Right-wing media downplayed the lethality of COVID-19 for months
The death toll in the United States from COVID-19 has passed 230,000 but, as per Scientific American, “a persistent falsehood has been circulating on social media” that the number of coronavirus-related deaths “is much lower than the official statistic … and therefore the danger of the disease has been overblown.” President Donald Trump pushed a version of this falsehood during a campaign rally on October 24 and again on October 30. He had engaged with the conspiracy before, such as when he retweeted a QAnon-linked conspiracy theory about the death count in September.
The American College of Emergency Physicians, the American Medical Association (twice), the Society of Hospital Medicine, the Council of Medical Specialty Societies, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and many others have issued statements rebutting Trump's claims.
Though the coronavirus-related death count is currently reported as just over 230,000, experts have long said that these deaths are likely being undercounted. However, right-wing media have spun a false and persistent narrative that the death rate is being overblown. But as Scientific American noted on October 20, “researchers know beyond a doubt that the number of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have surpassed 200,000,” a fact supported by three different types of evidence: case surveillance, which is immediate accounting of death from health care providers to their state’s health department; vital statistics data, which is recorded at the national level after all test results are in; and excess deaths, the number of deaths above the historical pattern for that time period. Additionally, the scope of the pandemic also means that “all serious analyses of these data are showing that the number of deaths we’re hearing on the news is an undercount,” not an overcount.
Since early March, right-wing media have misleadingly compared COVID-19’s lethality to other causes of death like the flu or Chicago gun violence, pushed conspiracy theories that the coronavirus deaths are overcounted by hospitals and the media, and downplayed the death toll itself with statements like “what does lethal mean” and “we’re all dying anyway.” And on Fox News, which led the charge on many of these dishonest attacks, the discussion of the COVID-19 death toll has decreased in frequency, while the body count continues to increase.
Below is a list of examples of right-wing media downplaying COVID-19’s lethality:
Making false comparisons of COVID-19’s lethality
- On March 6, Dr. Marc Siegel, perhaps Fox’s most prominent medical contributor, infamously and incorrectly predicted that “at worst, at worst, worst case scenario [COVID-19] could be the flu.” Siegel also attacked the World Health Organization as “a bunch of alarmists” and “saber rattlers” for warning about coronavirus, claiming, “There's no reason to believe that it's actually more problematic or deadly than influenza.
- On March 7, Fox host Jeanine Pirro downplayed the idea that COVID-19 is deadlier than the flu, arguing that “that’s only because there’s a flu vaccine” and if not for the vaccine, “the flu would be a pandemic.” Pirro somehow drew the conclusion that this means that “the talk about coronavirus being so much more deadly [than the flu] doesn’t reflect reality.” “The talk” has since been proven true by the over 200,000 deaths by COVID-19 just in the U.S.
- On March 10, Fox host Sean Hannity tried to put coronavirus deaths “in perspective” by comparing COVID-19 deaths to violence in Chicago. The following day on his radio show, Hannity dismissed concerns about COVID-19 on the grounds that “we’re all dying anyway.”
- On March 11, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Rush Limbaugh said, “Who cares if [COVID-19 is] 10 times more lethal than the flu? … What does lethal mean? Does lethal kill you?”
- On March 13, frequent Fox guest Heather Mac Donald downplayed COVID-19 deaths in a piece titled “Compared to what?” by comparing them to the “38,800 traffic fatalities in the United States in 2019 … Even assuming that coronavirus deaths in the United States increase by a factor of one thousand over the year, the resulting deaths would only outnumber annual traffic deaths by 2,200. … Unlike coronavirus, driving kills indiscriminately, mowing down the young and the old, the sick and the healthy. The coronavirus, by comparison, is targeted in its lethality.”
Pushing false claims and conspiracy theories that COVID-19 deaths are overcounted
- On March 30, Fox host Mark Levin said on his BlazeTV show, “I cannot find anywhere the definition of what it means to die from this virus,” suggesting that people who die with comorbidities should not be counted as coronavirus deaths.
