The Right's pandemic paranoia

››› ››› BRIAN FREDERICK

While the Department of Homeland Security and the Centers for Disease Control spent the week informing the public with details on the H1N1 virus, the right-wing noise machine spent the week misinforming the public with paranoid theories about the virus. Because the flu virus may have originated in Mexico, the story provided some on the right with an excuse to engage in some good-old fashioned immigrant-bashing and renew their calls for greater border security. The story also provided right-wing media figures with more fuel for their fear-mongering about the Obama administration.

While the Department of Homeland Security and the Centers for Disease Control spent the week informing the public with details on the H1N1 virus, the right-wing noise machine spent the week misinforming the public with paranoid theories about the virus. Because the flu virus may have originated in Mexico, the story provided some on the right with an excuse to engage in some good-old fashioned immigrant-bashing and renew their calls for greater border security. The story also provided right-wing media figures with more fuel for their fear-mongering about the Obama administration.

As the story of the H1N1 virus emerged, it was initially referred to as the "swine flu," but the Obama administration called for moving away from that language because it was contributing to baseless fears that the virus had to do with pork consumption. This did not sit well with CNN's Lou Dobbs, who referred to people using the H1N1 terminology as "idiots" and claiming "they are out of their cotton pickin' minds." Such people include several of Dobbs' colleagues at CNN, including the network's chief medical correspondent.

In response to the administration's request for a name change, radio host Neil Boortz suggested calling the virus the "fajita flu." But that was one of Boortz's more tepid comments about the virus. Boortz stirred up fears that the virus was some sort of "bioterrorist" plot, asking, "What better way to sneak a virus into this country than to give it to Mexicans?" Similarly, radio host Michael Savage claimed, "There is certainly the possibility that our dear friends in the Middle East cooked this up in a laboratory somewhere in a cave and brought it to Mexico knowing that our incompetent government would not protect us from this epidemic because of our open-border policies." After all, Savage claimed, the terrorists might have known that Mexicans "are the perfect mules for bringing this virus into America."

It's hard to determine which came first -- the intolerance or the paranoia.

Indeed, they make conservative leader Rush Limbaugh's suggestions of a conspiracy on the part of the Obama administration seem just slightly less delusional. Limbaugh claimed: "All of this is by design. It's designed to get people to respond to government orders. ... It is designed to expand the role and power of government and schools, and the media just falls right in line with it."

Meanwhile, Fox News' Glenn Beck speculated that the administration's response might have been designed to get Kathleen Sebelius rapidly confirmed as Health and Human Services secretary: "She can be confirmed right out of the gate because of this swine flu. So don't look over here, look at the swine flu, look at the swine flu, look at the swine flu. And she just goes right through the gate."

Thankfully, there were a few commentators urging restraint on the flu story. MSNBC's Joe Scarborough noted: "[T]here have been some irresponsible voices out there talking trying to link illegal immigration with this pandemic and that's just not the case at all. That's ignorant." And Fox's Shepard Smith remarked: "[E]verybody's emailing going, 'The illegals are bringing it across the border.' Relax! There's a flu outbreak going on, and you're worried about illegal immigration."

100 days of Obama misinformation

Wednesday marked President Obama's 100th day in office, and while most media used the occasion to evaluate the president's performance, Media Matters for America used it to examine the media's coverage of Obama over those 100 days.

The last 100 days saw media figures failing to consider the legacy of the Bush administration, framing of Obama as a social-fasc-commun-Nazi-McCarthy-Marxist, downplaying and joking about torture, dismissing global warming, smearing unions, claiming that Obama is going to "nationalize health care," scapegoating ACORN and immigrants and misreporting on earmarks on the stimulus package.

The period also saw an increased emergence of Obama Derangement Syndrome. Harkening back to attacks that were made during the Clinton administration, conservative media figures have asserted or suggested that Obama will sooner or later cede the sovereignty of the U.S. to the United Nations or some sort of one-world government, and repeatedly claimed that Obama is planning to take away people's guns.

