Panic Porn: HBO’s Bill Maher Tells the Media to Put Its Pants On
Esquire magazine calls his comedic style, “contrarian chic,” and his sharply tailored suits, “Rat Pack modern.” Known for his battle against political correctness, in an exclusive interview with Die Weltwoche, HBO’s Bill Maher takes aim at what he considers coronavirus fear mongering by the mainstream press.
Bill Maher is sick of it — sick of what he calls coronavirus “panic porn.” Friday night, on his appointment viewing, hit, HBO talk show, “Real Time,” the comedian provocateur lit into the mainstream media for its obsession with apocalyptic headlines and overwrought coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The apocalypse? Really?” Maher asked his four million weekly viewers. “Because most of us are sitting at home smoking delivery weed and binge-watching a show about a gay zookeeper” — a reference to “Tiger King,” the new Netflix sensation currently mesmerizing the country’s hordes of coronavirus shut-ins. “We need the news to calm down and treat us like adults,” Maher insisted.
For two weeks running, the liberal progressive talk show star who has interviewed countless celebrities — from Brad Pitt to Salman Rushdie, Barbra Streisand to Snoop Dogg, Jerry Seinfeld, and Jane Goodall — has been delighting the conservative blogosphere with his brash and bracing commentary on the coronavirus pandemic. Arch conservative Texas Senator Ted Cruz tweeted his praise of Maher for being “one of very few in Hollywood willing to call out the CCP [Communist Chinese Party].”
A long time friend of the show and frequent guest since its incarnation on ABC as “Politically Incorrect” back during the Bill Clinton and blue Gap dress days, I reached out to Maher to take his temperature on how the media has handled, or mishandled, the biggest news explosion of the year. During our twenty minute conversation, Maher expresses a mix of vexation, disgust, anger and anguish over the media herd and the sloppy sensationalism they’ve allowed to infect their reporting that has, as he points out, painful, real world consequences.
Maher offers this specimen as a classic of the genre: “The New York Times had on the back page of the front section: ‘those we’ve lost.’ They wrote brief bios of six people; four of them were under fifty.” He tells me, “Now, if I hadn't been following this closely, and I just saw that, it would lead me to believe that two thirds of people who die from coronavirus are under fifty. That, to me, is quite misleading.”
I ask if he thinks the media is deliberately cherry picking profile subjects which, intentionally or not, skews the public’s perception of who’s most at risk. Maher, who is rarely at loss, is genuinely baffled. “Why are they doing this?” he asks. “I mean, I understand why tabloid media does that because it's more dramatic. I don't want to think that that's the motivation of the New York Times. But what other option am I left to think of?” He considers the question before concluding, “It's very close to yellow journalism. It’s inciting fear.”
Maher points out that the soft focus Times story doesn’t elaborate on why these victims succumbed to the virus, information that could inform readers of important risks. “As a reader who's interested in the facts of this, I would have been most curious not about what their hobbies were or how well liked they were. I would have been interested in what underlying conditions they might have had. Why did these people under fifty, which is fairly rare, die from this?”
And this emotion-driven news coverage potentially drives public policy. As the press ratchets up the intensity, pressure builds on public officials and, as Maher explains, “The danger is that we are running the show based on fear and not on logic. The danger is that we're destroying our economy and the world's economy. How is it going to look when we look back in year? If the whole world is in some sort of horrible depression, it’s not gonna look good in hindsight.”
Despite his dazzling career and the wealth it has brought (and bevy of young women), the New Jersey native is keenly focused on the hardships the lockdowns are inflicting on working and middle class families. He tells me, his voice rising, “A lot of people, they can't afford it. They have to work. They have no food. You know, this country lives from paycheck to paycheck.” Maher’s voice rising another notch, “Forget about going to the beach. They need to find a way to survive! We have basically bread lines. You can call it what you want. I would call it a bread line. It's a line for free food that stretches over a mile in Van Nuys, California. We have no margin for error, here. At some point someone has to do the cost benefit analysis. That used to be very basic thinking: cost benefit analysis.”
Maher suddenly falls quiet, his voice trailing off as we both consider the cost benefit analysis and the personal economic catastrophes that are looming all too closely on the horizon for millions of fellow citizens.
“Hopefully, something will change soon,” he tells me, although he doesn’t sound hopeful. Our conversation winds to a close.