The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Monday said it would not be taking any special steps to police the circulation of medical advice related to coronavirus outbreak by on-air media personalities who’ve touted unproven treatments and downplayed the virus by comparing it to the “common cold.”
The decision came in the form of a response to an emergency petition filed by the nonprofit advocacy group Free Press last week which asked for an investigation under the agency’s rule against broadcasting hoaxes. Specifically, Free Press asked the FCC to investigate what it called “deadly false assertions” and “disinformation” being spread by certain media outlets relevant to potential covid-19 treatments, including the use of an anti-malarial drug President Trump has instructed Americans to ingest against the advice of doctors.
“The Federal Communications Commission possesses both the authority and the responsibility to ensure the public airwaves are utilized in the public interest,” the Free Press petition reads. “This duty is heightened in times of crisis. Specifically, broadcasters are prohibited from knowingly airing false information about a catastrophe that causes ‘substantial public harm.’”
In addition to examining whether broadcasters have spread hoaxes and misinformation about the virus, Free Press asked the FCC to issue guidance “recommending that broadcasters prominently disclose when information they air is false or scientifically suspect.”
The FCC declined to make the recommendation or investigate any of the false claims about medical treatments cited by Free Press, saying that doing so would “dangerously curtail the freedom of the press embodied in the First Amendment.”
The petition cited a number of on-air remarks by prominent conservative media personalities who have dismissed the seriousness of the outbreak in recent weeks. Many of the remarks made by the hosts were in defense of President Trump, who prior to declaring a national emergency downplayed the impact of the virus, going as far as to tell reporters in January that the U.S. had the virus “totally under control.”
Since then, more than 10,000 people in the U.S. have died from the virus and the U.S. now has more confirmed cases than anywhere else in the world. “I will not say we have it under control,” Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-diseases expert, told reporters on Sunday. “We are struggling to get it under control.”
The Free Press petition quotes Rush Limbaugh, whom Trump awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in early February, claiming that concern over the virus has been “overhyped” by the media in an effort to harm Trump’s reputation. “The coronavirus is the common cold, folks,” Limbaugh told listeners of his radio show on February 24—a false claim that he then repeated in mid-March. (While many mild illnesses are caused by types of coronaviruses, the disease covid-19 is caused by a new coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2 and is much more deadly than a “common cold.”)
The petition also quotes John Muir, a conservative radio host based in Green Bay, Wisconsin, calling advice by medical professionals to self-quarantine a “nonsensical overreaction” and Pittsburgh radio host Wendy Bell telling listeners that the virus is only receiving so much attention because Trump is president (as opposed to Barack Obama.) It also quotes George Noory, who hosts the syndicated radio show Coast to Coast AM, saying mainstream media outlets are “creating hysteria by blowing the figures out of proportion.”
On Sunday, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, whom Trump appointed in 2017, compared the impact of the virus to a “Pearl Harbor” happening all over the country at once. “This is going to be the hardest and saddest week of most Americans’ lives, quite frankly,” he said.
Some of the disinformation cited by Free Press revolves around the testing of hydroxychloroquine, a drug oft-prescribed for conditions in which the body’s own immune response becomes a threat—something medical experts say they’ve witnessed in some severely ill coronavirus patients. Studies into its efficacy in the treatment of covid-19 remain mixed and limited. Notwithstanding, Trump, who previously told Americans the virus might “miraculously” disappear by April, has repeatedly promoted the drug and on Sunday told Americans they should take it.
“What do you have to lose? Take it,” Trump said on Saturday. “I really think they should take it. But it’s their choice. And it’s their doctor’s choice or the doctors in the hospital. But hydroxychloroquine. Try it, if you’d like.”
The president’s advice follows tragic news of an Arizona dying after he and his wife apparently attempted to self-medicate with chloroquine phosphate, an industrial version of the substance used to clean fish tanks. “I had (the substance) in the house because I used to have koi fish,” she told NBC News. “I saw it sitting on the back shelf and thought, ‘Hey, isn’t that the stuff they’re talking about on TV?’”
Appearing to disregard this, FCC General Counsel Thomas Johnson wrote in response to Free Press that without a full investigation by local authorities, it was premature to suggest the man’s wife learned about the treatment watching television. “Without the context (ironically) that a full investigation by Arizona authorities might supply, [Free Press] blames this incident on the President’s remarks and those broadcasters airing them,” he wrote.
