In the weeks that followed, thousands would die from the virus around the world, thousands more would be sickened across Europe and the first cases would emerge in the United States. But the tone of the coverage from Fox, talk radio and the commentators who make up the president’s zealous online army remained dismissive.
Talk show hosts and prominent right-wing writers criticized other conservatives who took the threat seriously. “Drudge has a screaming headline,” Rush Limbaugh announced on Feb. 26, referring to Matt Drudge and his website. “Flight attendant working L.A.X. tests positive. Oh, my God, 58 cases! Oh, my God. Oh, my God.” For years, Mr. Limbaugh has encouraged his audience to be suspicious of science as one of his so-called Four Corners of Deceit, which also include government, academia and media.
On Feb. 27, Mr. Hannity opened his show in a rage. “The apocalypse is imminent and you’re going to all die, all of you in the next 48 hours. And it’s all President Trump’s fault,” he said, adding, “Or at least that’s what the media mob and the Democratic extreme radical socialist party would like you to think.” His program would be one of many platforms with large audiences of conservatives — 5.6 million people watched Mr. Hannity interview the president on Fox last week — to misleadingly highlight statistics on deaths from the seasonal flu as a comparison.
On Feb. 28, Mr. Limbaugh read from an article from The Western Journal, a website that was blacklisted by Apple News last year for promoting articles Apple determined were “overwhelmingly rejected by the scientific community.” The coronavirus, Mr. Limbaugh said, “appears far less deadly” than the flu, but the government and the media “keep promoting panic.”
Joel Pollak, an editor at Breitbart News whose work on the virus has been cited by Mr. Hannity, published several articles in February and early March that highlighted the least severe symptoms and best possible outcomes. On Feb. 28, he urged people to “chill out.”
The first of more than 4,500 American deaths to date would occur the next day. Two days later, Mr. Pollak wrote another article criticizing a doctor from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who warned that the coronavirus was likely to spread. The doctor was the sister of Rod Rosenstein, the former deputy attorney general, he noted, “who was once suspected of trying to help remove the president from office.” He assured his readers that he saw “no conspiracy” — only “the ordinary problem of scientists not being very good at communicating to the public.”
Mr. Pollak, whose articles were breezier in tone than much of the coverage elsewhere on Breitbart, declined to comment.