Fox News learned nothing from its deadly coronavirus failure

Fox News logo mirrored around a coronavirus molecule

Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters

One year ago tomorrow, Fox & Friends viewers tuned in to see the hosts of the morning show broadcasting from three different sets in Fox News’ sprawling studio. As Steve Doocy explained, he and his fellow co-hosts were following the federal guidelines intended to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. This likely came as a surprise to the program’s audience: Fox & Friends, like much of the network’s other programming, had argued for weeks that the coronavirus did not pose a substantial health risk.

Along with the rest of the right-wing media, Fox failed its audience. The 12 months that followed were the deadliest in modern American history. Recorded U.S. COVID-19 deaths have climbed from roughly 100 a year ago to more than 530,000 -- and that figure represents a substantial undercount. Americans who decided not to take precautions in response to the network’s lackadaisical, partisan coverage of the pandemic -- as well as those infected by people who did so -- are undoubtedly among that grim total.

Fox’s treatment of the pandemic revealed just how little its on-air talent and executive corps really care about the viewers who make them rich and famous. And the network’s ongoing handling of the face masks and vaccines that provide the best hope for a return to normalcy in the near future show that nothing has changed over the past year. 

Fox downplayed the virus in the crucial weeks from late February to mid-March of 2020, treating it primarily as a political problem to solve for President Donald Trump. Its commentators falsely claimed that the COVID-19 wasn’t actually more dangerous than the flu; argued those who claimed otherwise were simply partisans making “another attempt to impeach” Trump with a “new hoax”; and declared that the president had the situation under control

The network’s hosts urged viewers to defy the media fearmongering and hop on a plane, fill up their car’s gas tank and go on vacation, or eat a meal in a local restaurant. One Fox pundit said that he’d beat the virus with “the power of positive thinking.” Another claimed she was more concerned with “stepping on a used heroin needle.” A third said of the virus, “I feel like the more I learn about this, the less there is to worry about.”

They were all wrong -- and it was clear at the time they were wrong. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Nancy Messonnier had sounded the alarm on February 25 that the virus was spreading across the U.S. and threatened to severely impact everyday life. But Trump was making it abundantly clear that he wanted a different narrative. With few exceptions, Fox’s propagandists abandoned reality and adopted his feverish claims that he was the victim of a conspiracy of Democrats and journalists. 

Fox wasn’t alone -- similar claims were rampant across right-wing media. But its dominant position in that ecosystem, its large and loyal following, and its decadeslong campaign to convince viewers not to believe what they heard from other media outlets endowed the network with a particular and weighty responsibility. So did the fact that the president regularly watched the network’s coverage and bent federal policy around what he saw on his television. Poll after poll -- and Trump tweet after Trump tweet -- showed how viewers were endangering themselves and others because of what they saw about COVID-19 on Fox.

Fox drastically (albeit temporarily) shifted its coronavirus coverage in mid-March. When Trump declared a national emergency and his White House issued its “15 Days to Slow the Spread” recommendations, the network’s hosts pivoted on a dime to follow him. Under fire from the rest of the press for gross irresponsibility, the on-air talent tried to rewrite their prior minimization of the pandemic as sober-minded skepticism. The network brass canceled the program of Fox Business' Trish Regan, who had come to personify Fox’s paranoid coronavirus excesses, and eventually cut ties with her -- but without curtailing the actions of more prominent personalities who had offered similar rants.

Having avoided serious consequences, Fox quickly reverted to its propagandistic role once Trump lost patience with behaving responsibly. Over the months that followed, the network’s most prominent programs became vehicles for promoting ineffective treatment regimens and protests against social distancing, lying about COVID-19’s death toll, and fueling a culture war over mask usage. And the Fox-Trump feedback loop ensured that the network’s programming helped to shape the federal response to the pandemic -- to the point that one of Fox’s regular guests ended up leading the work of the White House’s coronavirus task force, with catastrophic results.

