The decision by Governor Kim Reynolds to begin lifting coronavirus pandemic-related business restrictions on May 1 for 77 of Iowa’s 99 counties, which she announced as three of the state’s metro areas were seeing some of the highest COVID-19 case growth rates in the entire country, was a controversial one. But she found a fan in conservative commentator Steve Deace, who’s been among the state’s most vocal foes of strict mitigation measures implemented in hopes of limiting the spread of the virus.

“Phenomenal job today by @IAGovernor with her reopening plan, and I say that as a resident of one of the few counties that was put off another two weeks,” Deace tweeted last Monday, when the governor made her announcement. “However, this is what real incrementalism looks like. Not losing slower, but moving steadily in the right direction. Well done!”

Deace is a former Des Moines Register sports reporter and WHO Radio talk show host who lives in West Des Moines and currently hosts Blaze Media’s Steve Deace Show. The show is co-hosted by Todd Erzen, who also used to write for the Register, covering the young professionals beat. On the side, Erzen would post right-wing Facebook rants on topics including abortion and President Obama, whom he called “officially the leader of a cult” to criticize what he saw as fawning press coverage.

Along with the show’s on-air producer, Aaron McIntire, Deace and Erzen have spent weeks on end downplaying the coronavirus pandemic, decrying stay-at-home orders as tyrannical and endorsing contrarian — and often thinly supported — theories to cast doubt on the utility of social distancing measures and suggest that the death toll has been overinflated. They dismiss mainstream media coverage of the pandemic as “panic porn” whose ultimate purpose is to prevent President Trump from winning re-election by tanking the economy.

The Steve Deace Show describes itself as “principled conservatism with a snarky twist served up daily.” At times, the snark has a cruel edge, particularly when it comes to LGBTQ issues. Deace and his colleagues seem to take especial delight in mocking transgender people by dismissing them as men who are pretending to be women. “If you don’t stay inside, you hate trannies,” McIntire tweeted in early April, true to form, employing the slur to snark at an image of three news articles including one from BuzzFeed about the added difficulties trans and nonbinary people have faced dealing with employment, health care, and housing during the pandemic. “And old people. And this little girl.”

They bolster their contrarian schtick by thumbing their noses at public health recommendations aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus. In late April, McIntire tweeted a selfie of himself with his wife, sans personal protective equipment, during a bike ride on the High Trestle Trail that runs from Ankeny to Woodward. “We passed between 150-200 people,” it read. “Exactly two had masks on. This makes me happy.” And Friday, the day that Reynolds lifted restrictions in 77 counties, but not Polk, Deace posted a photo with his wife, thanking the governor for her decision and adding, “Made the trip to a free county.” At times, their motivations have been personal. Erzen, whose sophomore daughter is a nationally recognized high school track standout, clamored for weeks against the cancellation of the spring sports seasons until the Iowa Department of Education dashed his hopes on April 17.

The Steve Deace Show is undeniably influential, with a large audience that includes 63,000 followers on Twitter and more than 100,000 on Facebook. Deace’s show and articles are also regularly promoted on the Twitter accounts @BlazeTV and @theblaze, which have about 225,000 and 720,000 followers, respectively. The Blaze Media Facebook page, which has an additional 562,000 followers, claims that its media network has “a reach of over 165 million each month.” And with a lineup that includes talk radio hosts Mark Levin and Glenn Beck, right-wing comedian Steven Crowder, and Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson, the Deace crew is far from alone in downplaying the severity of the pandemic.

Deace, Erzen, and McIntire are particularly fond of a former New York Times reporter named Alex Berenson, who appeared on the show in early April and repeated some familiar arguments: that the virus is not a major health threat unless you’re old and already sick, lockdowns are unnecessary and may actually increase its spread among family members, models estimating its death toll have relied on bad data and made it out to be much worse than it is, the flu kills thousands of people a year but all the government does is recommend getting a shot.

On Twitter, Berenson has drawn a large audience since he began criticizing the government’s response to the pandemic with a relentless, single-minded focus. He ranked it among the top five policy failures in US history, alongside slavery and the Vietnam War. The Deace crew has shared his tweets dozens of times — with such frequency, in fact, that Berenson briefly adopted the catchphrase Erzen uses in nearly all of his tweets on the coronavirus, “Black Mirror update,” an apparent reference to the dystopian science fiction TV series.

Last year, Berenson published a book titled Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence, whose cherry-picked anecdotes and fast-and-loose interpretations of scientific research foreshadowed his similarly shaky assertions about the coronavirus. To promote its upcoming release, he wrote an op-ed in The New York Times that misrepresented an academic study to falsely suggest it had found a causal relationship between pot smoking and schizophrenia. The book was initially well-received but soon thereafter panned by critics and experts as a sort of modern-day Reefer Madness. In an open letter, 75 scholars and medical professionals criticized its “flawed pop science and ideological polemics” and “theoretically and empirically problematic” contention that use of the drug caused violent behavior.

