1st Article of the Day: April 2, 2020: Who spreads conspiracy theories?

Alarm, Denial, Blame: The Pro-Trump Media’s Coronavirus Distortion

Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing commentators turned a pandemic into a battle of us vs. them — the kind of battle President Trump has waged for much of his life.

By Jeremy W. PetersApril 1, 2020

President Trump spoke during a Fox News town hall at the White House on Tuesday.
President Trump spoke during a Fox News town hall at the White House on Tuesday.Doug Mills/The New York Times

On Feb. 27, two days after the first reported case of the coronavirus spreading inside a community in the United States, Candace Owens was underwhelmed. “Now we’re all going to die from Coronavirus,” she wrote sarcastically to her two million Twitter followers, blaming a “doomsday cult” of liberal paranoia for the growing anxiety over the outbreak.

One month later, on the day the United States reached the grim milestone of having more documented coronavirus cases than anywhere in the world, Ms. Owens — a conservative commentator whom President Trump has called “a real star” — was back at it, offering what she said was “a little perspective” on the 1,000 American deaths so far. “The 2009 swine flu infected 1.4 Billion people around the world, and killed 575,000 people,” she wrote. “There was no media panic, and societies did not shut down.”

In the weeks leading up to the escalation of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, tens of millions of Americans who get their information from media personalities like Ms. Owens heard that this once-in-a-lifetime global health crisis was actually downright ordinary.

The president’s backers sometimes seemed to take their cues from him. On Feb. 26, the day before Ms. Owens was a guest at the White House for an African-American History Month reception, Mr. Trump denied it would spread further. “I don’t think it’s inevitable,” he said.

At other times, the president echoed right-wing media stars. When he declared at a campaign rally two days later that criticism of his halting response was a “new hoax,” commentators like Laura Ingraham of Fox News had already been accusing his opponents of exploiting the crisis. “A coronavirus,” she said on Feb. 25, “that’s a new pathway for hitting President Trump.” And when he falsely asserted that he had treated the outbreak as a pandemic all along, Fox hosts like Sean Hannity backed him up, saying that Mr. Trump’s decision to restrict travel from China and Europe would “go down as the single most consequential decision in history.” 

A review of hundreds of hours of programming and social media traffic from Jan. 1 through mid-March — when the White House started urging people to stay home and limit their exposure to others — shows that doubt, cynicism and misinformation about the virus took root among many of Mr. Trump’s boosters in the right-wing media as the number of confirmed cases in the United States grew.

It was during this lull — before the human and economic toll became undeniable — when the story of the coronavirus among the president’s most stalwart defenders evolved into the kind of us-versus-them clash that Mr. Trump has waged for much of his life.

Now, with the nation’s economic and physical health in clear peril, Mr. Trump and many of his allies on the airwaves and online are blaming familiar enemies in the Democratic Party and the news media.

The pervasiveness of the denial among many of Mr. Trump’s followers from early in the outbreak, and their sharp pivot to finding fault with an old foe once the crisis deepened, is a pattern that one expert in the spread of misinformation said resembled a textbook propaganda campaign.

Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School and co-author of a book on political manipulation called “Network Propaganda,” said that as the magnitude of the virus’s effects grew and the coverage on the right shifted, Mr. Trump’s loyalists benefited from having told people not to believe what they were hearing. “The same media that’s been producing this intentional ignorance is saying what they’ve always been saying: ‘We’re right. They’re wrong,’” he said. “But it also permits them to turn on a dime.”

“We can look at that and get whiplashed,” he added. “But from the inside it doesn’t look like whiplash.”

Step 1: Blame China

In January and early February, when the virus ravaged China and doubts grewabout how forthcoming Chinese officials were being, some pundits on the right warned that the country couldn’t be trusted to contain the outbreak or share accurate information about where it originated.

