On Monday, Fox News host Sean Hannity defended his network's coverage of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 by attacking other news outlets for their old reports that contrasted the virus to the flu. Three nights later, his colleague Laura Ingraham offered the same comparison on her Fox show in a segment attacking public health experts for “lame” theories.
Ingraham has aggressively downplayed the danger the virus poses and pushed for a swift termination of social distancing measures implemented to slow its spread. On Thursday, she praised President Donald Trump (who she has privately advised on the federal response to the coronavirus) for disputing top federal infectious disease specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci’s statement that the United States needs more testing capacity.
“If we wait for Dr. Fauci's seal of approval to reopen America, we may not have an America to reopen -- at least not one we recognize,” she said. Ingraham went on to offer her “own testing proposal. ...Let’s start testing the lame data and theories that have been shifting since this crisis began.”
Among those purported “lame” hypotheses, Ingraham cited what she suggested was the faulty notion that the coronavirus was more deadly than the flu. “We were told the virus was far more lethal than the flu,” she said. “That was terrifying. Now we know it's likely to be closer to maybe a really aggressive flu season.”
Fox personalities frequently argued that coronavirus would be no worse than the flu back in early March, when the network was minimizing the danger to defend Trump’s lax handling of the virus. These claims were foolish at the time -- evidence suggested coronavirus was both more deadly and more contagious than the flu, and there is no vaccine for the former as there is for the latter.
But anyone still pushing that comparison is either very stupid, very dishonest, or both.
The short explanation for why is that during a “really aggressive flu season,” you don’t see hospital intensive care units filled to bursting with flu patients, or refrigerated trucks employed to store the bodies of the deceased because morgues are overrun, as happened in New York City.
Here’s a longer one. The worst flu outbreak in recent history came in 2017-18. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 61,000 Americans died of flu over the course of that flu season. That estimate is an overcount -- it includes “influenza-associated deaths” in which the deceased did not receive a flu test but passed away from a condition often but not always caused by the flu, such as pneumonia.
By contrast, COVID-19 has been one of the leading causes of death in the United States for weeks. More than 50,000 Americans have already died from COVID-19 over a much smaller period of time than a flu season. That figure is almost certainly an undercount, because unlike the CDC’s flu estimate, the COVID-19 data largely does not include people who died with symptoms of the virus but were never tested for it. And we have this death toll figure despite an unprecedented lockdown that suppressed the virus’ spread.
This graph from The New Atlantis shows just how bad the comparison between flu and the coronavirus is. The red line is reported new deaths every week from COVID-19. The yellow line shows reported weekly deaths attributed directly to flu during the 2017-18 flu season (an undercount), while the yellow line shows reported weekly deaths attributed to flu or pneumonia that season (an overcount). By week 8, COVID-19 weekly deaths had roughly doubled the peak of the flu overcount -- and was still increasing.
Ingraham’s argument isn’t just wrong -- it also conflicts with the talking point her colleague Hannity has been using to try to rescue their network’s credibility.
Fox and other conservative media outlets have been under fire because they put the president's political standing over their audience’s safety by downplaying the risk of the coronavirus -- including by making bogus flu comparisons. In response, these outlets have used cherry-picking and misrepresentation to accuse mainstream news outlets of the same failing.
Hannity offered his own version of this flawed defense on his show Monday. He was responding to a New York Times profile of Joe Joyce, a bar owner who died from COVID-19 after taking a cruise because, as his daughter told the paper, “He watched Fox, and believed [coronavirus] was under control.” Numerous polls have shown that Fox viewers took the virus less seriously than people who get their news from other sources.
Hannity accused the Times and others in what he termed the media “mob” of “rampant hypocrisy” and “negligent behavior” because they had “played down” the virus and then accused Fox of doing the same thing. Hannity’s slipshod evidence of “the media’s reckless behavior” included reporting comparing the virus to the flu. He featured a BuzzFeed News piece from January 28 -- before many experts were sounding alarms about the coronavirus -- that featured the headline, “Don't worry about the coronavirus, worry about the flu,” as well as a March 4 comment from CNN’s Anderson Cooper about the importance of getting flu shots that was taken out of context.
In explaining away his network’s coverage, Hannity claimed, “The facts on the ground are the facts on the ground. They did change at different times.” That’s a dishonest argument on its own merits and completely falls apart when the show he leads into is still presenting the same bogus claims.