The 5 climate denier tactics Fox News repurposed for its coronavirus coverage
Fox News coronavirus coverage looks eerily similar to its climate crisis coverage -- and is just as dangerous
There are similarities between the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis: The public health and economic threat, if left unaddressed, will be catastrophic and worldwide; immediate action from leaders who listen to those most knowledgeable about the issue is paramount; communication to the public on the scope of the emergency and actions necessary to mitigate its threat should be facilitated by trustworthy news sources; and Fox News has played an active role in misleading and misinforming its viewers about both.
In the face of the emerging coronavirus pandemic, Fox News has downplayed the severity of the coronavirus, promoted misinformation and deployed other tactics to distract from, and attempt to discredit, the urgency of the crisis and the legitimacy of those issuing warnings -- just as it’s done for years when reporting on the climate crisis.
Tactic 1: Downplay the crisis
A hallmark of Fox News climate crisis coverage is dismissing the urgency of the threat, if not outright denying it, and labeling advocates for climate action as hysterical and alarmists, as I explained in a 2019 report for Public Citizen. Fox News opinion personalities and so-called news programs have used this same approach in an effort to downplay the seriousness of the coronavirus. Here are just a few examples:
On March 9, Sean Hannity on his eponymous Fox News show referred to the public health crisis facing this country as a “hoax” and claimed that “they're scaring the living hell out of people.”
On March 8, Fox News’ Pete Hegseth stated, during a segment on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s state of emergency declaration, “I feel like the more I learn about this, the less there is to worry about.”
On February 29, the Fox & Friends hosts rallied around President Donald Trump’s claim that the coronavirus threat is a “hoax.”
On February 28, Fox anchor Harris Faulkner suggested criticizing the administration's response to coronavirus is “feeding hysteria.”
Tactic 2: Traffic in dangerous misinformation
Climate deniers and the well-debunked misinformation they spread have made a home at Fox News. Amid this recent national crisis, the network has distributed dangerous misinformation about the severity of the coronavirus threat to its viewers, the majority of whom are among the most vulnerable to and at risk. Here are some of the most egregious examples:
On March 15, Fox News aired dangerous misinformation from Steven Hotze, a disreputable doctor who has a history of pushing “methods [that] are not supported by science and are potentially harmful” and sells bogus colloidal silver. Hotze dismissed concerns about the coronavirus, saying that “everybody has gone totally crazy about it” and recommending that people should “conduct your life normally.” The segments were part of Fox’s purported “news” division programming.
On March 6, Fox News medical contributor Dr. Marc Siegel appeared on Fox News’ Hannity and told the host the “worst case scenario” for coronavirus is “it could be the flu.” The appearance on Hannity was one of at least 47 weekday appearances Siegel made to discuss the outbreak in the weeks leading up to the March 13 national emergency declaration.
In fact, Hotze and Seigel are among a handful of so-called medical experts who have appeared across the network’s programs to misinform viewers and dismiss the seriousness of the unfolding public health crisis.
Tactic 3: Finger-point and table-turn
Deflection is a signature move of Fox News anchors looking to pivot away from the facts of a story or change the trajectory of its most obvious conclusion. One of the more common examples of this appearing in the network’s climate coverage is a focus on an individual’s actions to deflect away from the evidence that supports their position on climate. For example, Fox News hosts often call out the hypocrisy of climate advocates who use air travel.
In the face of clear mismanagement of the coronavirus outbreak by Trump, Fox News has cast around for someone else to blame and landed on its go-to fake villains: Democrats and reporters.
Media Matters has documented how Fox personalities lashed out at journalists for their coverage of coronavirus and at Democrats for their criticism of the administration.
On March 16, Laura Ingraham went so far as to say in defense of Trump, “The media, some have been enjoying this moment that has brought great inconvenience, disruption and suffering to American workers and families, let alone all the health challenges, the deaths and the infection rate -- because some people think it's Trump's downfall, and they are cheering that on as they did during Mueller and all these other crises.”
On March 2, Sean Hannity got particularly creative in his attempt to deflect from Trump’s handling of the public health crisis by lying about President Obama's 2009 “swine flu” response.
Tactic 4: Attack science
The backbone of most climate disinformation is a feigned or real mistrust of science and scientific evidence. It is from this place that climate science, scientists, and the institution where they work are attacked by those whose narratives, worldviews, or values they inconvenience, including Fox News.
The spread of the coronavirus has put our experts in the scientific community in the national spotlight as we rightfully turn to them for information and sound recommendations. It has also triggered one of Fox News’ most oft-employed attacks on the scientific community: They are politicized and therefore compromised.
On the March 6 edition of Lou Dobbs Tonight, Fox’s Dr. Marc Siegel claims coronavirus concerns are being intentionally overblown to hurt Trump politically by dismissing the World Health Organization as “overly political” and “incompetent.”
On the March 4 edition of The Ingraham Angle, host Laura Ingraham’s guest attempted to discredit the Center for Disease Control by calling it a “highly politicized organization.”
Tactic 5: Legitimize and spread conspiracy theories
The most notorious climate change conspiracy theory -- originating from then-future President Trump -- is that it is a hoax “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Another commonly cited conspiracy theory is that climate scientists distort findings or tamper with evidence for financial gain. This claim, which Fox has peddled, was the basis for the manufactured scandal “Climategate,” which Fox News seized on and ferociously promoted.
As the lethal outbreak of coronavirus spread around the world and the U.S. government warned that it would spread within the United States, Fox News was among the right-wing media outlets spreading conspiracy theories. That included one of the most prominent theories, which claims that coronavirus was manufactured and leaked by the Chinese government, and one of the most racist claims, that it was a result of people consuming animals alive.
On February 10, Fox News prime-time host Tucker Carlson speculated about the unsubstantiated bioweapon theory, asking his guest whether COVID-19 is “not a naturally occurring virus” or was “somehow created by the Chinese government.” His theory was debunked by his guest Dr. Janette Nesheiwat, a medical director of a chain of urgent care clinics.
Even though this theory has been widely debunked (even on air during a Fox program), on February 25, Fox Business host Lou Dobbs claimed that “we don’t know yet whether or not this was an engineered virus” and said that there is “a research lab some 300 yards from the epicenter of this outbreak.”
Carlson, on his January 23 show, also blamed the emergence of the virus on Chinese culture, advancing the unproven theory that it was a result of people consuming animals “alive.”
While many of the tactics Fox News has used to misinform and mislead its views about the climate crisis and the coronavirus outbreak are the same, its goals are different. As applied to the climate crisis, Fox wields these tactics in an attempt to blunt aggressive climate action. As applied to the coronavirus, Fox has deployed them to shield Trump from political backlash. Either way, these tactics are shameful and dangerous -- and their impact is not easily corrected.