Fox News Stars Trumpeted a Malaria Drug, Until They Didn’t

Fox News Stars Trumpeted a Malaria Drug, Until They Didn’t

Laura Ingraham called hydroxychloroquine “a game changer.” But after a month of coverage, she stopped discussing the drug on the air.

Michael M. Grynbaum

By Michael M. Grynbaum

  • April 22, 2020

For a month’s stretch, the Fox News star Laura Ingraham relentlessly promoted the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to her nearly four million nightly viewers.

The drug was “a game changer” in the fight against the coronavirus, the conservative anchor declared. She booked recovered patients to describe their “miracle turnaround” — “like Lazarus, up from the grave,” as Ms. Ingraham put it. Anyone who questioned the drug’s efficacy, she said, was “in total denial.”

“I love everybody, love the medical profession,” the host said on April 3, after listing off public health experts who questioned the cure. “But they want a double-blind controlled study on whether the sky is blue.”

But as of last Wednesday, Ms. Ingraham was no longer talking about hydroxychloroquine, and she didn’t bring it up on her show for a week.

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Her fellow Fox News prime-time stars Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity also cut back on referring to the drug. In fact, since April 13, hydroxychloroquine has been mentioned about a dozen times on Fox News, compared with more than 100 times in the four previous weeks, according to a review of network transcripts.

The shift came as President Trump has dialed back his public zeal for the treatment — and as studies and health experts have increasingly cast doubt on the efficacy of the drug in treating coronavirus.

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On Tuesday, a study of 368 Veterans Affairs patients showed that the use of hydroxychloroquine was associated with an increased risk of death. Mr. Trump’s own medical team, including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases, has urged caution about hydroxychloroquine, noting the drug’s potential adverse effect on patients with heart troubles.

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Ms. Ingraham declined to be interviewed for this article. On Wednesday, after this article was published online, she opened her Fox News program by dismissing the results of the Veterans Affairs study, calling it “shoddy,” “shockingly irresponsible” and “agenda-driven.”

“What’s driving this blind obsession to disprove the effectiveness of a drug that is being used right now, tonight, in medical centers across America?” Ms. Ingraham said, above an onscreen graphic that read “The Truth About Hydroxychloroquine.”

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She added: “Is it triggered by pure hatred of Trump? Of Fox? Of me?” (Ms. Ingraham prefaced her remarks by reminding viewers: “I’m not a doctor; I don’t play one on TV.”)

Since mid-March, hydroxychloroquine has been a staple of the right-wing news media venues that Mr. Trump follows closely, including Rush Limbaugh’s radio show and Fox News prime time.Sign up to receive an email when we publish a new story about the coronavirus outbreak.Sign Up

Ms. Ingraham was an early and enthusiastic advocate. On April 2, she told her viewers that “nearly all the experts that I’ve talked to, and the studies I’ve read, review this information, the evidence, and at this point, it’s come across as pretty much of a game changer.” The next day, she met with Mr. Trump in the Oval Office to personally pitch him on the drug.

Doctors around the country have prescribed hydroxychloroquine to patients for weeks despite the lack of rigorous trials. Some physicians say, given the speed and severity of the coronavirus, they are turning to any medicinal tools they can to save lives, even as little evidence has emerged that hydroxychloroquine is a panacea. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York has allowed that, “anecdotally,” doctors have seen positive results from the treatment, while reminding people that reliable data may take months to collect.

On Fox News, though, Ms. Ingraham acknowledged those caveats in passing, leaving an impression that a skeptical bureaucracy was keeping Americans from benefiting from a miracle drug.

On April 9, she began her program by mocking the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Robert Redfield, for “essentially dismissing, trashing” hydroxychloroquine “despite all of its success stories.” She told viewers that the doctors booked on her program that night — “my medicine cabinet” — would “set the record straight.” (Fox News said on Wednesday that Ms. Ingraham’s segments about hydroxychloroquine always included a doctor or recovered coronavirus patient.)

