‘Calm It Down’ Doc Explains Why Fox’s Breathless Ebola Questions Are OK

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October 17, 2014 11:30 a.m.
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It was an interview that showcased contrasting styles, and maybe even divergent priorities.

On one side was Fox News anchor Jon Scott, whose breathless questions on Ebola typified his network’s coverage of the outbreak. On the other side was Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert and the chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University.

Schaffner calmly answered each of Scott’s questions during the Wednesday interview, providing the occasional fact-check and urging the anchor to “calm it down.”

“There will not be widespread Ebola in the United States,” he told Scott.

Despite those assurances, Scott sounded unconvinced, and maybe even a little disappointed that the professor wasn’t going along with Fox’s scaremongering. But Schaffner, for his part, was magnanimous.

In a phone interview on Thursday evening, Schaffner told TPM why he put up with it.

“Far be it from me to attribute motive to the interviewer, to the correspondent,” Schaffner said. “I like not to do that.”

What’s more, Schaffner believes that Scott, who at one point floated the possibility that deceased Ebola victim Thomas Duncan may have infected several different people, might have just been representing “the thoughts of a lot of people in the country now.”

Did he find Scott’s line of questioning odd?

“That didn’t go through my mind,” he insisted. “I was just focusing on his questions and trying to provide the best answers.”

“Ebola is new, frightening, serious. I’ve talked to some laypeople who are puzzled,” he added.

“The biology of the Ebola virus and how it’s transmitted and not is kind of confusing and hard for a layman to understand. ‘What do you mean sneezing is not so important? And what about the environment? And why isn’t that so important?’ I mean, those are complex issues for laypeople to grasp,” Schaffner said in his cool-headed way. “I mean, we’ve been telling people to go out and wash their hands. When people go into the supermarket, they sanitize their shopping carts. So, it’s hard for them to integrate all that, and so I understand that and I just try to provide, I guess, reasonable information so that they can begin to integrate that and lower their temperature a little bit about this.”

Schaffner is no stranger to television. He’s made several appearances on Fox News and CNN, as well as on various local affiliates in Nashville. And so he understands the limitations of the medium better than most, particularly when it comes to covering something like Ebola.

“Television, I think, has been a bit of a mixed bag,” he said. “And the reason for that is the very nature of the way television presents itself today. It’s very sound bite-y.”

In truth, Schaffner is perfect for television, and it’s easy to see why he keeps getting booked. Beyond his expertise, Schaffner is funny, colorful and almost impossibly affable.

During his interview with TPM, he repeated the message of calm that he dispensed to Scott.

“Take a deep breath as I like to say,” Schaffner said.

“Or, I was reminded today of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who once said famously, ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,'” he said, shifting to a spot-on impersonation of the 32nd president.

He told TPM that he prefers television formats similar to PBS “Newshour,” expressing his desire to “lead the listener along a logical science-based path.”

“Of course, the teases that are used in television — ‘Ebola transmission at 10! Tune in now!’ — you know, that raised voice and intensity, I think, helps stimulate the anxiety,” Schaffner said.

“Nobody’s out there saying, ‘We’re going to have a reasonable discussion of Ebola tonight and we will explain to you how this virus is transmitted. I hope you tune in. It will be a learning experience.’ That’s a different kind of approach.”

Schaffner commended the New York Times for its coverage of Ebola, calling it “very extensive and insightful and thoughtful.” Although he hadn’t yet seen Shep Smith’s widely praised “fact-dissemination exercise” on Ebola, which came only a couple hours after his interview with Scott, Schaffner said the Fox anchor’s “general comments about the status of Ebola in the United States mirror mine.”

CNN, he said, has provided “a little bit” of the comprehensive reporting that he yearns for, but ultimately he gave all television outlets “mixed marks.”

“They’ve all have had good moments, and all have moments that one person — myself — regrets,” he said. “But the person sitting next to me might say, ‘That’s great.’ It’s just one person’s opinion. I’m trying not to be presumptuous here. You notice I don’t write in the New York Times as a TV critic.”

“I’m trying to use this powerful medium that’s been made available to educate in the best possible way that I can in working with all of the media outlets that are kind enough to ask us here at Vanderbilt to help them,” he added. “It’s a very generous invitation, and I take it very seriously. I respect the invitation and the opportunity.”

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