Fox’s early coronavirus coverage created a Florida mirage
In mid-March, as New York became a global coronavirus hot spot, signs pointed to Florida suffering the same fate.
The news filled with aerial photos of packed beaches and interviews with spring breakers undeterred by the threat of “corona.” The state’s leader, Gov. Ron DeSantis, initially refused to issue a statewide stay-at-home order to stem what seemed like inevitable viral spread, telling reporters that such measures were a “blunt” instrument that would unnecessarily put Floridians out of work.
When a catastrophic breakout didn't instantly materialize, a clear narrative emerged on Fox News: Florida was right and New York was wrong.
Across the network, Florida became a barb to throw at Democratic governors who ordered “draconian” and “unconstitutional” stay-at-home orders -- despite ample evidence that such orders would have saved tens of thousands of American lives if they had been issued sooner.
In late April, when DeSantis announced that his state would be among the first to reopen its economy, he was a fixture on Fox. He made several appearances on Hannity’s prime-time Fox show as well as on his talk radio show. He also made appearances on Fox & Friends and The Ingraham Angle. And even as DeSantis’ claims about protecting his state’s elderly and providing reliable information looked increasingly like fiction, Fox personalities took victory laps on the governor’s behalf and chalked up any criticism of him to partisan politics and media bias.
“For weeks the media has been showering praise on Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his handling of New York's COVID crisis, but at the same time they were warning us that Florida under the leadership of Gov. Ron DeSantis was a ticking time bomb for viral spread,” said Fox host Laura Ingraham on the May 7 edition of her prime-time show. “That ticking time bomb never went off.”
But since DeSantis appeared on The Ingraham Angle that same night, Florida’s coronavirus cases have exploded. Since then, more than 2,000 Floridians have died from COVID-related illness and the state has added nearly 175,000 new cases -- nearly five times the total in early May.
Yet even as evidence began to contradict that narrative, Fox figures have stuck to the same script.
How Fox hyped the “Florida model”
On April 28, DeSantis appeared at the White House alongside President Donald Trump, touting the state’s comparatively low fatality rate and outlining how much medical equipment and testing had been diverted to hospitals and long-term care facilities.
At the time of that announcement, however, the state’s coronavirus test positivity was on the rise, which could have precluded Florida from meeting the White House guidelines for reopening, according to the Miami Herald. And the elder-care facilities that DeSantis had supposedly acted swiftly to protect were in the midst of a 600% increase in cases between April and May. Yet, despite this countervailing evidence, Fox News personalities praised DeSantis anyway.
- The same night as the press conference at the West Wing, Hannity praised DeSantis on his prime-time show. “He took very aggressive steps right away to shield Florida's very high percentage of retirement communities and nursing homes from the virus,” Hannity said, after bashing the coronavirus response of New York’s leaders. The Fox host interviewed DeSantis himself later in the episode.
- On April 28, Fox News contributor Dr. Janette Nesheiwat said, “Gov. DeSantis is doing what every state and every governor should do -- planning and preparation guided by data with slow rephasing and opening into the economy. … I think he’s doing all the right things and moving in the right direction overall.” (Nesheiwat is one of several Fox medical experts who played down the pandemic in its early stages.)
- On the April 29 edition of Fox & Friends, former Arkansas governor and Fox contributor Mike Huckabee praised DeSantis’ unwillingness to issue a strict stay-at-home order because “no matter what rules you put in place, some people are going to break them.” Huckabee also downplayed the crisis, comparing its risks to driving a car or drinking too much alcohol. “There are people who speed in their cars no matter what the speed limits are. There are people who smoke and they drink too much and they act irresponsibly and recklessly. That doesn't mean that you ought to shut down the entire world because of a few people who are reckless with their lives.”
