The right-wing media’s rallying cry: Anti-lockdown edition

On Monday, Joshua A. Bickel, on assignment for the Columbus Dispatch, took a photo that went viral. Bickel was in the Ohio statehouse, where he’d been sent, in the absence of a furloughed colleague, to film a briefing by Mike DeWine, the governor. His photo captured a group of protesters, mid-cry, as they clamored just outside a window. Two of the protesters had trump hats on; another was wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. They were not respecting social-distancing guidelines. In recent days, the image has circulated online as the visual encapsulation of an angry new cause: right-wing opposition to stay-at-home orders. Liberals shared the photo mockingly, likening the protesters to zombies from the movie Shaun of the Dead. That made Bickel feel uncomfortable. “These people aren’t zombies,” he told Slate. “They’re people, and we don’t know what they’re dealing with.”

All week, news outlets have covered protests against “government overreach” in response to covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. On Wednesday, in Michigan, drivers caused intentional gridlock around the Capitol to oppose an executive order from Gretchen Whitmer, the state’s governor, that imposed tight restrictions on residents and businesses; at one point, some of the protesters left their cars and congregated on Capitol grounds. We’ve seen similar demonstrations in Kentucky, Minnesota, North Carolina, Utah, Virginia, and New York. As Tess Owen writes for Vice, they’ve featured “guns, Guy Fawkes masks, members of the far-right Proud Boys group, possible links to the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and chants such as ‘Facts over fear!’ ” In Michigan, one protester held up a sign that read “HEIL WITMER” (sic). Chants of “lock her up” were heard, too.

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NBC News reports, citing local police, that yesterday, between 3,000 and 4,000 protesters showed up at the Michigan Capitol. Most of the other rallies, however, have been far smaller. Some of them have been linked to Republican politicians and established conservative groups. The Michigan protests, for instance, were organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition, a group founded by a Republican state representative and now led by his wife, and the Michigan Freedom Fund, which has strong links to the DeVos family. (The family denies organizational or financial involvement.) Some progressive commentators have argued that the anti-lockdown movement, so far as one exists, is an Astroturf (i.e., artificial, not grassroots) phenomenon, and urged the press to cover it as such. Others see it as genuine. A Facebook group called Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine has 350,000 members. John F. Harris, a founding editor of Politico, wrote yesterday that the restrictions linked to the coronavirus could easily surge through American culture as a “powerful boost to the animating spirit of libertarianism: leave me alone.” He argued, “Ideology hasn’t been suspended. It has been forcibly suppressed—in ways that inevitably will come roaring back, sometimes in highly toxic ways.”

Whatever the source of the anti-lockdown protests, right-wing media has thrown its weight behind them. Talk radio hosts, Twitter pundits such as Candace Owens, and sites including Infowars and the Gateway Pundit have all played their part, as have stars of Fox News. On Wednesday, Tucker Carlson called Whitmer’s shutdown policies “mindless and authoritarian” and accused her of careerism. (She’s been widely touted, of late, as a possible vice-presidential pick for Joe Biden.) Jeanine Pirro said, of the protesters, “God bless them.” Laura Ingraham, addressing them on Twitter, wrote that it’s “time to get your freedom back.” Yesterday, Brian Kilmeade, a host on Fox & Friends, said that lockdown orders were “getting ridiculous.” Harris Faulkner, another Fox host, asked Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and right-wing pundit, “This country was kind of founded on people who were willing to risk themselves for freedom: Is that what this is, or something else?” Huckabee said it was not something else.

Several mainstream outlets have compared the anti-lockdown protests to the Tea Party movement—which, of course, has faced allegations of Astroturfism itself. In 2011, Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin, of Harvard, wrote that Fox and other right-wing media entities didn’t just encourage the Tea Party, but acted, in a sense, as its “membership and communications infrastructure,” since, on the ground, the Tea Partiers were only “loosely interconnected.” Asking whether the current anti-lockdown sentiment is “real” or manufactured is both a hard question to answer and, in some ways, a false one: conservative “movements,” these days, never exist independently of the right-wing media echo chamber. The echo chamber is the apparatus by which they operate. Anyone covering these rallies should remember that—even if photos like Bickel’s don’t feature members of the media in the shot.

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Below, more on the coronavirus:

  • A Savage appraisal: For the Times, Jeremy W. Peters profiles Michael Savage, a right-wing shock jock who has turned on other right-wing media stars, including Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, over their downplaying of the coronavirus. On his radio show, Savage, who has some training in epidemiology, has referred to such figures as “intellectual dwarfs,” “science illiterates,” and “pimps…who tell you what you want to hear.” He has continued to praise Trump’s response to the virus, however.
  • More layoffs: California Times, the parent company of the LA Times, is shuttering a trio of community newspapers that it owns: the Glendale News-Press, the Burbank Leader, and the La Cañada Valley Sun will all shut down next week. Fourteen staffers will lose their jobs. Elsewhere, AM to DM, BuzzFeed’s daily Twitter show, will cease production at the end of the month, after Twitter pulled its funding for the project, citing the financial impact of the coronavirus. Another show, one that was still in development, is being scrapped, too. Eight workers will reportedly be cut. The BuzzFeed News Union said that, because the shows’ production staff are contractors, they won’t receive severance (though they will apparently receive some money that’s being fronted by Twitter).
  • Meanwhile, in the TV world: CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News have all seen spikes in prime-time viewership since the pandemic began—but, as Benjamin Mullin reports for the Wall Street Journal, all three networks are having trouble cashing in on their numbers as the ad market craters. CNN, whose prime-time ratings in the first week of April were more than double its figures for the end of 2019, is reportedly trying to entice advertisers “by offering to match their spending on public-service messages with free advertising that touts the social good companies are doing,” Mullin reports. It’s not just cable: according to one survey, local TV news stations have seen a 27 percent dip in ad sales in recent weeks. Poynter’s Al Tompkins has more.
  • WHO’s there: Yesterday, Facebook said it would start steering users who have interacted with misinformation about the coronavirus to a myth-busting website run by the World Health Organization. The move, Politico’s Mark Scott reports, amounts to “an acknowledgment that its efforts to scrub the platform of falsehoods related to the coronavirus have not been sufficient.”
  • A people’s history of the pandemic: For CJR, Caitlin L. Chandler reports on a Facebook group in which thousands of people worldwide are logging their experiences of the coronavirus as an ongoing historical archive. Histories of past epidemics “end up being skewed by government records,” Tammam Aloudat, the doctor who created the group, tells Chandler. “I was interested in seeing, what would it mean to create a collective record? It gives a view that is going to be different from the official view.”
  • A loyal voice: The White House has appointed Michael Caputo—a veteran of the Trump campaign and author of a recent book calling Trump’s impeachment a hoax—as communications chief at the Department of Health and Human Services. According to Politico, Caputo has been hired to keep a close eye on Alex Azar, the HHS secretary. White House officials suspect Azar of briefing the press with negative stories about Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
  • In brief: For Vice, Laura Wagner interviewed Alex Berenson, a former Times reporter who, Wagner writes, has become “one of the world’s foremost coronavirus truthers.” (Berenson tried to embarrass Wagner on Twitter. It did not go well.) For Nieman Lab, Adriana Lacy spoke with Patrice Peck, a journalist who started a newsletter offering “Coronavirus News for Black Folks.” And a BBC meteorologist who’s been working from home closed out a broadcast by drumming along to the BBC News theme music. I am British, but I think the video is worth your time.


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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.