On August 23, 2021, the Associated Press re-ported that an astonishing 70 percent of calls to Mississippi’s Poison Control Center were from people who had taken the veterinary medication ivermectin to treat COVID. Similarly alarming news about ivermectin emerged from Oklahoma: Rolling Stone headlined its report “Gunshot Victims Left Waiting as Horse Dewormer Overdoses Overwhelm Oklahoma Hospitals, Doctor Says.”
Media personalities such as Rachel Maddow tweeted the alarmist headlines about Oklahoma out to their millions of followers. The narrative was set: Ignorant rural Americans were self-medicating with a horse drug and, because of their foolish behavior, overwhelming the health-care system.
Neither story was true. As Mississippi’s chief epidemiologist, Dr. Paul Byers, noted, the percentage of calls about ivermectin was 2 percent, not 70 percent. And, contrary to reports, he said, “no hospitalizations due to ivermectin toxicity have been directly reported to the Mississippi Poison Control Center or the Mississippi State Department of Health.”
The Oklahoma story proved even more of a reach. The original source, a report from local news station KFOR, included quotes from an Oklahoma doctor named Jason McElyea—who had not worked at the hospital mentioned in the story for several months. He claimed that “the ERs are so backed up that gunshot victims were having hard times getting to facilities where they can get definitive care and be treated.” He also mentioned having seen some patients who had “overdosed” on ivermectin.
KFOR reporter Katelyn Ogle merged these separate observations into a single falsehood with the headline, “Patients overdosing on ivermectin backing up rural Oklahoma hospitals, ambulances.” Neither she nor the many national and international media outlets that picked up the story bothered to call any hospitals to confirm McElyea’s claims. (In fact, some hospitals were overwhelmed with COVID patients, but not with ivermectin overdoses.)
As with the chain-of-custody process designed to create an unimpeachable record of evidence gathered at a crime scene, journalists are obligated to account for the information they convey as fact in their stories. Who was the original source? Is that source reliable? Can that source’s statements be confirmed by other reliable sources and facts?
Basic tenets of journalistic practice are particularly important when a media outlet has already proven to be less than capable of following them. Rolling Stone, which infamously brought the world an invented college-rape story set at the University of Virginia in 2014, should never be considered a reputable source, as it proved yet again with its promotion of this story. Even the photograph the magazine used in its tweet publicizing its coverage was false, taken not outside a hospital this summer, but months earlier during a vaccination drive in the state.
And what of our Big Tech guardians against disinformation? Despite all the recent hand-wringing by companies such as Twitter and Facebook about the spread of disinformation, Twitter did not mark Rachel Maddow’s untruthful tweet (which remains uncorrected and was sent out to her 10.5 million followers) as misinformation.
Because the ivermectin story fit the prevailing media narrative—a narrative that prioritizes fearmongering and tribalism over fact. The tone of the coverage was consistently and predictably polarizing: Midwestern rubes (probably Trump voters!), whom television hosts such as MSNBC’s Joy Reid contemptuously called “ivermectin people,” take horse drugs and crowd hospitals. Mainstream-media personalities and journalists believe they are doing the right thing by calling out these yahoos for their irresponsible behavior.
No matter that the narrative was pure confirmation bias. These days, confirmation bias functions as adrenaline for many in the mainstream media, and a single local news story can now provide mainstream outlets with just the right amount of salacious detail to justify their portrayal of their fellow Americans as halfwits.
The ivermectin narrative also fit neatly into a broader trend in COVID reporting: alarmism. The terrified tone of so much pandemic reporting, understandable early on when so little was known about the virus and when vaccines were not yet created, has become a permanent feature despite gains in treatment and the protection offered by mass vaccination. It is a form of path dependence whereby the default position for reporting about a new virus variant, for example, or about new treatments for COVID symptoms, begins from a point of panic rather than dispassionate fact-gathering.
This was evident with much of the reporting on the Delta variant. As COVID cases (overwhelmingly among the unvaccinated) began to rise this summer, albeit with thankfully lower death rates, news outlets shifted away from discussing the raw number of COVID hospitalizations and deaths (which would help readers put the recent wave in context) and instead talked about percentage increases that made the situation sound far more dire than it was—especially given the availability of free vaccines.
Story after story on cable news and in newspapers emphasized the dangers of the Delta variant and its supposed deadlier nature (which proved not to be true). In late July, the Washington Post ran a fearful story with the headline “The War Has Changed,” citing an internal CDC slide presentation about the Delta variant that emphasized breakthrough infections (which have proven not to be as widespread as stories suggest) and that claimed (falsely) that Delta was as contagious as chickenpox. By early September, the New York Times front page featured stories such as “Covid deaths surge across a weary America as a once-hopeful summer ends.”
There are a few notable exceptions to this trend. David Leonhardt at the New York Times has used his morning newsletter to debunk several COVID-related panics, most recently analyzing the available data regarding breakthrough cases of COVID in the vaccinated population. (His finding: The vaccinated have a 1-in-5,000 chance, at worst, of being hospitalized due to a breakthrough.)
Still, most published or aired stories about COVID are negative, alarmist, or both, even when the facts offer cause for optimism. Mixed messaging from public health officials compounds this problem, and together they have made vaccinated Americans feel as if it is unsafe for them to return to any sort of normal behavior.
In part, this is because the mainstream media are dominated by people who self-identify as being on the left of the political spectrum. Those same people tend to view themselves as the party of science over superstition, the people who value technocratic-elite directives over common people’s commonsense instincts. From their perspective, they are the ones who “listen to the experts” and do the right thing by living under endless lockdowns and mask mandates, and whose endgame appears to be no return to normal until COVID cases reach zero (everyone else is a danger to society). In fact, the pandemic has proven their total inability to assess risks.
As the recent ivermectin kerfuffle demonstrates, it has also proven their insincerity. If you must lie to make the story work, you’re a propagandist, not a journalist. If your source’s statements seem too good to be true because they so perfectly capture your own ideological leanings, they probably are too good to be true—or your leanings have compromised your judgment. Journalists are supposed to approach events (and those in power) with skepticism, rigor, and the dogged pursuit of the facts on the ground regardless of whether those facts support the prevailing narrative. By actively promoting falsehoods about COVID and their fellow Americans, the media are like the boy who cried wolf. When and if they finally do uncover the truth, they will have made it impossible for us to believe them.
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