Murdoch media outlets are promoting an economic report declaring that Republican-led states did better than their Democratic-led counterparts in the COVID-19 pandemic. But the supposed “study” is simply an engineered conclusion produced by a political front group, which gives extra credit to Republican policies to not implement public health guidance or restrict normal life. And on top of that, it manipulates the typically higher death rates in red states by artificially adjusting them downward, while dishonestly fabricating higher death statistics in blue states.
The report, with the grandiose title “A Final Report Card on the States’ Response to COVID-19,” is the brainchild of right-wing pundit Stephen Moore, along with conservative political organizer Phil Kerpen and libertarian University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan. (Both Moore and Mulligan served as political appointees in the Trump administration.) The report was released through the Committee to Unleash Prosperity, a conservative group advocating the discredited principles of “supply-side” economics that has also promoted “pro-growth and liberty-based responses to COVID-19.”
The report, which is not peer-reviewed, also includes a note on the first page thanking Dr. Jay Bhattacharya “for his review of this study and his instructive advice.” Bhattacharya is a Stanford medical professor associated with the right-wing Hoover Institution, who has also informally advised Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) — a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2024 — and has appeared multiple times on Fox News and undermined the COVID-19 vaccines and public vaccination campaigns. Bhattacharya also co-authored the “Great Barrington Declaration,” a reckless libertarian proposal for loosening public health measures in the midst of the pandemic to achieve global “herd immunity.”
Fox’s Special Report covered this rigged “study” as if it were straight news
The study was touted on Monday’s edition of Fox’s flagship “straight” news program, Special Report with Bret Baier. A chyron on screen claimed, “Red states fare better on economic and health outcomes.” But as a close examination of the study reveals — briefly alluded to by Fox News correspondent Jonathan Serrie — this conclusion exists only after the authors made some creative adjustments “for age, obesity, and diabetes.”
The study was also promoted in stories on Fox’s website, as well as in the editorial pages of the network’s corporate cousins: the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal. FoxNews.com and the New York Post both mentioned the metric of “age-adjusted death rates,” while the Journal was a bit more forthcoming in noting that the study also made adjustments for “the prevalence of obesity and diabetes (leading co-morbidities for Covid deaths).”
The reports in these three Murdoch publications all pointed to the report’s praise of Florida as supposedly one of the best-performing states — a possible sign of Bhattacharya’s influence on both Florida’s policies and this report’s verdict. By contrast, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank has run through numbers from health care analyst Charles Gaba, which found that Florida is actually one of the worst-performing states in COVID-19 death statistics, even accounting for the state’s older population.
Moore also appeared on Monday morning’s edition of Fox Business’ Varney & Co., during which he claimed, “The big takeaway is that the lockdown strategy was pretty much a total failure. … States that remained open did not have higher death rates from the virus than states that completely shut down.” Serrie later mentioned Moore’s study again, on Tuesday morning’s edition of America’s Newsroom.
Moore has built a career as possibly the worst economist in the media, making serially wrong pronouncements and false calculations in service of his political agendas. In March 2019, then-President Donald Trump announced his nomination of Moore to the Federal Reserve Board, only for Moore to eventually withdraw from consideration due to multiple controversies over his past political comments.
Committee to Unleash Prosperity rewrites death numbers in red states with a fake statistic: “Metabolic-health adjustment”
In order to arrive at the favored conclusion, the Committee to Unleash Prosperity report actually looked at more than just health outcomes. The group’s press release explains that it used three metrics for its findings — COVID-19 deaths, economic performance, and school openings — and declared they were “equally weighted” in the analysis. The result is that the question of saving lives accounts for only one-third of the calculation. The study also essentially just rehashes in pseudo-scientific form Moore’s long-standing contention that saving lives in the pandemic might not be “worth trillions of dollars of losses” and that simply allowing the virus to spread was “a better strategy” than enduring the economic costs of lockdowns.
The concept of age-adjusted deaths across populations is a tricky issue. While it is a legitimate line of inquiry, Fox News has exploited it ever since the start of the pandemic to create a nonchalant response to COVID-19 deaths among the elderly. Looking at this metric from a neutral source does show some interesting effects, but the ranks of worst-performing states would still be Republican-led ones such as Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas.
Moore and his compatriots at the Committee to Unleash Prosperity have gone even further, however, by setting up a new metric in the fine print of their supposed study. They call it an adjustment for “metabolic health” in different populations — “the pre-pandemic prevalence of obesity and diabetes.” But what it really amounts to is a manipulation of the statistics to declare that higher death tolls should be discounted in populations that were less healthy to begin with, and to act as if public health responses can be separated from the overall health of the public.
Much of the discourse around the role of obesity in COVID-19 deaths has framed it as “another ongoing pandemic,” and the role of diabetes has been addressed in media as a “public health train wreck” and evidence of “America’s diabetes crisis.” But the Committee to Unleash Prosperity instead treats these deaths as somehow a mitigating factor in the public health responses of the states most affected. It’s almost as if, by the standards of Moore and his co-authors, the deaths of unhealthy people are not a problem at all.
As a result of this statistical chicanery, death rates in the South and some other Republican-led states were magically revised downward, while deaths were “adjusted” drastically higher in many Democratic states — skewing the data to make blue states look like the worst offenders.
“NV, NY, NJ, and DC were the four states with the highest metabolic-adjusted mortality, even though none is in the top four without the adjustment,” the report says — as if that were a good thing for the authors’ credibility — because those four places all have obesity and diabetes rates that are below the national average. By contrast, in the real-world statistics they began with, the worst contenders were all red states.
Fox News has waged a two-year propaganda campaign against public health, in which it has lied about COVID-19 vaccines, promoted fake cures, encouraged the spread of the virus, and turned people defying public health measures into culture war heroes even as their actions have gotten them killed. Fox also clearly does not believe any of what it preaches — see its own corporate vaccination and testing policies — but the network nevertheless pursues this framing because it is “great for ratings.”
Who knows, perhaps the network will be able to come up with a study showing that watching Fox News is good for surviving the COVID-19 pandemic, once the analysts can adjust for the comorbidities associated with watching Fox News.
Printed with permission from MediaMatters.