Masks Are a Tool, Not a Symbol

That night on her television program, she highlighted Donald Trump, public-health leaders, and others touting masks. She welcomed a doctor who had founded an organization called Masks for All for a friendly interview about the utility of wearing masks in public and how to make one’s own. Near the end of the segment, another DIY video featured the mother of one of her producers making a mask. She did not object to the doctor’s advice to wear masks even after lockdowns end. As late as April 13, she treated masks and gloves as commonsense tools.

Then last week, Vice President Mike Pence visited the Mayo Clinic without a mask, despite the fact that all visitors are required to wear one. CNN pundits and comedians such as Jimmy Kimmel scolded him. Ingraham’s audience suddenly got a very different message on masks, which were recast as a tool to achieve “social control over large populations” through “fear and intimidation.”

Ingraham continued:

Now, Rush Limbaugh made a great point, as he always does, on the radio the other day. He said the virus itself, as it weakens and states start reopening—the media that has been selling this panic for weeks and weeks and weeks, they have fewer images to sell their hysteria to justify a continued lockdown. But the masks? Well, they’re kind of a constant reminder. You see the masks and you think, You’re not safe. You are not back to normal, not even close.

For weeks, Ingraham treated masks as common sense. But when CNN and others began to treat masks as common sense, Ingraham started to cast them as a cynical ploy in a nefarious plot to stoke hysteria and repress freedom. In truth, most members of the media, like most members of the public, would like nothing more than to find that the coronavirus is no longer a threat, that lockdowns can safely end, and that masks can be relegated to dark pandemic memories. But even if it were true that liberal elites were touting masks only to ding Pence, or to needlessly extend lockdowns, those motivations would tell us nothing about the spread of disease. Masks will or won’t reduce deaths independent of the intent of CNN personalities.

But “instead of getting their hands dirty with data, statistics, modeling, or wrestling with the difficult trade-offs involved in responding to dual epidemiological and economic crises,” the writer Damon Linker says of Fox News and talk-radio-type intellectuals during this pandemic, “they prefer to tell ideologically satisfying stories that shoehorn the behavior of people, classes, politicians, and dreaded ‘elites’ into pre-existing assumptions about the culture war.” Populist coverage of masks in particular is driven to an astonishing degree by their hatred of center-left media outlets. This impulse to align thoughtlessly against elites fuels capricious, irrational guidance to rank-and-file populists. Those who are most easily influenced could suffer and spread harm as they reject masks entirely because they associate them with the other side in the culture war.