The Media Today

Pandemic in the right-wing mediasphere

March 12, 2020

With each passing day, it becomes harder to downplay the impact of the coronavirus. Yesterday, the World Health Organization formally declared the outbreak a pandemic, having previously held off on doing so. Even Donald Trump—who, to this point, has cast the virus as actually not that big a deal despite what the Fake News Media is saying—changed his tone. Last night, he addressed the nation from the Oval Office for just the second time in his presidency. On the first occasion—last year, during a government-shutdown crisis that was largely of his own making—Trump reiterated his demands for border-wall funding and made little news; last night, he outlined measures to combat and mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, including restrictions on travel from 26 European countries for 30 days from tomorrow. (It’s not clear that this will be effective given that the virus is already spreading inside the US, but the announcement certainly was newsworthy.) At one point, Trump noted that “trade and cargo” would be affected, too. That claim rattled the markets, but Trump quickly walked it back.

The pivot in Trump’s tone was a conundrum for his boosters in the right-wing media universe, who, following Trump’s lead, have spent weeks downplaying the seriousness of the situation. One of them—Sean Hannity, of Fox News, who, in recent days, has called the concerned mainstream reaction to the virus a “new hoax” to “bludgeon Trump” and entertained the idea that it might be a deep-state “fraud”—responded with a hedge. Hannity praised Trump’s “aggressive and even unprecedented” response “from day one” of the crisis, and scolded the president’s critics for playing partisan politics; “In serious situations,” he said, with no hint of irony, “truth matters, facts matter, and unfortunately, there’s been waaaaay too much politicizing of this.” Then, he reverted to type, comparing stats about coronavirus to normal seasonal-flu rates. (This despite the fact that on Tuesday’s show, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a respected government health expert, told Hannity that the coronavirus “is 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu—you got to make sure that people understand that.”) On Twitter, McKay Coppins, of The Atlantic, called Hannity’s performance “absolutely Orwellian.”

ICYMI: The infinite scroll

It’s not just Hannity: in recent days and weeks, other Fox personalities have lowballed the effects of the virus, and had Trump’s back in the process. On Monday, Trish Regan, a host on Fox Business, flashed the words “CORONAVIRUS IMPEACHMENT SCAM” on screen as she accused Democrats and the media of using—“and I mean USING”—the virus to “demonize and destroy” the president. Laura Ingraham invoked Benghazi as ‘evidence’ that Hillary Clinton’s response to the virus would have been terrible if she were president, which she still is not. (You very much can make this stuff up.) On Fox Nation, Fox’s streaming service, Tomi Lahren dismissed “coronavirus hysteria”; “Call me crazy,” she said, “but I am far more concerned with stepping on a used heroin needle than I am getting the coronavirus.”

Nor is it just folks on Fox. Rush Limbaugh, on his radio show, has also channeled deep-state conspiracy theories around the virus, which he has compared to the common cold. On InfoWars, Alex Jones has claimed that a special nanosilver toothpaste—which, in an amazing coincidence, he sells—can kill the virus dead. As Coppins wrote yesterday for The Atlantic, Trump’s preferred virus messaging has been echoed and amplified by a “multi-platform propaganda apparatus”—“from the White House communications office to the MAGA meme warriors of Instagram, from the prime-time partisans on Fox News to the Trump campaign’s Facebook feed, the overarching message has been the same.” (If you need more examples, the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America has been doing a good job of keeping track.)

There have been blips in this signal. There are still sane voices in the right-wing media ecosystem. This week, one of them, National Review, published an editorial chiding Trump’s handling of the crisis; the president, it says, “has obviously failed to rise to the challenge of leadership, and it does no one any favors to pretend otherwise.” Nor is Fox a monolith on this—yesterday, to cite one example, Stuart Varney, a host on Fox Business, pushed back on Trump campaign official Kayleigh McEnany, noting officials’ advice that large events (like Trump rallies) be called off. On Monday, Tucker Carlson won unlikely plaudits when he told his viewers that “People you trust, people you probably voted for, have spent weeks minimizing what is clearly a very serious problem.” And “by the way,” he added, “it’s definitely not just the flu.”