Is the data driving worldview, or is the worldview driving data?

Although Berenson left the Times in 2010 to become a spy thriller novelist, right-wing news outlets that took notice of his Twitter following during the coronavirus pandemic have highlighted his reporting credentials in an effort to cast him as an authority on the matter. Two days after his interview with Deace, he was a guest on the show of Fox News host Sean Hannity, who applauded him for “calling out the media’s BS.” Casting doubt on the measures implemented to “flatten the curve” on COVID-19 cases, Berenson claimed that hospitals were “emptier now than they were a month ago” — despite the fact that in New York City, they were nearing capacity the same week — and that “there has been no surge in cases.” He then said something that even Hannity objected to: “Kids, children, almost anybody under 30 is at no risk to this. No serious risk from this virus. I’m not saying it can never happen.”

“I went to Yale and I worked for The New York Times,” Berenson said during another recent appearance on Fox News. “The people on the left hold themselves out as being science-driven, as being smarter, they think they’re smarter, but they won’t look at facts that won’t meet their narratives.”

Deace would have his audience believe that this is what he’s doing, looking at these facts, since the liberal media won’t. “I’m told to ‘trust the experts.’ But which experts?” he has asked. “Are Yale, Oxford, Stanford, and Carnegie Mellon just podunk JUCOs?” He was referring to David Katz, a physician and former director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center; Sunetra Gupta, an epidemiology professor at the University of Oxford; John Ioannidis, a professor of disease prevention at Stanford; and Wesley Pegden, an associate professor of math at Carnegie Mellon. All four, to varying degrees, have questioned the prevailing approach to tackling the pandemic.

In March, when the pandemic’s death toll in the US was fewer than 200 people (it’s now above 64,000), Katz penned an op-ed in The New York Times suggesting that a more targeted strategy applying herd immunity — in which a population becomes largely immune to a disease through prior infections and, when they are developed, vaccinations — might be wiser than shutdowns. “I am deeply concerned that the social, economic and public health consequences of this near total meltdown of normal life — schools and businesses closed, gatherings banned — will be long lasting and calamitous, possibly graver than the direct toll of the virus itself,” he wrote. Later that month, Pegden argued that strict mitigation efforts to flatten the curve could end up increasing transmission of the virus if there was no plan in place once restrictions were lifted.

As supporting evidence for this, Deace has touted the controversial laissez faire approach of Sweden, whose government has ordered modest restrictions limiting crowd sizes and encouraged social distancing but avoided business shutdowns and a shelter-in-place order. Proponents believe this may reduce the severity of a second wave of the virus if enough people build up immunity — a risky assumption, given the uncertainties that remain. Although the nation has a higher COVID-19 death rate than other Nordic countries, it is lower than the United Kingdom’s, where a similar herd immunity strategy was planned until its government quickly switched gears when a report from Imperial College London projected that 510,000 Brits could die if the virus spread uncontrolled.

Deace has criticized this report, which also projected up to 2.2 million deaths in the US in the event nothing was done to halt its spread and spurred the White House into action, as “apocalyptic.” Both he and Berenson have also suggested — falsely — that the report’s lead author, Neil Ferguson, walked back the UK number when he later testified that the model it was based on projected less than 20,000 deaths in the presence of mitigation efforts. (Such models are easy targets for criticism if their projections are taken as precise predictions; in fact, they are meant to provide a range of possible outcomes and, in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, are subject to significant variability in the absence of better data and as more is learned about the virus day by day.)

But there’s still the matter of Sweden. In Deace’s view, the economy-crashing lockdowns ordered across the US were unnecessary to begin with, because the models they used relied on a “flawed baseline” that failed to realize the coronavirus was likely spreading here weeks earlier than initially thought. If that were the case, he reasons, the mortality rate would be much lower than early estimates, and herd immunity would already be built up considerably.

That’s where Gupta, the Oxford epidemiologist, and Ioannidis, the Stanford disease prevention researcher, come in. The former, a skeptic of the Imperial College model, led a study that modeled scenarios concerning how widely the coronavirus may have spread in the UK, with a high-end projection of half the country’s population. If this were true, it would mean that the virus is far less dangerous than what others have suggested, with fewer than one in 1,000 of those infected requiring hospitalization. The latter argued in mid-March that current evidence did not support the World Health Organization’s reported case fatality rate of 3.4 percent, making lockdowns “totally irrational.” In April, he co-authored a review of coronavirus antibody testing, claiming that the true mortality rate was about 0.1 percent, roughly the same as the seasonal flu.

