Fox News rolled out another installment of its fawning coverage of protests against state and local stay-at-home orders, promoting calls to reopen despite the public health crisis of the coronavirus pandemic. This time, it was coverage all morning long of a gym in Bellmawr, New Jersey, with a narrative positioning the gym’s co-owners as champions of liberty standing up to Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy.
Fox’s coverage demonstrates a desire to project these demonstrations as part of a large, grassroots representation of the American public, despite polling that shows a majority disapproves of the protests. The network is also seeking to mobilize resistance to the stay-at-home orders by appealing to sympathies for the genuine economic suffering going on — after the network itself has opposed wider relief for the economic problems that people are facing — as a weapon against Democratic political leaders.
As Media Matters’ Parker Molloy has previously explained: “The network needs to downplay the pandemic to protect President Donald Trump. But you can't convince an audience that a deadly pandemic is just an acceptable fact of life with #facts and #logic; you need to sell them on it by playing to their emotions, giving them a hero to cheer for and a villain to rage against.”
The segment on the May 18 edition of Fox & Friends began with a clip of the gym’s co-owner, Ian Smith, declaring: “This is much more than opening our gym. We truly believe that we’re standing up for our constitutional rights. … We’re going to prove to Gov. Murphy, and any of these other governors who keep us locked down, that we can be responsible.”
Fox & Friends Weekend co-host Pete Hegseth reported on-location at the gym throughout the morning, hyping the possibility that police would shut down the reopening.
“Ian expects potentially to be arrested right there on the site when his doors open,” Hegseth said. “He’s saying he’s a free, responsible citizen, and that the measures that Gov. Murphy have taken are draconian, and a blanket over the economy here. So guys, a lot of action already and we’re going to talk to the owner, get his latest perspective, and then we’ll be here with cameras rolling at 8 o’clock and we’ll see what the governor does, trying to shut down a small business trying to make a living.”
On Smith’s Instagram account, he has posted conspiracy theories about the coronavirus response, including the long-running idea that death counts are being inflated (they are actually being undercounted) and the idea that blue state governors are deliberately shutting down the economy in order to hurt President Donald Trump’s reelection.
True dangers and deaths of the COVID-19 virus aside, my heart goes out to all who have lost a loved one. However, the old saying “Never let a good crisis go to waste” holds to be very true here. Just take a look at the 24/7 media fear mongering, the CDC openly stating all respiratory deaths are being counted as COVID-19 no matter if they’ve been tested or not, the fact that reported pneumonia deaths have fallen to levels lower than we have ever seen before, and some of the Orwellian bills that are trying to be snuck through Congress at this moment in time. I’m not saying, I’m just saying. #lookintoit
Immediately after that initial on-location segment with Hegseth, the Fox & Friends panel spoke to Fox News contributor Dan Bongino, who proudly declared, “The lockdown is ending because America said it’s ending,” and pointed the blame at Democrats for literally everything that has gone wrong.
In the case of Smith’s gym, however, it may well be that the problems right now are a result of the relief package requirements having been too restrictive — not just from the lockdowns alone. On a GoFundMe page apparently set up by Atilis Gym, the management thanked all their members and local supporters for the wonderful business they’ve had over the past 10 months — and revealed that this has been too short a time of operation to qualify for relief.
Just like many who have been affected by the COVID-19 outbreak, The Atilis Community was forced to shut it's doors indefinitely on March 16th. Upon shutdown, the government made promises about grant money and forgivable loans made easily available for small businesses to be able to pay bills during the forced shutdown.
However, because Atilis Bellmawr has not been in operation for a full-year and does not have a full-time staff, we do not qualify for any bailout money from the government. In addition, our landlord and other service providers are not providing any additional relief to offset the effects of the shutdown.
Throughout this crisis, Fox News personalities have complained about the coronavirus relief packages being too generous, especially to workers. And instead of calling for rent-relief or other proposals to truly help people who are in trouble right now, Fox & Friends has simply continued the network’s campaign to cheer on an end to the lockdowns, even if vulnerable people suffer.
The show then ran a segment of over 10 minutes interviewing Smith and co-owner Frank Trumbetti — along with a tightly packed, cheering crowd. Hegseth concluded the segment by claiming that ‘it’s all about freedom, it’s all about choice.”
During a later panel discussion, with Fox News contributor and former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich continued the attacks on Democratic governors and tied the gym’s protest in with the ongoing right-wing misinformation campaign about abortion access and health care during the coronavirus pandemic:
At the same moment that Gingrich referenced the importance of social distancing, the Fox split-screen view showed the crowd of protesters outside the gym who were manifestly not engaged in proper spacing or wearing masks.
For another 10-minute segment outside the gym, Hegseth again promoted the protest against New Jersey’s stay-at-home order.
“The people are swarming around this gym owner who’s making a statement, an act of civil disobedience to say, ‘I can be free and responsible at the same time,’” Hegseth declared. “People here feel like Gov. Murphy, who famously said the Bill of Rights was above his pay grade, has really overstepped what he’s allowed to do.”
The panel asked Hegseth what the crowd might do if police were to shut down the gym.
“Here’s the thing, this is a very pro-law-enforcement crowd,” Hegseth answered. “When you talk to people, they feel like the police here don’t want to be a part of shutting a business like this down. So that will be an interesting moment if they do have to come in here.”
He further explained: “They respect law enforcement. They really do, and they’ve emphasized that in the signage that’s outside their business. We’re going to social distance, we’re going to wear a mask, we respect law enforcement. But again, it’s not the local police that are enforcing this — it’s the state police, who answer directly to the governor.”
During another return visit to outside the gym, Hegseth extolled the crowd — who were clearly packed together — and seemed to hype a possible confrontation with police. Hegseth said, “We’ve got reports and have seen video that there’s a SWAT unit just up the road from here potentially waiting for the gym to be full before they come in and shut Ian and the business down.” Hegseth described Smith as “the centerpiece of a growing movement,” and also explained, “There’s no doubt about it, this is civil disobedience, but he believes he can do so responsibly in a free country.”
During a later discussion with Fox News contributor Karl Rove, a former George W. Bush-era White House deputy chief of staff, co-host Steve Doocy described Smith as somebody objecting to “one-size-fits-all kind of legislation” and asked Rove, “Is this going to become a political thing where people are saying look, I've got to just essentially take matters into my own hands because the people in my state are not acting in my best interest?”
Hegseth popped up next on Fox Business’ Varney & Co., in which the eponymous host Stuart Varney declared: “Pete, there’s no stopping this. The revolt is happening now.”
“Absolutely, it is,” responded Hegseth — who while delineating the safety measures being taken inside the gym, was not actually wearing a mask himself.
The coverage then continued into Fox’s purported “news”-side programming, with America’s Newsroom co-anchor Ed Henry speaking to Hegseth — now wearing a mask while he reported from inside the gym. Continuing Fox & Friends’ framing of the story, Henry concluded that the gym was “right in the middle of this ongoing battle between the lockdown orders and individual liberties.”
The denouement of this event occurred later, and was shown on Fox Business’ Varney & Co.: Police showed up, and then simply let everyone keep on going about their business — to which the crowd let out a triumphant cheer.
“They had a respectful exchange with everyone, according to Pete,” Varney said gladly. “In my opinion, the revolt lives. Let them go. Still open — look, high-fives all around. In my opinion, that's a good outcome.”