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Anatomy of a faux scandal: Right-wing media uses misleading local story to suggest coronavirus cover-up

Posted September 18, 2020 11:07 p.m. EDT

— A version of this story is also appearing in the Reliable Sources newsletter. Click here to sign up for free. If you don't get your news from right-wing media, it is likely that you haven't heard about this story. But for those who do rely on outlets such as Fox News or Breitbart for information, a scandal of towering proportions has been brewing in Nashville, Tennessee.

Let me walk you through what happened: On Wednesday, Fox 17 in Nashville, a Sinclair-owned station, published what sounded like an explosive report. The story alleged that the mayor's office covered up data showing low spread of the coronavirus at restaurants and bars. It essentially suggested that city officials did not disclose the info so that they could justify keeping local businesses shut down.

The story -— since taken down — reverberated through the right-wing media universe. It was featured on sites like Breitbart, The Daily Wire and The Gateway Pundit, and ultimately made its way up to major figures like Donald Trump Jr., who tweeted, "The Dem Mayor of Nashville KNOWINGLY LIED ABOUT COVID DATA to justify shutting down bars & restaurants, killing countless jobs & small businesses in the process. Everyone involved should face jail time." On Fox News, Tucker Carlson led his Thursday night program with it. "CORONAVIRUS COVER-UP IN NASHVILLE," the chyron on his program blared.

The problem? The crux of the story was simply not true...

Fox 17 left out crucial context

The Fox 17 story was grossly misleading. For one, city officials never hid data about coronavirus spread at bars and restaurants from the public. That's just false — and easily debunkable. The data was disclosed at a July 2nd press conference (which was streamed online and which a city official told me Fox 17 was present for) and to a local reporter, Nate Rau, for an article published August 4th by the Tennessee Lookout.

So how did Fox 17 draw the conclusion that the city was covering up the data? Well, the outlet's story rested on emails between the mayor's office and health department that reporter Dennis Ferrier obtained — emails which Ferrier conceded in his story only "reveal[ed] a partial picture." Nevertheless, Ferrier drew the conclusion that the emails revealed something "disturbing."

Here's what the emails show: After Rau requested data on coronavirus spread at bars and restaurants for his story, a senior advisor for the mayor, Benjamin Eagles, emailed the local health department seeking data to fulfill Rau's request. An official from the health department responded asking Eagles, "This isn't going to be publicly released, right?" Fox 17 quoted that same official later saying, "We have certainly refused to give counts per bar because those numbers are low per site."

Sounds nefarious, right? Well it's not when you add the full context. This is the full quote from the health official. And though Fox 17 included an image at the top of its story that did show the full email, it omitted the latter half of this sentence from the body of its original report (emphasis mine): "We have certainly refused to give counts per bar (i.e. # cases per bar cluster) because this numbers are low per site, and there are data standards prohibiting the release of a total count that is less than 10 per small geographic area. We do have 2 bars now where the counts are over 10, but then that would single out those two and not the others. We could still release the total though."

You see, city officials were fine releasing the overall number of people who had contracted coronavirus from bars and restaurants in Nashville. But behind the scenes, in emails the mayor's office tweeted and provided to me, there was a discussion about whether releasing data showing the specific locations where coronavirus spread could present privacy concerns and violate HIPAA.

"I do not see a problem with releasing the number of cases that are due to clusters at bars ... it is just the issue of whether we can or should release the names of the bars," one health official wrote to Eagles. That person added, "Releasing the names of bars or schools especially when there haven't been many cases makes it possible to identify the individual(s) that were positive and HIPPA says you can't provide any information that may help identify an individual."

For some unknown reason, Fox 17 did not include any of this in the text of its initial story. Instead, it ripped select quotes from context and spun a narrative that suggested the emails revealed city officials were hiding the data from the public because it didn't show mass spread...

"We do not believe there was any cover up"

After I reached out to a Sinclair spokesperson, and after the mayor's office put out a statement demanding an apology, Fox 17 removed its story from its website. The station then issued this statement to me: "In a segment that aired earlier this week, we incorrectly asserted that Mayor Cooper's office withheld COVID-19 data from the public, which implied that there had been a cover up. We want to clarify that we do not believe there was any cover-up, and we apologize for the error and oversight in our reporting."

"We continue to have questions about the level of transparency that the government showed to the restaurant and bar industry - whose livelihood was on the line," the statement added. "As journalists, we will continue to ask those questions and hold elected officials accountable."

Carlson's dereliction of duty

Yes, it's bad that Fox 17 ran this story. But Tucker Carlson, who has one of the most-watched cable news programs in America, has a responsibility to do his due diligence and fact-check stories — especially local stories that have been criticized by other outlets — before running with them on air and alleging grand conspiracies. But he apparently did not.

Carlson declared at the outset of his Thursday show that the "COVID regime is political" and "our leaders are lying" about the state of affairs. He said that there was now "conclusive proof" of this before citing the Fox 17 story. Carlson argued that Fox 17 caught top Nashville officials red-handed "hiding key health statistics and for no justifiable reason." Carlson then read during the segment the same out-of-context clips from the emails emails Fox 17 had printed.

It's as if Carlson didn't do basic research before going on air with his conspiratorial monologue. Carlson did not mention that city officials had weeks ago released the info that he was accusing them of covering up. And he said the officials had "no justifiable reason" for not releasing some of the health stats when, in fact, they were writing in emails to each other about concerns regarding HIPAA violations.

It should also be noted: While Carlson was arguably the most animated Fox personality who pushed this narrative, a version of the Fox 17 story appeared on several other Fox News programs...

I reached out to a Fox News spokesperson who did not respond with a comment...

"We've seen what sort of ugliness this can cause"

I spoke on Friday afternoon with Eagles and asked him what he thought of the Carlson segment. Eagles said Carlson "spoke about a grand conspiracy that couldn't be further from the truth" and tried to "paint a picture that's not true." He added that "we can all hope that Tucker Carlson would be interested in providing greater context." Eagles said that the right-wing media coverage has prompted angry calls and messages. "We've seen what sort of ugliness this can cause," he said, adding that a press official had "received a threatening email with a racial slur."

When I asked Eagles for his thoughts about the Fox 17 story, he replied, "Late to the game with an untrue story. I guess the motivation is that you get a lot of play on national news from people who don't care about telling the true story or the consequences." Eagles said that at this point "anyone with an internet connection" can find the necessary info to debunk it.

I also spoke with Rau, whose emails to Eagles were the ones that Fox 17 used in their story. Rau told me that he believed the Fox 17 story to be "inaccurate." As Rau explained, "It portrayed the city concealing something that they didn't actually conceal." Rau said that it was surprising that this had been portrayed as a scandal, given that as a reporter you often "have to fight" for data "or sue for it." In this case, he pointed out, that didn't happen — the city officials handed the data over to him.

We've seen this story before

This sequence of events is depressing, but nothing new. We've seen a version of it too many times. Comments are taken out of context and weaponized by partisan outlets in an effort to manufacture a scandal that simply isn't there. And by the time those who ran with the story are called out for their mistakes, scores of people have already been misled.

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