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Conservative talk radio hosts weren’t convinced of COVID-19 seriousness — even after Trump declared a national emergency

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More than 160 million Americans have been urged to stay home in what the World Health Organization has declared a global pandemic. Nonessential businesses and schools in states like New York, Illinois and California have shuttered. In parts of the country, coronavirus patients are flooding hospitals.

Yet listeners of Mark Levin’s syndicated radio program heard on March 16 that much of the furor is a politically motivated overreaction. “I don’t want to be part of the hype machine,” Levin said. One of the country’s most-listened-to talk radio hosts, Levin averages 11 million listeners a week, according to the trade publication Talkers. “People on TV who lied to you about Russia and the Ukraine and so forth, trashing the president, using this as another opportunity to hype and dramatize their agenda.”

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Levin, a prominent conservative commentator, called the virus a “serious” matter. But he also emphasized that the death toll from the “Wuhan coronavirus” was significantly lower than that from the seasonal flu in the U.S. “We have 30,000 deaths this flu season,” he said, according to a ProPublica review of broadcasts since March 10.

Levin’s attitude isn’t unusual on talk radio. Several hosts, including at least four of the 12 most listened to as measured by Talkers, have downplayed the threat of the coronavirus and criticized efforts to blunt its spread, according to broadcast archives from TVEyes.com and the nonprofit Cortico. Even after President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on March 13, some hosts groused that aggressive measures to contain the disease were a political ploy to undercut the president or ram through unpopular Democratic legislation.

Although the hosts conceded that some level of concern about COVID-19 is justified, their skepticism could deter their audiences from self-quarantining, social distancing and other behavioral changes that health officials say are necessary. As recently as last week, some Americans continued to gather on Florida beaches, revel in spring break festivities or otherwise ignore guidance. A World Health Organization spokeswoman warned Tuesday that the U.S. could become the next epicenter of the global pandemic, Reuters reported.

“When you turn something that is not political, like a disease, into a political question, you remove the legitimacy of trustworthy sources that tell you what to do,” said Yotam Ophir, a University at Buffalo professor who studies the effect of media in health and science. “If everything is measured on how it will affect my favorite politician, then everything becomes a game. This could become really dangerous.”

Several hosts, like Levin, compared COVID-19 to the seasonal flu even though epidemiologists say it has a higher mortality rate and could cause hundreds of thousands of deaths in the U.S. Also, unlike the flu, COVID-19 has no vaccine or approved treatment. Trump himself on Monday echoed the talk show commentary, arguing that the economic shutdown should be lifted because deaths from a “very active flu season” and from car accidents are “far greater than any numbers we’re talking about” of coronavirus deaths. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to tell everybody, ‘No more driving of cars,’” Trump said. (About 100 people a day die in car accidents in the U.S. — about one-seventh of the fatality rate from coronavirus in Italy. In addition, an injury or death from a car accident is not transmitted to someone who wasn’t involved.)

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Mike Gallagher, another popular conservative talk radio host, reiterated Trump’s point. “The president is right,” Gallagher told listeners Tuesday morning. “The cure can’t be worse than the disease, and we’re going to have to make some difficult tradeoffs.”

Asked about his remarks, Gallagher said Tuesday afternoon that he wanted to clarify them. “In my mind I was thinking, ‘What does this look like 9, 12, 18 months from now? What does a Mom-and-Pop do who has to close for the next 6-8 months?’” he said. “It’s that kind of tradeoff. I didn’t mean any kind of tradeoff between human life and business. Human life is tantamount.” Gallagher described the past week as a “sea change for my listeners,” who “started out skeptical and dubious, and we need to own that. I just don’t think anybody could envision what this felt like and what this was going to be like.”

Other talk show hosts have likened the current pandemic to the H1N1 swine flu, which did not prompt school shutdowns or stay-at-home orders. For instance, a caller to Wendy Bell’s radio show on Pittsburgh’s KDKA on March 19 alleged the news media chose not to “hype” swine flu because it would have destroyed the economy during the burgeoning financial crisis. “Amen,” Bell interjected. She added, “It wasn’t just the media, though. It was a difference in president. So you have [Barack] Obama, who they fiercely defended.”

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Bell continued: “Why the fervor to cover this like the plague when legitimately we lost 13,000 Americans? Where was the breathless coverage then? … Why wasn’t the market a complete disaster?” she told her listeners. Experts warn that the coronavirus is more lethal and appears to spread more easily than H1N1.

“You’ve got smart callers on this show, I’ll tell ya what,” Bell said before going to commercial break. KDKA has about 142,000 listeners, according to Nielsen.

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Bell defended her stance in an email to ProPublica on Monday. “We’d had a total of 200 US deaths from Covid when I said that last week,” Bell wrote. “Compare the numbers. We’ve already had between 18,000 and 22,000 H1N1 deaths this flu season. And it’s been the deadliest for children (particularly ages 0 to 4) in decades.” In fact, as of March 14, there were 149 pediatric deaths from flu, the highest since 262 in 2009-10, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Where’s the panic? The stock market crash? The breathless news coverage? The strict preventive measures? People sheltering in place? The task force? The social distancing? Answer. There hasn’t been any. Why? Connect the dots. You can’t pin seasonal flu on the president. Covid? It’s what Democrats are doing, plain and simple,” she continued.