Fox stuck to its Florida narrative despite controversy
By the time Florida had allowed its restaurants, retail shops, and other businesses to reopen on May 4, several new controversies had emerged. On April 29, the Tampa Bay Times reported the state’s medical examiners commission was ordered to stop releasing death count totals because they contradicted the state’s official data. Lawsuits from news organizations poured in as the state refused to tell the public which elder-care facilities had positive coronavirus tests. The Times also published an analysis in collaboration with a researcher from the University of South Florida which estimated that the state’s coronavirus deaths may have been undercounted by as much as 58%.
But Fox hosts and guests continued to praise DeSantis, taking victory laps on his behalf for supposedly halting the crisis without mandatory-mask or restrictive stay-at-home orders, despite evidence that such measures save lives.
- On the May 5 edition of The Five, co-host Jesse Watters cited criticism of DeSantis for not immediately closing beaches in March or issuing a stay-at-home order as evidence of political bias. “The media loves Democrats and the media loves lockdowns,” Watters said. “The same thing with Florida. Gov. DeSantis, he had a pretty liberal beach policy and county by county lockdown approach. They were supposed to be the next New York, big elderly population. Didn't happen. So obviously it's politicized.”
- A few days later, on May 7, Watters praised DeSantis, claiming that “Florida is in great shape” before blaming “very low-income people” in New York for spreading the virus by touching “a lot of handles and doorknobs.”
- On May 10, despite ample evidence to the contrary, Huckabee told Fox & Friends Weekend that states like Florida and Georgia were in better shape to reopen not in spite of their more relaxed stay-at-home orders, but because of them. “So these governors who have managed by saying, ‘Let's not shut everything down too quickly quickly,’ have actually had far better results than the ones who closed the doors, locked the key, and started arresting people for doing such things as getting a haircut or buying seeds to plant tomatoes in their garden.”
- In an interview on the May 14 edition of Fox & Friends, as coronavirus cases skyrocketed in elder-care facilities across Florida, co-host Brian Kilmeade congratulated DeSantis for his success. “You took a risk, you were out on a limb, and it's paying off and the people of Florida, I'm sure, are grateful for it.”
Fox News spun the firing of a state data scientist
On May 18, the Florida Department of Health fired Rebekah Jones, a data analyst who helped create the state’s much-applauded coronavirus data portal. After leaving her post, Jones claimed that she had been pressured by officials at the Florida Department of Health to manually edit coronavirus testing data to show that more counties met the state’s reopening criteria. A few days later, during a visit to Walt Disney World with Vice President Mike Pence to discuss tourism, DeSantis lashed out at reporters when asked about Jones’ firing.
“Our data is available, our data is transparent. In fact, [White House coronavirus task force member Dr. Deborah] Birx has talked multiple times about how Florida has the absolute best data,” DeSantis said. He added that “any insinuation otherwise is just typical partisan narrative trying to be spun.”
DeSantis’ confrontational moment circulated on Fox, but it was presented with almost no context.
On May 20, Fox “news”-side anchor Martha MacCallum commented, “That’s impressive,” after playing a clip of DeSantis touting his coronavirus record during the presser. MacCallum’s guest, Fox contributor Guy Benson, used the segment to point out how unfairly he thought DeSantis had been covered by media outlets and to cheer on his outrage. The media “were giving very critical coverage to Florida, very accusatory coverage down in Florida, and if you look at actual results and outcomes, Florida got it right and I feel like we saw Desantis take some umbrage today and I think that was deserved.”
During his May 20 Fox show, Hannity introduced selective cuts from DeSantis’ tirade, with a pointed message for the governor’s critics: “The mob and the media, by the way, you owe Gov. DeSantis a huge apology because you accused him of wanting to kill grandma because he opened Florida’s beaches.”
On May 21, Fox & Friends co-host Ainsley Earhardt cheered on DeSantis for lashing out at the media. “Good for him,” she said. “He's just trying to get people back to work.” Earhardt then played a clip from media reporter Joe Concha of The Hill explaining how Florida, Texas, Georgia, and Colorado were “road maps” to balancing public health concerns with reopening the economy.
