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How Right-Wing Pundits Are Covering Coronavirus

Sean Hannity used his syndicated talk-radio program on Wednesday to share a prediction he had found on Twitter about what is really happening with the coronavirus: It’s a “fraud” by the deep state to spread panic in the populace, manipulate the economy and suppress dissent.

“May be true,” Mr. Hannity declared to millions of listeners around the country.

As the coronavirus spreads around the globe, denial and disinformation about the risks are proliferating on media outlets popular with conservatives.

“This coronavirus?” Rush Limbaugh asked skeptically during his Wednesday program, suggesting it was all a plot hatched by the Chinese. “Nothing like wiping out the entire U.S. economy with a biothreat from China, is there?” he said.

The Fox Business anchor Trish Regan told viewers on Monday that the worry over coronavirus “is yet another attempt to impeach the president.”

“That’s not just a problem for the right wing, that becomes a real threat to the general population,” added Mr. Sykes, who is also a contributor to MSNBC. “When people start dying, the entertainment value wears off.”

In the case of Fox News viewers and talk radio listeners, who tend to be older than the general population, the danger of playing down the threat is potentially far worse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has specifically identified older people as being at higher risk from serious complications if they contract the virus. The typical Fox News viewer is in his or her mid-60s, similar to CNN and MSNBC.

Despite Mr. Hannity’s own skeptical commentary, his Tuesday show featured Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as a guest. He told Mr. Hannity that he wanted to “make sure” viewers knew that the coronavirus “is 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu — you got to make sure that people understand that.”

It was not difficult to see why Dr. Fauci would think Mr. Hannity’s roughly four million viewers — the biggest audience in cable news — might not understand. On Tuesday, the star anchor told his viewers, effectively, to relax.

“Sadly, these viruses pop up time to time,” Mr. Hannity said, with the certitude of a medical professional. “Pandemics happen, time to time.”

Mr. Limbaugh has offered clinical advice. Recently he defended his widely criticized comparison of the coronavirus to the common cold and suggested the timing of the coverage of the outbreak raised “a gigantic series of question marks and red flags.”

And not all the prominent players in conservative opinion are denying the seriousness of the threat. Disagreement on the right has spilled into public view in a way that is unusual, given how swiftly dissent is often punished by Mr. Trump and his media loyalists.

Seventy-nine percent of those who gave Mr. Trump high job approval ratings said they were very or somewhat confident in the government’s ability to prevent the outbreak from becoming much worse, compared with only 39 percent of those who disapprove of him, according to a CNN poll conducted last week.

At times, there has been a jarring split screen between the president’s nonchalance and the sober warnings of the nation’s top health officials, who have been more aggressive about warning certain vulnerable populations not to travel.

Asked on Wednesday at the White House what he had to say to those concerned he is not taking the situation seriously enough, Mr. Trump offered a tart, terse reply: “Fake news,” the president snapped, before dismissing reporters from the room.

The fallout from the president’s handling of the crisis might have been more easily dismissed as liberal, anti-Trump paranoia if not for an improbable twist of events. A person infected with the coronavirus attended one of the conservative world’s biggest annual gatherings last week, the Conservative Political Action Conference, leading some politicians like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas to voluntarily quarantine themselves.

Before this person’s status was made public — he was a V.I.P. attendee who purchased a $5,750 “gold” package that granted him access to backstage reception rooms where members of Congress and other high-profile figures mingled — conservatives at the conference were accusing the president’s enemies of inflating the seriousness of the outbreak.

The former White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, speaking from the conference stage last Friday, insisted falsely that the media had only just started paying attention to the coronavirus after the impeachment trial ended. And the reason, he added, was “they think this is going to be what brings down the president.”

But over the next few days, CPAC’s organizers were pelted with questions from fellow conservatives, some of whom said they shook the infected guest’s hand, about why they had been left in the dark.

Suddenly the “hoax,” as Mr. Hannity and others have called the response to the virus, hit home.

Raheem Kassam, a former Breitbart News editor, was one of several conservative activists who attended CPAC and expressed frustration about how the group handled the incident. Mr. Kassam, who said he felt sick over the weekend and on social media chronicled his frustrated attempts to obtain a coronavirus test, knew that he might have been exposed only after someone who works in the office of a member of Congress who was also exposed contacted him.

“I think there’s a grown-up conversation to be had about what happened,” Mr. Kassam said in an interview, adding that he did not believe that some conservatives wanted to have that conversation now. “Imagine being that sick, and then finding out why I might be that sick in a thirdhand way. I was angry. I was frustrated. I was scared,” he added.

But the president’s allies have attacked Mr. Kassam, accusing him of sowing panic when there are no other known cases to come out of the conference.

Matt Schlapp, president of CPAC, who has sequestered himself at home because he also shook the infected attendee’s hand, appeared on Fox News in recent days to malign the media for exaggerating the threat.

And though he acknowledged in a subsequent interview that he had no medical training, he has made claims about the coronavirus and its apparent lack of contagiousness.

“It’s actually hard to get,” he said on Fox News on Wednesday, speaking via Skype from his home, where he still has a few days left in his self-imposed quarantine.

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