Fox News contributor Bill Bennett’s deeply irresponsible and false claim that the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is not a pandemic and is no worse than the flu shows that the network’s coverage has come completely full circle. Fox is back to where it was a month ago, downplaying the danger posed by the virus in order to support President Donald Trump.
Bennett began his Monday Fox & Friends appearance by pointing out that the University of Washington’s current projection of roughly 60,000 U.S. deaths from COVID-19 by August 4 is slightly lower than the total number of reported flu deaths during the 2017-2018 flu season. This, he claimed, shows that the virus had been overhyped and that the action taken to curb its spread has been unnecessary.
“If you look at those numbers, and see the comparable, we're going to have fewer fatalities from this than from the flu,” Bennett said. “For this, we scared the hell out of the American people, we lost 17 million jobs, we put a major dent in the economy, we closed down the schools -- you heard Dr. Oz say we probably didn't have to do that -- shut down the churches, and so on.”
This is entirely backward: The reason the COVID-19 death projections have been revised down to their current level is precisely because of the impact of the steps Bennett now decries as overreactions. Moreover, he is using a projection of COVID-19 deaths that ends during the summer, before a potential second wave outbreak that experts warn could come in the fall.
Bennett concluded with this whopper: “You know, this was not, and is not, a pandemic.” In reality, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic over a month ago, at a time when it had already circulated in 114 countries, with more than 100,000 confirmed infections and thousands of deaths. It has now spread around the world, with confirmed cases approaching 2 million and deaths exceeding 100,000 -- and both numbers are assuredly undercounts.
Bennett’s erroneous comparison of the coronavirus to the seasonal flu marks a return to form for his network. In early March, Fox personalities frequently argued that, in the words of chief medical correspondent Dr. Marc Siegel, “at worst, at worst, worst case scenario [coronavirus] could be the flu.” That’s flat wrong -- coronavirus is more contagious and more deadly than the flu, and there isn’t currently a vaccine for the novel virus as there is for the long-studied one.
And his flat denial that the virus is a pandemic seems like something ripped from the same time period, when the feedback loop between Trump and Fox had the president and his propaganda outlets constantly preaching an identical message: The coronavirus was a minor problem that Democrats and journalists were deliberately exaggerating for political benefit. In their effort to support the president, Fox personalities endangered their audience and encouraged his negligent handling of the burgeoning crisis.
But then, after claiming for weeks that the virus was not a major threat and failing to take action to keep it from becoming one, Trump abruptly changed his tune (perhaps in response to advice from Fox host Tucker Carlson, one of the few at the network who had been publicly raising alarms about the virus). He declared a national emergency to fight the coronavirus on March 13 and announced guidelines to slow its spread on March 16.
And with that, the tone of Fox’s coverage of the virus swerved dramatically, as its personalities adopted the new message. Network hosts stopped comparing the coronavirus to the flu or declaring that “the more I learn about this, the less there is to worry about,” and started modeling social distancing on air and lying about how they had been warning about the virus all along.
That new urgency did not last. Within days, network hosts had started looking for easy outs for the president, talking up unproven antimalarial drugs as potential coronavirus cures while arguing that the benefits of social distancing did not outweigh their economic costs.
And over the past few weeks, as Trump reportedly began losing patience with his public health advisers and his administration considered pushing to reopen the economy over their objections, Fox’s coverage has shifted again. Fox personalities are now exploiting the decline in projected COVID-19 deaths to undermine the very public health officials currently frustrating the president. Carlson and his colleagues argue that those results show not the success of the social distancing methods, but that the coronavirus actually wasn’t that dangerous.
In other words, the network’s coverage has returned to the narrative of a month ago. And the stories Fox is pushing out are just as dangerous now as they were then -- but now the concern is whether the message Trump and other viewers hear spurs a second wave of coronavirus cases.
Bennett and his colleagues are rolling the dice, and a lot of lives are on the line.