“BOMBSHELL: New coronavirus study could be a GAME CHANGER,” blared the headline of a post from Deace on The Blaze’s website about the Stanford research. It seemed to reinforce his point about which experts the public was being told to trust. Or, as show co-host Todd Erzen had said in reaction to the interview with Berenson in early April, “Is the data driving worldview, or is the worldview driving data?”

The reality, however, wasn’t so simple. Other prominent epidemiologists were quick to criticize the Oxford study, saying its assumption about the hospitalization rate wasn’t supported by the available data. Ioannidis’s research was met even more negatively by his peers, who pointed out basic math errors as well as likely problems with oversampling and the statistical weighting methods. Data from other countries grappling with the pandemic suggest that the percentage of people with coronavirus antibodies is far lower than what herd immunity would necessitate.

If anyone is allowing their worldview to drive data, it’s probably Deace and his colleagues, who have a history of promoting unreliable viewpoints on other topics and have made numerous inaccurate and contradictory statements about the coronavirus pandemic. On Saturday, for instance, Erzen misrepresented data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on COVID-19 deaths involving patients with pneumonia to imply that the numbers had been inflated, at the same time sharing a viral tweet that falsely suggested the CDC had drastically reduced its tally of the total number of deaths caused by the virus.

In March, Deace claimed he “exposed” Imperial College research concerning the pandemic’s impact on climate change mitigation efforts (an explanation of which was readily available on a website belonging to one of the college’s global institutes). On a cold day in mid-April, Deace tweeted a photo of a snow-covered porch to mock the college’s coronavirus model. “Brought to you be [sic] an Imperial College Model on Global Warming,” he wrote. His climate change denialism was at odds with Ioannidis, the Stanford professor he touts as an expert who’s conducted game-changing research on the virus. “Many fields lack the high reproducibility standards that are already used in fields such as air pollution and climate change,” Ioannidis wrote in a 2018 journal article exploring how governments could play a role in improving research standards in other fields where the scientific evidence isn’t as “extremely strong.” He added, “It is a scandal that the response of governments to climate change and pollution has not been more decisive.”

Long before the pandemic, in 2009, when he was on WHO Radio — the state’s largest station — Deace promoted the birther conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was ineligible to serve as president because he wasn’t born in the United States. On one show, he interviewed Orly Taitz, a dentist known for filing frivolous lawsuits over Obama’s birth certificate. Months later, Deace discussed the issue with Drew Zahn, an editor for the conspiracy news site World Net Daily who is now a spokesperson for The Family Leader, the homophobic religious group that Governor Reynolds gave a platform to during her COVID-19 press conference Friday. Deace and Zahn slammed the mainstream media for not investigating the debunked theory.

Last October, Deace was a keynote speaker at the Stand Against Marxism conference in Des Moines organized by the Enemies Within The Church Project, which is producing a film purporting to expose the “contamination imposed by cultural Marxism and a heretical teaching known as ‘The Social Justice Gospel.’” The effort is led in part by Judd Saul, a right-wing activist from eastern Iowa whose fledgling online news site the Informer wrote about in 2016; and Trevor Loudon, a New Zealand conspiracy theorist who’s also claimed that communists have secretly infiltrated US politics with the help of Democrats in a plot to take over the country.

Deace often incorporates Biblical doomsaying into his discourses on politics, and his commentary on the coronavirus has been no exception. He opposed orders prohibiting large gatherings that prevented churches from holding traditional Easter services, saying “without hesitation” he would “absolutely” attend his church’s had it not closed. “What you have seen with these church crackdowns, even in red state Bible Belt Kentucky and Mississippi, is how quickly tyranny can and will eventually come to America unless we have revival,” he tweeted on Easter Sunday. “The statists aren’t trying to stop crowds, but their true enemy — the Gospel.” Erzen, too, has joined in, suggesting that Catholic bishops in Iowa worship “false gods” because of their decision to continue suspending public Masses despite the proclamation signed by Governor Reynolds last Monday that lifted restrictions on church services everywhere in the state.

“Why are we so stricken with panic in our time, shutting down our entire way of life on unreliable and contradictory data, despite the technological advantages we have over them?” Deace recently wrote, contrasting the current pandemic with polio epidemics that past generations of Americans dealt with amid the Great Depression and two world wars.

“Because ours is a godless society, so we are afraid of our own mortality. Deep down we know we are not ready to meet our Maker after denying Him for so long. Therefore, we wait for our secular Messiah, government, to deliver us from that day. Or at least hold it off for as long as possible.”

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.