CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield gives radio interview to conspiracy theorist Todd Starnes

Redfield's interview comes just days after Starnes' video pushing COVID-19 denialism went viral on social media

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.

Todd Starnes tweet - hospital parking lot - "war zone" - 03-28-2020

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:

Todd Starnes: Media creating coronavirus narrative. “This is their big Netflix special.”

Audio file

Citation From the April 1, 2020, edition of The Todd Starnes Show

TODD STARNES (HOST): Yesterday on the show, I asked this question: Do you think that the White House, do you think the government is telling us everything they know about this virus? Do you think there's something that they're not telling us and — you know, for whatever reason, they don't think that we can handle whatever information they have? And when you look at this 240,000, you know, possible fatalities here, I mean, that's a big deal. That's a big number. But at the same time, as we shared yesterday on this program, there are still hospital beds available in the hospitals here in New York City. 

Because that's important to put this story into context. But the mainstream media doesn't want to do that, ladies and gentlemen. They don't want to put this story in context, because they are producing, live on television, a dystopian, apocalyptic reality TV show. It's sort of like Mad Max meets Hunger Games meets Contagion. And this is their big Netflix special, and they're producing it, and they want everybody to buy in. They want everybody to buy into the hysteria. They want everybody to buy into the fear-mongering. And if you stand up and ask legitimate questions, like, “OK, well, you say your hospital is overrun, so how many patients do you have?” Then all of a sudden that makes you a coronavirus denier, which is what The New York Times accused me of being — and NBC News. You can't ask any questions. You have to accept the narrative, no matter what.


And if you do not, they will go out there and try to destroy you.

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:

Todd Starnes interviews CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield

Audio file

Citation From the April 1, 2020, edition of The Todd Starnes Show

TODD STARNES (HOST): So if 98% of the people are recovering, why are we literally shutting down the country? You know, we haven't done this for any other viruses, at least in modern history. Why this one, and what was it that convinced everybody we've got to do something, we've got to shut down the country?

ROBERT REDFIELD (DIRECTOR, CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION): I think it's really the recognition that we could have lost, you know, even between 100 [thousand], 200 [thousand], to a million people. The vulnerable people, the people who don't recover, predictably, are the elderly, those of us that have chronic medical conditions, individuals that have a significant medical condition. So obviously, this virus in a nursing home is devastating. It really is to protect the vulnerable. And this is what I’m trying to tell your listeners. We all now are in this war. We've all been recruited. And you know, we have one of the most important opportunities. I was in the military for 23 years. You know, you train in the military — I was a doctor, but my comrades trained as military fighters, and they may have to go to war to take a life. This war, we're all asked to join to save a life, to save the vulnerable. This is what it's about. This is why we're doing this.

STARNES: All right, Dr. Redfield, we're going to have to leave it there. Thank you there, for all the information and that glimmer of hope, too. I mean, 98% survive, that's a pretty good percentage, in my estimation.


STARNES: And we need every little bit of good news.

REDFIELD: Yeah, we're going to get through this together. I'm confident of that.

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”:

Todd Starnes: Coronavirus media coverage “is designed to take out our president.”

Audio file

Citation From the April 1, 2020, edition of The Todd Starnes Show

TODD STARNES (HOST): Can I just say something here, folks? Does this make sense to you? Does this make sense: 98% of the people who get this recover. And yet, we have seen a, quite frankly, an entire country shut down because of this. This is a shock, I haven't heard that percentage before, 98%  of the people who get the coronavirus are in fact recovering.

Hey, that's terrific news. So you folks out there that are, you know, a little freaked out over this, that is a pretty darn good percentage. And I mean that's, again, if you've got the virus, our prayers are with you, and let's pray for a recovery. But this is something that needs to be out there as well. But for whatever reason, the mainstream media, ladies and gentlemen, it doesn't fit their narrative. Remember, this is all about a narrative. And at the end of the day, that narrative is to destroy Donald J. Trump. I know it sounds — it's offensive, I understand that, to hear those words, but it's true. This is all designed, the media coverage is designed to take out our president. That's what this is really all about here.

You heard from the CDC director. I mean, this is the guy in charge of all this. What do you — are you buying what the government's telling us?

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.