The Slatest

Fox News Will Gladly Broadcast Almost Anyone’s Totally Uninformed Opinion on Virology

Bennett and Trump stand next to each other onstage.
Bill Bennett and Donald Trump at the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority Policy Conference in D.C. on June 26. Mandel Ngan//AFP via Getty Images

Slate is making its coronavirus coverage free for all readers. Subscribe to support our journalism. Start your free trial.

This is the kind of thing the typical non-right-wing news consumer these days tends to roll their eyes at and then forget about, but let’s hold up and groove on it for a second:

Bill Bennett is a conservative pundit with a liberal arts background who has in the past served in government roles related to education and drug policy. He is most well known for writing books about moral virtue. He doesn’t have experience in medicine or public health, nor is there evidence that he has been reading up on those subjects in order to make a substantive critique of the experts. When it comes to the coronavirus, asking him for his opinion is no different than asking a random person at the gas station. Why does anyone care what the author of The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family thinks about the relative epidemiological threat of two viruses?

And beyond that, in what sense is it “news”? Why is it on a “cable news” channel? What would someone from, let’s say, 1965 think if you told them you were showing them a news program about a previously unknown disease that has killed 20,000 United States residents in the past month despite a national lockdown—then played them a clip of someone who hasn’t ever held a job germane to the subject matter making the reading-comprehension error of arguing that a model that was explicitly revised, per the press release with which it was unveiled, in order to account for the effects of the lockdown proves a point about what conditions were like before the lockdown took place?

Maybe this time-traveling American would eventually understand the perverse profit incentives acting on the media in an era during which content is more successful the more that it is republished (or “shared”) by regular people, regardless of whether they are sharing it because it infuriates them or because it manipulates their biases. They might be able to recognize intuitively that Brian Kilmeade and his fellow Fox hosts are what would happen if Barry Goldwater suffered a profound brain injury. They would likely not ever be able to comprehend the possibility that in Future America these two phenomena would combine to create a near-critical mass of public sentiment that insists that the U.S. should choose, on purpose, to waste its still-abundant technical know-how and financial resources during a crisis in order to express its ideological disdain for public services, its fanatical deference to the profit motive of corporations, and its feelings of resentment toward know-it-all eggheads.