This year, we found out what happens when Fox News tries to be “fair and balanced” to the deadliest virus in recent history.
As the coronavirus pandemic spread across the country earlier this year, scientists, and public health experts begged the public not to politicize the virus. They warned of its lethality, its horrifying side effects, its contagiousness, and urged the media to share their warnings with American public and to promote responsible behavior.
But that didn’t seem to have much of an impact on Fox News, whose coverage of the coronavirus pandemic has, with few exceptions, seemed to largely treat the virus like an annoyance.
While the coronavirus pandemic has raged across the U.S. over the past year, the network’s hosts and guests have careened between treating the virus like an irritating sideshow, downplaying the mounting death toll, and giving major platforms to quacks and conspiracy theorists who worked to discredit the advice of medical experts and turn nearly every public health guideline into an us-vs-them culture war crusade with seemingly little regard for the nearly 350,000 people who have died from the virus.
From the very beginning, Fox News’ most high-profile figures made the seriousness of COVID-19 a subject of political debate, and refused to acknowledge its deadliness.
While the Trump administration largely sat by and did nothing during the early weeks of the pandemic, insisting its porous ban on travel from China was enough, the network’s rabidly pro-Trump hosts echoed the president’s dismissal of the burgeoning crisis, deeming concerns about its spread to be a Democratic “hoax” and “impeachment scam” specifically designed to hurt President Donald Trump’s re-election hopes.
One of its most-viewed primetime hosts, Laura Ingraham, has been among the biggest skeptics of the coronavirus pandemic. Over the past nine months, she has at times downplayed the risks of traveling and indoor dining, repeatedly dismissed the COVID-19 fatality rate even as the U.S. death toll surpassed 300,000, and hosted a certain son of the most powerful man in the world who claimed the deaths from the novel coronavirus were “almost nothing.” For its part, Fox News didn’t let Ingraham’s coverage of the pandemic go unrewarded: The network signed her to another multi-year deal in December.
At key moments when their voices could have made a difference, other hosts also downplayed the risks of the virus.
Sean Hannity, a close confidant and informal adviser to the president, repeatedly used his high-rated primetime program in February and early March to reassure his viewers that there was nothing to worry about with this particular virus, comparing it to the seasonal flu—a repeatedly debunked comparison that was often deployed in a partisan, dismissive manner—while claiming the “deep state” used the pandemic to harm the American economy and take down President Trump.
Days before the president pivoted to declare a national emergency, Hannity grumbled on March 9 that Democrats and public health experts were “scaring the living hell out of people,” adding that they were only doing it to “bludgeon Trump with this new hoax.”
As the network’s brass told its employees to take the virus seriously and “keep in mind that viewers rely on us to stay informed during a crisis of this magnitude,” many Fox hosts continued to essentially ignore the guidance and publicly boast about it.
“You want to know how I really feel about the coronavirus, Juan? If I get it, I’ll beat it,” The Five co-host Jesse Watters declared on March 3. “I’m not lying. It’s called the power of positive thinking and I think America needs to wake up to that.”
Even when Fox had the opportunity to right some of its wrongs, perhaps by using its immense conservative platform to nudge the president into behaving more responsibly, the network instead often chose to obfuscate or simply shift its attention to other conservative issues du jour.
Notably, in the early weeks of the pandemic, Fox News star Tucker Carlson implored the president to seriously focus on the growing crisis, calling out his own right-wing media cohorts for actively “minimizing” the crisis. Within days, the Trump boosters at the network were heaping praise on the president for finally addressing the nation on the crisis they, too, had been downplaying. And by early April, Fox’s stars had already grown tired of the pandemic and began telling Trump the crisis was over and to hurry up and re-open the country.
Carlson was the lone voice among the network’s most high-profile stars to urge caution early on. On the same March evening that Carlson made those remarks, then-Fox Business host Trish Regan infamously called the pandemic a “coronavirus impeachment scam” and an “attempt to demonize and destroy the president.”
And, of course, it didn’t take long for Carlson himself to do a full 180 from sounding the alarm on the deadly pandemic to raging against any and all measures experts urged to flatten the curve and minimize hospitalizations and deaths.
One glaring example of Carlson’s contrarianism has been the issue of face masks, which public health experts now cite as the easiest and most effective way to slow the spread of the virus. In July, for example, he raged over school reopening guidelines that called for mask-wearing and social distancing, saying those recommendations “have no basis in any kind of science.”
Just two months earlier, however, the far-right host was urging the United States to take up masks by citing their effectiveness in other countries. “Of course, masks work,” he said on March 30. “Everyone knows that. Dozens of research papers have proved it. In South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, the rest of Asia—where coronavirus has been kept under control—masks were key.”
And while still receiving mainstream plaudits over his role in forcing the president to take the virus seriously, Carlson confidently declared in late April that the coronavirus—which at that time had already killed nearly 56,000 Americans—“just isn’t nearly as deadly as we thought it was.” To make his case, he cited a discredited study by two urgent care doctors.
At times, the guests booked to discuss the coronavirus were even worse than Fox’s own paid on-air talent.
For example, the network served as a springboard for Dr. Scott Atlas, a Stanford neuroradiologist with no infectious disease experience whose anti-lockdown arguments on Fox News caught the eye of the president, who hired him to serve as a key adviser on the pandemic. While his stint at the White House was short-lived, Atlas had the president’s ear long enough to push anti-lockdown measures with the hopes of infecting enough Americans to achieve non-vaccine “herd immunity,” which horrified scientists and public health experts who argued such a strategy would result in thousands of Americans unnecessarily being infected and potentially dying.
