With Canadian wildfires, Fox News follows its COVID playbook

Fox guest on hazardous smoke: “There's no health risk. … Particulate matter is very fine soot. It's just carbon particles — they're innocuous.”

Fox News hosts and guests and other right-wing media figures are minimizing the public health risk of the cloud of particulate matter from Canadian forest fires that descended on much of the United States this week and mocking people for taking steps to protect themselves. 

The coverage is reminiscent of Fox’s disastrous handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly its early days, when the network downplayed the potential danger posed by the virus.

Smoke from wildfires in Ontario and Quebec inundated the Midwest and East Coast on Wednesday. Major metropolises were under hazardous air quality warnings, and a reddish-orange haze choked New York City, which at one point had the lowest air quality of any major city in the world. On Thursday, the smoke-filled air is expected to spread further into the Midwest and South even as conditions improve in the Northeast.

Scientists say such wildfires are becoming larger and more frequent as “forests around the world increasingly dry out amid the warming climate,” a fact calmly observed by Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal but furiously derided by his Fox employees. 

Many major news outlets published reports noting that experts recommend people in affected areas wear high-quality masks to prevent health problems caused by the smoke. Those can include “trouble breathing, burning eyes, dizziness, headache or nausea,” particularly among high-risk populations including children, seniors, and people with respiratory problems including asthma. As Fox medical correspondent Dr. Janette Nesheiwat put it during a Wednesday appearance on Fox News Tonight, “If you do have to go outside, an N-95 can help protect you from that large particulate matter.”

Nesheiwat has a lot of work to do within Fox’s own building if she hopes that message will sink in for its audience. Hosts elsewhere on the network treated the idea of wearing masks in response to the wildfire smoke as a punch line. 

On Wednesday afternoon, Jeanine Pirro presented the notion as a left-wing conspiracy, saying, “Democrats are pumping up climate hysteria and bringing back, you guessed it, mask insanity.” That night, Sean Hannity mocked “young, healthy people” for putting on masks, Jesse Watters lashed out at government officials for recommending their use, and Laura Ingraham claimed they “seem a little giddy to be back in the masks” and are promoting “panic porn.”

In fact, Fox’s influential hosts repeatedly downplayed the idea that the wildfire smoke poses any health risk at all.

“I keep reading and hearing reports and people being interviewed — 'I had a hard time breathing' — and I'm like, I'm walking in the same place you're walking in and I don't feel a thing, and I'm trying to understand, and my -- I work out regularly, so I think I'm relatively in tune with my body,” Hannity said. “I think if it was difficult -- if I was having difficulty breathing, I would notice. But these are young people saying this. Are they all snowflakes?”

“Yes,” OutKick host Charly Arnolt replied. “I think people just like to make a big deal out of nothing.”

“Everybody is saying stay inside, but I didn't listen,” Watters said at the top of his show over the chyron “Jesse Braves ‘Hazardous’ Air Quality.”

“Why? Because I love you,” he continued. “I came into the city for you tonight. I braved the smoke so you could watch your favorite show. The air quality is hazardous. ‘Worse than 9/11.’ But, I said, I don't care. The show must go on.”

Ingraham decided that the perspective her viewers needed to hear about the potential health impacts of smoke on the respiratory system was that of Steve Milloy, a notorious climate denier and former cigarette and coal lobbyist who told them they had nothing to fear.

“Steve, no one's denying it is unpleasant. My eyes are pretty itchy and watery, yesterday and a little bit today, and it might go on for a couple more days,” Ingraham said after introducing her guest. “But is this wholly out of the ordinary?”

“No. This happens anytime there's a wildfire in the West. I mean, it's unusual in the East. Look, the air is ugly, it's unpleasant to breathe, and for a lot of people, they get anxiety over it. But the reality is there's no health risk,” Milloy replied. “We have this kind of air in India and China all the time — no public health emergency.” (Both countries reportedly see more than 1 million premature deaths a year from air pollution.)

“This doesn't kill anybody, this doesn't make anybody cough, this is not a health event,” he further explained.

“Particulate matter is very fine soot. It's just carbon particles — they’re innocuous,” Milloy later added. “There's nothing in them. They have no effect.”

Video file

Citation From the June 7, 2023, edition of Fox News' The Ingraham Angle

Meanwhile, at Fox’s cable news competitor Newsmax, host Greg Kelly highlighted the upside of the hazardous levels of smoke blanketing New York City. “I'll tell you, it actually smells like wood smoke. It's not an unpleasant odor, to be honest,” he said. “It is pretty, it actually is pretty. It's a beautiful, interesting aura the city has right now.” 

The modern right-wing media ecosystem is defined less by its ideology than its grievances. Popular figures within that milieu, for reasons financial and partisan, despise Democrats, liberals, experts, and the mainstream press, which they consider one and the same, and reflexively oppose whatever those hated entities support. 

That reflexive opposition became lethal when COVID-19 spread across the United States. Fox News hosts initially told their viewers, incorrectly, that the virus was no more deadly than the flu and urged them to treat it as a Democratic hoax to damage President Donald Trump. Later, they endorsed untested and ineffective COVID-19 “cures” while downplaying the effectiveness of masks, social distancing, and vaccines. 

This irresponsible coverage assuredly led to the deaths of Fox viewers. But virtually no one at the network was held accountable for their actions during a public health crisis, so now they are following the same playbook.