But Trump could not spread disinformation all by himself. A herd of right-wing pseudo-journalists has jumped the shark along with him. They are promulgating narratives so at odds with reality that they are likely to get people killed.
Think I’m exaggerating? I only wish I were. All you have to do is go to the Media Matters for America homepage to see how the right-wing media continue to infect their followers with misinformation.
In 2014, Fox News commentators were blaming President Barack Obama for the spread of Ebola. Now they’re blaming everyone except the president. On Monday, Trish Regan was on Fox Business denouncing coronavirus concern as “yet another attempt to impeach the president.” In her demented view, Trump’s opponents are deliberately inducing stock-market losses (presumably Democrats don’t own 401(k)s?) in an attempt to “to demonize and destroy the president.” Naturally Trump — Fox News viewer No. 1 — retweeted her diatribe.
Sean Hannity delivered a similar message Monday on Fox News, complaining that “we’re scaring people unnecessarily.” He complained that “they,” whoever they are, are trying to “bludgeon Trump with this new hoax.” To a lot of viewers, it will sound as if Hannity is calling the virus a hoax, even if that’s not what he intended.
Tucker Carlson, often the most rabid host on Fox, has actually been an outlier of sanity on this subject. Like a Russian TV host, he knows it’s too dangerous to critique the supreme leader by name, but on Monday night he critiqued unnamed politicians — “people you trust, people you probably voted for” — for failing to take the virus seriously enough. “This is real,” Carlson said.
Alas, most of his fellow “conservative” talking heads disagree. Rush Limbaugh, the most popular radio host in America, again played down the danger on Monday. According to Limbaugh, the only reason anyone is trying to discourage Trump from holding rallies is to hurt him politically: “If you can’t beat Trump and if you want to stop the appearance of excitement about the Trump campaign, then stop the rallies.”
It is hard to imagine a more irresponsible message to send at a moment when Trump’s own former homeland security adviser wrote in The Post that we are running out of time to prevent coronavirus from getting out of control. Words have consequences, especially when spoken by commentators with such vast followings.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll last week found that “Democrats are about twice as likely as Republicans to say the coronavirus poses an imminent threat to the United States” and “more Democrats than Republicans say they are taking steps to be prepared, including washing their hands more often or limiting their travel plans.” This week, an Axios/SurveyMonkey poll finds that twice as many Republicans as Democrats see news reports about the seriousness of coronavirus as “generally exaggerated.” This survey also found that Democrats are 18 points more likely than Republicans to avoid sporting events or concerts and 16 points more likely to steer clear of restaurants, shopping malls and theaters.
If you want more concrete evidence that right-wing conspiracy-mongering is endangering America, look no further than the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held in National Harbor, Md., Feb. 26 to 29. Mick Mulvaney, then the acting White House chief of staff, played down the virus impact during his remarks, saying, “The reason you’re seeing so much attention to it today is that they think this is going to be the thing that brings down the president. That’s what this is all about it.” Now it’s been discovered that one of the CPAC attendees has coronavirus, leading other attendees, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R.-Tex.) and Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R.-Ariz.), to self-quarantine. Oh, the irony.
Even Trump may be in danger because he not only attended CPAC but shook hands with Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, who was in direct contact with the infected man. Yet that hasn’t stopped Trump from continuing to shake hands and hold rallies and fundraisers. The president is endangering not only his own supporters but the entire country — and he is doing so with the active complicity of his media cheerleaders.
The “conservative” media have long shown their contempt for facts and science — for instance, by playing down the danger of climate change or Russian election attacks. Never has their contempt for the truth been more dangerous than it is today. To defeat coronavirus, we must first combat the mental afflictions — irrationality, conspiracy-mongering and Dear Leader-like devotion to Trump — spread by exposure to right-wing media.