The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Tuesday that Americans should prepare for a "significant disruption" to everyday life as the spread of COVID-19 (known colloquially as the coronavirus) into the United States becomes "not so much a question of if," according to one official, "but rather more a question of exactly when."
Despite steady warnings from health organizations worldwide, right-wing media are clogging the airwaves with conspiracy theories and inaccurate reporting. Outlets like Fox News are broadcasting sensationalistic, poorly sourced talking points, obfuscating the realities of the outbreak and the United States' own readiness to deal with it, leaving Americans more vulnerable and less informed.
Virtually from the moment reports of a new virus emerged out of Wuhan, China, far-right extremists began circulating theories about its origin. When experts declared that the coronavirus likely spread from bats, far-right figures began circulating videos showing Asian people consuming exotic animals. Former InfoWars personality Paul Joseph Watson tweeted, "Our media encourages us to eat all kinds of weird stuff because it's 'normal' in other cultures," but "some cultures are better than others."
That evening, Fox News prime-time host Tucker Carlson also blamed the emergence of the virus on Chinese culture, erroneously claiming it was a result of people consuming animals "alive."
Fringe conspiracy theories
The moment was emblematic of the cycle that right-wing media has fallen into while covering the coronavirus: Fringe conspiracy theories are making their way to more mainstream outlets and overshadowing accurate, fact-based reporting.
In early February, fringe bloggers claimed that the findings of an unpublished, unreviewed paper that found similarities between the virus and HIV indicated that the virus was man-made. Though it was repeatedly debunked, the claim is now ubiquitous in right-wing media: The Daily Wire, The Federalist, Steve Bannon and Rush Limbaugh have all uncritically pushed the conspiracy theory that the virus may have leaked from a Chinese research lab.
On Fox News, Carlson has broadcast the narrative multiple times under the guise that "some say" it might be true. Carlson's claims are particularly egregious - at one point, he doubled down on the claim minutes after Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, stated that "medical professionals suggest that the structure of the virus seems unlikely to have been man-made."
The Daily Caller, a right-wing website founded by Carlson, chose instead to focus on Cuccinelli's statement that he couldn't "absolutely" rule it out.
The "escaped virus" conspiracy theory is no longer contained to right-wing media - it has now spread to at least one prominent lawmaker. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., was criticized this week for an appearance on Fox News in which he repeated the debunked theory, and Cotton had made the claim at least two other times on Fox.
The lack of accurate information amid this bioweapon fearmongering is gravely concerning, but possibly more alarming are the emerging right-wing media attempts to frame the spread of coronavirus - and the already visible consequences - as a plot to hurt President Donald Trump.
Limbaugh worked the "lab" conspiracy theory into an unhinged rant, claiming that "the coronavirus is an effort to get Trump" by unknown forces seeking to crash the American economy and help Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders "turn the United States into a mirror image of communist China."
Even though Limbaugh's story sounds like a cheap spy novel, he's not alone in pushing this sort of political narrative. Multiple outlets have attempted to blame Sanders for the drop in markets caused by the virus' affects abroad.
Carlson went so far as to echo Limbaugh's claim that an economic downturn would ultimately help Sanders defeat Trump.
The politicization of the disease ultimately serves to provide cover for right-wing media to justify bigoted policies and xenophobic rhetoric. Carlson, a man with a well-documented history of expressing white nationalist sentiment, blamed globalization for the outbreak, and declared that "wokeness is a cult" that would "let you die before they admitted that diversity is not our strength."
Others have adopted right-wing media talking points about the disease to justify Trump's policies. On Tuesday, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that the coronavirus showed his father had been "proven right again" about "border control, American manufacturing" and being a "China hawk." Fox News' Melissa Francis argued that the coronavirus outbreak had vindicated Trump's trade war with China.
It is now practically inevitable that the United States will face an outbreak of the coronavirus, but half-baked information is already appearing in public statements from Trump and other officials. Trump has already made multiple false or misleading claims regarding the virus that contradict experts and his own government organizations.
No amount of spin can erase the administration's major cuts to CDC programs over the past two years, which have cast uncertainty on the organization's ability to handle a potential pandemic.
At this moment, every news outlet's focus should be ensuring that the American public is receiving the best, most accurate information possible regarding the virus. Coronavirus is no less contagious if you watch Fox News rather than CNN or MSNBC. The right-wing media ecosystem's efforts to muddy the waters ultimately puts their audiences - and the public at large - at greater risk. Right-wing media outlets are failing their audience by turning a global health emergency into a tinfoil hat spectacle.
Nikki McCann Ramírez is a researcher at Media Matters for America. Follow her on Twitter: @NikkiMcR
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Conspiracy theories are spreading faster than the coronavirus