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Opinion From Fox News, a big dose of dumb on hydroxychloroquine

Claims about hydroxychloroquine to treat covid-19 have gained traction despite a lack of scientific evidence. How did this happen? (Video: The Washington Post)

Fox News host Tucker Carlson found another scandal on CNN. Several of the network’s people, including Wolf Blitzer, Jim Acosta and Brian Stelter, had issued words of caution to contextualize President Trump’s hype of hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug touted by some folks as a treatment for covid-19. To showcase CNN’s message on the drug, Carlson on April 7 ran a series of clips from the network’s air, including this from Acosta: “Despite only having a background as a businessman, President Trump is offering free medical advice, urging Americans to load up on an unproven drug used for malaria patients.”

After sampling CNN’s skepticism, Carlson sneered: “Watching people in the media talk down a potentially lifesaving medicine because a politician they don’t like has endorsed it is probably the most shameful thing I, as someone who has done this for 20 years, I’ve ever seen. [It] is making a lot of us ashamed to work in the same profession as those people.”

Anti-malarial drug Trump touted is linked to higher rates of death in VA coronavirus patients, study says

“Those people” are being patient, not to mention professional. President Trump indeed “endorsed” hydroxychloroquine, setting up a schism in the world of cable news — those who issued scientifically strong warnings about that endorsement, and those who sought to buttress it. In the latter group we have Fox News opinion hosts.

Owing to the novelty of the coronavirus, there’s no data yet from a large-scale clinical trial to test the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine as either a treatment or prophylaxis for covid-19. There was a small French study that fueled a great deal of optimism, though it was criticized for “methodological issues.” There was a small Chinese study, too, that showed promise for the treatment. “Game changer” was the preferred term of Trump, even though top coronavirus adviser Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, cautioned that accounts of the drug’s utility were merely “anecdotal."

“Anecdotal,” however, was plenty sufficient for Fox News. The network gave wide rotation to the stories of Michigan state legislator Karen Whitsett and others who came away convinced that the drug had aided their recovery. Jim Santilli, a recovered covid-19 sufferer, told Fox News host Laura Ingraham on March 30 about his bout with the disease and how things improved after he was given hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin. “Jim, your condition turned around completely,” said Ingraham, “You had a miraculous — I mean you described as a miraculous recovery and yet people are just blowing it off and saying, ‘Oh, azithromycin and hydroxychloroquine — they’re not proven.’”

Cheerleading for the drug on Fox News was an all-hands-on-deck orchestration among the network’s opinion folks. There was almost too much of it to track, though Media Matters has issued a comprehensive guide. Lowlights include host Sean Hannity citing a doctor describing the risks of the drug as “nil” — in an interview with Trump; Ingraham saying that “anecdotal doesn’t really describe the findings of the world’s top researchers”; “Fox & Friends” co-host Ainsley Earhardt calling it a “miracle drug”; Carlson hosting hydroxychloroquine optimist Gregory Rigano and introducing him as an adviser to the Stanford University School of Medicine, though he is not; and so much other happy talk. The craze made it out of Fox News’s temporary home studios: Weeks ago, Ingraham, accompanied by two doctors, met with Trump about the drug.

President Trump calls criticism of his coronavirus response "fake," yet cherry-picks news clips to make his case. He can't have it both ways, says Erik Wemple. (Video: Erik Wemple/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford / WP; Alex Brandon / AP/The Washington Post)

The wondrous power of hydroxychloroquine was approaching Benghazi-levels of hype at Fox News, until an April pivot. Around April 16, according to an analysis by Media Matters, other topics began crowding out hydroxychloroquine mentions on the programs that had once promoted it. “In a five-day period from April 11 to April 15, the treatment was mentioned on the network 87 times. Over the next five days, April 16 to April 20, it was mentioned only 20 times — a 77% decrease in coverage,” noted the nonprofit. The falloff coincided with similar behavior by Trump himself, who had used his daily coronavirus briefings to hail his intuition regarding the drug.

