The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For weeks, conservative media joined Trump in downplaying the threat of the coronavirus

President Trump's handling of the coronavirus outbreak has been met with mixed reactions. Here's how Fox hosts have responded. (Video: The Washington Post)
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In retrospect, it seems almost understandable that people two weeks ago might have thought the risk posed by the novel coronavirus was overstated. On Feb. 27, there were only about 60 cases in the United States, up from a week earlier but still only by a handful of cases.

Experts warned, though, that an uncontrolled, undetected transmission of the virus was already underway. Cases of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, were cropping up throughout the country, doubling multiple times over the past week. The threat posed by the virus, identified as 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu by a senior government official Wednesday, is now obvious. The death toll could be as low as several hundred — or as high as 1.6 million.

This path was an obvious possibility at the end of last month, but a number of media personalities nonetheless derided concerns about the virus as overhyped or political. More remarkably, some continue to downplay the threat that the virus poses, using their platforms to continue to diminish the risk Americans face.

No one has been more consistent in this effort than radio host Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh is a member of the population most at risk for covid-19: over age 60 and undergoing treatment for advanced lung cancer. Yet, from the outset, Limbaugh downplayed the risk posed by the virus and misrepresented its effects.

“I want to tell you the truth about the coronavirus,” he said on Feb. 24. “You think I’m wrong about this? You think I’m missing it by saying that’s — Yeah, I’m dead right on this. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.”

“The drive-by media hype of this thing as a pandemic, as the Andromeda strain, as, ‘Oh, my God. If you get it, you’re dead,’ ” he continued. “Do you know what the — I think the survival rate is 98 percent. Ninety-eight percent of people who get the coronavirus survive. It’s a respiratory system virus.” He went on to speculate that it was a Chinese bioweapon.

“The survival rate of this is 98 percent!” Limbaugh said. “You have to read very deeply to find that number. Two percent of the people get the coronavirus die. That’s less than the flu, folks. That is a far lower death statistic than any form of influenza, which is an annual thing that everybody gets shots for. There’s nothing unusual about the coronavirus. In fact, coronavirus is not something new.”

This is all incorrect. The strain of coronavirus that’s spreading now is new, which is why it’s so effective at infecting people: No one has immunity. The mortality rate is still uncertain, with the World Health Organization estimating a rate of more than 3 percent globally last week, but Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, put it closer to 1 percent in his comments to Congress on Wednesday. That’s the “10 times more lethal than the flu” number, because the seasonal flu has a mortality rate of about 0.1 percent.

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You'll note that Limbaugh is wrong about the lethality relative to the flu, as well. But he made the same claim on Feb. 25.

“The fatality rate of this virus is less than the flu, far less than the flu,” Limbaugh said. He continued: “I said yesterday there are numerous types of coronavirus. This is coronavirus 19. Now, the official name of it is covid-19. But it’s in common parlance so that even people in Rio Linda can follow along, it’s coronavirus number 19. The fatality rate even in China is 2 percent. Now, that’s greater than the common cold but less than the flu. It’s a respiratory virus.”

The name covid-19 is short for coronavirus disease 2019. The 19, in other words, refers to the year and not to it being the 19th such virus, as Limbaugh said — clearly to suggest that this is just another in a long line of the same-old.

If you’re inclined to forgive Limbaugh’s errors given that he was opining several weeks ago, consider what he said about the illness Wednesday, after Fauci’s congressional testimony.

“This coronavirus, they’re just — all of this panic is just not warranted,” Limbaugh said. “This, I’m telling you, when I tell you — when I’ve told you that this virus is the common cold. When I said that, it was based on the number of cases. It’s also based on the kind of virus this is. Why do you think this is covid-19? This is the 19th coronavirus. They’re not uncommon.”

At another point, he expressed bemusement at the term “lethal.”

“Ten times more lethal?” he asked. “Lethal than what? What does lethal mean? Does lethal kill you? Does lethal infect you? Does lethal give you a temperature of 102 versus 100? What does it do to you? It’s a meaningless comparative. Ten times more lethal?”

Lethal kills you.

“Anyway, look, I’m sure you can tell I’ve got to be very careful how I navigate this,” Limbaugh said at another point. “Because the media is just waiting for people to come along and act like it isn’t a big deal, so they can point fingers. Now, I am fully aware of this, folks, but you know me. I can’t fake it in here, and I can’t act out things that I don’t believe. Well, actually, I probably could.”

During last month’s State of the Union address, President Trump awarded Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom “in recognition of all that you have done for our nation, the millions of people a day that you speak to and that you inspire, and all of the incredible work that you have done for charity,” as Trump said in his speech.

As often happens with his program, Limbaugh's thoughts on the virus were picked up uncritically by Fox News.

