But the criticism of Trump, Fox and Pinsky itself is now being criticized. Conservative media and Trump supporters are increasingly pointing to allegedly dodgy predictions and comparisons made by other medical professionals and media outlets, in an attempt to argue that their allies are being singled out.
The comparisons, though, often ignore both the timeline and plenty of nuance.
Journalist Sharyl Attkisson, a former CBS News reporter and frequent critic of the mainstream media, published a lengthy piece Sunday responding to a viral video from the “Daily Show,” which highlighted some of these wayward pronouncements by Fox, Trump and Trump allies. Attkisson offers each of the quotes from the video and then, under each one, lists a bunch of quotes from other sources that she argues are similar.
One thing conspicuously missing from the piece, though? Any dates on the quotes. A review shows that every quote she is defending is either from late February or March; many of the quotes she cites as being comparable, though, are from January or early February, when the virus still hadn’t penetrated much in the United States. Other, more recent statements she cites aren’t nearly as definitive as the ones they’re being compared with.
The Washington Free Beacon offered a similar compilation last week, noting Fox and Trump weren’t the only ones who had compared the coronavirus to the seasonal flu. To its credit, though, it actually applied dates to the quotes; again, most of them are from before mid-February. Trump was comparing coronavirus to the flu as late as March 9.
Another frequent counter-argument on social media right now involves pointing to January comments from White House coronavirus task force expert Anthony S. Fauci, whose statements warning about the virus have often been compared to what Fox and Trump were saying. Appearing on Newsmax on Jan. 21, Fauci was asked, “We don’t have to worry about this one, right?”
He responded: “Obviously you need to take it seriously and do the kinds of things that the CDC and the Department of Homeland Security are doing. But this is not a major threat to the people in the United States, and this is not something that the citizens of the United States right now should be worried about.”
Many summaries, of course, focus on that second sentence, in which Fauci says it’s “not a major threat” in the United States, while ignoring the first. Fauci also made clear in the quote that he was talking about “right now” — the implication being, of course, that this could change. And that Jan. 21 date is important: It happens to be the same day that the very first case of the coronavirus in the United States was confirmed.
There have been some predictions and prognostications that don’t look great, even from some medical experts on non-Fox and nonconservative outlets. Some were spotlighted by Attkisson and the Free Beacon.
Vanderbilt University infectious disease expert William Schaffner was quoted by Kaiser Health News on Jan. 24, for example, saying, “Coronavirus will be a blip on the horizon in comparison [to the flu]. The risk is trivial.” University of Southern California medical expert David Agus told CBS News on Feb. 8, “Coronavirus is not going to cause a major issue in the United States,” citing the quality of our health-care system. Some media outlets also had pieces around the same time questioning the severity of the threat, including this one.
But even those weren’t generally predictive. And other quotes that are being cited as comparable were obviously talking about the present situation very early in the spread.
“My point is, flu is a much bigger deal than the coronavirus is here in this country,” Sanjay Gupta said on CNN on Jan. 31.
“We don’t need to be overly concerned yet in the United States about the novel coronavirus,” MSNBC medical contributor Dave Campbell said Jan. 24.
“Overall, most people should not be terribly concerned about it,” NBC medical expert John Torres said Jan. 24. “You definitely want to pay attention.”
As mentioned about the Fauci quote, this was when there were very, very few cases in the United States and this was a problem mostly confined to China. The quotes from Trump, Fox and Pinsky, by contrast, continued into March in each case.
Here’s what Pinsky said, according to a compilation circulated online this weekend:
- Feb. 7: Cites a “much higher [risk of death from] being hit by an asteroid, I would say.”
- Feb. 8: On 20,000 deaths: “It’s not going to happen. That’s the point. It’s not going to happen. It’s not.”
- March 2: “It is a press-induced panic. I am angry about it. It is the flu.”
- March 3: “It’s going to be just like the flu. It’s going to be almost identical. I can see it coming.”
- March 10: “[New York Mayor Bill] de Blasio told them not to ride the train. So then I’m riding the trains. So I am. It’s just ridiculous.”
- March 14: “If you’re under 65 and you get it, you’re going to have the flu and you’re going to be fine.”
Another oft-cited prediction from Fox News medical contributor Marc Siegel is from March 6: “This virus should be compared to the flu. Because at worst — worst-case scenario — it could be the flu.”
Trump’s efforts to downplay the threat, say it was “under control” and suggest it would soon go away, meanwhile, continued into mid-March. Many of the most controversial quotes from Fox hosts were from early March.
The intersection of medical issues and punditry is a problematic one, as we’re increasingly learning. Officials such as Fauci are generally circumspect about making predictions and want to deal in what is currently known, as he did even in that Jan. 24 interview. Punditry, by contrast, often selects for people willing to say the most extreme or definitive thing.
But there is a real, distinct line between questioning a threat before it gets really bad and downplaying a threat that is rapidly expanding even as you’re speaking — and even as medical professionals are adjusting their guidance accordingly. Comparing what Trump and the others said to more-nuanced late-January or early-February quotes about something that wasn’t yet a major threat in the United States isn’t apples to apples; it’s whataboutism.