Johnson—whose letter was cosigned by Michelle Carey, head of FCC’s media bureau—cast doubt on whether the woman’s actions were influenced by Trump in a footnote that says it would be “inadvisable to simply assume the truth of the claim that the woman’s coduct was primarily influenced by the President’s statements.” However, Johnson included a link to a Fox News article in which the woman is quoted saying about the chemical she took: “We saw Trump on TV—every channel—and all of his buddies and that this was safe [sic]. ... Trump kept saying it was basically pretty much a cure.”
While Free Press asked the FCC to suggest that broadcasters use disclaimers when referring to medical misinformation, Johnson—whose letter was published by the agency under the heading, “FCC Defends 1st Amendment and Denies Petition filed by Free Press”—characterized the petition as demanding much stronger action.
“Free Press’s suggestion that the Commission require broadcasters to balance the opinion of these commentators—all of whom appear to be generally supportive of the President’s policies—with competing voices or disclaimers amounts to an attempt to use the current crisis to resuscitate the long-dead Fairness Doctrine,” Johnson wrote. (The Fairness Doctrine, overturned in 1987, required holders of broadcast licenses to devote airtime to controversial matters of public interest while offering competing opinions.)
Johnson went on to portray the petition as a “brazen attempt to pressure broadcasters to squelch their coverage of a President that Free Press dislikes and silence other commentators with whom Free Press disagrees.” FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr separately slammed the petition as “a sweeping and dangerous attempt by the far left to weaponize the FCC against conservative media outlets and elected officials.” Carr’s remarks were published on Thursday by the Federalist—a publication whose financial backing is notoriously kept secret—which also characterized the petition as a “plan” to “censor Trump press conferences,” even though the petition itself requests nothing of the sort.
“In actuality, the petition urges the FCC to consider its authority under its broadcast-hoax rule to ensure the public airwaves are utilized in the public interest,” Free Press said in a statement emailed to Gizmodo. “Specifically, Free Press is concerned about several instances in which broadcasters knowingly aired false information concerning a catastrophe that causes, according to the FCC’s own rules, ‘substantial public harm.’”
FCC regulations state that no licensed broadcast station should promote “false information concerning a crime or catastrophe” if the licensee knows the information is false and if it is foreseeable the information will, and had has, caused “substantial public harm.” The regulation also states that in order to qualify, the harm must begin immediately “and cause direct and actual damage to property or the public health and safety of the general public,” among other unrelated requirements.
Free Press added that the Federal Trade Commission, Justice Department, and Food and Drug Administration have already issued similar guidance on the spread of disinformation. “As the FCC noted in its response to the Free Press petition, the Commission has also used its authority to issue guidance warning about phone- and text-based scams regarding COVID-19.”
Jessica González, co-CEO of Free Press, said the group remains firm that certain broadcasts concerning the virus fall well within the definition of “hoaxes” under FCC regulations. “We join a growing chorus of journalists, medical professionals, activists and journalism professors who are concerned that the broadcast of disinformation about the virus has discouraged people from taking appropriate preventative measures, and that it is endangering the lives of hundreds of thousands of people,” she said.
González, who said misinformation about the virus would have “life-and-death consequences,” said the FCC’s allegation the petition was an attempt to silence Trump supporters was “ironic” given that the Trump campaign itself recently threatened TV stations with a letter saying the FCC would pull their operating licenses if they aired an ad critical of the president’s coronavirus response. (The FCC has so far declined to comment on whether the threat is real.)
“Coverage of Trump’s dangerously uninformed medical advice was just one example we provided of the airwaves being used to sow disinformation about COVID-19. There are many broadcast personalities with massive audiences who are using the same harmful talking points. We believe it’s right to ask that the FCC clarify its rules in the context of this national emergency, as other agencies have done for other coronavirus frauds,” she said.
If there’s one rule that every medical professional knows, it’s that only doctor should give medical advice. Hospitals and private practices drill this mantra into the heads of staff in training and not just for liability reasons (though that, too, for sure). Patients can get sicker if they take the wrong medication, even if a drug is generally indicated for their condition. In some cases, this interaction can be fatal.
In most hospitals, doctors aren’t even the final person to sign off on a medication prescribed. Hospitals employ their own pharmacists to verify the work of their doctors who can see a dozen patients or more each day even when there’s no outbreak. No two patients are the same and no one doctor is right 100 percent of the time. These redundancies are there to help keep negative reactions to a treatment to a minimum.
With few exceptions, the media is simply one of the worst places to turn for medical advice beyond generic precautions that apply to everyone, i.e., “wash your hands” or “stay away from large groups during a pandemic.” While many Americans face significant hurdles when it comes to accessing proper medical facilities, taking medical advice from someone whose sole qualification is that they host a radio show is just objectively always a bad idea.