Is dishonest Washington Post pandemic fact-checking risking lives?

Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.


Throughout Donald Trump’s three-year presidency, the Washington Post has asserted that he has told 18,000 lies, all as certified by the paper’s claimedly excellent Fact Checkers.  While most of the Post’s assertions are questionable matters of opinion, generally they have been only politically toxic.  Recently, however, as the pandemic crisis deepens, Post lies are threatening untold lives.  

Ironically, in stretching every word of Trump’s beyond its elastic limits, the Post Fact Checkers themselves have made thousands of false statements.  Blustery opinions (“Greatest economy ever!”) are transformed disingenuously into falsifiable facts.  Dishonest wordsmithing, for example, claims that Trump’s thirty-foot high “steel-slat wall”, with concrete-filled steel beams imbedded deep into a concrete base, is really a “fence,” thus constituting 259 separate Trump lies.  But are these Post claims of lies, lies themselves?

Sometimes its efforts are so strenuous that the Post tells direct, palpable lies that would be legally actionable but for the press’s constitutional protections.  For example, several alleged lies stemmed from Trump’s boast that the Japanese trade agreement was a “$40 billion deal.”  No, snapped the Post Fact Checkers, It was only for $7 billion in agricultural products.  

But in fact, the agreement was a $47 billion deal, because in addition to the agricultural products, Japan made a $40 billion commitment for digital products, as the Post itself reported reprinting a Bloomberg article on October 7, 2019. 

While this childish “gotcha” campaign both creates and exacerbates our society’s angry tribal tensions, it would not be irrational to write it off as a Nixonian-style, political dirty tricks program; more misdemeanors than felonies.  

But a false Post claim of Trump lying about the frightening pandemic would be doubly dangerous to our public health.  First, such lies would weaken the faith of the public in our political leadership, important for the national unity needed to survive well.  Secondly, and perhaps more directly harmful, a false Post allegation may lead some citizens to act harmfully or to refrain from acting beneficially, leading to unnecessary deaths, disabilities, and strain on our health system.  

However, if you thought the Post would take a patriotic pandemic breather, you would be wrong. The Post’s most recent shot at Trump savaged the potential efficacy of the Hydroxychloroquine/Azithromycin treatment that some tout as potentially palliative of severe symptoms.  Why?  Because one of the touts was the president.

Why, though, is what the president has said a lie?  The Post Fact Checkers argue that Trump has in sum and substance given the impression that the drugs constitute a “100% coronavirus cure.”  His statements, the Post claims, “continue to raise alarms among medical experts.”  Trump is, the Post asserts, raising “potentially false hope” because his advocacy is based upon “minimal and flimsy evidence, and sets a bad example.”  Moreover, his advocacy for the “unproven” treatment has led to “shortages for people who rely on the drugs.”  Additionally, people could “die of side-effects.” What is the “flimsy” basis contending in favor of the drug?  A 1,061-patient cohort who received chloroquine administered by a French researcher, Didier Raoult, in which 91.7% had excellent ten-day results, 4.3% had bad results, and only 10 went to ICU, 5 of them dying.  Not bad, one would think, for this strongly-symptomatic group.

But wait, the Post cautions, linking to a Daily Beast article, Didier has long “Wild Bill Hickok hair” and his anti-establishment attitude makes him “beloved by right-wing politicians.”  Besides, the paper points out, he hangs “Schlock paintings on his wall” and the kicker is that… “he is a climate denier”?  After all, who would trust a right-wing physician?  

Why is any of this wrong? First, Trump never assured the nation that this was a certain cure.  The statements he made, to the contrary, implied hopeful uncertainty:

“But I think it could be, based on what I see, it could be a game changer.”
— President Trump, at a White House news briefing, March 19, 2020

“Hydroxychloroquine — I don’t know, it’s looking like it’s having some good results. That would be a phenomenal thing.”
— Trump, at a White House news briefing, April 3, 2020

“What do you have to lose? I’ll say it again: What do you have to lose? Take it. I really think they should take it.”
— Trump, at a White House news briefing, April 4, 2020

“It’s this powerful drug on malaria. And there are signs that it works on this. Some very strong signs.”
— Trump, at a White House news briefing, April 5, 2020

Accompanying these remarks and others, Trump frequently suggested the treatment’s experimental nature by classifying it as a “Right to Try.” And while there was a surge in demand for the drug occurring in late March, before most of Trump’s statements, there has been no evidence presented that regular users of the drug, sufferers of lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, have not been able to obtain it.  The temporary squeezes in supply were, interestingly, caused mainly by physicians wishing to stock up for prophylactic purposes, a fact itself validating the treatment’s promise, and the best evidence the Fact Checkers could muster of unavailability.

And how could side-effects be truly “deadly” if the drug is regularly used by tourists traveling to malarial countries, and lupus and arthritis patients?  In truth, the side effects are minor for 90% of the population passing a “QTc” heart test.  Even for those not passing the test, the literature suggests taking the drug still may be worth the risks.  And the results have been so encouraging that WHO, initially resistant, reversed course and began a massive clinical trial.  And there are a number of positive reports other than Didier’s.  So there is tentative indication that the potential life-saving benefits outweigh the risks to most.

With no other proven palliative in wide use, the cheap and available treatment may in fact save countless lives, in advance of a scientifically valid clinical trial. But not if readers credit the Post

While the country anxiously awaits a proven cure or effective vaccine, the Post may be discouraging potential health benefit for political ends.  As the smoke clears from this pandemic, this Post thrust should be a shameful legacy.  But if past is prologue, its Fact Checkers will place the blame on Trump with even more dishonest reporting. 


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John D. O'Connor


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