Later on the show, she interviewed a patient, Billy Saracino, who, by his account, recovered from the coronavirus because his wife was inspired by “The Ingraham Angle” to help arrange a prescription for hydroxychloroquine.

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“It is amazing that the left and the medical establishment is still in total denial about the potential of these decades old drugs,” Ms. Ingraham said.

Within a week, she had stopped talking about the drug on-air.

Mr. Hannity, while not as prominent a hydroxychloroquine cheerleader as Ms. Ingraham was, also highlighted the use of the drug, at one point citing a study that, he told viewers, showed “hydroxychloroquine is rated now the most effective therapy by doctors, over 6,300 of them surveyed, for coronavirus.”

Mr. Hannity, who likes to remind viewers that he is “not a doctor,” routinely asked guests whether they would take hydroxychloroquine for treatment if they were infected with the disease.

Fox News, the country’s top-rated cable network, carries outsize influence among viewers who flock to its popular opinion programs. Hydroxychloroquine was first cited on the network during a late-night news show on March 11. The mention jumped to prime time a few days later, when a guest named Gregory Rigano praised the drug to Mr. Carlson and Ms. Ingraham.

“Tucker Carlson Tonight” had identified Mr. Rigano as an adviser to the Stanford University School of Medicine, but the school has since said that Mr. Rigano has no affiliation with the institution; he has not been back on Fox News.

On Wednesday, Dr. Mehmet Oz, a frequent guest on Fox News, appeared on “Fox & Friends” and spoke about the Veterans Affairs study that showed no clear positive benefit of treating the coronavirus with hydroxychloroquine.

At first, Dr. Oz offered some caveats, noting the study was not a controlled trial and focused on “older and quite a bit sicker patients.” But pressed by the co-host Brian Kilmeade, Dr. Oz conceded that “the fact of the matter is, we don’t know.”

“There’s so much data coming from so many places,” he told viewers, “we are better off waiting for the randomized trials Dr. Fauci’s been asking for.”

The Coronavirus Outbreak

  • Frequently Asked Questions and AdviceUpdated April 11, 2020
    • When will this end?This is a difficult question, because a lot depends on how well the virus is contained. A better question might be: “How will we know when to reopen the country?” In an American Enterprise Institute report, Scott Gottlieb, Caitlin Rivers, Mark B. McClellan, Lauren Silvis and Crystal Watson staked out four goal posts for recovery: Hospitals in the state must be able to safely treat all patients requiring hospitalization, without resorting to crisis standards of care; the state needs to be able to at least test everyone who has symptoms; the state is able to conduct monitoring of confirmed cases and contacts; and there must be a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days.
    • How can I help?The Times Neediest Cases Fund has started a special campaign to help those who have been affected, which accepts donations hereCharity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities. More than 30,000 coronavirus-related GoFundMe fund-raisers have started in the past few weeks. (The sheer number of fund-raisers means more of them are likely to fail to meet their goal, though.)
    • What should I do if I feel sick?If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
    • Should I wear a mask?The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
    • How do I get tested?If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
    • How does coronavirus spread?It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.
    • Is there a vaccine yet?No. Clinical trials are underway in the United States, China and Europe. But American officials and pharmaceutical executives have said that a vaccine remains at least 12 to 18 months away.
    • What makes this outbreak so different?Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.
    • What if somebody in my family gets sick?If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.
    • Should I stock up on groceries?Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.
    • Can I go to the park?Yes, but make sure you keep six feet of distance between you and people who don’t live in your home. Even if you just hang out in a park, rather than go for a jog or a walk, getting some fresh air, and hopefully sunshine, is a good idea.
    • Should I pull my money from the markets?That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.
    • What should I do with my 401(k)?Watching your balance go up and down can be scary. You may be wondering if you should decrease your contributions — don’t! If your employer matches any part of your contributions, make sure you’re at least saving as much as you can to get that “free money.”

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