Levin did not respond to attempts to contact him through Cumulus Media, the radio network that broadcasts his show, and via Fox News Channel, where he hosts a weekly show. Soon after we reached out to him, he attacked ProPublica in a series of tweets to his 2 million followers. “You can see how radical this phony ProPublica news operation truly is,” Levin wrote.

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Joe “Pags” Pagliarulo, who says he has 4.5 million listeners, was similarly skeptical about the coronavirus. “Is it important-to-know information? Yes. Is it important to get the word out? Of course. Is it important to take precautions? 100%,” he said on March 13, the day Trump declared a national emergency. “Should we be doing what we’re doing right now — and I don’t mean us on this show, I mean in this country, on the globe, when it comes to this pandemic? No. I think that it’s overblown for political reasons.”

“I’ve treated this seriously and have offered solid advice and information to my listeners this entire time,” Pagliarulo wrote in an email to ProPublica on Sunday. “But I’ve made it perfectly clear that the early freakout and attacks on the president to make political gains were real and completely uncalled for.” He asked why news reports haven’t covered allegations that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tried to “guarantee” abortion funding in an early coronavirus bill. PolitiFact found no evidence that Pelosi took any such action.

In Green Bay, Wisconsin, local talk radio host John Muir — whose show promises “a dose of the facts” — told listeners on March 18 that stay-at-home orders meant forcing people to “fork over money and spend time behind bars simply because you refuse to go along with a nonsensical overreaction to a disease that has affected 1,300 Americans.” The U.S. now has more than 44,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, which is considered an undercount because of delays in ramping up testing. There have been no reports of anyone being jailed in the U.S. for violating a shelter-in-place order.

He continued his comparison of the “Chinese virus” to the seasonal flu and H1N1. “Donald Trump was not the president during the deadly 2009 H1N1 spread, so there was not this elitist desire to tank the U.S. economy as there is now with the coronavirus since it is Donald Trump’s reelection year,” he told listeners on News Talk WTAQ.

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By Tuesday, Wisconsin health officials reported more than 400 confirmed cases, quadrupling what it was during Muir’s broadcast. Muir did not respond to a request seeking comment.

George Noory, host of the overnight radio show Coast to Coast AM on weekdays, blamed the press on March 17: “They are contributing to the hysteria, which has caused the entire planet to basically shut down.” Noory, who Talkers says has an audience of 10.5 million, told ProPublica this week that he’s been telling his audience that the coronavirus is “the flu on steroids. It’s serious. But the media is creating hysteria by blowing the figures out of proportion. The media’s not putting that into perspective.”

While adopting Trump’s description of COVID-19 as a “Chinese virus,” some hosts have gone further, accusing China of engaging in biological warfare — an allegation for which no evidence has surfaced. Perhaps the country’s best-known talk radio host, Rush Limbaugh, whom Trump awarded the presidential medal of freedom during his recent State of the Union address, suggested this theory in late February. “It probably is a Chicom laboratory experiment that is in the process of being weaponized,” Limbaugh said, invoking a shorthand for Chinese communist. “All superpower nations weaponize bio-weapons.”

Paradoxically, in the same broadcast, Limbaugh equated the coronavirus with the common cold. (Again, the coronavirus is far deadlier than both the common cold and the seasonal flu.) Limbaugh did not respond to a request for comment through Premiere Networks, which carries his show.

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The far-right provocateur Alex Jones called it a “man-made virus” — a widely debunked conspiracy theory — on his internet radio show March 20.

“This was hyped up. … We can tell this was going to be huge, going to be dangerous. The virus is man-made, it is killing people. But the disproportionate media hype, saying Trump did bad and trying to shut down our market. … This is really going to destroy confidence and cause a depression,” Jones, who runs the conspiracy-driven website InfoWars, said.

Called “almost certainly the most prolific conspiracy theorist in contemporary America” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Jones has fueled fantastical claims that the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, was a hoax. Prominent social media companies, including Facebook, have barred him from their platforms.

“You’ve got all these globalist cheerleaders, on television,” Jones said, “hyping the fall of the economy, foaming at the mouth.”

Jones didn’t respond to a request for comment. By implementing economic shutdowns and social distancing, government officials heeded the advice of epidemiologists who say that these are among the most effective ways to slow an epidemic.

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Some prominent right-wing hosts have taken a sharply different tone. Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, who has his own radio show, warned this week on Fox News that he’d recommend a “full shutdown” because the country was running out of time.

“Drop the hammer. Don’t mitigate the virus. Don’t spread the curve,” he said Sunday. “Shatter the curve and go full-hammer on the virus right now with a full shutdown.”

Lucas Waldron, Caroline Chen, and Alice Wilder contributed reporting.

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