February was when I had the first inkling that something unsettling was happening. In early March, it was clear there was a major problem. And by late March, there was no question that a large segment of the population was enduring an epidemic of misinformation.
As the nation girded to face its biggest challenge since World War II, much of the coronavirus coverage from right-wing websites—websites that you may never have heard of, but which are read by millions every day—was characterized by faulty projections, inflammatory anti-Chinese rhetoric, and over-the-top praise for President Trump.
Because I read up to thirty conservative news websites every morning for my website TheRighting, I’ve followed these stories. And I have found they fall into seven basic categories.
The denialists began in late February, led by conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh, who also posts full transcripts of his show on his website—a key fact in the spread of his ideas. In his February 24 commentary, Limbaugh called coronavirus “the common cold.” Limbaugh correctly said that the survival rate was 98 percent, but he omitted predictions that a third of the country could become infected. At this point, there weren’t many conservative stories denying the severity of the coronavirus pandemic. The influential Limbaugh set the tone.
It’s getting better all the time
Once there was no denying that the pandemic was in and around us, the coverage shifted to “it’s not so bad and it won’t last too long.” American Thinker’s March 9 story “Coronavirus Codswallop” stated that the statistics about the pandemic “should be taken with a grain of salt.” A day earlier, the New York Post told its readers that “the spread of the virus continues to slow.” Dr. William Hazeltine, writing for FoxNews.com on March 21, predicted that the pandemic may end sooner than we expect.
Stories from right-wing websites praising Trump’s handling of the crisis then came to dominate the coverage. The Daily Caller labeled Trump’s much-criticized February 27 press conference, in which he presented the overall risk of the coronavirus to Americans as very low, a “master class in crisis management.” A few days later an opinion article on the same site stated that Trump “has got the coronavirus situation completely under control.” Trump’s March 11 Oval Office address drew plaudits from the New York Post (“Trump Passes Coronavirus Test with Flying Colors”) and FoxNews.com (“Trump Coronavirus Response Will Protect America’s Economy, Workers and Businesses”). Writing in CNS News on March 20, Christian leader Franklin Graham gushed, “Thank God we have a president who knows how to take charge.” Not to be outdone, in late March, Lara Trump penned an op-ed for FoxNews.com that read more like advertising copy: “My father-in-law, President Trump, is showing what leadership looks like in a time of crisis.”
At least half of conservative coverage centered on the name of the virus, with right-wing journalists enthusiastically labeling it “China coronavirus” or “Wuhan virus.” Limbaugh and the American Thinker put forth the theories that somehow the virus had escaped or was deliberately released from a lab in China, and that the country was buying up stocks in the slumping market. (The headline was “Did China panic the world and steal our wealth with a common cold?”) American Greatness called the virus a way for China to destroy the United States.
The cure is worse than the disease
The first stories suggesting that the remedies to battle covid-19 were worse than the actual disease began showing up in mid-March. A number of media outlets voiced this perspective, including the Washington Times, The Federalist, and BernardGoldberg.com. The Epoch Times expressed a similar concern and added, “For a disease that so far has extracted a relatively small death toll and from which a quarter of those infected have already recovered, why are we reacting as if Covid-19 is the second coming of the Black Death?”
Bashing the rest of the media
Conservative media became increasingly critical of major mainstream media outlets and their reporters throughout the coverage of the crisis. Conservative commentator Todd Starnes wrote that NBC’s Peter Alexander, whom he described as a propagandist, “got what was coming to him” after President Trump rebuked him for asking if he was giving Americans false hope. The Power Line blog claimed on March 24 that MSNBC and CNN have reduced covering the administration’s press conferences because they were showing the administration in a positive light. Predictably, both The Federalist and American Greatness accused the mainstream media of stoking public hysteria, which correctly characterized some of the reporting without acknowledging the widespread under-reaction from the right.
There’s nothing new about conservative media disparaging Democrats. But the criticism intensified as the crisis grew. A RedState article accused Joe Biden of plagiarizing Trump’s plan to combat the “Wuhan” virus. March 13 articles on Breitbart and American Greatness stated that the coronavirus spread because the Democrats diverted the attention of the country with the impeachment effort. Community Digital News ran an inflammatory headline calling House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “the ring leader of Dems’ covid-19 relief thievery.” The body of the story called her a “bitch” who “pisses on American’s [sic] collective leg.”
Of course, there were dozens of other coronavirus-related stories published in right-wing media that couldn’t be neatly categorized. And a handful were even critical of the administration’s efforts.
But probably the most important and influential story coming from the right during the pandemic was Tucker Carlson’s commentary published March 10 on FoxNews.com (and delivered by Carlson on the network the night before). He was virtually alone among conservative commentators in stating unequivocally that the virus will get worse, and he called upon the country’s leaders to stop lying about it. (It’s worth noting that he had visited the president days before to deliver the message in person.) By March 13, President Trump had changed his tune and acknowledged the challenge facing the world. It was a watershed moment in the administration’s approach to the coronavirus.
Carlson’s call to action was something of a miracle. Here was a controversial conservative journalist putting forth an opinion about a divisive issue that both Democrats and Republicans would soon embrace. How often does that occur? We must hope that it was not too little, too late.
Howard Polskin is the president and chief curator of TheRighting, a website that aggregates stories from right-wing media outlets on a daily basis to inform mainstream and liberal audiences. The site, which was launched in 2017, also tracks and analyzes traffic to conservative websites on a monthly basis.