- On March 30, then-Fox Nation personalities Diamond and Silk speculated that COVID-19 fatalities were being inflated by the media to make Trump look bad for wanting to ‘reopen’ the economy by Easter.
- On April 1, Fox senior political analyst Brit Hume claimed on Twitter that “NY's Covid 19 fatality numbers are inflated” because they don’t “distinguish between those who die with the disease and those who die from it.” Hume later told Fox host Tucker Carlson that “we’re probably not going to have an accurate count of … what the real death total is” because “all deaths from anyone who died with coronavirus is counted as if the person died from coronavirus.” Carlson agreed, suggesting a media conspiracy to boost the death toll.
- On April 2, Limbaugh speculated that the death toll was inflated, because “people die on this planet every day from a wide variety of things. But because the coronavirus is out there, got everybody paranoid, governments are eager, almost, to chalk up as many deaths to coronavirus as they can because then it furthers the policies they have put in place by virtue of their models.”
- On April 14, Daily Wire Editor-in-Chief Ben Shapiro asked, “What is the true coronavirus fatality rate,” suggesting that it could be lower than reported because of “variable” causes of death. (He also mentioned that the death toll could be undercounted.)
- On April 21, One America News host Graham Ledger said that COVID-19 death tolls were “utterly worthless,” citing a conspiracy theory that hospitals falsely coded deaths as related to COVID-19 to make money. The same conspiracy theory had been mentioned on Fox News’ streaming service, Fox Nation, a week earlier -- Trump floated it again on October 24.
- From April 23 through 28, multiple people on Fox used data from unreliable antibody testing to claim the COVID-19 death rate is much lower than reported:
- Hannity said, “If those numbers hold and are accurate, the coronavirus death rate in New York would be ... 0.58%.”
- Fox Business host Lou Dobbs said that in New York, “the death rate appears to be 0.5%.”
- Fox’s chief breaking news correspondent Trace Gallagher said the result of antibody studies in New York, California, and Florida “puts the fatality rate at about 0.1%, drastically lower than previous estimates.”
- Fox’s Marc Siegel said on America’s Newsroom, “The death rate, especially, is way much lower than what we thought it was.”
- On Fox & Friends, guest Dr. Mehmet Oz said of antibody testing in New York: “You've got a mortality that's more like half a percent versus what we had been facing.”
- Carlson joined in the chorus on April 28, claiming, “In New York, that [death] rate went from 7.4%, which is devastating, to 0.5% which is not.”
- On April 28, Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy said: “There's some scrutiny now about the number of people who have died and it being blamed on the coronavirus.” Two on-screen graphics during this segment also suggested the coronavirus death toll was being inflated.
- In April, according to CNN, after one mainstream coronavirus model briefly lowered its U.S. fatality projections to 60,000, multiple right-wing media figures rushed to downplay this predicted death toll, which the U.S. reached toward the end of that month.
- Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade: “The fact is, when someone says 200,000 people die, oops, I mean 60,000. And it's not going to be right away, it's going to be in August. That's how good we are doing and how off the models were.”
- Right-wing troll Candace Owens: “FACT: we went from 2.2 million, to 100,000, to 60,000 predictive #coronavirus deaths because the models were always bullshit, the media was always lying, and the virus was never as fatal as the experts that are chronically wrong about everything, prophesized.”
- Fox anchor Martha MacCallum: “It is quite possible that you're going to end up with numbers of fatalities in this Covid-19 tragedy of those that have been affected that will be south of the numbers in the 2018 flu season.”
- Right-wing troll Dinesh D’Souza: “Most people have no idea how way off the #Coronavirus models have been. A nutcase virus denier who predicted ZERO deaths would be closer to the mark (ie to the current 60,000 projection) than the best-case scenarios, taking into account social distancing, of 100-240,000 deaths.”
- On May 4, Fox host Laura Ingraham tweeted an article falsely claiming that “New CDC Coronavirus Data Cuts American Death Toll Nearly In HALF.” This simply did not happen.
