Alleged Nashville coronavirus cover-up was just a misleading story used by right-wing media

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Let me explain what happened: On Wednesday Fox 17 in Nashville, a station owned by Sinclair, released what looked like an explosive report. The story alleged that the mayor’s office concealed data showing low spread of the coronavirus in restaurants and bars. This essentially suggested that city officials had not disclosed information in order to justify shutting down local businesses.

The story – since dismantled – has resonated in the right-wing media universe. It was featured on sites such as Breitbart, The Daily Wire, and The Gateway Pundit, and eventually made its way to major figures like Donald Trump Jr., who tweeted: “The Dem Mayor of Nashville KNOWS LIE ABOUT COVID DATA to justify the closure of bars & restaurants, killing countless jobs and small businesses in the process. Everyone involved should face jail time. On Fox News, Tucker Carlson ran his Thursday Night Show with. “CORONAVIRUS COVERAGE IN NASHVILLE,” rang the chyron from his program.

The story of Fox 17 was extremely misleading. On the one hand, city officials have never withheld data from the public on the spread of the coronavirus in bars and restaurants. This is simply not true – and easily removable. The data was leaked to a July 2 press conference (which was broadcast online and for which a city official told me Fox 17 was in attendance) and local reporter Nate Rau for an article published Aug. 4 by the Tennessee Lookout.

So how did Fox 17 come to the conclusion that the city was hiding the data? Well, the story of the outlet relied on emails between the mayor’s office and the health department that journalist Dennis Ferrier obtained – emails Ferrier conceded in his story “reveal[ed] a partial image. Nonetheless, Ferrier concluded that the emails revealed something “disturbing”.

Here’s what the emails show: After Rau asked for data on the spread of coronavirus in bars and restaurants for his story, a senior mayor’s adviser, Benjamin Eagles, emailed the Department of local health to search for data to meet Rau’s demand. A health department official responded by asking the Eagles, “This won’t be made public, right?” Fox 17 quoted the same official later as saying, “We certainly refused to give bar counts because those numbers are low per site.” ”

Sounds bad, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not when you add the full context. This is the full quote from the health official. And although Fox 17 included an image at the top of his story that showed the full email, he omitted the last half of that sentence from the body of his original report (emphasis added): “We certainly refused to give. counts by measure (i.e. number of cases per group of bars) because this number is low per site and there are data standards that prohibit publication of a total number less than 10 per small geographical area. We now have 2 bars where the numbers are greater than 10, but that would help distinguish these two and not the others. We could still publish the total. ”

You see, city officials have communicated well the total number of people who contracted coronavirus in 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 the release of data showing the specific places where the coronavirus is spreading could pose privacy concerns and violating HIPAA.

“I don’t see a problem with publishing the number of cases due to clusters in bars … it’s just a question of whether we can or should disclose the names of the bars,” a health official wrote to Eagles. . This person added: “Disclosing the names of bars or schools, especially when there haven’t been a lot of cases, helps identify people who were positive and HIPPA says you can’t provide information that could help identify a person. . ”

For some reason, Fox 17 did not include any of this in the text of its initial story. Instead, he took some quotes out of context and created a narrative suggesting that the emails revealed that city officials were hiding the data from the public because it did not show mass distribution …

“We don’t think there was a cover-up”

After contacting a spokesperson for Sinclair, and after the mayor’s office issued a statement requesting an apology, Fox 17 removed its story from its website. The station then released this statement to me: “In a segment aired earlier this week, we falsely claimed that Mayor Cooper’s office withheld the COVID-19 data from the public, implying that there had been a cover-up. We want to clarify that we do not believe there was a cover-up, and we apologize for the error and negligence in our reporting. ”

“We continue to have questions about the level of transparency the government has shown to the restaurant and bar industry – whose livelihoods were at stake,” the statement added. “As journalists, we will continue to ask these questions and hold elected officials accountable. “

Breach of Carlson’s Duty

Yes, it’s a shame Fox 17 posted this story. But Tucker Carlson, who has one of America’s most-watched cable news programs, has a responsibility to do due diligence and check the facts – especially local stories that have been criticized by other media. – before broadcasting them on the air and alleging great conspiracies. But he apparently didn’t.

Carlson said at the start of his Thursday show that “the COVID regime is political” and “our leaders are lying” about the state of affairs. He said there was now “conclusive evidence” of this before citing the Fox 17 story. Carlson argued that Fox 17 caught senior Nashville officials “hiding key health statistics and without valid reason ”. Carlson then read during the segment the same snippets out of context from the emails Fox 17 had printed.

It’s as if Carlson hadn’t done basic research before going on the air with his conspiratorial monologue. Carlson did not mention that city officials released information weeks ago that he accused them of cover-up. And he said officials had “no justifiable reason” for not releasing some of the health statistics when in fact they were writing emails to each other about concerns about HIPAA violations.

It’s also worth noting: while Carlson was arguably the liveliest Fox personality to push this narrative, a version of the Fox 17 story has appeared in several other Fox News programs …

I contacted a Fox News spokesperson who did not respond with a comment …

“We have seen what sort of ugliness this can cause”

I spoke with Eagles on Friday afternoon and asked him what he thought of the Carlson segment. Eagles said Carlson “spoke of a great conspiracy that couldn’t be further from the truth” and tried to “paint a picture that is not true”. He added that “we can all hope that Tucker Carlson would be interested in providing more context. Eagles said the right-wing media coverage prompted angry calls and messages. “We have seen what sort of ugliness this can cause,” he said, adding that a press official had “received a threatening email with racist insult”.

When I asked Eagles what he thought of the Fox 17 story, he replied, “Late in the game with a fake story. I guess the motivation is that you get a lot of national news play from people who don’t care about telling the true story or the aftermath. Eagles said that at this point, “anyone with an Internet connection” can find the information they need to demystify it.

I also spoke with Rau, whose emails to the Eagles were the ones Fox 17 used in their story. Rau told me he thought the Fox 17 story was “inaccurate.” As Rau explains, “it represented the city hiding something that they weren’t actually hiding.” Rau said it was surprising that this was described as a scandal, given that as a journalist you “often have to fight” to get data “or sue for it”. In this case, he stressed, that did not happen – city officials handed the data to him.

We have already seen this story

This sequence of events is depressing, but nothing new. We have seen a version of it too often. The comments have been taken out of context and militarized by partisan media in an attempt to fabricate a scandal that simply does not exist. And by the time those who ran with the story are called out for their mistakes, dozens of people have already been misled.

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