Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters
Fox News is continuing its effort to declare victory in the country's struggle to get through the coronavirus pandemic, pointing to continued downward revisions in the projected death count to argue that the regular economy should be reopened. In fact, those downward revisions are happening precisely because of the social distancing measures that Fox commentators want to start peeling back.
The initial, nightmarish figure of a potential 2.2 million deaths in the U.S. due to the coronavirus was based on a hypothetical projection in which no great preventative measures were taken. With actions put in place, that number plummeted to a still horrific 100,000 to 240,000 deaths. Now, as a CNN report from Wednesday explained, "the model [has] predicted the virus will kill 60,000 people in the United States over the next four months":
New data on the pandemic's trajectory -- from the United States and around the world -- has been fed into the model almost every day, driving the changes. And the downward adjustment suggests that social distancing may be working better than expected in some places.
Additional data on the pandemic's trajectory has always been expected, along with methodological changes to fine-tune the predictions. And from the start, researchers at IHME, who built the model, have emphasized that it would change.
But the newest version of the model underscores just how important social distancing continues to be: It assumes those measures -- such as closing schools and businesses -- will continue through the modeled period, which is until August. And it still predicts tens of thousands of deaths.
Fox's prime-time lineup is now turning this into an opportunity to not only urge a relaxation of the stay-at-home orders and other economic controls, but to question the models themselves.
On the Wednesday night edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, the eponymous host — who has bemoaned the whole notion of relying on scientific expertise for policy guidance in the pandemic — used these downward revisions to declare that the models had "got it wrong." And while it appears that social distancing is working even better than expected, Carlson construed this to claim that "social distancing measures were factored into the model from the beginning," but that some other factor had "skewed the numbers," and "we should find out" what it was.
From the April 8, 2020, edition of Fox News' Tucker Carlson Tonight
TUCKER CARLSON (HOST): At this point, we should not be surprised that the model got it wrong. The [Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation's] prediction of how many hospital beds we'd need turned out to be completely disconnected from reality, and that matters quite a bit it turns out because those numbers were the main justification for this lockdown.
Remember efforts to flatten the curve? They weren't crazy. It was a good reason for doing that. We didn't want our health care system to collapse under a flood of new coronavirus patients, and so far it has not collapsed, but not because we prepared effectively. We didn't really. There were just far fewer people who needed inpatient medical treatment than we thought there would be. For example, the model predicted that on April 4, New York would need 65,000 hospital beds. The actual number was 16,000.
Now, you're hearing people now say that the spread between the prediction and the reality must be due to social distancing. But that is not true. Social distancing measures were factored into the model from the beginning. The prediction turned out to be four times larger than what actually happened. Social distancing didn't do that. Something else skewed the numbers. We don't know what it is; we should find out.
Sean Hannity touted: "No state has experienced a surge anywhere near what was told and expected. … Now, while we continue to fight COVID-19, this country must also harness its ingenuity, its brilliance, the free market system, and figure a way to get Americans safely back to work as soon as possible, where they want to be. You can't allow America's businesses to wither on the vine and die."
Laura Ingraham also claimed that the models were clearly wrong:
From the April 8, 2020, edition of Fox News' The Ingraham Angle
LAURA INGRAHAM (HOST): The Angle believes, as I've said since this emergency began, that it is extremely important that we have full transparency on the data, the methodology, and the objective metrics set for reopening our country when this crisis abates.
Now we know that no one is omniscient, and Dr. [Anthony] Fauci is right that no model will ever be perfect in time; it's just never going to happen. But the projections here were not off by 10%, 15%, 20%. They were off by a factor of 33 from 2.2 million projected COVID deaths at the top, which was terrifying to a little bit more than 60,000 deaths projected today.
And continuing into Thursday morning, Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade mocked the prior warnings from scientists.
"The fact is, when someone says '200,000 people'd die, oops, I mean 60,000.' And it's not going to be right away, it's going to be in August," Kilmeade said. "That's how good we are doing and how off the models were. You have to wonder, as much as social distancing is working, I wonder if the economists are going to get in that room and say we have to stand up this economy in some way before we're not going to be able to stand when this is all said and done."
At that point, even his show co-host Steve Doocy could only reply: "Right, but Brian, it's still 60,000 people, which is a staggering number."
Already, there have been over 14,000 confirmed deaths from COVID-19 in the United States — and that number is likely being undercounted from a lack of testing capacity even in cases where a person had clearly shown symptoms.
Over at Fox News and other right-wing media outlets, however, there has been a concerted effort to claim that the numbers are being inflated. According to them, the numbers are inflated because the COVID-19 death tally includes people who tested positive but also had some other underlying health condition that the virus could have simply exacerbated.
This sort of logic might seem equivalent to stipulating that a person was pushed off a cliff but suggesting they might have really died from a heart attack on the way down. And it is being used to continue a campaign of media denialism that could cause serious danger to the public — thanks to the network's appeal to one specific viewer, President Donald Trump.