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.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

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.

President Donald Trump alongside Rush Limbaugh at a 2018 rally.
President Donald Trump alongside Rush Limbaugh at a 2018 rally.
JIM WATSON via Getty Images

Conspiracies, Anti-Vaxxers And Millions Of Listeners

Limbaugh is only the biggest name in an array of conservative talk radio stars who together reach tens of millions of listeners every week, and who have spent the pandemic downplaying the crisis, promoting conspiracy theories and sycophantically praising Trump. These hosts have created an alternate reality that exists largely outside the scrutiny of fact-checkers and mainstream press coverage, spreading unchallenged misinformation that threatens public health.

Scanning through top conservative radio hosts’ recent coronavirus coverage reveals a staggering number of falsehoods and facile arguments. Glenn Beck, who Talkers estimates reaches 10.5 million people each week on his radio show, interviewed a cryptocurrency investor falsely claiming to be affiliated with Stanford University School of Medicine who touted an unproven coronavirus treatment as a miracle cure. Beck regularly rails against social distancing measures and has defended armed lockdown protests. “Even if we all get sick, I’d rather die than kill the country,” he said in late March. “Because it’s not the economy that’s dying, it’s the country.”

Conservative radio host Mark Levin inaccurately likened the coronavirus to the flu in late April and listed how many people die each year from things like accidental poisoning and diabetes. (The comparison is nonsensical, since poisonings and diabetes cannot infect others or exponentially increase like a virus.) Levin is estimated to reach a cumulative weekly audience of around 11 million people, according to Talkers.

Fox News host and informal Trump adviser Sean Hannity has meanwhile dismissed the severity of the virus, lashed out at journalists and fawningly praised the administration’s disastrous response to the pandemic. “It’s like [Trump’s opponents] are hoping Americans die and get sick and that we all lose a fortune in the stock market,” Hannity has told listeners. His cumulative weekly audience is an estimated 15 million people.

Some hosts have used their immense platforms to promote anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, helping reenergize the movement at a time when it’s especially dangerous to public health. Right-wing host Wayne Allen Root’s nationally syndicated radio show featured a lengthy segment with anti-vaccine movement leader Robert F. Kennedy Jr., where the two spouted wild anti-vaxxer conspiracies. Root falsely claimed that “there was no autism when I was a kid, then they gave kids 72 injections of vaccines and there was an invasion of autism,” and suggested a conspiracy between Bill Gates and top U.S. infectious disease official Dr. Anthony Fauci. Pro-Trump host Joe Pags, who has 4.5 million estimated weekly listeners, similarly floated anti-vaxxer conspiracy talking points and insisted there should be a debate over vaccinations.

“Any opinion on why somebody like Bill Gates is trying to force us all to get vaccinated? I mean he really, really wants this to happen,” Pags asked a guest.

Right-wing radio hosts are not entirely a monolith. Top host Michael Savage broke from the conservative media line on the pandemic by taking the virus seriously and criticizing pundits, including Hannity and Limbaugh, for downplaying the danger. But even he has remained defensive of Trump and blamed White House failures on bad advisers rather than the president himself.

The misinformation spread through conservative radio has contributed to what experts and leading health organizations have termed an “infodemic” of falsehoods about the virus. A disturbingly high percentage of Republican voters believe in anti-vaccine conspiracies, unproven coronavirus treatments and misleading pro-Trump narratives, according to a recent Yahoo News and YouGov poll ― beliefs that closely align with the messaging coming from conservative radio and other right-wing media.

Fox News Channel and radio talk show host Sean Hannity interviews Trump before a campaign rally in 2018. Hannity has sycophantically defended Trump throughout the pandemic.
Fox News Channel and radio talk show host Sean Hannity interviews Trump before a campaign rally in 2018. Hannity has sycophantically defended Trump throughout the pandemic.
Ethan Miller via Getty Images

The Most Trusted Names In News

Talk radio audiences are large (though experts say they are difficult to quantify accurately, and hosts often exaggerate the figures). But what makes these programs especially dangerous carriers of misinformation is the relationship hosts have with their audiences.

“Hosts are friends with their listeners on some level,” said Brian Rosenwald, author of “Talk Radio’s America” and a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.

Radio’s long, conversational shows, where hosts speak directly to audiences, creates a different kind of programming than most other news media, Rosenwald says. Listeners often develop almost intimate connections to their favorite hosts, routinely tuning in during work or their commutes for hours at a time.

“They may listen 15 hours a week to that host. For Rush, they might have been doing that for 30 years and they might spend more time with him than they spend with their spouse,” Rosenwald said. “It’s a deeper bond.”

Limbaugh and Hannity’s radio shows rank second and third in terms of most trusted news sources for conservative Republicans, according to a Pew Research Center study published in January. Republicans and conservative-leaning voters receive their news from a smaller range of sources than their liberal counterparts and have high degrees of distrust for major news outlets such as The New York Times, making it less likely they’ll see information that disputes the narratives in their media bubble. Conservative radio listeners also tend to skew older and male ― demographics that are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Unlike digital right-wing media and cable news, radio shows offer a way for audiences to engage directly with hosts. Call-in portions of shows create a sense of community and let hosts tailor their messaging to reflect the grievances and sentiments of their listeners.

“Audience interaction is a huge thing. It makes the audience much more invested in the programming, it makes it feel much more like a dialogue with the hosts,” Hemmer said. “It positions the audience not as a passive recipient like with Fox News but as a co-creator of the programming.”

The call-in segments are also where conspiracy theories tend to thrive, which can result in unchecked misinformation about the virus being broadcast to millions of people.

“There’s much more space to float a variety of different conspiracy theories when they’re coming from calls,” Hemmer said. “This happens all the time on Limbaugh’s show.”

Limbaugh is no longer the undisputed leader of conservative media he once was. (Republicans made him an honorary member of Congress in 1994, and he signed an eight-year deal in 2008 for his show that was worth around $400 million.) But the pandemic has shown he is still one of the country’s most influential hosts, more than capable of shaping public opinion. His shows have been less frequent since he announced in February he has advanced lung cancer, but his message on the coronavirus has been consistent.

“If you were to tune in today he would talk about it as basically just a flu,” Hemmer said.

Trump has been enamored enough with radio during the pandemic that he considered starting his own show. In April, he reportedly told White House officials that he wanted to host a daily two-hour talk radio program on the coronavirus ― only changing his mind because he didn’t want to rival Limbaugh.

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