By the time this column is published it may seem pointless, as the Zombie COVID-19 Apocalypse has consumed most of the world. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
And warning you is what this column is all about.
In this era, when media reporting about a virus is deemed political, it’s time to reflect upon how we got here.
Let’s face it: The news has changed.
A generation ago, coverage of the Vietnam War helped bring the futility and fatality count into American living rooms. However, the coverage itself was never categorized as liberal or conservative. It was objective. When Walter Cronkite told his millions of viewers, “It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate,” the tide of support for the war turned into open opposition. Shortly thereafter, president Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek re-election. Johnson said after the broadcast, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
Pointedly, a big difference about the coverage of the Vietnam War and today’s coverage of an equally determined viral opponent is that we no longer view the media as a reliable source of information. The public believes news coverage is inherently biased, either pro-left or pro-right.
Agree or disagree, but this polarization of news coverage and the public’s assumption that all news is tainted in one direction or another is due in part to the emergence of Fox News in the past twenty years. Yes, major newspapers have always had political leanings and editorial boards that took positions on the issues of the day, but Fox News did something other media outlets heretofore had been unable or unwilling to do: Fox wrapped its opinions inside the news itself and told the public other news sources were lying and intentionally deceiving Americans.
In the golden era of print media, there were news articles and there were editorials. Back then, coverage of the news was deemed to be reliable and accurate, whether or not you personally agreed with the editorial stance of the publication.
Today, the integrity of news coverage itself is being attacked. When Fox News started incorporating editorial stances into its actual news coverage, the rapid decline of reliable journalism began.
And when the president of the United States regularly says any story he doesn’t like is fake, the credibility of the news is pushed off a cliff.
Today, we choose our news based upon its political stance. It has become so polarized that even coverage of the coronavirus is now deemed “fake” or “political.”
In fact, CNN and Fox News have been attacking each other’s coverage of the coronavirus. CNN wrote, “Over the past several weeks, top hosts and personalities on the conservative cable news network downplayed concerns about the virus, baselessly accusing credible news organizations of overhyping the crisis to hurt Trump politically.”
Slate wrote, “Fox News during the coronavirus pandemic is awful even by Fox News standards,” and stated many marquee Fox personalities have been rushing to diminish its seriousness while arguing “the novel coronavirus was less of a threat than the seasonal flu.”
As if we were watching two entirely different movies, Sean Hannity informed the viewers of his nightly Fox News program that “No president has ever done more, acted more quickly, to slow the spread of a disease.”
The conservative network’s hosts continued the party line that the coverage of the virus was aimed at harming the president:
Lou Dobbs, a Fox Business host, accused “the national left-wing media” of “playing up fears of the coronavirus.”
Fox News prime-time host Laura Ingraham asked: “What if the Wuhan virus had hit after Hillary Clinton had won the presidency? If her handling of Benghazi is any guide, it would’ve been a nightmare.”
Since Trump became president, Fox News has engaged in an all-out campaign to support and bolster Trump by discrediting his many enemies. Who are Trump’s enemies? Anyone who contradicts, criticizes, or disagrees with him. While this bias in news coverage may be better tolerated when wrapped around a political story, when it is injected into stories about public health, where the difference between accurate and inaccurate information literally could mean life or death, it becomes unforgivable.
When the president of the United States regularly says any story he doesn’t like is fake, the credibility of the news is pushed off a cliff.
Meanwhile, the president continues to tweet that the “fake news media” is trying to make him look bad, and that’s why the coverage of the virus has been wall-to-wall. On February 26, he tweeted (spelling, capitalization, and punctuation errors included): “Low Ratings Fake News MSDNC (Comcast) & @CNN are doing everything possible to make Caronavirus look as bad as possible, including panicking markets, if possible. Likewise their incompetent Do Nothing Democrat comrades are all talk, no action. USA in great shape.”
The next day, the president tweeted: “Anti-Trump Network @CNN doing whatever it can to stoke a national Coronavirus panic.”
Interestingly, Fox News’s coverage of the coronavirus stands in stark contrast to its coverage of Ebola in 2014. At that time, the network overwhelmingly blamed President Obama for his “incompetent” handling of the Ebola crisis.
In 2014, Republicans sought to make questions about how safe we are, including from Ebola, a primary focus of their campaigns. Their message was pointedly grim: President Obama and the Democratic Party could not offer people the most basic protection from harm.
Donald Trump called in to Fox News at the time and said of the Ebola crisis, “It all really starts at the top. It starts with Obama.”
Another Fox News host echoed this thought by saying “Obama has imported dangerous things into this country since he got there. He’s imported socialism here. He’s imported Ebola into America.”
USA Today pointed out the press coverage of Ebola in the U.S. was dramatically disproportionate to the number of people it affected. They reported “Four cases—three of them involving health care workers who have had close contact with Ebola patients—is hardly an epidemic. And the disease, while deadly once you get it, is not spread through the air, only via bodily fluids. So it’s pretty hard to get.
“Alarmist reports,” USA Today added, “are the antithesis of what responsible journalists should be doing.”
I could list dozens, if not hundreds, more examples of the bias in media coverage, but ultimately it is to no avail. People believe what they want to believe, and they choose the news coverage and media outlets that reflect and support their beliefs.
When media reporting about a virus is used to support a political stance, yet marketed as real news, we are in real trouble.
Intellectualism is now frowned upon. Independent thinking is scorned. Being an informed individual with knowledge of actual facts is heresy. That’s life in America today.
Now go wash your hands.
Randall Huft is president and creative director at Innovation Agency, an advertising, branding, and public relations firm specializing in the cannabis industry. While working with blue-chip companies including AT&T, United Airlines, IBM, Walgreens, American Express, Toyota, and Disney, he discovered what works, what doesn’t, and how to gain market share.