John Oliver examines the feedback loop between right-wing media and President Trump

On April 19's Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver examined the feedback loop between right-wing media and President Donald Trump, specifically in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Oliver touched on Limbaugh, Fox News, hydroxychloroquine, and other subjects. Watch:

Citation From the April 19, 2020, edition of HBO's Last Week Tonight

JOHN OLIVER (HOST): Here in the U.S., one of the biggest and most robust bubbles is the right-wing media sphere. It's dominated by some enormously powerful individuals, not just on TV but importantly, on conservative talk radio, where the most powerful host is undeniably Rush Limbaugh, a man with millions of listeners, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and almost certainly a room in his basement that his housekeeper isn't allowed to go into. Even well into the outbreak, Limbaugh has been spouting some fabulously wrong information. Here he is on March 11.


OK. No, Rush, just no. No to you claiming COVID-19 got its name because it was the 19th coronavirus. That's not true. It's called that because it was first identified in 2019, you gigantic potato. But also no to the virus being the common cold. No to this being not uncommon. No to your gold microphone. No to your browser being open to the Drudge Report. No to your logo that looks like two pairs of breasts are in a fight. No to the mysterious can on your desk, which I can only assume is Pam original cooking spray. But most of all, no to your stupid quarantine beard. You look like if Santa was me too-ed, kicked out of the North Pole, and forced to move to a condo in Tampa with all linoleum floors. I hate it.

The problem is many in conservative media have found it easy to fold this virus into narratives that they've been carefully building up for decades.

Limbaugh has spent years pushing his four corners of deceit, which consists of government, academia, science, and the media -- which unfortunately happened to be the four most important groups to listen to during a public health crisis. And I understand why he'd sow that doubt. If you establish your show as the sole outlet worth trusting, that gives you a lot of power. And he's not alone in utilizing that technique.

Fox News' recurrent pitch to its audience has been that it will tell you the true story that elites and the mainstream media are trying to hide. And that's how some of their hosts played this virus initially, as a hysterical attack by the media to derail the president, with segments titled "Coronavirus hysteria," "Liberal media hoax backfires," and "Trump confronts the panic pushers." And when people started dying, and that argument became harder to sell, the network seemed to pivot from trying to downplay the warnings to downplaying the deaths.


Oh, thanks, not-a-medical-doctor Phil. A quick thing there, though: The annual U.S. death toll from swimming pools isn't actually 360,000. They're not killing almost a Cleveland every year. The total number of drownings period is around 4,000. Also, if swimming pools were killing 360,000 people here, and you could contract a swimming pool on a trip to the grocery store, we might want to think about shutting them down until we worked out what the fuck was going on.

And look, a lot of people underestimated the danger of this virus early on, but Fox was still doing it, not just as the death toll mounted, but even as behind the scenes their own company was suspending nonessential business travel and encouraging employees to cancel all in-person meetings and summits and conduct business via Skype or by phone because -- and this is true -- they only pretend to believe these things on television for money.

And the problem is our current president isn't just the subject of this misinformation. He is, as we all know, also the target of it, often pulling his talking points directly from what he sees. Late last month, a popular conservative narrative became that it was time to reopen the economy, and Fox's Steve Hilton encapsulated it like this.


Now, I'm pretty sure Trump saw that, because just a couple of hours after that segment aired, he tweeted "we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself," and the next day couldn't seem to stop saying it.


It's pretty depressing to see the president just parroting what he heard on TV the night before. And if he's gonna do that, the very least he could do is pick a better show than Steve Hilton's The Next Revolution.


That is what is infuriating here. Even though Trump has access to the country's top experts, he's still getting advice from watching TV. And not just on talking points, but on medicine.

Take hydroxychloroquine. It's a drug commonly used for conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, and it got a huge boost in mid-March as a potential coronavirus treatment from Tucker Carlson's show.


For starters, that man's role as an adviser to Stanford University was news to Stanford, who since clarified Gregory Rigano is not an adviser with their school of medicine and no one at Stanford was involved in the study. As for that 100% cure rate, you should know they obtained that by omitting three patients who were transferred to an ICU and one patient who died. And it is very easy to have a 100 percent success rate if you just leave out any result that wasn't a success. Nevertheless, the very next day, Trump publicly mentioned hydroxychloroquine for the first time and has since brought it up constantly with varying degrees of recklessness.


