On April 6, Sinclair Broadcast Group’s morning news program The National Desk interviewed Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) about his plans for upcoming hearings about the public health responses to COVID-19, even though he has a long history of spreading misinformation regarding the pandemic. Johnson used his airtime to spread even more lies about COVID-19, which anchor Jan Jeffcoat ignored and failed to correct.
Johnson was ostensibly being interviewed because, as Jeffcoat put it, he had “vowed to investigate all the misinformation from all these health agencies during the pandemic.” But, rather than point to any supposed misinformation from American public health agencies, Johnson instead spread misinformation of his own about face masks, lockdowns, Sweden’s handling of the pandemic, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, who runs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and has been the most visible public figure in the U.S. government’s handling of the pandemic.
Debunking Johnson’s COVID-19 lies
Johnson spread a lot of lies during his Sinclair interview. First, contrary to his absurd claim, Swedish children have in fact died of COVID-19 during the pandemic. This recent article in the journal Nature explained that Sweden’s public health strategy, which “was strongly against any school closures or measures to protect children,” resulted in insufficient testing to trace how the virus affected the youth population. Despite the insufficient data, Swedish researchers know “many children are still suffering from serious long-COVID, more have lost one or two parents, and several children died.”
Johnson was also wrong that Swedish teachers were at lower risk from COVID. A February 2021 article from Science magazine reported that Swedish teachers faced double the risk of infection due to insufficient health precautions, and “their partners faced a 29% higher risk of becoming infected than partners of teachers who shifted to teaching online.”
Conservatives have long idolized Sweden’s approach to the pandemic due to the country’s minimal public health interventions, even though it was disastrous and led to a much higher fatality rate than its neighbors experienced.
Johnson’s lie that face masks are not effective has been debunked over and over. As FactCheck.org explained, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “found that state-issued mask mandates were associated with significant decreases in daily COVID-19 case and death growth rates.” Contrary to Johnson’s uninformed opinion, masks also do work on children and assisting children with mask compliance is an important public health goal.
The supposed “economic devastation from the very ill-advised, widespread shutdowns that didn't work” that Johnson mentioned is another baseless accusation. First, multiple public health and infectious disease experts have amply explained that properly executed shutdowns did work to slow the spread of COVID-19. (In fact, Sinclair previously removed part of a prerecorded segment from a former host’s broadcast which falsely claimed lockdowns are ineffective.) Second, the “widespread shutdowns” Johnson bemoaned were never that widespread in the United States — some states never even instituted any COVID lockdowns, and many precautions that had been in place have been lifted. Finally, Johnson’s own antics to slow down the passage of economic relief suggest he doesn’t actually care very much about the financial impacts of the pandemic.
Johnson’s attack against Fauci is new to neither Sinclair nor Republicans, who have lied about him so often that their smear campaign shouldn’t be taken seriously. And the so-called “Great Barrington Declaration” that Johnson defended as merely having “a different approach to the pandemic response” was in fact an insane libertarian idea to expose the entire global population to the deadly virus, which could have resulted in millions more American deaths.
Johnson has a long history of lying about COVID-19
Those examples from his National Desk interview this week are the latest falsehoods Johnson has spread during the pandemic, but he’s also pushed many other lies in the past two years:
- Johnson has previously pushed ineffective coronavirus treatments on Sinclair’s local TV stations. He had also baselessly claimed that common mouthwash can kill the types of coronaviruses that cause COVID-19.
- Johnson had on multiple occasions lied that COVID-19 vaccines are killing large numbers of people. First, he misused unverified reports from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), a self-reported federal database; second, he falsely claimed that people previously infected with COVID-19 will die if they receive a vaccine for it; and third, Johnson falsely claimed that vaccinated athletes are “dropping dead on the field.”
- Johnson has hosted two unofficial forums that spread skepticism of COVID-19 vaccines and fake treatments for the disease. The local ABC affiliate in Madison, Wisconsin, (WKOW) reported that Johnson’s January forum on COVID-19 included claims that “were outright untrue,” according to Wisconsin doctors and hospitals, and that some panelists made “other fringe claims” about the pandemic. WKOW also reported that “Johnson had previously held a forum in November opposing vaccine mandates featuring the accounts of people who claim they were severely injured by the vaccine.” A Madison.com fact check further debunked several claims made by Johnson’s panelists in January.
- The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in January that Johnson promoted “the body’s natural immune system” over vaccines for protection from COVID-19. According to the report, Johnson asked, “Why do we think that we can create something better than God in terms of combating disease?” The newspaper also reported that Johnson falsely blamed widespread vaccination for “driving these variants” that have appeared during the course of the pandemic.
It is beyond reckless for Sinclair Broadcast Group to promote Johnson as an authority on COVID-19 in any way. The only misinformation he should investigate is what’s coming out of his own mouth. And Jeffcoat’s dismal failure to correct any of Johnson’s lies on Sinclair’s airwaves is just as irresponsible as Fox News’ repeated efforts to keep the facts of the pandemic away from its audience.