With Trump out of office, Fox is rebranding from his personal propaganda outlet to the “loyal opposition,” a move with potentially dramatic costs for the fight against COVID-19. Fox is reflexively and obsessively denouncing whatever President Joe Biden, the Democratic Party, and their perceived associates want to do. With regard to the pandemic, much of the focus has been on widespread mask usage and vaccination. And so Fox hosts have spent the last few weeks denigrating masks and championing those who don’t want the vaccine, while downplaying the effectiveness of both.

Fox prime-time host Tucker Carlson has emerged in recent months as perhaps the nation’s foremost coronavirus vaccine skeptic, using his massive platform to argue that the vaccines are less effective and more dangerous than advertised and that his viewers should be deeply concerned about the campaign to get the public to take them.

4 screenshots of Tucker carlson covering coronavirus

Screenshots from Tucker Carlson Tonight on December 17, 2020; February 9, 2020; February 22, 2021, and March 12, 2021.

In a Thursday night speech, for example, Biden urged the public to get vaccinated when they can as a way of allowing the public to safely resume normal activities. 

“I will not relent until we beat this virus,” Biden said. “But I need you, the American people. I need you. I need every American to do their part. I need you to get vaccinated when it's your turn and when you can find an opportunity, and to help your family and friends and neighbors get vaccinated as well. Because here's the point: If we do all this, if we do our part, if we do this together, by July the 4th, there's a good chance you, your families, and friends will be able to get together in your backyard or in your neighborhood and have a cookout and a barbeque and celebrate Independence Day.”

In response, Carlson accused Biden of “vaccine coercion” on his show the following night. “What if you don't want to get vaccinated?” Carlson asked. “Quite frankly, you've got the absolute right to make your own personal decisions about your own personal health care. Period. That's in the Constitution.” 

Carlson and his guests have frequently indulged this sort of anti-anti-anti-vax commentary.

His schtick is to claim there are many open questions about the vaccine that you’re not allowed to ask, ignoring the reality that those questions have actually been asked and answered. Carlson returned to that argument on Monday night:

His commentary on masks, which Biden also regularly recommends, follows a similar thread -- last Monday, he claimed that “mask mandates might constitute a risk to air travel.”

His prime-time colleague Laura Ingraham has adopted similar themes on vaccination and regularly denounces masks. Last week, she hosted notorious coronavirus crank Alex Berenson to argue that the vaccines’ benefits have been overstated, then commented that such claims were frequent because the vaccines are backed by “big money.”

Neither Carlson nor Ingraham go as far as to say that viewers shouldn’t get vaccinated -- but the tone of their coverage certainly isn’t encouraging anyone to sign up for a shot. That represents a massive moral failure for their network. Fox could be trying to convince its viewers to preserve their own health by wearing masks and getting the vaccine, but apparently it finds this more ideologically and financially fulfilling.

Hosts like Carlson and Ingraham are able to recklessly endanger their viewers because Rupert Murdoch, who was among the first to get vaccinated in December, and his son Lachlan, currently running the company from nearly COVID-19-free Australia, want it that way. Both of the Fox hosts were promoted to their current high-profile roles after the Murdochs took personal control of the network following Roger Ailes’ ouster, and they have retained that support while their bigoted commentary led many leading companies to pull ads from their shows. Even as he has increasingly criticized the vaccine, Carlson has become the face of the network and the linchpin of its streaming strategy. 

But the victims of Fox’s coronavirus coverage, like the victims of its coverage one year ago, are its viewers. Polls continue to show high rates of skepticism for getting the shot among Republicans, particularly Republican men. The network could make a big difference with a sustained effort to diminish those numbers. But instead of urging viewers to take these lifesaving vaccines, some of its biggest stars are pandering to anti-vaxxers instead. 

Throughout the pandemic, Fox has shirked its moral responsibility to keep its viewers safe and healthy. Twelve months and hundreds of thousands of deaths later, its hosts and executives have clearly learned nothing. The network should never live this down.