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No, President Trump Did Not Make Anyone Ingest Fish Tank Cleaner

President Trump in the Rose Garden of the White House on March 13, 2020 (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

From NBC News comes one of the most irresponsible pieces of “journalism” I’ve seen in a long while. It revolves around an interview with a 61-year-old woman from Arizona who is currently in the ICU, and who, tragically, just saw her husband die in front of her. In tone, it is cast as a public-service announcement of sorts, aimed at Americans who do not want to end up in her position. “My advice,” the woman explains, is “don’t believe anything that the President says and his people because they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

The promulgation of that narrative  — that her predicament is the fault of the president, and that people should stop listening to him and to his “people” — is the purpose of the piece. Here is a representative excerpt:

NBC: Did you see the President’s press conference? Where did you hear about–

Patient: Yeah. Yeah, we saw his press conference. It was on a lot, actually.

NBC: And then did you did you seek out Chloroquine?

Throughout, the woman tells NBC’s Vaughn Hillyard that she hopes to share her “advice” with the public. “Educate the people!” she implores him at one point. And he has. Last night, NBC pushed the story out enthusiastically on its website, on Twitter, and beyond, and it was shared widely by journalists and celebrities who were only too keen to employ it as partisan ammunition.

There is a problem with the story, however: It’s nonsense. Sad as their predicament is, the only “advice” to be gleaned from the couple’s behavior is “don’t be a unimaginable moron.” The headline of NBC’s story is “Arizona man dies after ingesting chloroquine in an attempt to prevent coronavirus.” But this is not correct. He did not “ingest chloroquine,” and neither did his wife. Rather, he ingested chloroquine phosphate, which his wife found in her back pantry the form of fish tank cleaner.

From the interview:

“I was in the pantry stacking dog food and I just saw it sitting in the back shelf and thought, ‘Hey, isn’t that the stuff they’re talking about on TV?’ And it was.”

It wasn’t.

I’m afraid that this is the stuff of idiocracy — the equivalent of a person seeing a bucket of chlorine next to her swimming pool and drinking it because the letters on the outside are arranged in a similar order to the word “chloroquine.” And the idea that the president is to blame for this is . . . well, it’s simply incomprehensible to me. It is possible, certainly, that Donald Trump (along with Andrew Cuomo) has been too bullish on the prospects for chloroquine as a tool in the fight against coronavirus. But that, if true, is a dramatically different sin. We simply cannot run our country on the assumption that “I have high hopes for this drug currently in clinical trials and hope it will eventually be fast-tracked by the FDA and prescribed by a doctor” will be heard by reasonable people as “go into your pantry right now and eat fish tank cleaner if the ingredients look similar to you to a word you heard on television.” Insofar as there is any advice to be disseminated here, it’s “don’t eat industrial cleaning products,” which one would hope is a lesson that most people have already internalized.

Not to be outdone, Forbes got into the action, too. Here is the lead paragraph from a piece on the affair by Tara Haelle, who offers “straight talk on science, medicine, health and vaccines”:

When President Trump incorrectly announced that the FDA had fast-tracked approval of the drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine for treatment of COVID-19, he added, “The nice part is, it’s been around for a long time, so we know that if it—if things don’t go as planned, it’s not going to kill anybody.”

Except it just did.

No, it didn’t. And one can learn that it didn’t by simply reading the next paragraph, which confirms that, “Instead of the drug form of chloroquine phosphate, the couple ingested a chloroquine phosphate product that’s used to treat parasites in fish. ”

This being so, one wonders what the “public service” angle can be here, for if chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine do turn out to be as useful as I assume we all hope they will, they will be limited, regulated, subjected to our existing prescription regime, and delivered, to borrow a term from Tara Haelle, in “drug form.” Does NBC know this? Does Forbes? Or do they believe that, if and when a cure is found, we will see the president call a press conference at which he encourages Americans to forage around in their pantries for consumer products that contain some of the same component parts as the treatments the medical community has begun to utilize?

Insofar as these outlets had a responsibility here to “educate the people,” it seems to me that they could have better achieved this by running this story beneath a glaring “DO NOT DO THIS!” sign. Not everything in this vast and populous nation is a referendum on the president.

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