The Media Today

The feedback-loop logic of Trump’s magic medicine

May 20, 2020

On Monday, President Trump casually told reporters that he’s been taking hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug he has repeatedly touted as effective against COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. The reporters seemed stunned. “I was just waiting to see your eyes light up when I said this,” Trump told them. The president does not (as far as we know) have COVID-19 (or malaria), and there’s no conclusive proof that hydroxychloroquine works against it; Trump’s Food and Drug Administration even warned, last month, that COVID-19 patients should not administer it outside of a clinical or hospital setting because it can cause heart problems. Trump’s comment set off an instant media firestorm. Reacting on MSNBC, John Heilemann said there was a “high probability” that Trump was lying, and just wanted people to think, “having told everyone else to take it, that he himself is taking it, even though he’s not in fact taking it.” Over on Fox, Neil Cavuto, who has underlying health issues himself, strongly advised vulnerable viewers not to follow Trump’s lead. “I cannot stress enough,” he said. “This will kill you.” Later, Fox’s opinion hosts contradicted Cavuto. Sean Hannity took aim at the “media mob.” Laura Ingraham (on whom more shortly) accused liberal pundits of “freaking out.”

Trump’s taking (or alleged taking) of hydroxychloroquine continued to attract attention yesterday. News channels hosted doctors who warned of the drug’s potential dangers. Fox’s Cavuto returned to the topic, rattling off a list of studies that concluded that hydroxychloroquine is not an effective COVID cure. Speaking during a cabinet meeting, Trump stoked the fires again, seeming to deny that the FDA advice is a thing, and attacking one study, carried out on a group of veterans, as the “phony” work of people who are “obviously not friends of the administration.” (As CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale wrote afterward, there are valid reasons to question the study, but it’s not a hatchet job.) Some media-watchers argued that Trump was deliberately distracting attention from weightier matters—including the firing of the State Department inspector general—and that the media shouldn’t let him. Others disagreed.

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To understand Trump’s obsession with hydroxychloroquine, we need to back up a bit. Earlier this year, scientists in various countries started examining whether chloroquine, to which hydroxychloroquine is related, might work against COVID-19. The hypothesis was reasonable, but some of the ways in which it has been tested—and some of the people testing it—have attracted intense scrutiny. In late February, Didier Raoult, an eccentric, silver-maned French microbiologist, emerged as a particularly forceful champion of hydroxychloroquine, which he touted in YouTube videos, and in an interview with the Russian state-backed broadcaster RT. Quickly, Raoult became a folk hero in dark corners of the internet; in the US, his advocacy caught the attention of a cryptocurrency investor named James Todaro and a Long Island lawyer named Gregory Rigano, who worked to draw attention to Raoult’s claims. Elon Musk shared them on Twitter; right-wing news sites, including Breitbart, picked them up, too. In mid-March, Rigano appeared on Ingraham’s Fox show, and then on Tucker Carlson’s; he told Carlson, who had introduced Rigano as “an adviser at the Stanford University School of Medicine” (he isn’t), that Raoult is “the most eminent infectious disease specialist in the world” (nope), and that he (Rigano) was “here to announce… the second cure to a virus of all time” (he wasn’t). “It’s our job to be skeptical of all and any claims,” Carlson said, calling on the federal government to investigate. “However, I very much want to believe this.” So, apparently, did the president, who picked up on hydroxychloroquine soon after.

From then through mid-April, we saw an epic feedback loop: right-wing media personalities boosted the drug, leading Trump to boost it, leading right-wing media personalities to boost Trump’s boosterism, and so on. Personalities on Fox pushed the drug, as the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple put it, to near “Benghazi-levels of hype.” (Wemple added, “There’s nothing that these people cannot politicize.”) COVID patients were invited on air to share their experiences with hydroxychloroquine; Ainsley Earhardt told one, on Fox & Friends, that it had been “a miracle drug for you.” On April 7, Carlson accused the mainstream media of downplaying the drug’s potential “because a politician they don’t like has endorsed it,” and called that “probably the most shameful thing… I’ve ever seen.” Ingraham was especially enthusiastic; according to the Post, she even visited Trump in the White House to push the drug, along with two doctors she’s hosted on her show. As studies questioning the use of hydroxychloroquine in COVID patients racked up, both Trump and Fox started to talk about it less. Then the feedback loop started back up again. On Monday, after Trump said he was taking the drug himself, Ingraham hosted a doctor on her show who called it “life-changing.” Studies, Ingraham allowed, “are still coming in,” but on the whole, she said, hydroxychloroquine is “very safe.”

At various points in Trump’s touting of the drug, journalists and commentators have tried to work out why he’s doing it. After a New York Times story casually noted, in early April, that Trump has a financial interest in Sanofi, a French company that makes hydroxychloroquine, Twitter thought it had its answer—but Trump’s stake is small, and the “personal gain” hypothesis has since lost traction. The Times reported, in the same story, that Trump allies have a much bigger stake in Sanofi. That deserves careful scrutiny. Still, there’s a much easier explanation for all this—that Trump is so wired into right-wing media, and right-wing media is so wired into him, that they’re trapped together in a self-perpetuating cycle. If a French doctor with a skull ring and a pair of blockchain enthusiasts can get the attention of right-wing media, they can get the attention of the president—and, with it, the attention of the US media as a whole. It might be that simple.

