Two shockers in a row on Monday afternoon: President Trump declared to reporters at the White House that he has been taking hydroxychloroquine for a week and a half, as a purported preventive against covid-19. Moments later, he received a stern warning on the dangers of that much-discussed possible treatment for the novel coronavirus. And that warning came from none other than Fox News.

“That was stunning," said host Neil Cavuto, reacting to the president’s remarks. “The president of the United States, just to acknowledge that he is taking a hydroxychloroquine, a drug that [was] meant really to treat malaria and lupus. The president is insistent that it has enormous benefits for patients either trying to prevent or already have covid-19. The fact of the matter is, though, when the president said, ‘What have you got to lose?’ a number of studies, those are certainly vulnerable in the population have one thing to lose. Their lives.”

In his own remarks, Trump was Trump. “Because I think it’s good," said the president when asked why he is taking it. “I’ve heard a lot of good stories. And if it’s not good, I’ll tell you right — you know, I’m not going to get hurt by it.”

Such remarks served as a potent reminder that Trump’s views don’t particularly engage with knowledge. Over the past week and a half — roughly the same period during which Trump says he has been taking the drug — two studies have emerged casting doubt on the drug’s efficacy vis-a-vis the virus. “The nail has virtually been put in the coffin of hydroxychloroquine,” William Schaffner, an adviser to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told CNN. One of the studies showed that patients who took the combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin were more likely to suffer cardiac arrest during the study period.

Clinical trials now underway are expected to produce more definitive and reliable information about the drug and covid-19.

Citing “heart rhythm problems,” the FDA in late April advised against use of hydroxychloroquine “outside of the hospital setting or a clinical trial.” Trump has a “common” form of heart disease. A small Brazilian study of chloroquine — which is related to hydroxychloroquine — was stopped in April after “coronavirus patients taking a higher dose of chloroquine developed irregular heart rates that increased their risk of a potentially fatal heart arrhythmia,” according to the New York Times.

In his discussion of the dangers, Cavuto noted: "If you are in a risky population here and you are taking this as a preventative treatment to ward off the virus, or in a worst-case scenario, you are dealing with the virus and you are in this vulnerable population, it will kill you. I cannot stress enough — this will kill you. So, again, whatever benefits the president says this has and certainly it is had for those suffering from malaria, dealing with lupus, this is a leap that that should not be taken casually by those watching at home or assuming well, the president of the United States says it’s okay. Even the FDA was very cautious about this unless in a clinical trial safely and deliberately watched. I only make this not to make a political point here, but a life-and-death point. Be very, very careful.

A brushback to President Trump. On Fox News. How long till Trump started tweeting? Not long:

Trump retweeted others who had even stronger opinions about Cavuto, with one commentator calling him an “[---]hole."

As cable-news hosts go, Cavuto is in the vanguard when it comes to disease and drugs. It comes from personal experience, as he beat Hodgkin’s lymphoma when he was in his 20s. In his 30s, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and he had open heart surgery in 2016. “I have a progressive disease,” Cavuto told NPR in 2018. “I’m not naive about it. It can compromise your voice. The nerve endings that feed your esophagus on up will close. I can’t worry about it. I mean, I’ll know when I know.”

Though Cavuto’s words were directed at the president and anyone considering his evidence-free actions, he may as well have been speaking to the Fox News prime-timers who spent a considerable chunk of coronavirus season attaching credibility to hydroxychloroquine as a covid-19 treatment. It was one of those dramas where it was difficult to determine where Trump ended and Fox News began. Matthew Gertz of Media Matters reports that in mid-March, Fox News introduced the hydroxychloroquine hype, with Trump essentially passing along the optimism in those interminable coronavirus task force briefings.

On prime-time Fox News programming, the prospects of hydroxychloroquine took on the feel of evangelism. After sampling commentary from CNN cautioning that hydroxychloroquine was unproven against covid-19, host Tucker Carlson roared, "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.” “Fox & Friends” co-host Ainsley Earhardt called it a “miracle drug.”

On and on it went, in a circle of self-reinforcing commentary. Following Monday’s news that Trump was taking the drug, opinion hosts on the network counterprogrammed Cavuto. Sean Hannity ripped the “media mob” for “waging what is [an] unhinged, nonstop, never-ending PR campaign against him. They acted like the president and his hope and optimism about the drug were some type of mortal sin.” Carlson commented, “I just have to say it’s very strange that someone’s choice of medication would be seen as a political story.” And Laura Ingraham noted that “television news anchors, guests are freaking out about this.”

Correct — and perhaps the biggest freak-outer is your own colleague, Ingraham.

Can we please arrange for a Zoom meeting with Cavuto for the rest of the Fox News anchors?

As Trump was speaking with reporters Monday about the drug, he said, “I was just waiting to see your eyes light up when I said this, but — you know, when I announced this.” Which is to say, there was an element of showmanship in this declaration, a compulsion to get a rise out of the assembled reporters. That media-centric narcissism continued into the night, with the tweets about Fox News and Cavuto. And as we were finishing up this post, Trump tweeted this:

It’s always about the media, and not much else.

Clinical trials will eventually reach definitive conclusions about hydroxychloroquine and covid-19; public-health experts will eventually determine what measures are most effective in containing the coronavirus; and scientists will hopefully develop a strong vaccine that can be mass-produced quickly. What we may have trouble calibrating, however, is how much dumber we become with each of these episodes.

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