In fact, the "Obama's going to take away your guns" claim is indicative of a mainstreaming of right-wing extremist culture by the conservative media that often includes violent and revolutionary rhetoric. Not surprisingly, after the Department of Homeland Security issued a report on right-wing extremist groups and the tactics they might use to attract new members, some conservative media figures decided that the report was actually targeting them, rather than seeing the report as a tool to help law enforcement officials.

And the last 100 days saw the rise of Fox News as the opposition-in-chief to the commander-in-chief. Fox News' opposition to the president has included repeated instances of the network trying to pass off GOP press releases, talking points and research as its own -- typos and all. Fox News even ran "FOXfacts" that were nearly identical to an op-ed written by a GOP congressman. But nothing could compare to the lengths a major news network went to in order to promote and encourage its viewers to attend "FNC Tax Day Tea Parties" in open protest of the Obama administration.

100 days of Limbaugh's attacks on Obama

Given all the outrageous comments and attacks of the last 100 days, Media Matters had a hard time choosing the worst media moment and asked our readers to decide. The winner was Rush Limbaugh's comment, "We are being told that we have to hope he succeeds, that we have to bend over, grab the ankles ... because his father was black."

Indeed, Limbaugh has spent the first 100 days of Obama's presidency repeating and elaborating on his claim that he wants Obama to fail, as well as attacking Obama for being "angry" and accusing him of wanting to "destroy" the United States of America. A review of his falsehoods and attacks illustrates his commitment to personally leading the charge against anything and everything Obama does as president:

  • Day 3: Setting a disturbing tone for the next four years of his attacks, Limbaugh says: "We are being told that we have to hope he succeeds, that we have to bend over, grab the ankles ... because his father was black."
  • Day 7: Limbaugh says that getting the "truth" out about Obama is "gonna be an epic battle, as Saddam Hussein said. Saddam Hussein Obama said."
  • Day 21: In an all-too-common moment of self-aggrandizement, Limbaugh declares of Obama's first few weeks in office: "I've crashed the honeymoon. ... I've hijacked it, in fact."
  • Day 25: Limbaugh declares: "I want the stimulus package to fail. ... I want everything he's doing to fail."
  • Day 29: Demonstrating his deep disdain for Democrats, Limbaugh says of calls for "bipartisanship" in fixing the economic crisis: "Should Jesus have made a deal with Satan?"
  • Day 39: Limbaugh throws Republicans under the bus: "The dirty little secret ... is that every Republican in this country wants Obama to fail, but none of them have the guts to say so. I am willing to say it."
  • Day 40: Limbaugh speaks at the CPAC conference in Washington, D.C., thrashing Obama and the Democrats in front of a fervent crowd. Limbaugh says: "How did the United States of America become the world's lone superpower, the world's economic engine, the most prosperous opportunity for an advanced lifestyle that humanity has ever known? How did this happen? And why, pray tell, does the president of the United States want to destroy it?"
  • Day 42: Responding to comments from RNC chairman Michael Steele that Limbaugh's rhetoric was "incendiary" and "ugly" - comments Steele would later walk back -- Limbaugh says of Steele: "Why do you claim that you are leading the Republican Party when you are obsessed with seeing to it the President Obama succeeds?"
  • Day 58: Limbaugh claims that "everybody in the White House is in over their heads in fixing" the economic crisis and says those in the White House are "perfectly timed, perfectly programmed, perfectly educated to destroy capitalism ... and they're in the process of doing it."
  • Day 64: Limbaugh says of Obama: "He's taking away freedom incrementally each and every day."
  • Day 66: A poll claiming Americans think Obama will raise taxes yet still support him provides Limbaugh an opportunity to bash Obama and display some sexism: "They know he is lying through his teeth and they still support him. It just means this, what women have always known: 'Cheat on me, just don't tell me about it.' "
  • Day 67: Limbaugh issues a pseudo-apology for saying that: "[W]hile my closing comment yesterday was certainly a comment containing a large element of truth, it still perhaps was inappropriate and so for that, I apologize." Yet, later in the show, Limbaugh returns to the rhetoric, saying of Obama: "He's a cult leader. Battered liberal syndrome. 'Cheat on me, just don't tell me.' "
  • Day 70: Limbaugh says: "Based on what we've seen with General Motors and the banks, if he fails, America is saved. Barack Obama's policies and their failure is the only hope we've got to maintain the America of our founding."
  • Day 80: Limbaugh uses the kidnapping of an American sea captain by Somali pirates to attack Obama and the Democrats: "Piracy is rebounding precisely because of the American left and the European left's lack of intestinal fortitude -- gonads, if you will." He later added: "The Democrat Party -- enemies of America are friends of the Democrat Party."
  • Day 84: Following the rescue of the sea captain, and after previously bashing Obama for his handling of the situation, Limbaugh says he "was confident this was going to get settled. It was going to be resolved on way or the other way and regardless how, President Obama was going to be given credit for it."
  • Day 85: Limbaugh predictably reacts to the leaking of a Department of Homeland Security report on "right-wing extremism" distorting the conclusions of the report, claiming Obama and DHS head Janet Napolitano are "extreme partisan radicals and they're ready to go war with a domestic enemy - conservatives - that they consider to be a greater threat than Iran, than China, than North Korea."
  • Day 86: Limbaugh steers his listeners toward empathizing with right-wing extremists by falsely claiming that "Obama's DHS report" called "every mainstream conservative a right-wing extremist."
  • Day 88: Limbaugh reacts to the Obama administration's release of previously classified Justice Department memos detailing interrogation techniques that were authorized to be used on detainees by claiming: "[I]f you look at what we are calling torture, you have to laugh." He went on to assert: "I just slapped myself. I'm torturing myself right now. That's torture according to these people."
  • Day 91: In a comment emblematic of Limbaugh's frequent linking of Obama with Marxist and socialist leaders, Limbaugh asks: "Do you realize that Obama and [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez have more in common than they do not?"
  • Day 100: Limbaugh gives Obama a "D" for his first 100 days, saying "We gotta allow room for more failure, cause it's gonna get worse."

