If the tenor of this reaction surprises you, then you haven’t been taking in much conservative media. While the coronavirus skepticism from Fox News is fairly well-known — everything from now-former Fox Business host Trish Regan calling coverage of the pandemic an “impeachment scam” to Laura Ingraham tagging the Democratic Party as “The Pandemic Party” — an ecosystem of lesser-known but influential conservative publications has similarly responded to the crisis with dismissal, scorn and baseless theories.
I know this ecosystem firsthand — I’m a libertarian-leaning conservative and have contributed to the Washington Examiner, the Federalist and the now-defunct Weekly Standard. I believe in the principles of limited government and in the exploration of political ideas that more traditional, often left-of-center news sources don’t. But in this grave moment, conservative media has failed: More than just being out of sync with experts, much of conservative media has viewed this pandemic through an excessively partisan lens, and often seems to care more about how it impacts politics than people’s lives.
Denial of the coronavirus as a serious threat is by no means confined to the conservative fringe. Last month, the Hoover Institution’s Richard A. Epstein argued — in a piece that was reportedly circulated throughout the Trump administration — that the U.S. coronavirus death toll would top off at 500. He later corrected this to say that he meant 5,000 deaths, a figure also quickly proved wrong. And despite Epstein’s lack of a medical or scientific background, his original estimations were initially covered uncritically in an interview with Reason magazine.
Writing for the New Criterion in mid-March, the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald described the “fear-mongering” tint of coronavirus coverage, waxing melodramatically that “Even if my odds of dying from coronavirus should suddenly jump ten-thousand-fold, from the current rate of .000012 percent across the U.S. population all the way up to .12 percent, I’d happily take those odds over the destruction being wrought on the U.S. and global economy from this unbridled panic.” She followed this up with an April 10 City Journal piece — at the point when U.S. cases were approaching a half-million, and deaths were approaching 20,000 — referencing the nation’s historic jobless claims to take a shot at left-leaning college campuses: Even as millions are losing jobs due to the economic shutdown, she lamented, “campus diversocrats” enjoyed “enviable mobility while the rest of the country was shutting down.”
Mac Donald isn’t alone in her focus on identity politics, even as the coronavirus death toll climbs. Columnist and podcaster Ben Shapiro railed against criticism of Trump’s use of the phrase “Chinese virus,” outraged that the “media have somehow found time to hone in on the one issue that matters least.” The irony that he had drawn focus to the same issue was apparently lost on him.
The “secular religion” of environmentalism has also come in for right-wing media abuse. Writing for American Greatness, syndicated radio host Dennis Prager said a potential “silver lining” of the pandemic is that “Maybe the coronavirus will awaken young people, who have been taught by nature-worshipping teachers and raised by nature-worshipping parents, to the idiocy of worshipping nature rather than subduing it.”
Perhaps the most reliable worry of conservative media is that, as the president tweeted last month, “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.” Writing for the Federalist, in an article headlined, “We Cannot Destroy The Country For The Sake of New York City,” David Marcus said, “we need to make some hard choices.” But instead of spelling out what those choices are or evaluating economic expertise against the advice of public health experts, he cited Beat author Jack Kerouac for advice on coronavirus policy: Per Marcus, Kerouac once said that “he didn’t want a living, he wanted a life.” Marcus responds: “But where is the difference? What is life if not the ability to sustain it?” The suggestion being, apparently, that it is acceptable to sacrifice the vulnerable for the sake of our standard of living.
Clearly, every day that the country is in lockdown mode, working people risk losing incomes, health coverage and savings. But the reason we’re staying at home is that, according to the experts, not the commentariat, the virus’s spread is worse than the alternative: It has been more than two weeks, for example, since White House coronavirus task force member Anthony S. Fauci estimated that U.S. coronavirus deaths could top 100,000. But many conservative writers are so dismissive, or have such an anathema to this nuance, that they choose to focus on only one side of the problem.
There are exceptions. Former Trump campaign official and White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon has sounded the alarm on his radio show, “War Room: Pandemic.” While he engaged in conspiracy theorizing — he defended Republican Sen. Tom Cotton’s suggestion that the virus may have originated in a Chinese research laboratory — he warned the American public about this disaster long before Trump and many in the media.
And there are examples of ideological coverage from the left. The knee-jerk reaction of some progressives to use this national crisis as an opportunity to promote Medicare-for-all is similarly partisan. But even so, it is far less insidious than the coverage seen throughout conservative media that downplays the severity of the epidemic: It doesn’t risk giving people the premature impression that it is safe to continue living as normal.
Conservative commentators are at their best when they focus, in good faith, on issues they see missing in mainstream coverage. It would be useful to apply conservative principles to an examination of facts on the ground: to promote serious free-market solutions to our national testing shortage; or to influence stay-at-home policies that balance federal power with the preservation of local authority. Unfortunately, much of conservative media has chosen to use a pandemic for the purpose of scoring political points and denouncing ideological adversaries.