Fox News “seems more and more like an asylum in the firm control of its inmates.” That is New York Times media columnist Ben Smith’s assessment of the network’s total failure to present credible information about the coronavirus pandemic. Smith reports that Fox’s executives have proven either unwilling or unable to constrain the network’s powerful opinion hosts, who instead take their cues from President Donald Trump. That management style has always been reckless. In the current pandemic, it proved disastrous.
This needs to stop now -- for the sake of public health and safety.
Fox’s executives, from Fox Corp. chief executive Lachlan Murdoch and Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott on down, must force the network’s talent to come to grips with reality. They should establish clear guardrails for the network’s opinion hosts, explicitly delineating which topics are in and out of bounds during this crisis. This would likely require the network to vet every monologue, guest, and subject for every one of Fox’s right-wing propagandists to ensure they aren’t doing harm to the public.
If that won’t work, and Fox’s hosts are incapable of or unwilling to behave responsibly, Fox should take them off the air until the crisis is over and fill the airtime with more hours of programming from the network’s “news” side (which of course has had its own problematic coverage). Fox’s PR team can spin it as a need to put more resources into coronavirus news coverage, as they did when they benched Fox Business host Trish Regan after she embarrassed the network by ranting that coronavirus was “yet another attempt to impeach the president.”
If Fox does neither, the network’s leaders will bear partial responsibility for the calamitous death toll that is likely to ensue.
In presenting the “potentially lethal” consequences of Fox’s coverage, Smith is focused on how the network’s viewers could have been led to make poor health decisions. But there is a more acute threat that he does not assess: Trump is one of those viewers. The president is impulsive, suggestible, and primarily concerned with his public image, and throughout his tenure as president, he has relied on the network’s personalities for advice and taken action in direct response to what he has seen on their shows.
That Fox-Trump feedback loop, unnerving in the best of circumstances, puts the nation in dire straits during a pandemic. The network’s politics-first coverage of the risks of coronavirus seemed to encourage Trump’s own lack of interest during the early stages of its spread, leading to a slow federal response. After Trump finally showed signs of taking the virus more seriously, many of the network’s hosts changed their tune last week and started informing their viewers they were facing a “crisis.”
But Fox personalities have not remained focused on educating their viewers about the pressing need for personal protective equipment at hospitals or the social distancing practices that experts say will need to be maintained for weeks or months to flatten the curve of new cases, ease strain on the health care system, and prevent huge death tolls. Instead, they have pushed unproven quick fixes for coronavirus -- and thus promoted them to Trump’s attention. And there are signs he is responding to their coverage.
Trump repeatedly touted the benefits of antimalarial medications in potentially curing coronavirus during press briefings last week. He even publicly contradicted his own top health officials, who warned that such evidence is limited and preliminary and that the drugs needed to be tested in clinical trials. The president’s interest in the drugs came after Fox hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham each ran segments touting their purported benefits.
On Saturday morning, apparently responding to an Ingraham segment from the night before touting the results of a “small and hastily designed” study in France, Trump tweeted: “HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.” He added that the drugs should “be put in use IMMEDIATELY. PEOPLE ARE DYING, MOVE FAST,” and tagged the twitter handles of the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Again, it’s unclear whether this treatment actually works. But with the president weighing in, Fox & Friends on Monday was instructing its audience on how to take it for coronavirus (patients who rely on hydroxychloroquine to treat other conditions are already reporting shortages):
Fox hosts have also begun downplaying the importance of widespread social distancing. The federal government has called for a 15-day period of limited personal contact, and many states have closed schools and businesses and banned large gatherings. But Fox is suggesting that in order to limit damage to the economy, a better strategy would be to protect the elderly and sick while sending the rest of the country back to work. This could have devastating consequences -- it would increase circulation of the virus, slamming hospitals with case loads well beyond their capacities. But this argument, too, seems to have captured Trump’s attention.
On Sunday night, Fox host Steve Hilton promoted the strategy, arguing, “You know that famous phrase, ‘The cure is worse than the disease’? That is exactly the territory we’re hurtling towards.” A few hours later, Trump tweeted, “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!”
Maybe the antimalarial drugs really will work. Maybe a continued lockdown is not the best tactic. But the U.S. strategy for confronting a global pandemic that is threatening the lives of millions of Americans should not be thrown into question because the president saw a Fox segment.
This cannot be allowed to continue. Fox executives need to accept their responsibility to both their viewers and the country and act accordingly. Unfortunately, the network's executives have consistently refused to enforce standards and have shown a lack of interest in reining in their most toxic hosts. That is why Media Matters and other organizations have been working to hold Fox News accountable through advertiser education, asking Fox News' remaining advertisers to pull their ads in order to stop sponsoring the spread of dangerous medical misinformation. We've also encouraged cable providers to stop charging their subscribers a monthly fee to fund Fox News' lies.
The stakes have never been higher. Fox's executives need to act -- if they don’t, the results could be catastrophic.