Fox News’ missed opportunity on masks

Fox town hall audience

Screenshot of Fox News' June 25 town hall event featuring President Donald Trump.

President Donald Trump’s Thursday night town hall event with Fox News host Sean Hannity was largely unremarkable. Over the course of the hour, Hannity offered up softball questions to the president, the pair traded talking points back and forth, and virtually no news was made, as is typical for their head-to-heads. 

But this particular propaganda event differed in one key way, albeit one that was never explicitly mentioned on-air. When the camera showed the town-hall audience, viewers saw roughly 50 people wearing masks and seated apart from one another to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus. The only ones who ignored these public health guidelines were Hannity and Trump. While they were seated far apart during the actual event, they sidled up next to each other for an interview beforehand. And neither of them wore, or even referenced, masks at any point.

This was a huge missed opportunity for Fox, whose corporate side has emphasized the importance of wearing masks to its employees and even mandated that every audience member in the Thursday town hall wear one. If the network had been able to call attention to mask use during the event -- and get Hannity and Trump to don them, even briefly -- it could have performed a real public service. Fox’s inability to pull this off shows the gap between the network’s corporate actions and its right-wing programming -- and its unwillingness to confront the president over his response to the coronavirus.

Evidence suggests COVID-19 largely spreads through respiratory droplets expelled by the infected and that masks help prevent those droplets from traveling through the air and infecting other people. That’s why, in early April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed its earlier flawed guidance and called for “wear[ing] cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.” Widespread mask adoption reduces the spread of the virus by asymptomatic and presymptomatic people who might otherwise pass on the virus to other people without knowing they have it. With new coronavirus cases on the rise and total reported U.S. deaths from COVID-19 approaching 125,000, taking that simple step could prove crucial.

That’s why former Vice President Joe Biden, in a Thursday speech, urged the public to “do both the simple things and the hard things to keep our families and everybody safe, to reopen our economy” and “put the pandemic behind us” by wearing masks and social distancing. At the conclusion of his speech he put on a mask before walking offstage, modeling the behavior he is seeking in others. (Fox did not air Biden’s speech live and has fixated on a verbal gaffe he made at a different event that day.)

Hannity understands -- and has frequently discussed on-air -- that wearing masks is important to curb the spread of the virus. He’s said that he “will wear a mask until this goes away” to protect “the people that are older that I would run into that might contract it from me.” He’s also pleaded with his audience to do the same. “If you can’t social distance, please wear the mask,” he urged his viewers last month while airing footage of a crowd of young people cavorting at the Lake of the Ozarks. “Do it for your mom, your dad, your grandma, your grandpa.”

Fox’s corporate executives recognize the issue as well. Last week, the network sent an internal memo reminding employees going into its offices to wear masks in shared spaces “for your safety and the safety of others.” And Fox required face coverings for attendees at Thursday night’s town hall -- if not, apparently, for its host or the president. 

But Hannity’s mask support is an anomaly on Fox’s airwaves. The network’s right-wing personalities have criticized Biden for “virtue-signaling” by wearing a mask, eschewed them while covering public events, and suggested that they don’t work and are being promoted by the media as part of an anti-Trump conspiracy. 

Likewise, while following the network’s policy and broadcasting from socially distanced studios or from their own homes, Fox hosts have been demanding swift ends to state restrictions on business openings and arguing that social distancing is ineffective.

They’ve done this to keep in line with Trump. The president is obsessed with ending measures that shuttered portions of the economy as quickly as possible in order to buttress his flagging reelection campaign. And he seems entirely uninterested in making even the slightest sacrifice in order to keep Americans from dying from COVID-19. Trump refuses to encourage others to wear a mask or to don one himself, ridicules Biden for doing so, and has even mocked reporters who have worn one in his presence. Instead, he ensures that people in his presence are regularly tested for the virus -- an option unavailable to the general public. 

This unwillingness to support mask usage has spread from the president to members of his administration, congressional Republicans, and Fox’s on-air talent. Hannity may be willing to break from the pack and urge viewers to wear face coverings. But as we saw Thursday, he would never dream of directly challenging the president over it.

A partisan gap has developed over pandemic safety precautions. Republicans are less likely to report treating the coronavirus as a serious threat in general. And they are less likely to say they wear masks in particular.

That’s Fox's core audience. The network could have made a difference last night if it had found a way to get not just the town hall audience, but its host and the president to wear masks. But Fox executives are apparently more interested in supporting Trump amid a disastrous coronavirus response than they are in keeping their viewers alive.