressional leaders.

Now that Trump is president, TV news takes its assignments from the Republican-dominated White House. The constant is that because of the “hack gap,” whatever Republicans want to put on the news agenda comes to dominate the news agenda.

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