A month ago, Fox News’ biggest stars effectively declared victory in the fight against the novel coronavirus. They have not recalibrated this narrative since, even as the number of U.S. deaths from the virus has soared. Instead they have continued to insist -- for wildly divergent reasons -- on the quick rollback of the social distancing measures implemented to slow its spread.
On the evening of April 7, Fox host Tucker Carlson opened his broadcast with a monologue in which he declared that “the short-term crisis may have passed,” as on-screen text read, “pandemic not as catastrophic as we feared,” and for the next three hours, he and his prime-time colleagues Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham relentlessly spiked the football. The Fox hosts argued that downward revisions in an influential model’s projection to roughly 60,000 U.S. deaths by August meant that we were on the far side of the infection curve -- it was time to reverse social distancing restrictions and reopen the economy.
At the time of their supreme hubris, more than 15,000 U.S. coronavirus deaths had been recorded. A month later, the number of recorded U.S. deaths is approaching 75,000 -- a figure that likely represents an undercount. And the model they had cited has more than doubled its projection to 134,000 U.S. deaths -- specifically because of the premature relaxing of social distancing that they supported.
But in spite of the increasing carnage, nothing has changed in Fox prime time. This week alone, Carlson said the virus was “easing,” Hannity looked forward to the “next corona,” and Ingraham argued it would “eventually burn out.” All three have run segments supporting conservative protesters who have been calling for the termination of state stay-at-home orders, over chyrons like “Americans Push Back Against Indefinite Lockdowns.” On Wednesday night, each program devoted time to lionizing a Texas salon owner who was arrested for opening her shop in violation of the state’s coronavirus restrictions.
While the hosts converged on the same demand for a swift end to the state lockdowns, they took very different approaches to reach that position.
The three Fox prime-time shows increasingly seem to be broadcast not from their home studios, but from a different dimension -- and not necessarily a unified one. In Hannity’s alternate reality, Trump is the hero, and it’s time to end the lockdowns because he defeated the virus. In the one apparently inhabited by Carlson and Ingraham, public health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci are the villains, and it’s time to end the lockdowns because the experts were wrong and the virus was never a real threat.
Hannity is effectively a Trump political operative who also hosts a cable news show, so it’s little surprise that his presentation is relentlessly sycophantic. The Fox host presents Trump as the victorious protagonist of the coronavirus story, who enacted travel restrictions that “will go down as the single most consequential decision in history” and implemented “the greatest medical mobilization this country has ever seen.” He constantly complains that Trump has not received the credit he deserves -- according to Hannity, the people of New York City and New York state should thank the president because they “would be dead without Donald Trump's help, period,” as should New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and “the country.” Hannity has been arguing since early April that due to Trump’s brilliant effort, some parts of the country could be opened immediately.
Carlson’s and Ingraham’s rationale for ending social distancing is virtually the opposite. Rather than arguing that lockdowns can end because Trump stopped the virus, they argue that the strategy was never necessary because the virus simply turned out to be less dangerous than anticipated. Carlson has claimed that COVID-19 “just isn't nearly as deadly as we thought it was,” and said the coronavirus death rate has not been “devastating.” Ingraham has repeatedly suggested that the virus is no more dangerous than the far less deadly, far more treatable flu. And both have baselessly suggested that the official coronavirus death counts are being inflated -- a falsehood that has spread to Fox viewers, including the president.
The coronavirus story doesn’t have a hero on Carlson’s and Ingraham’s shows, just villains: Fauci and other public health officials, who the hosts argue foolishly destroyed the economy by talking the country into implementing lockdowns. Carlson has claimed Fauci is pushing for “national suicide” because job losses caused by the coronavirus response are “a far bigger disaster than the virus itself, by any measure,” and attacked politicians for listening to “an elderly power-drunk epidemiologist.” Ingraham claimed that changing projections should “make us less willing to rely on the same experts to help determine when and how we should reopen our economy,” and warned that “if we wait for Dr. Fauci's seal of approval to reopen America, we may not have an America to reopen.” Trump, the recipient of Fauci’s advice, is a bit player on these programs, virtually unmentioned during coronavirus segments.
Having denounced public health experts, the pair and the guests they book each night have systematically denounced all the recommendations they have made to stop the spread of the virus. Social distancing was implemented with “no real scientific basis,” it “doesn’t seem to have” slowed the virus “at all,” public health officials are “fools” for thinking it works, and it is a civil liberties violation on par with the Japanese internment camps implemented during World War II. Additional testing capacity is unrealistic and unnecessary, contact tracing is “a new threat to our rights,” it’s “a lie” that mass quarantines are needed, and wearing masks in public was a sound idea right up until public health officials recommended doing it.
Neither Hannity’s alternate reality nor that of Ingraham and Carlson resembles the real one, where social distancing steps have proven necessary, insufficient, and grueling. The restrictions seem to have flattened the curve enough to prevent a breakdown of the health care system and keep supply chains intact, even as they exacted a heavy economic toll. But more than 1,800 deaths are still being recorded daily, and the infection rate outside of the New York metropolitan area is rising.
Public health experts have argued for months that expanding the volume of tests, building and staffing a system of contact tracing, and providing for the isolation of infected people are all steps needed to suppress the virus and safely relax social distancing. But the Trump administration hasn’t bothered trying to implement that strategy. Instead, it seems to be taking its cues from Fox’s coverage, which has influenced virtually every aspect of the president’s lax handling of the pandemic. Trump has encouraged states to move straight to loosening their social distancing restrictions -- even when they don’t meet his own White House’s standards for doing so -- which models project will make matters worse.
And the president isn’t the only member of the Fox audience whose coronavirus opinions are being shaped by its coverage. According to a Daily Kos/Civiqs poll, Americans who reported watching the network frequently are much less likely to be concerned about the virus and much more likely to support the protests against stay-at-home orders.
They’re being drawn into Fox’s alternate realities, and we all may pay the price for it.