Wash. Post downplays Fox anchor Bret Baier’s role in spreading misinformation about COVID-19 deaths

Washington Post article claims Baier wasn’t spreading the talking point “as deceptively as others have.” (Yes, he was.)

The Washington Post is again lending false credibility to Fox’s purported “straight news” side, treating Fox anchor Bret Baier with kid gloves after he continued to spread a persistent right-wing media talking point about the COVID-19 pandemic in an interview Sunday with Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A piece Monday afternoon argued that Walensky had mishandled her appearance on Fox News Sunday, in which Baier was filling in as one of the “rotating list of liars” hosting the program following the departure of former longtime host Chris Wallace. But to the extent that Walensky did make a mistake in her interview with Baier, it was really in going on Fox News at all, given the network’s track record of exploiting appearances by public health experts in order to spread more political vitriol and undermine any public health messaging they might deliver.

It is also key to understand that Baier has a long history of peddling false right-wing talking points, while using his position as an alleged news anchor to confer a patina of respectability on them. In this latest example, he claimed to Walensky that “it seems to make a big difference if a person in the hospital is in the hospital for COVID-19 or with COVID-19. … Do we have that split on numbers?”

To be clear, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) recently asked hospitals to provide data on patients specifically being treated for COVID-19 as compared to those who came in for other reasons, such as from injuries, and then tested positive. “We don’t have clear data right now,” she said. “I just want to always be honest with New Yorkers about how bad this is.”

However, Baier’s line of questioning continued much further than that, seeking to question the pandemic’s entire impact in deaths over the past two years. After Walensky responded that the link between COVID-19 and hospitalizations can differ according to each variant of the virus, Baier then followed up with a question not only about hospitalizations, but regarding the more than 800,000 deaths that have officially been linked to COVID-19.

Video file

Citation From the January 9, 2022, edition of Fox News Sunday

BRET BAIER (FOX NEWS ANCHOR): Speaking of statistics, it seems to make a big difference if a person in the hospital is in the hospital for COVID-19 or with COVID-19. It's been almost a year since you've been running the agency. Do we have that split on numbers?

DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY (DIRECTOR, CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION): You know, what I will say is it differs by each variant. So, some variants — first of all, we're doing screening of many, in many hospitals, of everybody who's walking in the door. What we are seeing with the omicron variant is that it tends to be milder person-by-person, but given how large the numbers are that we're seeing more and more cases come into the hospital.

In some hospitals that we've talked to, up to 40% of the patients who are coming in with COVID-19 are coming in not because they're sick with COVID, but because they're coming in with something else and have had to — COVID or the omicron variant detected.

BAIER: Right. But I guess, do you know how many of the 836,000 deaths in the U.S., linked to COVID, are from COVID or how many are with COVID but they had other comorbidities, do you have that breakdown?

WALENSKY: Yes, of course. With omicron, we’re following that very carefully. Our death registry, of course, takes a few weeks to — it takes a few weeks to collect. And, of course, omicron has just been with us for a few weeks. But those data will be forthcoming.

The Post’s article claimed that Walensky failed to recognize this longstanding right-wing trope, which holds that the COVID-19 deaths have been drastically overcounted, as many deaths from the virus should have been instead ascribed to other health problems that patients had. (They have more likely been undercounted.)

But even after laying out its own list of examples of right-wing dishonesty, the Post claimed that Baier somehow wasn’t as bad. In fact, his phrasing was nearly identical to and every bit as bad as the others. From the Post (emphasis in original):

Baier didn’t pitch the issue as deceptively as others have, but his phrasing certainly suggested that people dying “with covid” was distinct from those dying “from covid.”

“How many of the 836,000 deaths in the U.S. linked to covid are from covid or how many are with covid but they had other comorbidities? Do you have that breakdown?” he asked before eliciting Walensky’s “data will be forthcoming” response.

Walensky’s response granting the premise has led to some predictable headlines on the right.

This entire discourse also completely ignores the extent to which a COVID-19 infection can combine with preexisting conditions and vulnerabilities, rendering the “with COVID-19” vs. “from COVID-19” distinction totally meaningless.

And when a regular news outlet like The Washington Post sees Baier engaging in this kind of rhetorical duplicity, it ought to call him out on it, instead of claiming he “didn’t pitch the issue as deceptively as others have.” All this kind of treatment does is continue to dignify the network’s non-existent “straight news” side.