Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention appeared Wednesday on the talk radio show of Todd Starnes, an ousted former Fox News host who has recently dabbled in COVID-19 denialism. Redfield’s appearance on Starnes’ show is yet another example of how the Trump administration is still allied with right-wing media figures who have minimized the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic.
Redfield himself promoted the interview in a tweet posted Thursday:
Starnes, who has a long history of bigotry against LGBTQ people, Muslims, and immigrants, this past week posted a video of an empty area outside a hospital in Brooklyn, mocking the idea that it was a “war zone.” In sharing the video, he helped inspire an online conspiracy theory that images of nearly empty hospital parking lots and waiting rooms purportedly show that the media are exaggerating the severity of the coronavirus pandemic.
The day after Starnes posted his video, another video went viral of the same hospital that showed bodies being loaded into a 18-wheel tractor-trailer. As NBC News pointed out, “The grim realities of hospitals overflowing with patients seeking treatment for COVID-19 ... are not always as visible from the outside, leaving space for bad actors and coronavirus denialists to push dangerous disinformation.”
Indeed, early on during his Wednesday program Starnes continued to cast doubt on whether all the hospitals in New York City were really overwhelmed, or just one just or two that the media showed on the news. He then accused the media of not asking these questions because it would interfere with an artificial, “post-apocalyptic” narrative they were trying to create:
Most of Starnes’ interview with Redfield was straightforward and serious — similar to the way Rush Limbaugh, another right-wing talk radio hosts dismissing coronavirus, suspended his anti-scientific demagoguery during an interview with Vice President Mike Pence in late February. (But the change was just for the duration of that interview, and Limbaugh went back to his tricks in the following days.)
Redfield answered questions in the same manner he might have done on any news program: discussing social distancing and virus avoidance tips, which groups are especially vulnerable, whether people should wear protective masks in public, etc. Meanwhile, Starnes’ questions on how long the social distancing regimen will have to last seemed to balance both a concern for safety and personal impatience.
But then toward the very end, Starnes’ skeptical attitude emerged once more:
As soon as Starnes concluded the interview — literally right after Redfield hung up the phone — he went straight back to his denialism and conspiracy theories about the situation, saying, “The media coverage is designed to take out our president”:
Redfield also has a problematic history of involvement with fringe right-wing proposals. As CNN reported when he was appointed to his current position in 2018:
Redfield wrote the introduction to a 1990 book, "Christians in the Age of AIDS," co-written by Smith, in which he denounced distribution of sterile needles to drug users and condoms to sexually active adults, and described anti-discrimination programs as the efforts of "false prophets."
In the early 1990's, ASAP and Redfield also backed H.R. 2788, a House bill sponsored by deeply conservative Rep. William Dannemeyer (R-California). It would have subjected people with HIV to testing, loss of professional licenses and would have effectively quarantined them. (The bill died in Congress.) In the 2000s, Redfield was a top advocate for the so-called "ABCs of AIDS" in Africa, pressing to prevent HIV infection through sexual abstinence, monogamy and the use of condoms only as a last resort.
By appearing on Starnes’ program, even in the most straightforward capacity and to spread awareness about a serious public health issue, Redfield has conferred further legitimacy on Starnes to keep engaging in continued denialism and conspiracy theories.