For the loyal viewers of Fox News, the tired face and ragged voice of Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, one of the country’s foremost infectious-disease experts, have become something of a familiar sight. On America’s Newsroom on March 13th, he discussed best practices for personal hygiene during the novel coronavirus outbreak. At 4:15 in the morning on March 17th, he went on Fox & Friends First to assess President Trump’s new safety guidelines. He appeared in the Fox special America vs. Virus. And when Lipkin revealed in late March that he had tested positive for COVID-19, he did it on the Fox Business show hosted by Lou Dobbs, a conservative firebrand who liked to call the novel coronavirus the “Wuhan virus.”
Lipkin doesn’t use those words. As the head of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, he’s identified and combated the spread of everything from AIDS and West Nile Virus to SARS and MERS. He was a scientific consultant for the 2011 movie Contagion. At a 2016 event presided over by President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government gave him an award for his decades of work in collaboration with Chinese scientists and public-health officials.
In mid-December, Lipkin says he heard from a contact in China about an outbreak of a pneumonia-like illness in the city of Wuhan. He wrote to George Fu Gao, the head of the China CDC, whom Lipkin had known for years through his work to help China strengthen its national public-health system. He didn’t hear back for several weeks, but when he did, he immediately knew how bad the outbreak could become.
He flew to China in January and spent seven or eight days on the ground meeting with Chinese government officials, public-health experts, scientists, academics, and journalists. “It was clear there was a tragedy in Wuhan,” Lipkin says. When he returned to the U.S., Lipkin knew he had to do whatever he could to sound the alarm. That meant, among other things, trying to get the attention of the president and his administration via Trump’s preferred TV channel.
“People like me watch Rachel Maddow — maybe you do, too — but the people we really need to reach aren’t watching that,” Lipkin tells Rolling Stone. “The guy who lives on Pennsylvania Avenue doesn’t watch Maddow. If I need to reach him, I go on Fox and Friends at 4 o’clock in the morning and go on Lou Dobbs.”
In more normal times, during a more normal presidency, the government would seek out experts far and wide, within and outside of government, using an organized process to help inform its decision-making and shape its policies. John Brennan, who was President Obama’s homeland security adviser during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, says that Obama relied on the latest data and advice of subject-matter experts to shape the administration’s response. Brennan remembers Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and then-CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden being fixtures in the White House during H1N1 planning conversations. Pandemic experts from the Bush White Houe were asked to stay on to deal with H1N1. Influenza experts in academia were enlisted. “For a medical challenge that was outside his area of competence and experience, [Obama] wanted the science and professionals to drive the policy discussions,” Brennan says.
Scientists now face an altogether different challenge: counseling a president who has little regard for facts or science, who prefers to get his information from fawning TV anchors, debunked contrarians, and a loose network of old friends, business partners, and sycophants. For those who worked in public-health and medicine, whether to study new viruses or devise strategies for how best to communicate during a public-health crisis, there is an urgency now more than ever to go on TV and fight bad information with good. “It is particularly frustrating for us who’ve been in these fields for decades to see inappropriate responses,” says Matthew Seeger, a Wayne State University professor who specializes in crisis communications and helped design the CDC’s 450-page communications manual for pandemics. “When we see people making mistakes, we want to help.”
For experts like Ian Lipkin, that means going on Fox News whenever you get the chance even if involves sharing the airwaves with political partisans and doctors with suspect backgrounds. For others, it entails an all-of-the-above approach, accepting invitations to appear on any serious outlet, in order to get good, reliable information into the hands of the public wherever they get their information. Depending on the outlet, it’s a deeply imperfect way for respected scientists to get their information into the hands of policymakers, having to share airtime with Rudy Giuliani, who has promoted a unproven coronavirus treatment, or Jerry Falwell Jr., who speculated that Chinese and North Korean leaders “got together” to create the new coronavirus.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security who specializes in infectious diseases and emergency medicine, says he tries to reach different audiences by accepting as many interview requests (like mine) as he can. In our fragmented media ecosystem, Adalja says he believes he boosts his credibility by going on Fox, MSNBC, CNN, and many more. “Increasingly, I worry about if each network has its own experts, what that does to their reach and how easy it is to dismiss someone as being on one network and not on the other,” he says.
Adalja, for his part, says producers and anchors on Fox have never tried to limit or push back on what he says, and he’s had good experiences with the network. When he appears on Fox, he adds, he does feel a weight and a sense of responsibility knowing that Trump or senior administration officials might be watching. “That enters your mind when you’re on Fox in a way that makes what you’re saying even more important,” he says.
Even the medical experts inside the administration have used media appearances to communicate, if indirectly, with the commander-in-chief. On the last Sunday in March, Dr. Fauci appeared on CNN and projected that 100,000 to 200,000 people could die from COVID-19 even with the current social-distancing and travel restrictions in place. If those restrictions were lifted too soon, as Trump had vowed to do by Easter, the death toll would be higher. Fauci made the same case to the president in the Oval Office. The combined effect of this inside-outside strategy seemed to work: Later that same day, Trump backed away from his Easter deadline and announced he would keep the national guidelines in place through April.
At other times, the result of the government scientists making their case on TV can be more awkward. In a March 26th interview with the Christian Broadcasting Channel, Dr. Deborah Birx, the response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, lauded President Trump for being “attentive to the scientific literature and the details,” a statement undercut by nearly every press briefing given by the president.
Birx’s statement prompted howls of outrage and disbelief. But there’s no denying that the scientists closest to the president, chiefly Fauci and Birx, face the same threat as any other member of the Trump administration who defies the president or refuses to show loyalty: firing. Indeed, several experts I’ve interviewed in recent weeks urged me not to write a story that played up tension between Fauci and Trump. “Every time I see one of those stories, given our president’s temperament, I find myself wishing to God it hadn’t been written,” says Dr. Sarah Fortune, the chair of the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “I feel like every time I see one of those stories saying, Hey, Donald Trump isn’t listening to Tony Fauci, the more likely the president might fire him.”
Ian Lipkin, the Columbia University infectious-disease expert, says he feels more free to deliver blunt advice to the president via Fox. “We really don’t know when we’re going to get this under control,” he said during his March 24th appearance on Dobbs’ show. The best tools for stopping the virus were isolation and confinement, he explained. He praised New York City, Chicago, and Washington state for their aggressive shelter-in-place policies, but other states needed to match those policies.
The day after Lipkin revealed on Lou Dobbs’ show that he had tested positive for the coronavirus — “If it can hit me, it can hit anybody,” he told viewers — we talked by phone. He sounded weaker than he had the night before, pausing to cough several times. But he was still resolute. “What I’ve learned is you can make arguments that people listen to,” Lipkin said of his role thus far as a media analyst. “But I’m not clear that we’re going to succeed here.”
The next week, he was back on Neil Cavuto’s show on Fox News.