Why? A Brazilian study of chloroquine was discontinued after patients registered “irregular heart rates that increased their risk of a potentially fatal heart arrhythmia,” according to an April 12 account in the New York Times. Another French study found that hydroxychloroquine wasn’t helpful in treating covid-19 patients. And an analysis of 368 covid-19 patients at U.S. Veterans Health Administration medical centers until April 11 punctured the optimism of Fox News and its favorite president. Whereas the death rate for patients that had taken hydroxychloroquine was 27.8 percent, the rate for those who hadn’t was 11.4 percent. Ventilation rates for those two groups were similar.

None of these studies provides the sort of evidence that health professionals consider robust, like a large double-blind trial. Nasia Safdar, a professor with the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, says the current state of research, while not optimal, has inspired caution. “At the moment there’s no evidence to suggest that this is a harmless, helpful treatment, as was suggested by some,” says Safdar. The pitfalls of the studies to date, says Safdar, are “exactly why you need to wait for the science to demonstrate whether it works.”

Wait for science? Not when there’s a president to protect; not when there’s false hope to project; not when there’s this one guy out there who says hydroxychloroquine saved his life! And who’s going to say he’s wrong? The compulsion to seek an answer to something as devastating as the coronavirus, says Safdar, is understandable. “I think it’s a natural response whenever there’s a new and novel infection that carries a high death rate," she says. “Every doctor goes through this feeling of intense anxiety” related to the availability of and effectiveness of treatments.

It’s not shocking, of course, that Fox News hosts would team up with the president on public-health messaging, even if the consequences include shortages and generalized mayhem on the pharmaceutical market. The network’s top personalities — prime-timers like Carlson, Hannity and Ingraham, in addition to the morning crew of “Fox & Friends — have found their own trademarked ways of advancing the president’s agenda, with some notable exceptions.

What is gobsmacking is the network’s barren stupidity. An entire flotilla of Fox News anchors teamed up to goose the credibility of hydroxychloroquine, when they could/should have known that there were research projects and clinical trials in the offing. Those undertakings would surface within weeks or months. And they might very well undermine the message from Fox Newsers.

That’s what happened, though there will be more rigorous trial results in the months ahead. Fox News hosts proceeded with their promotions anyhow.

The shortsightedness raises a question among close Fox News watchers: Where was the Brain Room? That’s the network’s research hive, long cited on Fox News as a place that fishes hard facts from the world and dishes them out to the network’s various shows. Sometimes, however, there’s not a great demand for reality, as we learned during the Trump Ukraine scandal. While Hannity spun pro-Trump distortion after pro-Trump distortion, the Brain Room produced a Ukraine timeline of unfathomable brilliance and comprehensiveness. We’ve asked Fox News if the Brain Room provided input on the hydroxychloroquine matter, and we will update with any response.

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As a 24/7 outlet, Fox News has on occasion counterprogrammed its own famous opinionators. In perhaps the most memorable such instance, a guest on Dana Perino’s daytime program on April 6 denounced the drug as a “quack cure” for covid-19. Moments of skepticism also arose here and there on other shows. On Wednesday morning, surgeon Mehmet Oz, better known as Dr. Oz, cited continued uncertainty about the drug and said definitive judgments should await the sort of trials that Fauci has emphasized. Network correspondent Jonathan Serrie covered the Veterans Health Administration test. And posted a write-up on those results.

On balance, though, Fox News did something that defies even the elastic absurdity of contemporary American politics. It proved that there’s no Trump talking point too trivial, no Trump obsession too out-there, no Trump scientific betrayal too egregious to serve as the organizing principle behind endless and mindless Fox News segments. There’s nothing that these people cannot politicize.

Read more:

Fox News hosts go mum on the covid-19 drug they spent weeks promoting

Paul Waldman: The real reason Trump is obsessed with hydroxychloroquine

The Post’s View: Trump is spreading false hope for a virus cure — and that’s not the only damage

Eugene Robinson: The one word that explains why Trump should not be president

Jennifer Rubin: Trump is playing Russian roulette with Americans’ lives

Stacy Torres: Stop hoarding hydroxychloroquine. Millions of Americans, including me, need it.

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