- In July, Sinclair Broadcast Group planned to provide a national platform to a conspiracy theorist who appeared in Plandemic, a viral conspiracy theory video that falsely said (among many other bizarre claims) that the COVID-19 death toll was inflated. After Media Matters’ reporting, Sinclair first delayed and then canceled the segment altogether -- but not before it aired on at least one West Virginia TV station.
- In early September, many right-wing accounts ran with a fasle QAnon-linked conspiracy theory that only 6% of COVID-19 deaths were actually the result of COVID-19. These people misinterpreted CDC statistics about underlying health conditions; the conspiracy theory was amplified eventually by Trump himself.
- On September 23, Mark Levin lied on Facebook that “the U.S. did not surpass 200,000 COVID-19 deaths,” a debunked conspiracy theory also spread by several GOP lawmakers.
- On October 28, Newsmax host Greg Kelly falsely suggested that Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 statistics, including its count of the death toll, are unreliable because “the number one funder of Johns Hopkins and any university in the history of universities is Michael Bloomberg,” the former New York City mayor who is also “a total Trump hater going back many years.”
Downplaying COVID-19 deaths
- On April 17, One America News’ Graham Ledger downplayed the global death toll: “Now, remember, this is a quote, ‘pandemic.’ And there's 145,000 souls lost and those are 145,000 too many, but compared to the population on the planet? Of human beings? You're talking five billion people? 145,000? 150,000 people die every day in the world.” He also called the California death toll “a rounding error.”
- On April 27, Carlson said that COVID-19 “just isn't nearly as deadly as we thought it was.”
- On April 29, Ben Shapiro said: “If somebody who is 81 dies of COVID-19, that is not the same thing as somebody who is 30 dying of COVID-19. … If grandma dies in a nursing home at age 81, that's tragic and it's terrible, also the life expectancy in the United States is 80."
- On May 19, Carlson claimed that coronavirus “isn’t that deadly. … The death toll is a tiny fraction of what we were told it would be.”
- On May 26, Kilmeade complained that “we've shut down an entire country for 0.3% of those who get [COVID-19] lose their lives.” (Kilmeade’s source for his 0.3% claim was “the Dr. Siegel math” from a previous Fox segment.)
- On July 7, Steve Doocy said, “In April, the 21st day, the average death [toll] in the United States was 2,225 deaths. Now it is about 500, which is terrible, but about this time of year, 1,400 people die in nursing homes every day."
- On October 2, Kilmeade predicted that Trump overcoming his COVID-19 infection could “send a message that you could say whatever you want in stats and graphs but I give you an example of somebody who's in that danger age of 74 who is out there, gets it, and beats it?” Kilmeade’s statement ignored that Trump, as president, has easy, free access to the best medical care possible and experimental therapies largely unavailable to the public.
- On October 24, during a discussion about contrasts between “fear” of the coronavirus and being “bold” about it, Fox & Friends Weekend co-host Pete Hegseth said that “a 99% survival rate for people in most age brackets” means that “most people who have gotten it have now recovered and are moving on with their lives.”
- Throughout October, several Fox News figures promoted the “Great Barrington Declaration,” a dangerous call to embrace “herd immunity” by allowing the virus to spread through society, which could push the national death toll to nearly 1 million. The declaration was initially signed by many obviously fake names, like “Dr. Johnny Bananas,” but that didn’t stop Fox from promoting it:
- On October 5, Ingraham hosted the document’s “brilliant” authors and expressed her “awe” at their “expertise and your courage in speaking out.”
- On October 12, Fox Business host Dagen McDowell used the declaration to demand indoor dining in New York reopen, boasting that “thousands of scientists and medical professionals have signed” the document, and said that other COVID-19 mitigation efforts are “very shortsighted about the long-term impact.”
- On October 13, serial COVID misinformer Alex Berenson went on Carlson’s show to defend the reckless declaration and promote fatal “herd immunity” strategies himself.
