Mainstream news descriptions of the right-wing media’s approach to COVID-19 typically go something like this: At first, prominent conservatives on television and radio downplayed the threat; only when Donald Trump himself acknowledged that the coronavirus was likely to kill large numbers of Americans did his enablers on Fox News and talk radio reverse course.
On March 31, the New York Times contributing opinion writer Kara Swisher asserted that Fox News had “dished out dangerous misinformation about the virus in the early days of the crisis” and had only recently gotten “much more serious in its reporting on the coronavirus, as has Mr. Trump.” On April 1, the Times reporter Jeremy Peters described an initial “denial among many of Mr. Trump’s followers” in the press about the seriousness of the COVID-19 threat, followed by a “sharp pivot” to acknowledging its severity but “blaming familiar enemies in the Democratic Party and the news media” for the destruction the virus has brought.
As damning as such accounts are, they’re also too generous. They depict the right-wing media’s understatement of the coronavirus danger as a thing of the past. That’s not so. Some of the most influential conservative commentators on television and radio—Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, and Glenn Beck—still downplay the danger posed by COVID-19. Remarkably, they’re rejecting scientific expertise even when it’s endorsed by Trump himself.
Not everyone in the conservative media is questioning the coronavirus threat. In early March, Tucker Carlson told his audience that “people you trust, people you probably voted for” were “minimizing what is clearly a very serious problem.” His Fox News colleague Sean Hannity, who may have been one of the pundits whom Carlson obliquely criticized, stopped playing down the COVID-19 threat once Trump did.
But Carlson and Hannity appear to be exceptions. On April 2—four days after Trump changed course and extended social-distancing requirements until the end of April—Limbaugh, citing an article in the British magazine The Spectator, suggested that the “coronavirus is being listed as a cause of death for many people who are not dying because of it.” The next day he alleged that models suggesting hundreds of thousands of Americans could die from the virus are “just as bad and just as unreliable as climate change models.” He went on to accuse the mainstream media of “hyping huge [potential] death tolls” as they had in 1991, when they warned of “all these body bags [the] U.S. military was gonna [need] because the U.S. military had no way to beat Saddam Hussein” in the Gulf War. Limbaugh’s implication was clear: Just as the Gulf War took far fewer American lives than many commentators had predicted, COVID-19 would too.
Ingraham, who follows Hannity at 10 p.m. on Fox News, has peddled a similar line. On Twitter on March 31, she shared a column by William Bennett and Seth Leibsohn that suggested the number of deaths from COVID-19 would prove “much smaller than our annual rate of opioid overdose deaths—46,802—or annual deaths due to motor vehicle crashes, 33,654” and urged Americans to “reclaim a sense of proportion.” On April 2, she quoted an article in Britain’s The Telegraph, which declared that, in Italy, “only 12 percent of death certificates have shown a direct causality from coronavirus.” In other words, Italians aren’t dying in large numbers from the virus after all. That same day, Ingraham promoted an interview with a Stanford professor who has claimed that “projections of the death toll” from COVID-19 “could plausibly be orders of magnitude too high.”
Other prominent conservative commentators are downplaying the coronavirus threat in much the same way. On April 2, Levin—the fourth-most-popular radio talk-show host in America, after Limbaugh, Hannity, and Dave Ramsey, according to Talkers—accused “the leftwing, phony media” of “demanding compliance with the most extreme mortality predictions.” On April 3, he offered “perspective” by tweeting about a chart that showed COVID-19 had killed fewer people than Ebola, MERS, SARS or the swine flu. On April 2, Beck—the nation’s fifth-most-popular radio talk-show host—warned that anti-Trump activists had created virus models that were “wildly inaccurate” and “always skewed to large, large numbers” of COVID-19 deaths. The day before, on April 1, Beck told his Twitter followers, “The coronavirus ISN’T America’s most dangerous virus … That’s the mainstream media!”
