It’s hard to even know where to begin when it comes to tracking the right-wing media response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
For weeks, conservative coverage of the virus has flailed from one extreme to the other. One moment, anybody expressing concern about the virus is part of a plot to take down the president; the next, it’s a very serious threat we’re being protected from only through the courageous and decisive leadership of President Donald Trump. This inconsistency -- something of a Schrödinger’s pandemic treatment of the virus as both a national threat and an overhyped tool to take down the president -- lays bare the singular goal of the modern right-wing media ecosystem: Protect Trump at all costs.
Right-wing media and the Trump administration downplayed the growing crisis for months.
For a while, right-wing media figures did their best to downplay the threat posed by the virus, putting them in lockstep with the Trump administration, which took little action within the first two months of the virus’s spread. While mainstream media outlets covered the threat of a coronavirus pandemic seriously, pro-Trump media mocked the reporting as liberal hysteria meant to damage the economy, a metric that Trump and his supporters have repeatedly pointed to as a measure of his success. By late January, the stock market began to feel the effects of the virus. As early cases began to pop up in the U.S., the stock market reflected the fear and uncertainty people had started to wrestle with.
Pro-Trump media then leaned hard into efforts to convince the public that the virus’s threat was overhyped and that market losses were the fault of Democrats or the press. On February 25, Fox News host Laura Ingraham claimed that China was using the virus to “hurt Trump in his reelection.” On February 26, right-wing radio host Mark Levin called Democrats “diabolical” for “using health issues to create health scares.” Fox Business host Trish Regan called the crisis “yet another attempt to impeach the president” by Democrats and accused “many in the liberal media” of “using, and I mean using, coronavirus in an attempt to demonize and destroy the president.” Trump himself referred to coverage about how serious this virus could be as a “hoax” meant to take him down, a message dutifully repeated by Fox & Friends Weekend co-hosts. Fox’s Pete Hegseth said he believed that Democrats and mainstream media were “rooting for coronavirus to spread.”
Meanwhile, the Trump administration made it extremely difficult for someone to get tested for the coronavirus. If people can’t get tested, they can’t be diagnosed with it; if they can’t be diagnosed with it, they can’t contribute to an increase in reported cases. The number of coronavirus patients in the U.S. was kept artificially low, as Politico’s Dan Diamond said on the March 12 edition of NPR’s Fresh Air:
My understanding is [Trump] did not push to do aggressive additional testing in recent weeks, and that's partly because more testing might have led to more cases being discovered of coronavirus outbreak, and the president had made clear - the lower the numbers on coronavirus, the better for the president, the better for his potential reelection this fall.
As health experts warned that a U.S. outbreak was imminent, Trump claimed the opposite, saying that maybe the virus would just go away and bragging that there were only 15 cases in the country at the time. (As of this writing, there are 14,250 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., with 205 deaths.) While Trump can lie about things like how much wall he’s built on the southern border, it’s a lot harder to continue to pretend that the virus is just part of a hyped up media story meant to hurt the president politically once people start noticing their friends and loved ones getting sick and dying from it. It soon became clear that the virus was not just going to “miraculously” disappear.
Only in the past few days have pro-Trump media finally begun to take the pandemic seriously, and it shows. A recent Pew Research survey found that 56% of Fox News viewers believe that media have “greatly exaggerated the risks” of the coronavirus, a significantly higher figure than for audiences of any other news source.
For weeks, Fox News told its viewers that the virus was little more than a bad flu that was being overhyped by the media to take down Trump. This disinformation campaign marks one of the most vile undertakings by right-wing media and it has put countless lives at risk, all in the name of protecting Trump from the consequences of his own administration’s actions. It’s also the reason that right-wing media have begun framing criticism of their pro-Trump narrative as “doing the bidding of China,” as Sean Hannity said on Wednesday night. Anything less than absolute praise for the administration’s handling of the pandemic or full-scale acceptance of the right-wing narrative that every failure is China’s will be slammed as anti-American and pro-communist. It’s likely why Trump and right-wing media have been increasingly deliberate about calling it “the Chinese virus.” All of this makes sense when you understand the simple goal: Protect Trump.
The claim that mainstream media overhyped the virus never made sense, and right-wing media’s quick shift to taking the virus seriously proves this.
