Misinformation during the coronavirus pandemic

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Wikimedia Commons/Gage Skidmore

The Trump years have been a long, bad LSD trip directed by David Lynch. Then COVID-19 arrived and we feel like lonely figures in an Edward Hopper painting looking out of our windows at a world which resembles a Stephen King novel. Life is weirdly quiet and there are few people outside. Medical experts warn us that an invisible homicidal monster lurks among us.

Unfortunately, too many people don’t listen to medical experts. They are influenced by powerful interests who can be quite anti-science. In particular, the religious right and corporations, which trash science when it endangers their profits (like the fossil fuel industry promoting climate change denial).

In the COVID-19 crisis, the worst influencers are Fox News and other pro-Trump media. Comedy Central’s The Daily Show broadcast a salute to “heroes of the Pandumbic.” It is a three-minute montage of prominent right-wingers dismissing the threat of COVID-19.

Some 77 professors and teachers of journalism and communications have signed an acerbic open letter denouncing Fox News’ coverage of the coronavirus crisis, describing it as “a danger to public health.”

Led by Columbia Journalism School professor Todd Gitlin, the signatories urge Fox Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch and his son, company CEO Lachlan Murdoch, “to help protect the lives of all Americans” by ensuring the network airs information “based on scientific facts.”

They say Fox News is a trusted source of news for many Americans and that the average age of their viewers is 65. People in that population are at the greatest risk from the pandemic. The signatories note:

“But viewers of Fox News, including the president of the United States, have been regularly subjected to misinformation relayed by the network — false statements downplaying the prevalence of COVID-19 and its harms; misleading recommendations of activities that people should undertake to protect themselves and others, including casual recommendations of untested drugs; false assessments of the value of measures urged upon the public by their elected political leadership and public health authorities.”

The academics point out that this misinformation has had an alarming impact: 

“…According to a YouGov/Economist poll conducted March 15-17, Americans who pay the most attention to Fox News are much less likely than others to say they are worried about the coronavirus. A Pew Research poll found that 79% of Fox News viewers surveyed believed the media had exaggerated the risks of the virus. 63% of Fox viewers said they believed the virus posed a minor threat to the health of the country.”

The signatories acknowledge that Fox journalists have done “solid reporting” about the pandemic and that the network has more recently interviewed medical and public health professionals. However, viewers get confused:

“…When the statements of knowledgeable experts are surrounded by false claims made by pundits and politicians, including President Trump — claims that are not rebutted by knowledgeable people in real time — the overall effect is to mislead a vulnerable public about risks and harms.”

Now Trump is holding daily press briefings about the pandemic which start off as circus-like MAGA campaign rallies with the customary lies, misinformation and bullshit. But also feature actual important information by medical experts, particularly Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is America’s leading authority on infectious diseases, having served six presidents of both parties. Fauci avoids wounding Trump’s fragile ego by challenging the president’s false assertions without specifically mentioning Trump. 

Fauci has cheered up many Americans who desperately want the truth, even if it is horribly grim.

He has also enraged some right-wingers who feel he is part of a secret cabal opposing Trump. An analysis by the New York Times “found over 70 accounts on Twitter that have promoted the hashtag #FauciFraud, with some tweeting as frequently as 795 times a day.” 

These folks were alarmed at a 7-year-old email Fauci sent about Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state. He praised Clinton for her stamina during the 2013 Benghazi hearings.

Meanwhile, Trump claims he is a “war time president” fighting COVID-19. He seems to be surrendering. Trump and other Republicans are using the crisis to push a far-right agenda attacking labor unions, environmental regulations and abortion rights. 

Trump definitely doesn’t feel the federal government has any responsibility to help out ordinary Americans in our worst public health crisis in 100 hundred years. He has refused to issue a stay-at-home order for the entire nation, insisting that governors make their own calls. Instead of government coordination, he is counting on big business to help us out. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) wrote to Trump urging him to appoint a “senior military officer” as a “czar” to coordinate a federal response to the crisis and to use the Defense Production Act to increase production, procurement and distribution of medical devices and equipment. 

Schumer desperately wrote, “America cannot rely on a patchwork of uncoordinated voluntary efforts to combat the awful magnitude of this pandemic. The existing federal void has left America with an ugly spectacle in which States and cities are literally fending for themselves, often in conflict and competition with each other, when trying to procure precious medical supplies and equipment. The only way we will fix our PPE [personal protective equipment] and ventilator shortage is with a data-driven, organized and robust plan from the federal government. Anything short of that will inevitably mean this problem will remain unsolved and prolong this crisis.”

Trump responded to Schumer with his usual vindictive personal insults. Goddamn it. The president is an uncontrolled petty and vicious moron. This sociopathic buffoon is going to kill us all.  

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.