A Fox News Anchor Enjoys a Round of Applause for Ebola Message

Ebola is a midterm issue, and Republicans benefit the more terrified Americans are.
Photograph By: Stewart F. House/Getty Images

Fox News anchor Shep Smith surprised the internet Wednesday by offering one of the network's few anti-hysterical takes on the Ebola outbreak.

After emphasizing that there is no cause for concern, Smith said the political grandstanding on the left and right are "immaterial," and officials suggesting that the government is lying about Ebola are wrong. "It's not worth the ratings and it's not worth the politics" to exaggerate the threat, he said. 

Smith's speech — along with Senator Mitch McConnell's call to "follow the advice of the experts" — as rare in a cable news landscape obsessed with Ebola hype, but especially for a right-leaning network responding to a situation the Obama administration hasn't handled flawlessly. When your target audience is Republicans (like 94 percent of Fox's audience) or Republican voters, there's a benefit to stoking people's fears that often outweighs the responsibility to keep people calm.

Over the last few weeks, Ebola and the response against it has become a midterm election issue. "Ebola is the October surprise of the 2014 midterms," Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post wrote. "That is, an unexpected event that has the potential to roil the electorate in all sorts of unpredictable ways." The Hill noted that Democrats and Republicans are "doing battle over everything from restrictions on travel to the disposal of a victim’s remains," and CNN and NBC News have made similar arguments.

For Republicans that has meant repeatedly calling for travel bans, calling for CDC Director Tom Frieden to resign, or arguing that anyone with Ebola can walk across our "porous border." All of this has stirred up concerns that not enough is being done by the administration.

Or, as The New Republic argued, some Republicans want people to be scared about Ebola so they'll vote for them. Democrats are guilty of playing politics with Ebola as well (specifically for blaming the GOP for CDC budget cuts, though President Obama's own budgets have cut CDC funding, too) but they don't benefit politically from saying the administration's response has failed. 

Partisanship plays a role in voter's reactions, as The Upshot showed. According to ABC/Washington Post polls, while the Bush administration was handling the swine flu outbreak in 2006, 72 percent of Republicans had confidence in the federal government's "ability to respond effectively" to an outbreak, compared to 52 percent of Democrats. Eight years and one administration later, and Democrats are 76 percent confident in the government, while Republicans are 54 percent. 

In that landscape, Smith's condemnation of the fear mongering was an unfortunately rare surprise. "If you happen to see a Shep Smith today, stop, shake his hand, and thank him for his service," Todd Zwillich at WNYC tweeted. "Can't believe I'm saying this but Shep Smith is right," tweeted Politico's Ben White. From Vox, Smith got the 'watch this news guy destroy the media's coverage of X' treatment usually reserved for John Oliver and Jon Stewart. "What Shep Smith says here shouldn't be courageous, but in this insane cable news environment, it really is," wrote former Obama speech writer Jon Favreau.