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John Oliver blasts the misinformation 'feedback loop between Fox and Trump' | Television & radio


Unlike some high-ranking elected officials in America, John Oliver has long taken coronavirus seriously. Since the beginning of March, the Last Week Tonight host has traced the virus’s spread in China, exhorted viewers to take care of each other as daily life in America evaporated, blasted Trump’s “irresponsible” handling of the crisis and discussed how the pandemic revealed and exploited longstanding inequalities in America. And on Sunday, Oliver turned to one of the main threats to recovery in this pandemic: misinformation, particularly from within the feedback loop between America’s rightwing media ecosystem and Donald Trump.

America’s rightwing media is “dominated by some enormously powerful individuals”, explained Oliver, such as the conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, a “man with millions of listeners, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and almost certainly a room in his basement that his housekeeper isn’t allowed to go into.”

Limbaugh exemplifies how, as Oliver said, “Many in conservative media have found it easy to fold this virus into narratives that they’ve been carefully building up for decades”. For over a decade, Limbaugh has pushed his “four corners of deceit: government, academia, science and the media,” which, “unfortunately, happen to be the four most important groups to listen to during a public health crisis,” said Oliver, though it makes sense as a business strategy: “If you establish your show as the sole outlet worth trusting, that gives you a lot of power.”

It’s the same technique – we’ll give you the “true” story elites are trying to hide – used by Fox News, as evidenced by the narrative the network pushed early in the pandemic: that coronavirus was hysteria drummed up by the liberal media to derail the president. Oliver pointed to such Fox News segments as “coronavirus hysteria” (Sean Hannity), “liberal media hoax backfires!” (Trish Reagan), and “Trump confronts the panic pushers” (Laura Ingraham).

“And when people started dying – and their arguments became harder to sell – the network seemed to pivot from trying to downplay the warnings to downplaying the deaths,” Oliver continued, pointing to numerous examples of Fox News hosts favorably comparing US coronavirus deaths with a whole season of the flu. And while yes, Oliver acknowledged, many people and companies underestimated Covid-19, Fox News was still doing it publicly while behind the scenes the company suspended all non-essential business travel and encouraged staff to move all in-person meetings to Skype, “because, and this is true, they only pretend to believe these things on television for money”, Oliver said.

There’s also, he continued, the compounding problem that President Trump is not only the subject of much Fox News misinformation, but also its target, as he’s known to pull talking points directly from its hosts. For example, Trump latched on to the “miracle cure” hydroxychloroquine after viewing Tucker Carlson tout a questionable study on its efficacy as a coronavirus treatment (there is no widespread medical evidence to support this, and side effects can be fatal). “That is not to say that this drug shouldn’t be studied. It should, and it is,” said Oliver. “But the feedback loop between Fox and Trump has run way ahead of the science here.” It’s a textbook demonstration of this news ecosystem at work: Fox News promoted the hydroxychloroquine “solution” over 300 times in two weeks, according to Media Matters. Trump encouraged Americans to “just try it – what do you have to lose?” (your life), Limbaugh picked up the charge on his show, which still attracts 15 million listeners a week, and now lupus patients and others who depend on hydroxychloroquine are facing shortages.

“It’s too soon to say,” whether the drug could be used as a treatment for the virus,” Oliver said. “The problem is, ‘might’ and ‘could’ aren’t really words that grab an audience,” and simple solutions make for good television, which is Trump’s underlying logic. Thus, “we have a network, and a president, who thrive on division, feeding on one another, at a time when we desperately need a unified response to a public health crisis.”

This alternate facts ecosystem was on full display this weekend, as groups of protesters at capitols in Michigan, Minnesota and other states violated physical distancing orders to demand the economy reopen immediately. Said protesters repeated misinformation fostered on rightwing media; Fox News gleefully covered the protests and attributed their claim that “the cure can’t be worse than the disease” to Trump, though it actually originated on Fox News. And after the segment on a group called “Liberate Minnesota” aired, Trump tweeted “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” in support.

“All of this is legitimately dangerous,” said Oliver, “because watching something like that might convince Trump that there’s a sizable portion of the population that wants to go back to work no matter the cost,” which is not the case. According to a Pew Research poll released on 16 April, 66% of Americans are more concerned with restrictions being lifted too quickly than too slowly.

To be clear, Oliver said, he understood where protesters were coming from – he, too, wants this over. “But for what it’s worth, I know people who have died from this. I also know people who are taking hydroxychloroquine because they think it will give them immunity, and I know people with lupus who are down to their last few weeks of pills, and it makes me fucking furious.

“Because the fact is, the fastest way for this to be over is for all of us to remain united in this very difficult task,” Oliver concluded. “But the only way that happens is if we have trusted, well-informed leadership – which, unfortunately, we don’t.”

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