- On October 14, Ingraham described herd immunity as outlined in the Great Barrington Declaration as a “commonsense anti-COVID” measure.
- On October 26, an Ingraham guest attacked mask-wearing for slowing down the needlessly lethal “herd immunity” strategy.
- On October 26, Ingraham claimed that “the COVID daily death rate has ticked up a little bit but a shockingly small amount given the dramatic rise in cases. This just supports what we've been saying for a while now: The virus is likely attenuating and we're getting a lot better at treating it.”
- On October 27, Hannity complained that “despite all of the good news” such as vaccine progress and advancements in therapeutics, “there is now a constant coronavirus hysteria 24/7 on every other news network.”
Making extremely inaccurate predictions about COVID-19’s lethality
- A March 18 interview in Reason magazine promoted Hoover Institute senior fellow Richard Epstein’s enormously false prediction that no more than 500 Americans would die of COVID-19. He later claimed that he meant to say 5,000, and then that he meant to say 50,000. The U.S. death toll passed 50,000 before the end of April.
- The Daily Beast reported that in March, right-wing radio host Dennis Prager said that although coronavirus “kills some,” it is “not a killer.” Prager said that lockdowns would only be warranted if the death toll reached perhaps “30,000,” a number he later revised to as high as 100,000 dead -- which the U.S. reached in May.
- On April 23, Ingraham said on her Fox show, “We were told the virus was far more lethal than the flu. That was terrifying. Now we know it’s likely to be closer to maybe a really aggressive flu season.” The second-deadliest flu season in U.S. history killed 116,000 Americans in 1957 -- a death toll the U.S. passed in mid-June. (The deadliest flu season was the influenza pandemic of 1918.)
- On May 4, Carlson boldly claimed that “the coronavirus epidemic appears to be easing” and that “there appears to be a lull,” even though data available at the time showed multiple signs of a worsening pandemic, including at least 1,000 people dying of COVID-19 every day for the previous month. The widely cited Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) model had at the time predicted over 134,000 lives lost by August -- a grim milestone the U.S. exceeded by approximately 20,000 deaths.
- On May 14, Hannity told his Fox audience: “Thankfully, tonight, the worst has been avoided. Remember the devastating models? Thankfully, they were wrong, almost all of them. They've all been wrong.” The death toll on May 14 was more than 84,000; since then, more than 140,000 additional Americans have died of COVID-19.
Avoiding talking about the COVID-19 death toll
- A Media Matters review of Fox News prime-time programming from May 11 to May 26 found that, between the hours of 8-11 p.m. on Fox, the numeric national death toll was mentioned only 11 times in almost 36 hours of programming, and only five times by the hosts themselves. Three of the mentions of the death toll during Fox prime time were from a clip of Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
- A Media Matters review of Fox News weekday programming from March 12 through May 11 found that Fox steadily lost interest in covering the COVID-19 pandemic, even as the death toll soared past 50,000 and hit 100,000 a few weeks later. Fox’s coronavirus coverage dropped more than 40% from its peak, and what remained was mostly complaints about coronavirus mitigation efforts.
- A Media Matters review of Fox News programming from September 1 through September 22 found that the network complained about coronavirus health measures nearly five times as often as it reported the national death toll, including a 2-to-1 ratio for just the “news” division.
- A Media Matters review of Fox News’ programming from 6 a.m. October 14 through noon October 20 found that Fox covered dubious scandals against Hunter Biden three times as much as it covered COVID-19 overall even though the United States is facing a widely expected fall surge in coronavirus cases, which will kill even more Americans.
- A Media Matters review of Fox News programming from October 24 through October 26 found that Fox covered the New York Post’s thinly sourced Hunter Biden story more than twice as much as an ongoing surge in U.S. coronavirus cases -- more than 2 hours on Biden vs. just 53 minutes on the COVID-19 surge. Although fatality rates have declined since the spring surge, experts are concerned this may not last, and there could potentially be 386,000 dead Americans by February 1.