On the May 21 edition of America’s Newsroom, Wall Street Journal deputy editorial page editor and Fox contributor Daniel Henninger responded to DeSantis’ attacks on press coverage by suggesting that media criticism of Republican governors is part of a larger narrative to paint conservatives as anti-science. “The idea developed that anyone who is a skeptic about climate change was anti-science,” Henninger said. “Now, we’ve got another apocalypse in the coronavirus and the media has equated total lockdowns with what all science knows.”
While Florida’s numbers surged, Fox continued praising DeSantis
On Fox & Friends June 4, co-hosts Ainsley Earhardt, Steve Doocy, and Brian Kilmeade interviewed DeSantis about his state’s next phase of reopening which was set to begin the next day. Near the end of the softball interview, Earhardt asked DeSantis to outline why his state was quickly reopening while others were not.
“Some of the other states, I think it’s been a little more about politics from what I can tell,” DeSantis answered, before taking a victory lap. “I mean, clearly from a health perspective, Florida has done better per capita than some of these other states.”
Meanwhile, public health experts and newspaper editorial boards had begged DeSantis to slow down the reopening, but he has pushed ahead. The results have been devastating. Since the second phase of reopening on June 5, Florida has recorded more than 150,000 new positive coronavirus tests. That's more than four times the amount recorded during the first two months of the crisis.
Instead of admitting the state had moved to reopen too quickly, DeSantis blamed “overwhelmingly Hispanic” farm and construction workers, young people, and increased testing for the steep rise in positive cases -- though he later pivoted, admitting that testing didn’t fully explain the massive growth in cases.
Fox News parroted these talking points, of course:
- On the June 18 edition of Fox & Friends, Kilmeade and Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL) agreed that testing was the reason for the spike Florida had seen since reopening.
- On June 21, Fox & Friends Weekend co-host Jedediah Bila interviewed two small business owners about Trump’s speech and reopening in Texas and Florida. “Gov. Desantis has done an amazing job about keeping us moving forward,” said Kelly Snow, a small business owner based in Florida. “He doesn't want us to move backwards. He wants us to keep moving forward. So I really enjoy that, and I'm so happy about that. It keeps us moving forward."
- During the June 25 edition of The Ingraham Angle, Ingraham hit New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for “mocking” Texas and Florida for their rise in coronavirus cases, countering that the two states deserve credit for having lower death rates than blue states.
- In a June 25 interview on Fox & Friends, Dr. Mehmet Oz partly blamed new coronavirus spikes in red states on people feeling “rebellious, frustrated and locked up for a long time, especially young people,” and co-host Steve Doocy said that “we’ve heard different arguments as well, you know, the numbers [are] higher because there’s more testing.”
- On the June 26 edition of Fox & Friends, Nesheiwat said coronavirus spikes in Florida, Arizona, and Texas are a result of bars and restaurants “not meeting those limited capacity guidelines” and young people who are “throwing parties” and “not wearing their masks.” After Earhardt asked whether the rise in cases was “because of all the new testing,” Nesheiwat responded that it “definitely played a role,” acknowledging, “Yes, testing does play a role but there’s actually a true surge in this disease because of person-to-person transmission from not following CDC guidelines and opening up too soon.”
As pressure has mounted for DeSantis to do something about the case spike, he’s signaled that Florida has no intention of rolling back its reopening -- though the state has suspended bars from serving alcohol in hopes of discouraging young people from going out drinking and spreading the disease. As of now, the state will stick to its Phase 2 reopening.
“We never anticipated doing anything different in terms of the next phase, at this point, anyways,” the governor told reporters when asked about the record-setting rate at which the state was confirming new COVID-19 cases. “We are where we are.” As of publishing, Florida had reported more than 210,000 total cases of COVID-19, and that number is growing faster than ever. On Saturday, July 4, the state reported more than 11,458 new cases, marking a new single-day record.