In terms of what you have to lose, possibly quite a bit, as doctors are warning the drug can trigger arrhythmia, which can lead to a fatal heart attack in certain patients. And that is not to say that this drug shouldn't be studied -- it should and it is.

But the feedback loop between Fox and Trump has run way ahead of the science here. In just one two-week period, Fox personalities and their guests made claims promoting hydroxychloroquine nearly 300 times, with Laura Ingraham even visiting Trump at the White House earlier this month to advocate for the drug.

Thanks to this media frenzy, the efficacy of this drug -- which should be a scientific issue -- has become a political one. Anyone saying they want more comprehensive studies can be dismissed by the right as a Trump hater. And if you argue that we shouldn't make decisions based on anecdotal evidence, Rush Limbaugh has a ready response.


Anecdotally, you arrived at work today, Rush. But that alone doesn't mean that everyone arrived at work today or even that most people arrived at work today. It just means that you did. There is a process for knowing whether a scientific claim is true and involves testing and observing results in a controlled setting rather than yelling your thoughts confidently into C-3PO's penis.

And I know it is easy to write off Limbaugh as a right-wing blowhard, but the reality is he draws over 15 million listeners a week, among the most loyal of whom is the president, who reportedly considers Limbaugh a real-time metric of how his decisions are playing with his supporters.

And all this time, existing patients with conditions like lupus who have been taking hydroxychloroquine for years are now struggling to get it. One large health care provider even wrote to lupus patients telling them that due to a worldwide shortage, it won't refill their prescription, saying thank you for the sacrifice you will be making.

And look, I'd like nothing more than if this was somehow a miracle cure, but I can't say it is and I can't say it isn't, because it's still being tested and I'm not a fucking doctor. It might. It could. It's too soon to say. The problem is "might" and "could" aren't really words that grab an audience. That is why cable news often traffics in bright primary colors and easy storylines. Me telling you that we have to wait for results just isn't satisfying to hear or to watch. And throughout this crisis, Fox has constantly presented simple solutions to complex problems. Just watch Sean Hannity formulate a plan, seemingly in real time, for resuming baseball games by testing every person in attendance and having them wear PPE.


You're right, Sean -- your body, your choice. I don't see a single flaw in that. Obviously you couldn't eat popcorn but you can definitely get a hot dog in your mouth before the virus could sneak in there. That's just science. Anecdotally, I know a guy who ate a hot dog once and didn't get coronavirus, so that absolutely checks out.

And while that's almost incomprehensibly stupid, you can't deny its good TV. The issue is that the skills required to produce TV and to govern are very different, and unfortunately, we have a president who doesn't seem to know the difference. At the start of his presidency he famously told top aides to think of each presidential day like an episode of a television show in which he vanquishes rivals. So we have a network and a president who thrive on division feeding on one another at a time when we desperately need a unified response to a public health crisis.

And all that brings us back to the protests that we discussed earlier. Hundreds of people have taken to the streets this week fueled by the kind of misinformation that is rampant in right-wing media -- the same right-wing media which then eagerly covered the protests that they helped create like this.


Except "the cure can't be worse than the disease" isn't Trump's statement. He stole that phrase from you guys. You shouldn't be crediting him with that; you should be charging with copyright infringement.

And like clockwork, Trump just a few minutes after that segment highlighted groups like Liberate Minnesota, tweeted out "Liberate Minnesota" followed by "Liberate Michigan" and then "Liberate Virginia."

And all of this is legitimately dangerous because watching coverage like that might convince Trump that there's a sizable portion of the population that wants to go back to work no matter the cost. But that's not currently the case. Sixty-six percent of Americans say they are more concerned restrictions will be lifted too quickly than too slowly and it's frankly remarkable that number is so high after weeks of this bullshit.

And look, I get Trump, Fox, and those protesters wanting all of this to be over. I do too. I want people to be able to get back to work and to get some sense of normalcy restored. But for what it's worth, I know people who have died from this. I also know people who are taking hydroxychloroquine because they think it will give them immunity. And I know people with lupus who are down to their last few weeks of pills and it makes me fucking furious because the fact is the fastest way for this to be over is for all of us to remain united in this very difficult task. But the only way that happens is if we have trusted, well-informed leadership, which unfortunately we don't.

Instead, we have a compulsive liar constantly listening to voices telling him that this is nothing more than that common cold with potentially a 100% cure available and that there's already a great plan to restart baseball even as there's a swimming pool killing spree that for some reason nobody's talking about.