There should be little doubt that for the next three years and nine months, Rush Limbaugh will continue his daily assault on President Obama. Limbaugh's attacks on President Bill Clinton in his first couple years in office were credited with helping Republicans take control of the House in 1994. If Obama does fail -- and the rest of America with him -- Limbaugh will deserve the credit he will be all too happy to accept.

Notable quotes this week:

  • On the radio show Brian & The Judge, Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade said Sen. John McCain "should not be allowed to talk on torture because he is clearly somebody who went through unspeakable pain and punishment," adding that his views are "skewed" because he was tortured.
  • Days after making headlines for exclaiming, "We are America ... We don't fucking torture," Fox News' Shep Smith stated: "Pol Pot was a big fan of this waterboarding action. Now we get some lawyers around the table and want to pretend like it's not torture."
  • In his profile of Rush Limbaugh for Time magazine's "World's Most Influential People" feature, Glenn Beck wrote: "His consistency, insight and honesty have earned him a level of trust with his listeners that politicians can only dream of."
  • Interviewing Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) about Sen. Arlen Specter's decision to join the Democratic party, CNN anchor Rick Sanchez responded to DeMint's comment that the "biggest tent of all is the tent of freedom" by stating: "What the hell does that mean? The biggest tent is freedom? Freedom? I mean, you gotta do better than that."

This week's media columns

This week, Media Matters Senior Fellow Eric Boehlert examines the media's trivial pursuits during Obama's first 100 days, while Senior Fellow Jamison Foser cautions the media not to make the same mistakes of years past when reporting on Obama's possible replacement for retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter, and Senior Fellow Karl Frisch considers 100 days of Fox News.

Week in Review video

This weekly wrap-up was compiled by Brian Frederick, deputy editorial director at Media Matters for America. He holds a Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Colorado.

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