Moral Majority Media Strikes Again

When Rachel Maddow, Rolling Stone, and others jumped on a dubious report of ivermectin overdoses, it was just the latest in a string of moral mania mishaps

Citing a report of Oklahoma emergency rooms so overwhelmed by ivermectin overdoses that gunshot victims were going untreated, MSNBC anchor Joy Ann Reid Sunday proposed sticking the swallowers of “horse paste” at the back of the line in order to prioritize the more deserving, “rather than allowing the ivermectin people” — she spoke the words as if holding a vile wriggling thing with tweezers — to “take up all the beds”:

This was a network anchor despising a group of people so much that she itched to deny them medical care, not only despite having never met them, but despite the fact that they may not even exist. The “overwhelmed Oklahoma E.R.” tale later seemed to go sideways, the latest in a line of crackups by media lost in the throes of a moral panic.

The tale of mobbed E.R.s originated with a September 1 print story in the Tulsa World, followed by a piece by Oklahoma City-based NBC affiliate KFOR. Both interviewed a Dr. Jason McElyea, who spoke in the KFOR piece of “gunshot victims having hard times getting to facilities.” Separately he spoke about both the overcrowding problem and of seeing ivermectin overdose cases, but we don’t actually hear him making the connection that it’s the “ivermectin people” causing the bed shortage. That was done by KFOR, whose chyron and tweet identically read, PATIENTS OVERDOSING ON IVERMECTIN BACKING UP HOSPITALS, AMBULANCES.

The line spread the next day with a retweet by Rachel Maddow — the real patient zero of this mess — followed by tweet-pushes by MSNBC executive producer Lauren Peikoff, the Guardian, the Business Insider, the Daily Mail, Newsweek, the New York Daily News, Daily Kos, Occupy Democrats, Reid, moral mania all-star Kurt Eichenwald, the humorously dependable wrongness-barnacle Eoin Higgins, and of course my former employers at Rolling Stone. My old mag got most of the catcalls on social media, after adding a full written story that widened the scope beyond Oklahoma to note in a tsk-tsking tone that “even podcaster and anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist Joe Rogan bragged” of taking ivermectin.

The original report would have been sensational enough, if true. McElyea told stories of backed-up ambulances, patients “in worse conditions than if they’d caught COVID,” and “scariest” of all, “people coming in with vision loss.” Nonetheless, in the game of Twitter telephone that led from KFOR to the Stone, details were magically added. Reid somehow knew the hated overdosers not only swallowed “horse paste” but had done so “instead of taking the vaccine.” Occupy Democrats knew for whom the horse-pasters voted, noting that “so many Trumpers are overdosing” that emergency rooms are full. MSNBC contributor Dr. Jason Johnson even speculated Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe was somehow profiteering from the misery:

Wonder if Inhofe (R-OK) has any financial ties to ivermectin. Wouldn’t be the first time he appeared to have profited off #Covid-19…

Things appeared to go south when the Stone put out an “update” with a statement from Oklahoma’s Northeastern Hospital System Sequoyah, which said Dr. McElyea “has not worked at our Sallisaw location in over 2 months,” and, worse, that “NHS Sequoyah has not treated any patients due to complications related to taking ivermectin,” which “includes not treating any patients for ivermectin overdose.” Of course that was only one hospital system, and it wasn’t clear if it was relevant to McElyea’s story. However, Rolling Stone then put out a second update noting that, “Rolling Stone has been unable to independently verify any such cases,” adding:

The National Poison Data System states there were 459 reported cases of ivermectin overdose in the United States in August. Oklahoma-specific ivermectin overdose figures are not available, but the count is unlikely to be a significant factor in hospital bed availability in a state that, per the CDC, currently has a 7-day average of 1,528 Covid-19 hospitalizations.

Mistakes happen and Rolling Stone at least did the right thing and owned up to an issue, while Maddow as of this writing still has her tweet up, as do others on the list, who clearly don’t care. The story in a vacuum appears to be a garden variety series of misunderstandings, in which perhaps-real tales of ivermectin overdoses got conflated somehow with an also-real overcrowding story. But as Rolling Stone pointed out, a brief glance at statistics should have given reason to be skeptical of tales of gunshot victims turned away by tidal waves of Trump-loving consumers of veterinary medicine, especially given that such patients everywhere are competing with an exponentially larger actual flood of Covid-19 patients.

The problem lay in the reason the error spread, which happens to be the same reason underlying innumerable other media shipwrecks in the last five years. These include everything from wrong reports of Russians hacking a Vermont energy grid, to tales of Michael Cohen in Prague, to the pee tape, to Julie Swetnick’s rape accusation, to the Covington high school fiasco, to Russian oligarchs co-signing a Deutsche Bank loan application for Donald Trump, to Bountygate, to the “mass hysterectomies” story, and dozens beyond: the media business has become a machine for generating error-ridden moral panics.

News has become a corporatized version of the “Two Minutes Hate,” in which the goal of every broadcast is an anxiety-ridden audience provoked to the point of fury by the un-policed infamy of whatever wreckers are said to be threatening civilization this week: the unvaccinated, insurrectionists, Assadists, Greens, Bernie Bros, Jill Stein, Russians, the promoters of “white supremacy culture,” etc. Mistakes are inevitable because this brand of media business isn’t about accuracy, but rallying audiences to addictive disgust. As a result, most press people now shrug off the odd error or six — look at Maddow leaving her tweet up — so long as they feel stories are directionally right, i.e. aimed at deserving targets.

I never thought this could happen, but people like Maddow, Reid, and the editors of the New York Times opinion page have taken over the role once occupied by Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. As a kid I tilted blue in my politics in significant part because I couldn’t stand (or understand) crusading moralists like Falwell, whose entire raison d'être was driving millions of followers to hate and fear people they not only seemed to know nothing about, but claimed they hoped never to meet: gays and lesbians, punk and rock musicians, rappers, comics who used naughty words, fantasy gamers, and scariest of all, goth teens who drew pentagrams on their Trapper-Keepers.

Falwell and his imitators mixed a conspicuously un-Christian unforgiving attitude with undisguised glee at the suffering of anyone they understood to have brought divine retribution upon themselves. Sound familiar? Remember the fundamentalist opinion on AIDS patients, that “if the homosexual community would stop doing what they are doing, they would stop getting what they are getting”? Then there was Falwell’s take on New York after 9/11, that “when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad,” and “the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians [and] the ACLU… I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’”

That brand of pious sadism is now baseline norm in the wing of the media business where I once worked. Today’s press constantly makes religious icons out of tendentious bureaucrats like Bob Mueller and “Saint” Anthony Fauci, strives all the time to turn changeable news narratives into inflexible Holy Writ, and delights even more than Falwell in its own version of divine retribution stories.

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