On Monday afternoon, as portions of the United States planned to shut down due to the novel coronavirus, the right-wing website Gateway Pundit delivered a message: It was misinformation.
“The Coronavirus Fatality Rate Reported by the Media Is COMPLETELY INACCURATE,” the pro-Trump site said. “The Actual Rate Is LESS THAN THE FLU – MEDIA LYING AGAIN!”
The claim that the “liberal media” concocted a coronavirus panic followed a pattern that has occurred in hyperpartisan media from the beginning of the crisis: downplaying its significance, blaming the mainstream media for overhyping it, and hammering Democrats for trying to capitalize on it. All this has had an impact: Only 40% of Republicans now say the coronavirus is a real threat, down from 72% last month.
“Don’t believe what the media is telling you,” the Gateway Pundit said.
But, in their efforts to protect the president (who finally seems to have grasped the virus’s full dangers), the Gateway Pundit, One America News Network, and Fox News run a risk.
Unlike previous challenges for the Trump administration, including impeachment, Russian election interference, and payouts to Stormy Daniels, the coronavirus could kill large numbers of viewers or readers. If it did, it might be hard to rebuild trust.
“It's definitely a risk,” Mohamad Bazzi, an associate professor of journalism at NYU, told BuzzFeed News. “This feels like a culmination of the risk-taking, where it's now putting tens and hundreds of thousands of American lives at risk, as opposed to some other risks that might have impacted other parts of the world.”
“What's different about this crisis, compared to constant cascading of crises the Trump administration has either caused or made worse, is that people can actually see what's happening,” Eric Alterman, distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and author of Lying in State, told BuzzFeed News. “They couldn't really see what was happening at the border. They couldn't really see what was happening in Puerto Rico. They couldn't really see whatever the hell he did with Russia and Ukraine. But this one people can see.”
Still, a reckoning for the pro-Trump media is not assured. “It seems to have been absolutely correct when Trump said he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and his people wouldn't give a shit,” Alterman said. “So it's quite possible that as long as they have someone to blame — the liberal media, immigrants, China — he can keep it up. Nobody knows how long. I'm not making a prediction.”
Bazzi felt similarly. “I think we're already seeing the signs of a shift from Trump and from his supporters to basically pretend that the last two months didn't happen,” he said. “To say he'd been planning for this and preparing for this all along.”
Many on Fox News are only now warning of the virus’s dangers, after weeks of shrugging it off, as the fast-moving pandemic has changed peoples' lives — and minds. Jesse Watters, a personality on Fox News’ The Five, said Monday he’s taking social distancing seriously, after claiming earlier this month that he wasn’t afraid of the virus. Last Friday, Fox Business put Trish Regan’s show on hiatus after she said the coronavirus was “another attempt to impeach the president.” And Fox News’ Tucker Carlson’s warning about the dangers of the coronavirus last Monday — a break with his network’s broader tone — resonated with the president.
But while Fox News appeared to be coming around to the expert consensus on the severity of the pandemic, late on Tuesday, the Gateway Pundit published a story claiming the World Health Organization had "severely overstated the fatality rate" of the outbreak.