Starting in late January, Tucker Carlson’s prime-time Fox News show became an early outlier in conservative media, sounding the alarm about a “mysterious” sickness spreading in Wuhan, China, that had killed about two dozen people. According to Mr. Carlson, speaking on Jan. 23, it was “believed to have jumped from bats and snakes — which are commonly eaten in this part of China — to people.”

Fox News became a launching pad for the idea of halting travel from China, which guests like Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, urged while also at times suggesting that the virus had been created in a Chinese government laboratory not far from the epicenter of the outbreak. On Jan. 31, the Trump administration said it would bar entry by most foreign citizens who had recently visited China.

Some of Mr. Carlson’s Fox colleagues were less convinced of the threat. “Do I look nervous? No. I’m not afraid of this coronavirus at all,” Jesse Watters, a co-host of “The Five,” said on Jan. 30 as he teased another host for “shaking in his shoes.”

Fox News declined to comment.

Step 2: Play down the risks

In the weeks that followed, thousands would die from the virus around the world, thousands more would be sickened across Europe and the first cases would emerge in the United States. But the tone of the coverage from Fox, talk radio and the commentators who make up the president’s zealous online army remained dismissive.

Talk show hosts and prominent right-wing writers criticized other conservatives who took the threat seriously. “Drudge has a screaming headline,” Rush Limbaugh announced on Feb. 26, referring to Matt Drudge and his website. “Flight attendant working L.A.X. tests positive. Oh, my God, 58 cases! Oh, my God. Oh, my God.” For years, Mr. Limbaugh has encouraged his audience to be suspicious of science as one of his so-called Four Corners of Deceit, which also include government, academia and media.

On Feb. 27, Mr. Hannity opened his show in a rage. “The apocalypse is imminent and you’re going to all die, all of you in the next 48 hours. And it’s all President Trump’s fault,” he said, adding, “Or at least that’s what the media mob and the Democratic extreme radical socialist party would like you to think.” His program would be one of many platforms with large audiences of conservatives — 5.6 million people watched Mr. Hannity interview the president on Fox last week — to misleadingly highlight statistics on deaths from the seasonal flu as a comparison.

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On Feb. 28, Mr. Limbaugh read from an article from The Western Journal, a website that was blacklisted by Apple News last year for promoting articles Apple determined were “overwhelmingly rejected by the scientific community.” The coronavirus, Mr. Limbaugh said, “appears far less deadly” than the flu, but the government and the media “keep promoting panic.”

Joel Pollak, an editor at Breitbart News whose work on the virus has been cited by Mr. Hannity, published several articles in February and early March that highlighted the least severe symptoms and best possible outcomes. On Feb. 28, he urged people to “chill out.”

The first of more than 4,500 American deaths to date would occur the next day. Two days later, Mr. Pollak wrote another article criticizing a doctor from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who warned that the coronavirus was likely to spread. The doctor was the sister of Rod Rosenstein, the former deputy attorney general, he noted, “who was once suspected of trying to help remove the president from office.” He assured his readers that he saw “no conspiracy” — only “the ordinary problem of scientists not being very good at communicating to the public.”

Mr. Pollak, whose articles were breezier in tone than much of the coverage elsewhere on Breitbart, declined to comment.

Faced with the inescapable fact that the virus was killing people, many conservatives started sounding fatalistic. Yes it’s deadly, they acknowledged, but so are a lot of other things. “How many people have died this year in the United States from snake bites?” the conservative radio host Dennis Prager asked in an online “fireside chat” posted March 12 to his website, PragerU, where it has been viewed more than 600,000 times. 

On March 10, the day that Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned every American to adopt an “all hands on deck” mind-set, Ms. Owens scoffed at what she called “the mass global mental breakdown” as financial markets plunged. “People think it’s novel that 80 year olds are dying at a high rate from a flu,” she wrote, adding that when future generations study the world’s coronavirus response, “This tweet will age well.”

Ms. Owens is the kind of influential conservative — she has a huge online audience as well as sway with the White House and top cable news and radio producers — who has been central to spreading doubt about the seriousness of the virus to Mr. Trump’s most loyal supporters. 

