A decade after screaming about nonexistent “death panels,” Fox News is downplaying the deaths of 200,000 Americans

Hannity and Ingraham plus the number 200,000

Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters

A decade after sounding the alarm about nonexistent “death panels” for seniors -- and eight years after obsessing over the four lives tragically lost in the Benghazi attacks -- Fox News has spent the past six months systematically downplaying, excusing, and shrugging off the now-200,000 Americans killed in the COVID-19 pandemic. The juxtaposition reveals the reality: It’s politics, not American lives, that matters to Fox News.

During the first two years of the Obama administration, conservative media were relentless in their promotion of the “death panel” lie. 

In July 2009, former New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey claimed that a Democratic health care bill being debated in the House of Representatives included a provision that required anyone on Medicare to “have a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life sooner.” 

Soon, right-wing commentators like Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity used this phantom provision to claim that Democrats were putting seniors at risk. Hannity said that it was “chilling” that Obama had “so little respect for life” and was trying to “encourage … inconvenient people to consider ‘alternatives to living.’” Ingraham scaremongered about the creation of “death camps” for the elderly should the bill become law. Then-Fox News legal analyst Peter Johnson Jr. claimed that proponents of the health care reform bill were trying to “save money by killing old people.” Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade asked, “Are seniors going to be in front of the death panel?” “I hope the elderly are watching,” Hannity said during an October 2009 episode of his Fox News show after baselessly declaring that “death panels are back” in a later version of the health care bill.

Fast-forward to 2020, and a major pandemic has officially killed at least 200,000 Americans. 

Early in the pandemic, some of the same Fox hosts who were so busy warning audiences of imaginary “death panels” a decade ago were striking a considerably different chord. 

On the March 10 episode of Fox News’ Hannity, the eponymous host tried to put coronavirus deaths “in perspective” by comparing COVID-19 deaths to violence in Chicago. During the March 11 edition of his radio show, Hannity got “philosophical [for] a minute” and shrugged off concerns about the coronavirus because “we’re all dying” anyway. 

During the April 2 episode of The Ingraham Angle, Ingraham said that while “every life is precious, we want to keep everybody safe and we — of course, that's a given. But we also have to understand the cost of American lives on the other side of this.”

In the months since, as thousands of American deaths have piled up thanks in large part to the disastrous mismanagement of the Trump administration, Fox News has done everything it can to defend the administration at the cost of public health. Its hosts and personalities have: repeatedly argued that the death toll is actually inflated; waged a war against advice from experts about how to keep people safe, including by lying about the effectiveness of masks and fighting for an end to lockdowns; and routinely ridiculed people warning about the dangers of the crisis as alarmists. 

When the president is a Democrat and he’s advocating for health care legislation that includes optional end-of-life counseling, it’s a four-alarm emergency. When the president is a Republican and thousands of people -- particularly the elderly -- are dying from a pandemic, it’s no big deal (and actually, he’s doing a great job).

Four Americans were tragically killed in Benghazi. The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed 50,000 times as many lives in the U.S.

In the 20 months following the September 11, 2012, attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, Fox News ran 1,098 evening segments on the subject. In 281 of those segments, Fox alleged that the Obama administration was involved in a “cover-up.” In 230 of them, Fox accused the Obama administration of being politically motivated in its response to the attack. Hosts and guests regularly spread lies and misinformation about a nonexistent “stand-down order.”

Fox News also zeroed in on a comment Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time of the Benghazi attack, made during a January 2013 congressional hearing. She brushed off a question about the administration’s post-attack talking points by instead trying to pivot to a discussion about what happened during the attack and what could be done to prevent future attacks. 

“Was it because of a protest? Or was it because of guys out for a walk one night and decided they'd go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?” she said. 

Fox ran 97 segments mentioning her comments, regularly distorting them to make it seem as though she was being flippant about the death of four Americans rather than responding to a question about media talking points.

But according to data compiled by Media Matters, Fox News has regularly downplayed or ignored the mounting death toll from the coronavirus pandemic. Since September 1, the network has run nearly five times as many segments that include complaints about public health measures as it has segments that reported the actual death toll. (Meanwhile, the president is saying things like the virus “affects virtually nobody.”)

There’s nothing new about this type of partisan hypocrisy from Fox News, but we shouldn’t become numb to it.

Fox remains an astoundingly influential outlet, the sun of a right-wing solar system. And it exists not to inform, but to help Republicans accumulate and retain power. This is why the network’s personalities change their views and claims based on whether they help Trump or other Republicans. 

One of the most glaring examples can be found in the facts surrounding Trump’s impeachment. On September 24, 2019, Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy brushed off claims that Trump did anything wrong in a phone call he had with Ukraine’s president, saying that it wasn’t a big deal, but that “if the president said, you know, I'll give you the money, but you've got to investigate Joe Biden, that is really off-the-rails wrong.” One hundred twenty-five days later, once it turned out that there was evidence Trump did exactly that, Doocy’s views had completely changed. “So is this a big, big, big story?” he asked.

The general frustration of Fox News’ dishonesty and partisan hackery aside, people are dying -- a lot of people, many of whom make up Fox’s audience. 

Fox put its audience on high alert during the Ebola scare of 2014 and the H1N1 flu pandemic of 2009, but then the network shrugged off the danger of COVID-19 because it didn’t help achieve the company’s political goals.

What if, instead of Jesse Watters discussing his belief in “the power of positive thinking” as a way to stay safe from the virus, he told people that it was better to take appropriate safety precautions? What if, instead of repeatedly bringing on the likes of Alex Berenson and Dr. Marc Siegel to confuse audiences, Fox exclusively brought on credible epidemiologists? None of that would change Fox’s core mission, but it would show that the outlet didn’t have outright contempt for its viewers by putting them in harm’s way. 

But the people who work at Fox, the ones you see on TV, do not have any actual principles. And while it would be nice to be able to just brush them off as irrelevant, the truth is that they are massively relevant. Millions of people get their understanding of the world from Fox, and millions more get it from the outlets that pull from Fox’s talking points. That’s what makes it so important to continue to note the lies and hypocrisy they engage in. If truth matters, so do the lies.