Right-wing media want to force out Nashville’s mayor based on a wild misreading of coronavirus emails

Nashville Cover up

Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters

Update (9/19/20): After this story’s publication, Fox17 took down the article that generated the right-wing media conspiracy theories. The station issued a statement to CNN’s Oliver Darcy saying in part: “In a segment that aired earlier this week, we incorrectly asserted that Mayor Cooper's office withheld COVID-19 data from the public, which implied that there had been a cover up. We want to clarify that we do not believe there was any cover-up, and we apologize for the error and oversight in our reporting." Darcy also noted that Fox17 is owned by the right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group. 

Right-wing commentators are using a Wednesday report from a local Nashville, Tennessee, broadcast affiliate to falsely accuse Mayor John Cooper of hiding information about the supposedly low number of coronavirus cases linked to city bars and restaurants. That initial story is based on the reporter’s bizarre misinterpretation of emails from Cooper’s office, and the data in question was actually provided to another Nashville journalist and published six weeks ago.

There’s no question about the role of bars and restaurants in spreading the coronavirus. Public health experts inside and outside of President Donald Trump’s administration agree that they are a key vector. Indeed, Dr. Deborah Birx, a leader of the White House coronavirus task force, urged Tennessee to shutter all bars and restrict restaurant dining in a July visit to the state. 

But the Nashville report nonetheless rocketed through right-wing media, with commentators using the reporter’s twisted, inaccurate interpretation to buttress their narrative that Democratic mayors are lying to the public to keep businesses closed for political reasons. By Thursday night, the story reached Fox News, where hosts who regularly attack coronavirus measures slammed Cooper’s purported “cover-up” and suggested that coronavirus restrictions on bars and restaurants are unnecessary.

The article by Fox17’s Dennis Ferrier was headlined “COVID-19 emails from Nashville mayor's office show disturbing revelation,” and it claimed that the coronavirus cases linked to bars and restaurants “may have been so low that the mayor’s office and the Metro Health Department decided to keep it secret.” He based this conclusion on two banal email exchanges, which he suggested show those offices discussing “the low number of coronavirus cases emerging” from those locations and “how to keep it from the public.”

Other Nashville journalists who had reported on the city’s coronavirus response quickly dismantled Ferrier’s story on Twitter. “The emails do NOT say what the reporter implied,” commented Newschannel 5’s Phil Williams. “Bizarre and inaccurate story,” tweeted Tennessee Lookout’s Nate Rau. “Not to elevate their clicks here but did the author of this story ... read the email they are referring to?” asked Nashville Post’s Kara Hartnett.

Here’s how Ferrier described the first email exchange:

On June 30th, contact tracing was given a small view of coronavirus clusters. Construction and nursing homes were found to be causing problems with more than a thousand cases traced to each category, but bars and restaurants reported just 22 cases.

Leslie Waller from the health department asks, “This isn’t going to be publicly released, right? Just info for Mayor’s Office?"

“Correct, not for public consumption,” writes senior advisor Benjamin Eagles.

While Ferrier presents the exchange as a sinister plot to keep information from the public about purportedly low numbers of coronavirus cases linked to bars and restaurants, it shows nothing of the sort. In fact, an image of the exchange he showed on the air -- but did not specifically mention in either his on-air or written report -- suggests that the exchange between Waller and Eagles about the data not being for public distribution happened before Eagles had seen the data, not after he saw it. The emails show that it was Eagles’ request for Waller to provide “countywide contact tracing data” that led Waller to ask whether the data was for public release.

Nashville emails

As Newschannel 5’s Williams pointed out, Waller would have had good reason to seek clarity on the intended recipients of the data before providing the information, because under federal health privacy law, “info that might identify individuals must be vetted carefully [before] release to public.”

The second set of emails, from late July, shows Nashville health office Director of Communications Brian Todd asking five other officials there how to respond to journalist Nate Rau’s question about whether “more than 80” cases linked to restaurants and bars means those businesses “aren’t a very big problem.” 

Ferrier somehow misses that this exchange undermines his entire premise. Todd was in the process of confirming to a reporter the very data Ferrier claims the city had been hiding. Indeed, emails released by Mayor Cooper show his adviser Eagles instructing Todd to provide that information to Rau.

The figure was published by the Lookout in an August 4 report. That story also explained why the number does not suggest that bars and restaurants are not a vector for the virus’ spread:

The number comes with a caveat since it’s unclear if the health department’s contact tracing program has kept pace with the onslaught of positive cases in July. Contact tracing can be inexact, and its primary goal is to quarantine people who have been exposed and not to merely pinpoint where the virus was contracted. Also, Metro’s contact tracing program focuses on Davidson County, meaning if a group of out-of-town tourists contracted the virus at a honky tonk, the city may never know about it.