In an interview, Ms. Owens said she did not believe that her tweets were irresponsible. “Do I think it’s irresponsible to say the economic impact will be the legacy?” she said. “It’s not about being responsible. It’s about being honest.”

Step 3: Share ‘survivor’ stories

After playing down the risks, some broadcasters turned to coronavirus survivor stories.

On March 13th, “Fox & Friends” ran a segment featuring a 65-year-old woman who said she caught the virus and barely had any symptoms. During the interview, the host Steve Doocy asked about the “absolute panic” and noted the concern about older people in particular. “Well look at that,” he said to the woman. “But you are over 60, and it doesn’t seem to have been a big deal to you, right?” Mr. Doocy said.

The interview was picked up that afternoon by Mr. Limbaugh, where its reach grew considerably given his 15.5 million listeners each week. Earlier that week, when a caller said that he and his wife believed they might have been infected before the virus was known to be widespread, Mr. Limbaugh dismissed him. “Let me ask you a question,” the host said. “Did you two die, and you are speaking to me from beyond the grave?”

On social media, people often responded with ridicule. They called the virus a “bad cold” and circulated memes of a red T-shirt that said “I survived Coronavirus 2020.”

Step 4: Blame the left

By the middle of March, the story of the virus on the right was one of how Mr. Trump’s enemies had weaponized “the flu” and preyed on the insecurities of an emasculated America.

Mr. Limbaugh blamed “wimp politics — which is liberalism.” Mr. Pollak, whose tone grew more serious, said the virus had spread while Democrats stretched out the president’s impeachment. “We now know the cost of impeachment,” he wrote.

Frank Luntz, the veteran political strategist who advises Republican leaders, said many on the right were applying the scornful, “own the libs” mentality of social media to a deadly and frightening health crisis.

Mr. Trump has also cast himself as a victim. “It’s so unfair. It’s so unfair,” he said last week to Mr. Hannity on Fox News. “If we could only have a fair media in this country, our country.”

Mr. Hannity and his fans may see criticism of the president as a histrionic meltdown of an anti-Trump mob, but the broadcaster has dialed back some denial. Elsewhere at Fox, Trish Regan, a Fox Business host, left the networkafter expressing doubt about the severity of the situation.

The criticism seemed to catch Mr. Hannity and other pro-Trump personalities at Fox off guard, according to people who work at the network, if only because they did not believe that their remarks on the coronavirus were any different from how they have defended the president as the victim of an orchestrated smear during other crises.

Mr. Hannity recently published a timeline of his own comments on the virus, which creates a revisionist impression that he was consistently raising concerns. The examples Mr. Hannity cites include his praise of the Trump administration’s response and declarations that the “greatest” and “best” scientists are working on the virus.

And in his interview with the president last week, Mr. Hannity cast blame on President Barack Obama for the deaths during the swine flu outbreak of 2009, saying Mr. Trump had been “very gracious” by not focusing on his predecessor’s failings, which he accused the news media of ignoring.

Stoking a sense of victimization, according to the president’s critics, is what has always worked for him.

“It’s a hoax, it’s a Democratic plot — that’s the degree to which Trump and Trumpism is fueled by grievance and a sense of constantly having to fight for survival,” said Steve Schmidt, the Republican strategist who advised John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and is now a consultant for an anti-Trump group and an analyst for NBC News.

But treating a pandemic as politics as usual, Mr. Schmidt added, could have an extraordinary cost. “All the bombast and the delusional statements and the embrace of ignorance,” he said, “stand singularly alone at the top of a previously unreachable pyramid.”

There can be little doubt that many of the president’s supporters did not consider it bombast or delusion.

Calling into Rush Limbaugh’s program on March 13 — the day Mr. Trump declared a national emergency — Brian from Richmond, Va., urged the president to tell the nation to take a deep breath. “Wash your hands. Take precautions,” Brian said. “And don’t believe the fake news and the media hype. It’s not that serious.”


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