We have reached the stage of Fox News’ coverage of the coronavirus crisis where one of the network’s premier hosts has floated removing a top federal public health official. And the reason for that suggestion was that the official did not stick to the network’s talking points and preach the benefits of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus miracle cure.
Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was asked during a Thursday night CNN town hall about the drug, which Trump has relentlessly promoted as a COVID-19 treatment. After explaining that the evidence supporting its use is anecdotal and that rigorous clinical trials are needed to assess its effectiveness, Redfield commented, “This is going to be a personal decision that a physician and a patient will make.” When asked if he would recommend it to a patient, Redfield replied, “I’m not going to recommend it, and I’m not going to not recommend it.”
Those remarks stoked the ire of Laura Ingraham, a Fox prime-time host who was among the network’s earliest and most fervent supporters of hydroxychloroquine and has taken credit for Trump’s own push for its use.
Ingraham opened her Thursday show hours after Redfield’s town hall comments by saying that he “was on CNN tonight essentially dismissing, trashing, a backhanded slap at hydroxychloroquine despite all of its success stories.” She added, “Unbelievable. Now if it was actually a government agency, a real agency, really -- he probably would be fired for that.”
Fox’s prime-time hosts have targeted public health officials over the past week as part of their argument that downward revisions in the coronavirus death count show not that social distancing and stay-at-home orders have succeeded, but that the virus wasn’t actually as dangerous as those officials had argued and those measures were unnecessary and should be quickly reversed.
“It is worth asking, is it not, what would our response have been and would our response have been less damaging to the economy, and to the lives of all of you millions of Americans, if we had had more accurate models from the start,” Ingraham said on Tuesday. “And shouldn't this experience make us less willing to rely on the same experts to help determine when and how we should reopen our economy?”
Her colleague Tucker Carlson has similarly argued that it is “bewildering” that public health officials are making decisions on the coronavirus response, specifically arguing that top government immunologist Dr. Anthony Fauci has suggested “national suicide” and “we should never let someone like that run this country.” He also said that in light of the death toll revisions, public health officials should be “disqualified forever from influencing our lives” if they cannot “rationally” explain why “their numbers, the ones we acted on the first time, that turned out to be completely wrong.”
The recent spate of right-wing media attacks on public health officials could drive down the high levels of trust that they and their agencies currently enjoy. This erosion of trust could jeopardize lives as it would reduce support for, and lower levels of, adherence to the measures they have advocated.
But the greater danger is that the Fox hosts taking up this argument have personally advised President Donald Trump on his response to the coronavirus. Carlson traveled to Trump’s Mar-A-Lago resort in early March, buttonholed the president, and spent two hours urging him to take the virus more seriously. And Ingraham was in the White House just last Friday, briefing Trump and the head of the Food and Drug Administration with two doctors who regularly appear on her show about the purported benefits of hydroxychloroquine.
When Fox hosts talk, Trump listens. And right now, Fox hosts are saying that public health officials are thwarting efforts to cure COVID-19 patients and reopen the economy.
We seem to be moving ever closer to a direct confrontation between the president’s professional public health advisers and his Fox News cabinet, with thousands of lives hanging in the balance.