Ferrier goes on to report that one of the health officials gave an “unacceptable” response to Todd, quoting them saying that “we have certainly refused to give counts per bar because those numbers are low per site.” The insinuation is that Nashville is hiding that information to conceal that the figures are low. But another email released by Cooper’s office provides more context -- a health official was wary of providing that information because the low counts could make it easy to identify individuals, thus potentially violating federal health privacy law. 

Ferrier’s absurd framing nonetheless dominated right-wing media on Thursday. Outlets like The New York Post, The Daily Mail, and National Review credulously regurgitated his report. There was heated reaction on pro-Trump Twitter. The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro claimed that Ferrier’s story showed that “Nashville city government covered up the fact that restaurants and bars were not a vector of covid-19 transmission so as to legitimize the continued lockdown.” “This certainly looks like a cover up by city officials,” Outkick’s Clay Travis tweeted. “A coverup to justify a lockdown,” commented Fox senior political analyst Brit Hume. And Donald Trump Jr. commented that “everyone involved should face jail time,” adding, “How many other Dem run cities is this happening in?”

By Thursday night, Fox News hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham had taken up this dishonest framing. They slotted Ferrier’s reporting as more evidence to support their already aggressive campaign denouncing any and all recommendations that public health officials have made for slowing the virus spread as ineffective efforts by political hacks.

Video file

Citation From the September 17, 2020, edition of Fox News' Tucker Carlson Tonight

Carlson opened his show with a screed about the “Coronavirus cover-up in Nashville.” He claimed that “the COVID regime is political and our leaders are lying about it,” adding that Ferrier’s report was “conclusive proof” because he had “caught [Nashville’s] top officials hiding key health statistics, and for no justifiable reason.” 

After deceptively citing the email exchanges Ferrier cited and praising him, Carlson concluded, “If you knew the details, you might realize that getting a drink at a bar in Nashville or for that matter, sending your children to school in person poses very little risk to anyone.” 

In a follow-up segment featuring Steve Glover, a Republican city council member whom Ferrier quoted claiming that Cooper’s office had been “fabricating information,” Carlson asked, “Why not impeach him? Why should he still be your mayor for a single more day? That seems unforgivable to me.” He later added, “I hope you can find a way to get rid of that mayor. There's no reason a city like Nashville should be held hostage by a liar.”

The next hour featured Ingraham claiming that the emails exposed “a sinister COVID cover-up” which she said “is something, really, you'd expect from communist China, Soviet Russia, not an American city." She added, “My concern is that if this is happening in Nashville, I mean, are other cities lying too?” She suggested that local leaders are “killing the restaurant industry across the country” even though “they can’t really trace these infections back to restaurants.”

Her guest, the right-wing political operative Phil Kerpen, replied that “this can't be the only place this kind of thing is happening,” adding, “There are only basically two kinds of governments right now, the ones that are lying about the data and the ones that don't understand the data and actually think there are problems that aren't.” 

On Friday morning, the story reached Fox & Friends. “They lied. How do we know? We got their emails,” co-host Brian Kilmeade claimed. “We don’t have the full scope of it all, but what we did read is very disturbing, telling each other they’re going to keep it a secret” added Ainsley Earhardt. Cooper “has to resign yesterday,” Kilemeade added, “and I wonder how many other mayors are doing the exact same thing.” 

Meanwhile, at virtually the exact moment Carlson was using the Nashville story as evidence that the entire public health push to close bars had been a sham, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top government infectious disease expert, was on MSNBC citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new guidance on the risks bars pose.

“Bars are a really important place of spreading of infection,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that. And that becomes particularly important if you happen to be in an area where there’s a high degree of community spread. So those are things that are crystal clear.”

Crystal clear -- unless you get your information about the virus from the right-wing media.

Update (9/21/20): On Monday, Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy provided the “update” that Fox17 had “retracted their story.” He continued: “We now know the mayor's office did apparently not conceal those numbers and did release them to the public and so this morning, on this Monday, we wanted to apologize for any confusion.”

Update (9/22/20): Carlson, Ingraham, and Fox News’ purportedly “straight news” website have all addressed the retraction of the Fox17 report that formed the basis of their stories. But each acknowledgement downplayed that the report had been fact-checked and conclusively debunked, suggesting that it had only been removed because of “pressure” from Cooper’s office.

Fox behaves like a propaganda outlet, not a news organization, because that is exactly what it is.