After riding Ebola fears to victory in 2014, right-wing media are playing politics with the 2020 pandemic

When it comes to COVID-19, conservative media will defend Trump at all costs

Trump and Obama on a purple background

Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, but the way pro-Trump media have covered the ongoing coronavirus pandemic stands in pretty stark contrast to how those same outlets covered Obama-era scares such as the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

Ebola was a major theme in the months leading up to the 2014 midterm elections, thanks in large part to right-wing media’s relentless scaremongering. The outbreak began in 2014 in West Africa, and the first ever case of Ebola in the U.S. was diagnosed in late September. Overall, four people were diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S., and a total of 11 Ebola patients were treated in the country. Only two people died from the virus in the U.S.

But right-wing media figures’ panicked coverage didn’t match the reality of the outbreak. The Daily Caller referred to President Barack Obama as “President Ebola.” Laura Ingraham of Fox News criticized then-Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Thomas Frieden for opposing travel restrictions, a decision that turned out to be correct, saying that Frieden was “on the verge of becoming the Baghdad Bob of the health care community” -- a reference to a propaganda minister for former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Ingraham also claimed that the real reason Obama was refusing to implement a travel ban was because of his “core ties to the African continent” and that he was willing to expose the U.S. military to Ebola as a way to “atone” for colonialism.

TheBlaze’s Glenn Beck, then at Fox News, floated the idea that Obama was trying to intentionally infect people in Texas because they didn’t support him politically. Radio host Rush Limbaugh went even further to spread an unfounded conspiracy theory that people “at the highest levels of our government and the highest levels of our media” believed that Americans “deserve to get” Ebola.  Limbaugh also claimed that the Obama administration would not impose travel bans to stop Ebola because closing the borders “would have deleterious effects on the president’s political agenda.” Additionally, he said it’s possible “political correctness” contributed to Ebola reaching the U.S.

Right-wing radio host Michael Savage accused Obama of treason for supposedly wanting to “bring infected children” into the U.S. as part of a deliberate plot to “infect the nation.” Articles at Breitbart, Infowars, and Drudge Report warned that people from Ebola-stricken countries could be sneaking across the border and spreading the virus.

Right-wing media’s strategy in the run-up to the 2014 midterms hinged on painting Obama and Democrats as failures on Ebola. 

Republicans picked up nine seats in the Senate and 13 in the House of Representatives, which gave them complete control of Congress. While it's impossible to attribute election results to any single issue, the right-wing strategy of painting the Obama administration as inept -- if not outright malicious -- in its response to the virus certainly contributed (as did the overwrought mainstream coverage of the story). Almost immediately after the election, right-wing concern about Ebola went out the window. Coverage evaporated, and pundits did a 180 on positions they’d held just days earlier.

For example, on Fox News almost three weeks before the midterm election, conservative commentator and former New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey had criticized the administration’s preparation to fight Ebola in the U.S. and had called for taking that money and diverting it to Africa to contain the virus there. “That money could be much more wisely spent overseas,” she said. Just days after the election, McCaughey again appeared on Fox, calling the Obama administration’s commitment to fighting Ebola in West Africa “totally out of proportion” and arguing that the money should be spent in the U.S. to fight diseases here. McCaughey even had the audacity to accuse Obama of “exploiting the sense of danger right here in the United States.”

The truth is the Obama administration handled the Ebola crisis about as well as anyone could have hoped.

As Ebola outbreaks roiled West Africa, the Obama administration deployed resources to the region to contain the virus at its source, preventing it from spreading globally and becoming a pandemic. This included the construction of on-location testing facilities, the creation of safe burial teams to reduce the spread of the virus from recently deceased Ebola patients, and the training of more than 1,500 health care workers.

On September 30, 2014, the CDC announced the first ever case of Ebola in the U.S. In its press release, the CDC listed actions it had been taking to address a potential U.S. outbreak, which included things like an increase in testing capacity, as well as writing and distributing guidelines for hospitals and doctors to take should they encounter someone who may have Ebola.

Over time, the administration also communicated directly with the public by building out a data-heavy web page dedicated to actions being taken, as well as publishing articles explaining controversial decisions such as why it didn’t implement any sort of travel ban.

In February 2015, Obama announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from West Africa. “While our troops are coming home, America’s work is not done,” he said. “Our mission is not complete. Today we move into the next phase.” The U.S. didn't see another Ebola case within its borders, and in March 2016, the World Health Organization lifted its designation of West Africa as a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.”

In politics, perception can play a bigger role than reality, and right-wing media’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic makes much more sense in the context of 2014.

Six years ago, right-wing media saw how politically rewarding it could be to frame a president and a party as mishandling a public health crisis. Now they’re faced with trying to promote a president and a party that can be legitimately criticized for mishandling a public health crisis that has claimed more than 150,000 American lives. Conservative media outlets know what kind of electoral trainwreck could emerge from this if public perception of the president’s pandemic response remains low.

Every single criticism they lobbed at Obama -- that he was inept, that he was too proud to respond in a way that might contradict his ideological views, that he was fine inflicting pain on people who didn’t support him -- can be legitimately applied to President Donald Trump. Pro-Trump media know how important it is to at least create the impression that Trump is handling this crisis with poise.

Unconditional support for Trump and Republicans explains the scattershot approach pro-Trump media have taken to the COVID-19 crisis. In recent days, Fox News’ Sean Hannity has actually argued that it’s a good thing if more people in Florida contract the disease as it will “still the waters” and that contrary to objective reality, the “situation is getting better, not worse.” Limbaugh has taken a wide range of positions on the current pandemic ranging from claims that COVID-19 is “the common cold” to declaring, “No matter how many people die from coronavirus, it’s not going to equate to the damage done to the U.S. economy.” Ingraham went from admonishing the CDC’s Frieden in 2014 for saying that he considered the effects travel restrictions would have on the economy when he should be focused on keeping Americans healthy to arguing that it was “purely political calculation” for schools concerned about the safety of their students to opt for distance learning. 

Right-wing media have also recently been promoting a video arguing that there is a cure for COVID-19 that’s being kept from the general public, and they’ve worked throughout the pandemic to convince the public that the disease’s death toll is being inflated to hurt Trump. In just a five-day span in early July, Fox News published misinformation about the coronavirus 253 times.

It’s not news to anyone that pro-Trump media exist to promote Trump, facts be damned. It should matter to us on a human level, however, that the blatantly partisan cynicism being put on display by right-wing media outlets has an effect on the overall death toll. People die when they’re fed misinformation about public health, and that’s exactly what many on the right have provided to their audiences on a nightly basis. 

What these right-wing outlets have proved through their responses to Ebola and COVID-19 is that there is no line they won’t cross to turn their political goals into political realities. The very things they falsely accused the Obama administration of engaging in are now the same things they’re more than happy to sweep under the rug when the country is being run by Republicans. They stand for nothing except political opportunism, feigning outrage as they project the worst qualities onto Democrats while they have no problem accepting them from a Republican leader.