“Rush Limbaugh: Democrats ‘hoping’ to ‘destroy Trump and the economy’ as coronavirus spreads,” a headline published Wednesday read. The article took Limbaugh’s claims about the political motivations of Democrats at face value.

This isn’t terribly surprising, given some of the network’s coverage.

For weeks, as the number of cases grew, Fox News opinion hosts such as Laura Ingraham suggested that Democrats and the media were overstating the risk posed by the virus solely to hurt Trump.

“It's unsettling to see doctors and what looked like, you know, hazmat suits in China. People quarantined hanging out of hotel windows in Italy. And, of course, your fellow airline passengers wearing face masks,” Ingraham said on Feb. 27. “Yet more unsettling is something happening right here in the United States. And it's not medical. It's political. Democrats and their media cronies have decided to weaponize fear and also weaponize suffering to improve their chances against Trump in November.”

That same evening, host Sean Hannity offered a similar thought.

“Tonight, I can report the sky is absolutely falling. We’re all doomed. The end is near. The apocalypse is imminent, and you’re all going to die. And … it’s all President Trump’s fault,” Hannity said. “Or at least that’s what the media mob and the Democratic extreme radical socialist party would like you to think.”

He later added that “coronavirus is dangerous” and that “the rapid spread is concerning.” That was not the lead part of his program, however.

Ingraham offered a more moderated assessment of the situation Tuesday evening.

“Look, bad things happen,” she said. “This virus is one of them. But setting off panic around the world is not the answer. We need to calm everything down.”

Hannity tried to put the death toll from the disease in a perspective his viewers would appreciate.

“Put it in perspective,” he said. “Twenty-six people were shot in Chicago alone over the weekend. I doubt you heard about it. You notice there’s no widespread hysteria about violence in Chicago. And this has gone on for years and years and years.”

As he spoke, the on-screen graphic read, “politicization of coronavirus.”

Host Tucker Carlson, speaking Monday evening, was critical of his colleagues’ efforts to downplay the virus.

“People you trust, people you probably voted for, have spent weeks minimizing what is clearly a very serious problem,” he said — clearly referring to Trump as well. “ ‘It’s just partisan politics,’ they say. ‘Calm down. In the end this was just like the flu and people die from that every year. Coronavirus will pass. And when it does, we will feel foolish for worrying about it.’ That’s their position.”

“No doubt these people have good intentions as they say, this many of them anyway,” he added. “They may not know any better. Maybe they’re just not paying attention, or maybe they believe they’re serving some higher cause by shading reality. No one wants to be manipulated by a corrupt media establishment — and it is corrupt. And there’s an election coming up. Best not to say anything that might help the other side. We get it. But they’re wrong. The Chinese coronavirus is a major event.”

Loyal Fox News viewers would be forgiven for having a bit of whiplash. On Sunday, the network’s “Fox and Friends” interviewed medical contributor Marc Siegel.

“I feel like the more I learn about this, the less there is to worry about,” host Pete Hegseth — a Trump confidant — said.

“I was about to say the same thing,” Siegel replied.

It’s not just Fox News and Limbaugh who would minimized the threat posed by the virus.

The New York Post editorial board wrote in an editorial late last month that “global health bureaucrats use these outbreaks to push for greater funding, with utter disregard for the truth.”

HBO's Bill Maher, a perpetual contrarian, proclaimed himself to be “sick of the virus.”

“The way they talk about it on the news,” he said, “they make it sound like if you're within six feet of anyone who has it, just get your affairs in order.”

“It could be something really, really virulent,” he added later, “but as I said last week at the top of the show with our expert, the response is to have a good immune system. And it’s really the only response.”

Fox News's website wrote about Maher's comments.

Megyn Kelly, a former Fox News and NBC anchor, expressed frustration about the coverage of the virus in a tweet Wednesday night, after Trump’s address to the country.

It's a remarkable statement, suggesting again that the media's assessments of the virus are suspect or unduly political — and drawing equivalence with Trump's history of inaccuracies.

Shortly before Trump spoke, The Washington Post looked at how Americans were responding to the coronavirus threat. Most Republicans told pollsters that they saw the threat of coronavirus as exaggerated and expressed lower concern about being infected. That, certainly, is in part a function of Trump’s approach to the virus and the way in which conservative media in particular reinforced his arguments that the virus was not something about which Americans should be worried.

In an interview with NBC News on Thursday morning, Vice President Pence, the head of the president’s coronavirus task force, lamented the way in which the virus has been discussed.

“There’s been some irresponsible rhetoric, but the American people should know President Trump has no higher priority than the health and safety and well-being of the people of this country,” Pence said.

We might recommend that you also read The Post’s compilation of comments from Trump downplaying the threat of the virus.