It’s hard to express how craven someone must be to claim that Democratic legislators’ concerns about the virus should be ignored because they’re only speaking up to advance their own political goals, and then pivot in the very next sentence to praising Trump for taking decisive action that saved the lives of “thousands” of Americans -- but that’s exactly what Hannity did on March 11. Just two days earlier, Hannity had claimed that those warning about coronavirus were using the crisis to “bludgeon Trump with this new hoax.” These aren’t just the words of an opinionated TV and radio host, they’re the dangerous backbone of a propaganda machine aimed at insulating Trump from political damage.
Looking back at what actions the administration did take during the first months of the virus outbreak, there were plenty of perfectly legitimate reasons for media to remain critical. A damning March 7 Washington Post report shined a light on the many mistakes made by the administration in its initial responses. The report noted that Trump and others in his administration saw “initial steps to contain the virus as the solution -- rather than merely as a starting point from which to use to buy themselves more time,” and it highlighted Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow’s bizarre and false February claim that the virus had been “contained.”
The repeated false claims by the president that the virus was being contained exacerbated the problem. They made it difficult for public health officials to lay out the need to prepare for what happens next, even after most experts had begun to fear the virus was already here and spreading. There was also a ripple effect, with health officials and others not taking the threat as seriously as they should have because Trump kept on making faulty assurances, such as his claim at a Feb. 26 news conference that within the United States, the number of cases was “going to be down to close to zero.”
The Trump administration has had a significant credibility deficit since taking office, and yet, even in a time of national emergency, Trump seemed unable to bring himself to tell the truth. He lied about access to tests. He lied about the timeline for a vaccine. He lied about his administration’s decision to disband the National Security Council’s pandemic response team. A press focused on accuracy over all else would have stopped quoting him verbatim.
Instead, he’s been graded on a curve and held to a low standard. If anything, mainstream media outlets haven’t been anywhere near critical enough in their coverage of Trump’s response to the pandemic, instead choosing to take his statements at face value and reprinting them without skepticism. CNN’s Dana Bash went so far as to praise Trump for finally appearing to take this crisis seriously, illustrating how low the bar has been set for him.
To claim that the kid gloves treatment afforded to Trump’s credibility by mainstream media was actually an example of an effort to harm him politically shows just how brazen and ridiculous pro-Trump media can be. Trump is facing mild criticism for a massive disaster of his own making, but he must always be free from blame.
For conservative media, Trump can never be wrong, and nothing can ever be his fault.
If it’s not China that's to blame for Trump’s bumbling response to the coronavirus, it’s impeachment, or maybe it’s Rod Rosenstein, or perhaps it’s because people compared the virus to the flu. Whatever the case, as in all things related to Trump, he can never be at fault in the eyes of conservative media. Every success is his doing, and every failure is part of a plot to undermine him.
Media coverage of the coronavirus that highlights Trump’s missteps is not the product of a grand conspiracy to hurt the president, as some conservative media figures would have you believe, but rather part of a perhaps-futile effort to keep the public informed despite waves of right-wing propaganda.
If there was one group in media that tried to weaponize the coronavirus for political gain, it was pro-Trump outlets. When the virus was wreaking havoc primarily on China, conservatives absolutely used the outbreak to advance their ideologies. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross went on TV in late January to talk about how the virus’s spread in China might actually be a boon to the U.S. economy. Fox News used a dubiously sourced video to scaremonger about China’s response. Steve Bannon and Tucker Carlson spread a conspiracy theory about the origins of the virus. Rush Limbaugh used the crisis to call for a ban on Chinese individuals entering the U.S. (a policy adopted by Trump days later). Carlson used the burgeoning pandemic to blast away at “wokeness” and “diversity.” Fox’s Melissa Francis used it to celebrate a victory for Trump’s trade war with China.
Pro-Trump media accuse others of things they have done. This is how conservative media reacted during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, heaping blame and criticism on the Obama administration even though the U.S. response was successful by just about any measure, and it’s how conservative media reacted during the 2009-2010 H1N1 flu pandemic. Because the default action for conservatives in a time of crisis is to launch into a series of bad-faith attacks, it makes sense that they assume criticism of conservative politicians is also coming from a place of opportunism.
In their efforts to mislead their audiences about the coronavirus by claiming that it was just an overhyped boogeyman created by the left to hurt the president’s reelection efforts, these right-wing media charlatans put actual lives at risk.