Right-Wing Media Says Virus Fears Were Whipped Up to Hurt Trump

Right-Wing Media Says Virus Fears Were Whipped Up to Hurt Trump

The stock market is swooning. Consumers are stockpiling masks and antibacterial gels. President Trump’s response to a global epidemic has done little to quell fears.

In the right-wing media universe, however, the commotion over the coronavirus is hardly a crisis for the White House. Instead, it’s just another biased attack on a president from the usual haters.

“It looks like the coronavirus is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump,” Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio host, said on his syndicated program this week, dismissing the disease as a Democratic talking point.

“The coronavirus is the common cold, folks,” Mr. Limbaugh added, incorrectly. (The coronavirus is more deadly and more contagious than the common cold, and it can cause severe flulike symptoms.)

Viewers of the Fox News talk show “Fox & Friends” on Friday heard the co-host Ainsley Earhardt introduce a segment by announcing: “Let’s talk about the Democrats and the media with this coronavirus, and they’re making it political.”

Her guest was Pete Hegseth, a “Fox & Friends Weekend” co-host and an on-air Trump cheerleader who doubles as an informal confidant of the president.

“I don’t want to say this, I don’t relish the reality,” Mr. Hegseth began. “But you start to feel, you really do — watch the Democrats, watch the media — that they’re rooting for coronavirus to spread. They’re rooting for it to grow. They’re rooting for the problem to get worse.”

Ms. Earhardt and her co-hosts, Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade, nodded along. Their show is the highest-rated morning program on cable news.

The losses in the stock market — one of the president’s self-appointed barometers of the nation’s success — are described as a consequence of fears deliberately spread by liberals and biased journalists, rather than a reaction by investors concerned about how the virus has affected economies around the world.

The coronavirus, from this standpoint, is compared to impeachment and the special counsel’s report, major news events dismissed by Trump allies as hyped-up nonevents.

That view was validated on Friday by one of the federal government’s highest-ranking officials: Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff. He told conservative activists that the media focus on the coronavirus was an effort to hurt Mr. Trump.

“The reason you’re seeing so much attention to it today is that they think this is going to be the thing that brings down the president,” Mr. Mulvaney said in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington. “That’s what this is all about.”

There is little doubt that a global health crisis suits the relentless churn of 24-hour cable news networks, no matter the ideology of their commentators. Every major news channel has devoted hundreds of hours to examining the contagion.

Inevitably, the demand for disease news can elevate pundits with relatively little expertise. Helen Branswell, who writes about global health for STAT, a health news website based in Boston, said she had heard from many unqualified people hoping to be quoted on the coronavirus.

“My inbox is flooded with people trying to get me to interview people who are being passed out as experts, who really are not experts,” she said.

In addition, the coverage, presented with the signature flash of cable news, has at times amplified misleading or downright false narratives about the spread of the virus.

Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, for instance, floated the possibility in a Fox News interview that the coronavirus had originated at a Chinese laboratory, a theory that scientists say lacks any evidence.

Jon Cohen, who is among the team of reporters covering the coronavirus for the magazine Science, said anyone exaggerating the likelihood that the virus had been created in a laboratory could leave viewers misinformed.

“It reinforces biases people have against China, against government, against scientific research,” Mr. Cohen said.

Mr. Limbaugh, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Mr. Trump this month, used his radio program this week to link the virus with the Democratic presidential front-runner, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

“Just keep in mind where the coronavirus came from,” Mr. Limbaugh told listeners. “It came from a country that Bernie Sanders wants to turn the United States into a mirror image of: Communist China.” (At a CNN town hall on Monday, Mr. Sanders, who identifies as a democratic socialist, described China as an “authoritarian country, becoming more and more authoritarian,” adding that it had “taken more people out of extreme poverty” than any other nation.)

Mr. Limbaugh also advanced a baseless claim that the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, was biased against the president because her brother is Rod Rosenstein, the former deputy attorney general who was a target of Mr. Trump’s attacks.

Allies of the Trump administration often take a warlike stance toward any issue that poses a threat to the president’s reputation, adopting the language of victimhood and grievance.

Sean Hannity, at the top of his Fox News program on Thursday, attributed the worries over the coronavirus to a fear campaign led by “the media mob and the Democratic extreme radical socialist party.”

“They’re now sadly politicizing and actually weaponizing an infectious disease, in what is basically just the latest effort to bludgeon President Trump,” Mr. Hannity declared. “Many on the left are now all rooting for corona to wreak havoc in the United States. Why? To score cheap, repulsive political points.” (Mr. Hannity averages more than three million viewers a night, the biggest audience on cable news.)

One Hannity guest had the temerity to dissent — sort of. Geraldo Rivera, a Fox News regular, agreed with Mr. Hannity’s contention that Democrats had sought to arouse fear. But he told Mr. Hannity that “our friend, President Trump,” had not handled the situation ideally.

The president “was too cool for school,” Mr. Rivera said. “I think it would have been better if he were more energetic, more pointed and forceful —”

Before he could finish his thought, he was interrupted by Mr. Hannity and another guest, the Trump loyalist Dan Bongino, who quickly rebuked his colleague.

“That’s a horrible analysis, Geraldo,” Mr. Bongino said.

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