Matt Rourke/AP/Shutterstock

Right-wing media has turned a pandemic into an ideological purity test

Without a reliable adversary, the right-wing TV industrial complex crumbles. People like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson are not Beltway policy consultants or think-tank lanyard-wearers; instead, as Fox News hosts, they are among the country’s finest purveyors of paranoia, ideological victimhood, and politics as a vicious personal bloodsport. Coronavirus, then, has presented them with a challenge. They can’t exactly thrill their audiences by waging war on the virus itself, in the blandly non-ideological style of the #FuckCancer movement. And with President Trump at the mantle, nor can they take too much issue with the federal response, as you can imagine they might have done if Hillary Clinton were president. Instead, they have been awkwardly split between denialism — initially accusing the media of overhyping the virus’s spread and lethality — and attempting to “own the libs” by accusing Democrats of distracting Trump from being able to properly focus on a global health crisis by launching impeachment proceedings.

A New York Times analysis of right-wing media over the past few months shows how this dynamic played out. As recently as Feb. 25, Fox News host Laura Ingraham described the disease as something liberals were exploiting as a political tool, rather than a genuine threat. “A coronavirus,” she said on air. “That’s a new pathway for hitting President Trump.”

The next day, Rush Limbaugh — the influential right-wing talk radio host with millions of listeners — sarcastically mocked news reports about coronavirus. “Drudge has a screaming headline,” he said. “Flight attendant working [at Los Angeles International Airport] tests positive. Oh, my God, 58 cases! Oh, my God. Oh, my God.”

The day after that, Hannity played similar notes on his Fox News show. “The apocalypse is imminent and you’re going to all die, all of you in the next 48 hours. And it’s all President Trump’s fault,” he said. “Or at least that’s what the media mob and the Democratic extreme radical socialist party would like you to think.”

These programs reached millions of people and helped spur a widespread belief among Trump supporters — buoyed by the president’s own doubting comments — about the reality of the threat posed by coronavirus as February stretched into March. On Feb. 26, discussing the prospect of the virus spreading nationwide, Trump said, “I don’t think it’s inevitable.”

Even as recently as March 13, Fox News continued to downplay the risk. That day, Fox & Friends host Steve Doocy interviewed a woman who had tested positive for coronavirus but didn’t experience severe symptoms. Doocy described the “absolute panic” over the virus and asked the woman, “You are over 60, and it doesn’t seem to have been a big deal to you, right?” She responded that her only symptoms were a slight fever and feeling “off.” Just six days later, the California Bay Area instituted a shelter-in-place order.

The president’s defenders have even turned their sights on key members of the president’s own coronavirus response team, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The New York Times reported that on the fringes of the pro-Trump internet, figures like Judicial Watch leader Tom Fitton have accused Fauci of undermining the president. On Thursday, CNN reported that Fauci has been granted personal protection by the government because of threats made on his life.

Following coronavirus health guidelines has become as politicized as everything else in the country.

In light of all this denialism, following coronavirus health guidelines has become as politicized as everything else in the country. The Atlantic reports that right-wing people have been ridiculing 6-foot social distancing guidelines and acting as if coronavirus is not a real threat; the piece quotes several individuals who treat the act of flouting the guidelines as their contribution to the culture wars. Polls also indicate that Republicans are far less likely than Democrats to be concerned about the virus.

As the coronavirus death tolls and caseloads have become too obvious to downplay, Fox News has toned down its denialism a bit, even firing a lesser known host named Trish Regan who called the virus an “impeachment scam.” Subsequently, right-wing hosts have shifted gears to attacking Trump’s opponents and praising the president’s response, rather than dismissing the virus wholesale. The Times reported that Hannity falsely claimed, in a timeline he published of his own statements about the threat, to have been raising the alarm for months. Hannity additionally lobbed a non sequitur, blaming former President Barack Obama for failing to stop the 2009 swine flu outbreak and calling Trump “very gracious” for not attacking the former president on that basis.

Meanwhile, the Times reported, other right-wing media figures like Joel Pollak of Breitbart have claimed that Democrats are to blame for the virus’s spread. “We now know the cost of impeachment,” he wrote. It’s a textbook case of the right-wing crisis response in action: first deny, then acknowledge but downplay, then ultimately scream crisis — but shift the blame to the enemy.