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This framing is better than the alternative. But Carlson has an agenda, too. As the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple noted in an astute column on Tuesday, the coronavirus is “a public policy story that fits the Tucker Carlson Tonight story paradigm: It’s a bona fide threat, and it comes from a foreign country”—China—“that Carlson already likes to bash on Fox News’s air.” Wemple referenced Dannagal Young, an academic at the University of Delaware who has pointed out that if anything, right-wing media typically like to exaggerate contamination threats, rather than downplay them. With the coronavirus, Wemple wrote, many opinion hosts on Fox have suppressed this impulse because it “now happens to clash with… shilling for Trump.” Going forward, they might have a chance to indulge it.

Consistently parroting an inconsistent messenger is a tough gig. By the time this newsletter is sent, Trump could have changed his tune again on the coronavirus—but if the tone of his address last night persists, we should expect his right-wing media machine to heave itself into line behind him. Coppins noted last night that that could have an upside, in the sense that Trump’s new tone is less dangerous than his old one for the people most likely to listen to it. (Many of Fox’s viewers, for instance, fall in the older age brackets most at risk of severe illness.) But propagandizing of any stripe is dangerous. Trump’s somber announcement of travel restrictions may mark a departure from downplaying—but it fits right in with other malign, not to mention racist, tropes that many Trump boosters like to push.

And, as Coppins put it, “I don’t think the people who’ve spent weeks ridiculing coronavirus fears and accusing the press of hysterical fear-mongering should now be let off the hook because Trump gave them the green light to treat this like a public health emergency.”

Below, more on the coronavirus:

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, Bernie Sanders confirmed, at a news conference in Vermont, that he’ll fight on in the Democratic primary, and will debate Joe Biden in Phoenix on Sunday; Sanders referred to Biden as his “friend,” but laid out tough questions that he plans to ask Biden about his plans. For BuzzFeed, Ruby Cramer has a behind-the-scenes look at the week Sanders “realized he was losing”; Sanders, she writes, has effectively been serving “as his own press secretary, digital director, pollster, advertiser, and campaign manager.” In other campaign content, Eric Boehlert argues that the press failed to foresee Biden’s resurgence because it focused too heavily on white Republicans and not enough on Black Democrats. And a new survey from the Pew Research Center shows that Black and white Democratic voters have very different media-consumption habits.
  • Also yesterday, a judge in Manhattan sentenced Harvey Weinstein to 23 years in prison, following his conviction on charges of sex crimes including rape. “Although this is a first conviction,” the judge said, “it is not a first offense.” Weinstein, who attended court in a wheelchair and has been held in medical facilities since his conviction, will either be transferred to a prison in upstate New York, or extradited to LA to face separate charges.
  • For CJR, Ryan Binkley and Francis Wick—the CEOs, respectively, of the Anchorage Daily News and Wick Communications—argue that those who think newspapers are dying have been overlooking “an entire segment of the industry that isn’t just surviving, but persisting: medium-sized, independent and family-owned newspaper chains.” Such groups, they write, are in a different tier to mega-chains and “tiny mom-and-pop outlets.”
  • For Poynter, Meena Thiruvengadam offers journalists advice on how to navigate being laid off, including around severance, noncompetes, and copyright. “Losing a job is not a pleasant experience, but stay in journalism long enough and there’s a pretty good chance it’ll happen to you,” she writes. “I was prepared, and it made a difference.”
  • In its budget announced yesterday, the British government confirmed that it plans to abolish a so-called “reading tax” on ebooks and digital newspapers and magazines. Currently, online subscriptions to news outlets are subject to sales tax, even though print products are exempt. It’s not yet clear if readers will benefit. The Guardian has more.
  • And Scientific American named Laura Helmuth, currently science and health editor at the Washington Post, as its new editor in chief. “The novel coronavirus circulating around the world reinforces the need for trustworthy and inclusive science,” Helmuth said in a statement. “Scientific American’s mission has never been more important.”

ICYMI: Chris Hayes on how to cover COVID-19 responsibly

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.