Off The Wall: Accused of “Downplaying COVID-19”

In the attached article, a writer for Media Matters accuses me of “downplaying the risk of COVID-19.” It’s a completely unfounded claim, made by a reporter named Madeline Peltz. This is what she has to say…

MP: In recent weeks, Rowe has used Facebook to downplay the risks of COVID-19. In a March 19 post to his Facebook page, which has over 5.6 million followers, Rowe criticized nationwide social distancing efforts and temporary closures of nonessential businesses, saying, “I am concerned that the medicine we’re prescribing might turn out to be more deadly than the virus we’re trying to kill.”

Hi Madeline

Nothing I wrote then, and nothing you quote now, suggests that I’ve “downplayed” the risks of COVID-19 in any way whatsoever. On the contrary, I’ve affirmatively supported the effort to “flatten the curve,” and publicly encouraged people to lay low during this critical time. What seems to have offended you, is the fact that I failed to endorse this strategy indefinitely, or at any cost. This is because a strategy with no timetable is not a strategy at all – it’s just a reaction. And in my opinion, our reaction to this medical crisis – while perfectly sensible in the short term – is not sustainable for months on end.

I could be wrong, and I was careful to say as much in my original post. But I believe that reasonable people can worry about two things at the same time – specifically, the impact of a medical emergency, and the impact of an economic emergency. Both emergencies are extremely dangerous. Many in the media however, including you, have rushed to vilify anyone who dares to point that out. We’re told to fall in line, trust the experts, and wait patiently for the all clear. Okay, fine. But for how long? What are the criteria for turning the country back on? And what exactly are we supposed to do, when the experts don’t agree?

When I wrote that post nearly two weeks ago, Dr. Neil Ferguson of the Imperial College was predicting over two million Americans deaths, and over half a million in the UK. At the same time, Dr. John Ioannides at Stanford was cautioning that our leaders were reacting precipitously to “unreliable data.” Happily, Ferguson has dramatically revised his predictions downward. Not so happily, seven million Americans have filed for unemployment, and millions more are out of work. Businesses are failing, the market has crashed, 401Ks are evaporating, and the nation is gripped in fear and uncertainty. That’s not just the result of the virus. That’s the result of closing the country, with no clear criteria for reopening it.

MP: Leaning on the catchphrase “Safety Third” from a previous hour-long special he hosted, Rowe also decried “the unintended consequences of ranking Safety above everything else,” which he said is “precisely what our leaders are doing right now.”

MR: To be clear, I didn’t just “host” Safety Third – I wrote it. I also turned it into a national advocacy campaign to improve occupational safety, which I’m happy to say, succeeded. In this context however, I was pointing out that our country was not founded on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of safety.” Indeed, safety – at home and on the job is rarely ever first. However, I was very careful in my post to point out that from time to time – like RIGHT NOW, there are exceptions. For once, Safety really is First, as it should be, given the circumstances.

I actually wrote those exact words, Madeline. You on the other hand, were careful to omit them from this critique. How come? Were you “downplaying” the economic disaster that’s now upon us? Or do you sincerely believe, like Andrew Cuomo and Joe Biden, that “all measures – no matter how drastic – are worthwhile, if just a single life is saved?”

MP: Rowe asked his fans to imagine if society treated automobile deaths “with the same frenzied, up-to-the minute drama as each new virus infection. Would any of us ever drive again?”

MR: That’s true, and I stand by the question. Every year, millions of automotive accidents kill tens of thousands of Americans. And yet, we continue to drive. Why? If every life truly mattered, and safety were truly first, Governor Cuomo could lower the speed limit to 25 miles an hour, outlaw all left turns, and require all motorists to wear helmets. Doing so would save hundreds of lives in his state. Likewise, President Biden, should he ever become one, could save thousands more by enacting the same simple protocols. But Andrew Cuomo isn’t calling for such drastic measures, and neither is Joe Biden, or any other elected official. Why do you suppose that is?

Point is, all drivers should understand the risks of operating a vehicle before they get behind the wheel, and all Americans should understand the risks of shutting down the country, before it’s too late to know what we’ve put into motion. Because a depression is no less deadly than a virus. And saying so in public in no way “downplays” the seriousness of COVID-19.

MP: Rowe’s comments also echo President Donald Trump’s medically inaccurate talking points from a recent town hall on Fox News in which he compared the coronavirus to the flu, saying, “We’ve never closed down the country for the flu.” Rowe’s irresponsible comments on Facebook fit in with Fox News’ pattern of pushing medical misinformation, downplaying the virus, giving a platform to conspiracy theories, and engaging in racist fearmongering.

MR: With respect, Madeline, your slip is showing. You’re just using me to find a new way to make a political point. That’s fine – it’s all part of the fun of taking a position. But tell me, where is your proof that I “misinformed,” “downplayed,” or engaged in any form of “racist fearmongering?” How exactly have I been “irresponsible” with my comments on Facebook, or anywhere else? I can see your contempt, but I can’t find your argument. Do you actually have one?

MP: Considering the track records of the parties involved, it’s fair to doubt that viewers will come away more informed from tonight’s Fox News and Facebook town hall.”

MR: It’s always fair to doubt, Madeline. I do it all the time. That’s what I was doing in the blog that so offended you. I was doubting the country’s willingness to comply with a shelter in place order indefinitely. I was doubting the wisdom of reporting every confirmed infection like the latest point in a tennis match, 24/7. I was doubting the assumption that our collective safety will turn out to be the thing we value most. And yes, I was doubting the sincerity of politicians who claim that all measures, no matter how dramatic, are always worth it, even if they save just one life.

But never have I doubted the risk of COVID-19, or “downplayed” it’s threat to America. I simply offered the people on my page some context and perspective. I offer you the same thing now, and I hope you’ll take it.

Either way, good luck out there and try to stay six feet away from your keyboard. (I hear they’re filthy. 


Media Matters for America: Fox News and Facebook’s coronavirus town hall features Mike Rowe — who has spread misinformation about the virus on Facebook
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