Right-Wing Radio Reaches Tens Of Millions. Its Coronavirus Conspiracies Are Out Of Control.

Talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh have spread wild misinformation about the virus as they defend Trump’s botched response to the pandemic.

By Nick Robyns-Early | HuffPost

Since Rush Limbaugh received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February, the right-wing radio star has inaccurately compared the coronavirus to the common cold, praised anti-lockdown protests, accused Democrats of “weaponizing” the virus, suggested the virus is an actual bioweapon, promoted conspiracy theories about death tolls and described wearing masks as a “sign of weakness.”

Limbaugh is the top-rated talk radio host in the country. Among conservative Republicans, he is the second most trusted source for news, behind only Fox News. He is estimated to reach a cumulative audience of around 15.5 million people each week, according to Talkers Magazine, a radio trade publication. Vice President Mike Pence has repeatedly appeared on Limbaugh’s show since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, and Limbaugh claims that President Donald Trump calls him on a weekly basis.

Much of the media coverage of right-wing pundits tends to focus on Fox News hosts such as Tucker Carlson, who can count on Trump watching their shows and are able to serve as informal advisers. But conservative talk radio is an immensely important part of the pro-Trump media ecosystem. Nationally syndicated shows such as Limbaugh’s, as well as a sprawling network of local hosts, function as a means of reaching the Republican base and gauging its feelings.

“One of the big roles of conservative media in the past 20 to 30 years has been doing the mediation between Republican office holders and the conservative base,” said Nicole Hemmer, author of “Messengers of the Right” and a research scholar at Columbia University.

When Republican voters have felt confusion or frustration with Trump’s reactions to the coronavirus pandemic, hosts have stepped in to reassure listeners and mend those rifts while validating their audience’s grievances.

“One of the roles of Rush Limbaugh is to bridge that distance, trying to convince listeners that either Trump knows what he’s doing or is being misled by those around him, but that he himself is not wrong,” Hemmer said.

Trump is an active participant himself, already beginning to use conservative radio shows to target voters ahead of the November election and shape the narrative around his coronavirus response. He appeared on conservative host Simon Conway’s influential Iowa radio show earlier this month, touting his supposed achievements and claiming China “sent us a plague,” as Conway lobbed softball questions. Days later, Trump was a guest on New Jersey conservative host Bill Spadea’s radio show, where he promoted ending social distancing and lockdown measures. Spadea declared Americans will not wear masks for the rest of their lives, something no one is advocating. Trump agreed and downplayed the threat of the virus.

“So few people are impacted by this, you know if you look ― if they catch it they get better and people have to remember that,” Trump said of the virus, which at the time of his interview had killed nearly 90,000 Americans. “If you’re old or you have diabetes or you’re not in good shape it’s a different thing, but so few people. You see all the bad cases on television.”

On conservative radio, Trump finds extremely sympathetic hosts who have been calling for months for an end to social distancing measures, and who are ready to embrace the idea that the United States should accept the deaths of elderly and vulnerable people as the price of economic recovery.

“The average age of death [is] 80 from coronavirus, which is higher than the median life expectancy in the U.S. ― it’s killing people who’ve exceeded their life expectancy on average, and this is what we shut down the economy for?” John Kobylt, co-host of a popular drive-time show in Los Angeles, said on the air in late April.

“We have to remember that people die every day in America, before the coronavirus came along,” Limbaugh told listeners.

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