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We shouldn’t retire our skepticism; money always talks, and until evidence is provided, we shouldn’t assume that Trump is actually taking the drug himself. But it’s clear that our warped information ecosystem is steering health policy at a critical time. Last night, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes dwelled on that theme, exploring the possibility that Trump “believes his own BS.” The president, Hayes pointed out, “has been pumping conservative media into his brain for a decade or two at least, and that entire universe runs on advertisements for magic pills and supplements.” The “depressing reality,” he argued, is that the hydroxychloroquine gambit probably “isn’t some 12th-dimensional chess. It’s not even some corrupt angle he’s working. The president literally thinks there is some secret magic solution.”

Below, more on the coronavirus:

  • Covering New York: For CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Sara Rafsky followed up on research she published in January on the state of local news in New York City to find out how the pandemic has changed the picture. “One of the main findings from my previous report was that health and healthcare issues were going underreported”—in particular, the municipal hospital system, Rafsky notes. “Now, every reporter has become a health reporter.”
  • Covering Chicago: Amy Jacobson, a TV news reporter turned Salem talk-radio host in Chicago, has been barred from attending briefings held by J.B. Pritzker, the Democratic governor of Illinois, after she spoke at an anti-lockdown rally. Jordan Abudayyeh, Pritzker’s press secretary, noted that there was Nazi imagery on display at the rally. “An impartial journalist would not have attended that rally in that capacity,” Abudayyeh wrote Jacobson, “and therefore you will no longer be invited to participate as an impartial journalist.” Chicago media-watcher Robert Feder has the details.
  • Covering Australia: According to the Australian Newsroom Mapping Project, 157 Australian newsrooms have shuttered on a permanent or temporary basis since early 2019. Amanda Reade writes, for The Guardian, that the country’s “news industry was under enormous strain coming into 2020 but the coronavirus has accelerated its decline.”
  • In brief: In the UK, researchers at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that an initial surge in interest in news about the pandemic has been followed by “a significant increase in news avoidance.” The American Civil Liberties Union warned, in a report, that fever-screening tools such as temperature scanners should not be deployed to help reopen the US as they’re ineffective, and pose a longer-term threat to freedom from surveillance. And the CBS Evening News didn’t air on the East Coast last night, due to apparent technical problems. (It aired on the West Coast.) Norah O’Donnell, the show’s host, said it was “a broadcast in the era of COVID.”

Other notable stories:

  • The fallout from Smith v. Farrow continues. Yesterday, Matt Lauer, the disgraced former NBC anchor, laid into Farrow’s book, in which Brooke Nevils, a former staffer at the network, accuses Lauer of rape; in a lengthy post for Mediaite, Lauer denied Nevils’s allegation, accused Farrow of having an ax to grind against NBC (Farrow says the network nixed his reporting on Harvey Weinstein), and tried to pick holes in his reporting. Mediaite said editors “independently fact checked” elements of the post—and stressed that it wasn’t endorsing Lauer’s views—but its decision to publish drew criticism online regardless. Farrow said Lauer was “just wrong” about his book and the reporting process that led to it. Nevils tweeted, “DARVO: Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender.”
  • In an interview for a forthcoming documentary, Norma McCorvey—the anonymous pro-choice plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, who subsequently publicly opposed abortion—said she never actually changed her mind, but had been paid to lie by antiabortion groups. The documentary, which was filmed in the months prior to McCorvey’s death, in 2017, will premiere Friday, on FX. Meredith Blake, of the LA Times, has more details.
  • Earlier this month, the Louisville Courier-Journal won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of a slew of pardons issued by Matt Bevin, the former governor of Kentucky. Now a group of 27 scholars has written to the Pulitzer board criticizing the award; the paper’s reporting, they argue, did not interrogate the injustices of the carceral system, and instead “carried water” for the “empirically unfounded” view that mass pardons endanger public safety.
  • The Times is phasing out its use of third-party ad-targeting data—because it isn’t privacy-friendly, and because the paper has so many subscribers that it no longer needs it. Axios’s Sara Fischer has more. In other adtech news, CNBC’s Megan Graham wanted to show how scammers plagiarize stories from legitimate news sites in order to sell ads against them—so she set up her own scam site. “It was shockingly easy,” she writes.
  • Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, and his wife, Wendy Schmidt, who leads the Schmidt Family Foundation, are donating $4.7 million to NPR. The grant will go toward two regional newsrooms—one in California, the other linking NPR stations in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska. “Local news is especially important,” Wendy Schmidt said.
  • In early May, in an interview with the New Consumer, the cookbook author and Times food columnist Alison Roman laid into Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo, sparking major beef (sorry) online. Amid the controversy, the Times held a piece by Roman. The paper confirmed to the Daily Beast that she is now on “temporary leave.” It did not say why.
  • Following reports that Germany’s intelligence services monitored the phone numbers of foreign reporters working outside the country, a group of journalists brought a legal challenge at Germany’s Constitutional Court. Yesterday, in a landmark verdict, the court ruled that the practice breached the journalists’ rights. The BBC has more.
  • AT&T is pulling out of Venezuela—because US sanctions now forbid the company’s DirecTV platform from carrying channels that the Venezuelan government requires it to carry. DirecTV broadcast international news in the country, though the Venezuelan regime censored many of its channels, including CNN en Español. The AP has more.
  • And Len Levitt—a veteran New York City crime reporter who wrote for Newsday, among other outlets, and most recently ran the column “NYPD Confidential”—has died. He was 79. Richard Esposito, who worked with Levitt at Newsday and is now a spokesperson for the NYPD, called Levitt “a thorn in the side of authority.”

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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.