On coronavirus, Fox News and right-wing media failed their audience

Sean Hannity

Viewers who tuned in to Fox & Friends Tuesday morning were greeted by a surreal sight. The program’s hosts, who usually present the show sitting side by side, were scattered across the Fox News studio. They were modeling “social distancing,” following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 by maintaining six feet of distance from others. 

“We have a responsibility to slow down this virus and to think of other people during this time, and so if you can keep your distance and prevent someone from getting close to you that might be sick, you can save your family, you can save the elderly, and help our country as a nation,” explained host Ainsley Earhardt.

The show’s concern over coronavirus is a recent development -- as late as Friday, Earhardt was suggesting it was a good time for air travel. The shift is consistent with a broader sea change at Fox, as hosts who spent weeks downplaying the risk posed by the global pandemic now accurately describe it as a “crisis,” and tracks with President Donald Trump’s own change in tone.

It is good that Fox personalities appear to finally recognize the gravity of the situation. But they are playing catch-up after spending the initial months of the virus’s spread inculcating their audiences with conspiracy theories about how Democrats and the press were ginning up fears of the disease to politically damage the president. At a time when Americans needed credible information on what is literally a matter of life and death, the network and its right-wing media associates chose instead to propagandize their audiences. 

Right-wing media had a particular responsibility to their audiences at that moment. Conservative leaders spent decades denouncing the press as perniciously liberal and standing up their own news outlets for their supporters to consume instead. The strategy worked: Rank-and-file Republicans came to deeply distrust mainstream news sources; right-wing talk radio, Fox, and a variety of other outlets became profitable and influential businesses; and the right gained immense political power. 

But conservatives had also created a news bubble that became increasingly difficult to penetrate. Because right-wing media ensured that no mainstream outlet could reach their audiences, they now have an outsized responsibility to get them critical information during a crisis. 

Right-wing stars like talk radio giant Rush Limbaugh and Fox’s Sean Hannity have major followings among people who, after years of training, won’t listen to the likes of The New York Times or CNN. They could have played key roles in promoting public health in the early days of coronavirus’s spread in the United States. By providing real information about the coming crisis and the steps their audience members could take to reduce it, they could have saved lives.

But the most powerful members of the right-wing media didn’t step up. Instead, they worked to counteract increasing public concern about coronavirus and defend Trump’s response. Limbaugh repeatedly compared COVID-19 to the common cold and denounced efforts to curtail its spread such as quarantines. He said “the American left, the Democrat Party, the media” are just trying to control people, and that these efforts are “made-to-order for [their] objectives.” Hannity said that people raising concerns about the disease were trying to “bludgeon Trump with this new hoax.” Numerous Fox personalities claimed that, in the words of the network’s medical correspondent, the “worst case scenario” for coronavirus is that “it could be the flu.” Fox Business host Trish Regan described Democrats as using coronavirus as “yet another attempt to impeach the president” (she subsequently lost her show). These arguments were made over and over again by people who had unique credibility among conservatives.

Those on the right who did take the disease seriously were fighting against the tide.

Worst of all, Trump himself was caught up in -- and fed -- the propaganda effort, creating a sinister feedback loop to play down the virus’s risks. Fox in particular is stocked with sometime-presidential advisers who have tremendous influence on public affairs because Trump watches their shows. If that Fox Cabinet had taken coronavirus seriously from its earliest days, perhaps they could have gotten Trump to take it seriously as well. They didn’t. Now the country is struggling to catch up to the disease, and polls show Republicans are much less likely to be treating it as an issue of concern. Conservative media owed their audience better than this.

Now, with the virus on the verge of extracting a terrible toll on the American public, the tone in the right-wing media is shifting. But don’t expect the rising concern to bring with it soul-searching about what conservative media outlets did in the early days of the pandemic.

“A reporter asked me today why conservatives were initially so skeptical of the threat of the coronavirus,” former House Speaker and Fox contributor Newt Gingrich tweeted Monday. “One of the dangerous consequences of having a totally dishonest left wing news media was that most Americans discounted their hysteria as phony.” 

For Trumpian conservatives, everything is the media’s fault, even the failures of the edifice they set up to displace it.