Fox News also gave an extraordinarily large amount of airtime to Alex Berenson, a former New York Times reporter turned spy novelist who has made a name for himself for spewing ill-informed COVID contrarianism in lengthy Twitter rants.
While the pandemic spread in New York, overwhelming hospitals, Berenson made a name for himself criticizing and mocking public health measures. When deaths rose, he said the death tolls were inflated. He eventually reached the galaxy-brained stage of anti-science contrarianism by declaring that he will not take the COVID-19 vaccine and will not allow his children to take it either. Was Fox News aghast at the individual the network put on its airwaves? Far from it: the network early on rewarded him with a series of specials on its digital streaming service Fox Nation.
Elsewhere, the network spent an inordinate amount of time making fun of mask-wearing—a proven method for source control in slowing the pandemic’s spread—as something reserved for wimpy liberals and Democrats looking to curb constitutional rights. By refusing to wear a mask in public, multiple Fox News pundits declared, President Trump exuded masculine strength, while then-candidate Joe Biden projected “fear” and “virtue signaling” by publicly donning a black mask.
“For some reason, over the last couple of weeks, a month, masks have become political,” Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy, who has long been a proponent of mask-wearing, wondered aloud in July, having apparently never seen a minute of his own network’s coverage.
Fox News also stood by while hosts and guests endlessly promoted an anti-malarial drug as a magic cure. When evidence emerged that the drug had no meaningful impact in either preventing or lessening the impact of the virus, it didn’t matter: They continued to hype it anyway, turning it into a front in the network’s culture war against the left and the media.
Chief among the hydroxychloroquine hawkers was Ingraham, who relentlessly promoted the drug’s nonexistent benefits on an almost nightly basis throughout the spring and summer and met with Trump personally in April to advocate for the drug.
Just two days after that meeting, the president publicly said “a lot of people are saying” that patients should take the drug and that it’s a “very special thing.” A month later, he would reveal he took the drug as a preventative. By June, the FDA revoked its emergency authorization for hydroxychloroquine to be used as a coronavirus treatment, citing its lack of efficacy and potentially deadly side effects. Ingraham would react to the decision by wondering why the administration tasked with regulating drugs was allowed to “inject itself” into this “debate.”
Internally, Fox has taken the virus as seriously as any other major American media company.
While some of its own hosts do wander the halls of the nearly empty network headquarters in Midtown Manhattan, the network has kept much of its workforce at home, and ensured that its on-air staff receive regular testing. In recent weeks, for instance, the network strengthened its COVID-19 screening process for staffers working at the NYC offices following a slew of positive tests for on-air personalities including The Five’s Juan Williams and Fox & Friends First co-anchor Todd Piro, among others.
According to an internal memo sent to Fox News staffers, obtained and reviewed by The Daily Beast, employees who physically work one to three days a week at the News Corp. building will continue to follow the current procedure of using self-administered saliva test kits; those who work more days in-office will now take part in on-site testing twice per week.
And early on, the network insisted that its on-air coverage reflected such serious treatment of the virus.
Fox News regularly booked doctors and infectious disease experts to discuss COVID-19 when the pandemic was in its fledgling stages. And while the network continues to feature its in-house paid medical contributors, many of those other doctors and experts have virtually disappeared from Fox’s airwaves, making way for the usual cultural warrior red meat about Confederate monuments, “cancel culture,” and the media’s treatment of Melania Trump.
As the virus surged to unprecedented levels in the fall and portended a dark winter, even after the approval of COVID-19 vaccines, the network focused very little attention to the deadly impact of the uncontrolled spread and instead devoted the lion’s share of their coronavirus coverage to criticizing restrictions and lockdowns meant to reduce the growing outbreaks. According to liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America, the network ran more than a thousand segments undermining public-health measures between September and December.
The lack of focus on the tragic death toll came to a head earlier this month during a broadcast of early afternoon panel show Outnumbered, prompting anchor Harris Faulkner to get uncomfortably defensive when liberal pundit Marie Harf pointed out that the show hadn’t once mentioned the record-setting daily death toll from the day prior.
And the network’s end-of-year messaging on the devastating pandemic took an even more alarming turn when Carlson decided to fan the flames of vaccine skepticism. Amid growing excitement over FDA authorizations for the Pfizer and Moderna inoculations, Carlson told his viewers on Dec. 17 that they should respond “nervously” to the government’s “marketing campaign,” especially amid a single allergic reaction to the Pfizer shot.
“In this country, we control our own bodies,” the Fox News star grumbled. “They are always telling us that. But no. Suddenly, the rules have changed. On the question of the corona vaccine, our leaders definitely are not pro-choice. Their view is do as you are told and don’t complain. No uncomfortable questions. Those are not just suggestions, they are rules and Silicon Valley aims to enforce them.”
A network with the president’s ear and the largest audience in cable television could have shaped the public debate about the virus in America if it urged caution and an adherence to guidelines set out by the overwhelming consensus of health officials.
Instead, Fox News chose to downplay the death count, mock mask-wearing, bash even the slightest lockdown measures, undermine public-health and scientific consensus, and dismiss the danger of potential “superspreader” events when they were hosted by its political allies.
All seemingly in the name of scoring political points and keeping a conservative viewership happy. In other words, business as usual.
—With reporting from Diana Falzone, who was an on-camera and digital reporter for FoxNews.com from 2012 to 2018. In May 2017, she filed a gender discrimination and disability lawsuit against the network and settled, and left the company in March 2018.