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The downplaying of the coronavirus by the right-wing press in the United States was preceded decades ago by the media owned by William Randolph Hearst enabling a different sort of toxicity by promoting a positive image of Nazism in the US.
“From 1927 through the mid-’30s, Hearst solicited and ran regular columns from Benito Mussolini and then Adolph Hitler,” noted Dana Frank, professor of history at the University of California/Santa Cruz in “The Devil and Mr. Hearst,” an article in a 2000 issue of The Nation (6/22/00).
As investigative reporter George Seldes wrote: “The millions who read the Hearst newspapers and magazines and saw Hearst newsreels in the nation’s movie houses had their minds poisoned by Hitler propaganda.”
Remembering this ability to embrace the unthinkable helps place in context the spectacle of right-wing US media—led by Fox News, Donald Trump’s main press cheerleader—to join the Trump administration in minimizing the dangers of a global pandemic.
“There, for two crucial weeks in late February and early March, powerful Fox hosts talked about the ‘real’ story of the coronavirus: It was a Democratic- and media-led plot against President Donald J. Trump,” wrote Ben Smith, the media columnist of the New York Times (3/22/20):
Hosts and guests, speaking to Fox’s predominantly elderly audience, repeatedly played down the threat of what would soon become a deadly pandemic…. Fox failed its viewers and the broader public in ways both revealing and potentially lethal.
And it wasn’t that the Murdoch family, owners of Fox News, didn’t know early on the gravity of coronavirus. Lachlan Murdoch, executive chair and chief executive officer of the Fox Corporation, by January had been “getting regular updates from the family’s political allies and journalists in his father’s native Australia.”
And the family abruptly cancelled Fox Corporation co-chair Rupert Murdoch’s 89th birthday party at his California estate on March 8, “out of concern for the patriarch’s health,” reported Smith—while the network’s hosts continued to downplay the risk posed by the pandemic.
Fox led the feverishly pro-Trump media cult, though it wasn’t alone. “As the coronavirus spreads around the globe, denial and disinformation about the risks are proliferating on media outlets popular with conservatives,” wrote Jeremy W. Peters and Michael M. Grynbaum in an article the Times (3/11/20) headlined “How Right-Wing Pundits Are Covering Coronavirus.” The subhead: “Following President Trump’s lead, many commentators have played down fears.” For example:
Sean Hannity used his syndicated talk-radio program…to share a prediction he had found on Twitter about what is really happening with the coronavirus: It’s a “fraud” by the deep state to spread panic in the populace, manipulate the economy and suppress dissent….
Fox Business anchor Trish Reagan told viewers…that the worry over coronavirus ‘is yet another attempt to impeach the president.’ Where doctors and scientists see a public health crisis, President Trump and his media allies have seen a political coup afoot.
Wrote Caleb Ecarma in Vanity Fair (3/11/20):
Fox News and Fox Business have long been the president’s safe spaces, where he is glorified nightly and his perceived enemies—whether Democrats, journalists, or so-called “deep state” actors—are pilloried. As with impeachment, sycophantic hosts provided daily defenses of the president’s actions, similarly dismissing the proceedings as a “hoax.” Now, as Trump has severely mismanaged the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, and repeatedly mislead the public, the networks’ hosts appear willing to do their part to deflect blame away from the president and toward the same recurring targets of Trump’s ire.
And the downplaying was having an effect. CNN reported on March 18:
Two polls released this week show the troubling effects that weeks of dismissive and conspiratorial coverage of the novel coronavirus from Fox News and other right-wing media outlets and personalities had on the American public…. Right-wing personalities—such as Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and talk radio host Rush Limbaugh—told their audiences that news coverage of the virus was hysterical and aimed at hurting Trump politically…. Polls from both Gallup and Pew Research revealed that Republicans…were much less likely to take the risks of the coronavirus as seriously as their Democratic counterparts.
Conservative pundits encouraged their audiences to join Trump in his denial in the face of a health disaster. But “the aggressive and deadly coronavirus is unimpressed by the bluster of a con,” wrote David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker (3/22/20):
For many weeks, the president resisted understanding the magnitude of the problems and the responsibilities of his office. In late January, he declared, “We have it totally under control…. It’s going to be just fine.”… A month later…“One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.” Was he doing a good job? He gave himself a “ten.” Those who raised concerns about the administration’s cuts in emergency preparedness or the outrageous failure to supply testing kits were promulgating “a hoax.”
This blithe unconcern for the looming crisis was hardly limited to Trump. His satraps in the “alternative fact” industry took their cues from him to rest easy in a warm bubble bath of denial. Rush Limbaugh, who received a Presidential Medal of Freedom at Trump’s latest State of the Union address, told his immense radio audience that the virus was “the common cold, folks.”
There was a brief exception to the Trump media chorus. The editors of the conservative National Review published an editorial on March 9 citing the “failure of leadership at the top” of the US government which shows “no sign of being corrected” in regard to coronavirus. “Trump so far hasn’t passed muster…. He resisted making the response to the epidemic a priority for as long as he could…downplaying the problem, and wasting precious time.”
But the National Review criticism didn’t last long. In recent weeks, the magazine has focused on blaming China. “Covid-19 Is the Chinese Government’s Curse Upon the World” (3/17/20) was the headline of a piece that declared: “The Chinese Communists, like all Communists, hide their societal problems.”
The right-wing Hearst media empire’s sympathetic stance toward Nazism decades ago was a horrible happening in the history of the press in the United States. So have been the deception and lies—and blind obedience to Trump—of today’s right-wing media concerning the coronavirus calamity.
Featured image: Sean Hannity downplaying the coronavirus (3/10/20; Media Matters, 3/10/20)
This article was originally published on March 31, 2020 by FAIR
About Karl Grossman '64
Karl Grossman is a graduate of the Antioch College Class of 1964.
Grossman is an award-winning investigative reporter, professor of journalism at the State University of New York College at Old Westbury, and the author of six books. He has also written, hosted, and presented TV documentaries for New York-based EnviroVideo. Grossman was inspired to pursue journalism during his Co-op as an Antioch student at the Cleveland Press.
Grossman is a longtime associate and board member of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) a leading media watch group in the United States.