The government’s social-distancing requirements, these pro-Trump talkers insist, are likely more harmful than the virus itself. “Ten million people have lost their jobs,” Limbaugh announced on April 2. “That’s not enough for people like Bill Gates. That’s not enough for people who want to shoot down the entire country.” Over the weekend, both Ingraham and Levin circulated a Federalist article headlined “Why Severe Social Distancing Might Actually Result In More Coronavirus Deaths.” On April 1, Beck urged policy makers to “start putting hard dates on some of these [social-distancing] measures because we have got to get back to work … A forced economic recession isn’t a gamble that I signed up for.”
Limbaugh, Ingraham, Levin, and Beck haven’t criticized Trump personally for acknowledging the severity of the pandemic. But neither are they giving credence to his newly dire estimates of the COVID-19 threat. The reason may be that they have different incentives than he does. Conservative talkers answer to their conservative audience, which, according to polls, remains more skeptical than Democrats of government restrictions on movement. Trump must worry about public opinion as a whole, which strongly favors government-imposed social distancing. Trump’s decision to abandon his goal of reopening the country by Easter, according to Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman of the Times, came after “political advisers described for him polling that showed that voters overwhelmingly preferred to keep containment measures in place over sending people back to work prematurely.”
Trump must also balance his habitual suspicion of government experts against the fact that Americans trust those experts—in particular, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci—far more than they trust him in the battle against COVID-19. For Trump to reject their advice entirely might hurt his own standing, especially among the Democrats and independents who have helped boost his approval rating since the virus hit America’s shores.
Conservative talk radio, by contrast, is built on distrust of experts. Left-wing populists attack economic elites; right-wing populists attack cultural elites, especially those whom progressives venerate. In recent years, as progressives have championed the scientific consensus that climate change poses a grave danger, many conservatives have come to see scientists as yet another collection of snobs using the veneer of expertise to impose its liberal ideology on the country. A 2019 Pew Research Center poll found that while a large majority of Democrats believed that scientists were better than other people “at making good policy decisions about scientific issues,” a large majority of Republicans disagreed.
Over the past week, this populist distrust of scientific experts has suffused conservative talk radio’s downplaying of the COVID-19 threat. “The ‘experts’ are routinely wrong on issues big and small—on wearing masks, on reusable grocery bags … virus modeling and treatments,” Ingraham tweeted on April 3. “So when experts issue edicts, remember their often spectacular record of failure.” On April 1, Beck urged politicians “to stop relying on flawed modeling data to make these decisions” and instead “listen to the people in your local communities.” On April 5, Levin warned that “the media, ‘experts,’ and Democrats are trying to make it impossible for the president to even consider rational options for opening parts of the economy.” On April 3, Ingraham declared, “The ‘experts’ aren’t capable of thinking beyond the virus to an even worse death spiral affecting millions of lives here and abroad.”
This distrust of the scientific establishment helps explain why Limbaugh, Levin, and Ingraham—along with Carlson and Hannity—have all championed hydroxychloroquine as an antidote to COVID-19. Fauci has said he can’t verify that the drug is effective and safe. But for conservative talkers, the prospect that Americans without elite credentials have discovered a cure that has eluded scientific elites is part of what makes hydroxychloroquine so enticing. “I don’t think you need to have 12 years of residency or whatever,” Limbaugh declared in an April 3 segment titled “Dr. Fauci Sides with Bureaucracy Over Hydroxychloroquine Hope.”
When Trump and some of America’s most prominent conservative pundits part company over the coronavirus threat, the discrepancy between them represents a fascinating test of partisanship versus ideology. Limbaugh, Ingraham, Levin, and Beck are trying to balance their loyalty to Trump with their distrust of credentialed experts, especially those venerated by the mainstream media. That, so far, they’re largely choosing the latter suggests that liberals may be overestimating Trump’s influence. Even when he reluctantly accepts a scientific consensus, some of the biggest conservative megaphones in America still won’t.