For the second time in a month, Fox News has cut ties with commentators over their unhinged remarks about the novel coronavirus. This time, the casualties are Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, sisters who under the stage names “Diamond” and “Silk” had parlayed their obsequious support for President Donald Trump into vlogging stardom, regular Fox appearances, and a show on Fox’s streaming service, Fox Nation. But there have been no new episodes of their program since April 7, and The Daily Beast reported Monday that the pair had lost their network gig after coming “under fire for promoting conspiracy theories and disinformation about the coronavirus.” The report follows Media Matters’ comprehensive reporting on their virus lies.
Diamond and Silk’s departure isn’t a sign that Fox is becoming more responsible about its handling of the pandemic. The network doesn’t have hard standards against lies, bigotry, or conspiracy theories that it enforces on its right-wing commentators. Instead, it has a public relations strategy that revolves around sacrificing low-level employees when they draw too much negative media attention for their remarks, while protecting its big stars when they do the same thing.
Spouting nonsense to support Trump is what made Diamond and Silk famous enough in MAGA circles to make their Fox Nation show viable in the first place. But over the past month, the pair drew media heat for their coronavirus commentary, as the Daily Beast noted. They baselessly claimed on their livestream “that the number of American coronavirus deaths has been inflated to make Trump look bad.” And their tweet opposing quarantines and calling for people to expose themselves to the virus instead was deleted by Twitter.
The duo’s comments were risible and dangerous. They also weren’t dissimilar from what more prominent Fox employees have said on the network’s highest-rated programs -- albeit in a more high-brow fashion.
Star host Tucker Carlson and Brit Hume, Fox’s senior political analyst, argued on Tucker Carlson Tonight earlier this month that the COVID-19 death toll had been inflated due to what Carlson termed journalists’ “agenda.” (In fact, data suggests that the COVID-19 death total has been significantly undercounted.)
And just hours after news broke that Diamond and Silk were shown the door, Carlson argued on his show that there is no scientific justification for quarantines and baselessly claimed that the spread of the virus has been slowed not by social distancing measures, as public health experts have said, but because “the virus just isn't nearly as deadly as we thought it was.”
Carlson has been making similar comments minimizing the virus’ danger and calling for an end to social distancing measures for weeks. And he isn’t using a personal platform like Diamond and Silk, he’s using Fox’s airwaves -- without any sort of apparent pushback from its executives.
Another Diamond and Silk conspiracy theory cited by The Daily Beast, in which the sisters suggested on their livestream that 5G mobile technology towers are being deliberately used by unnamed parties to increase coronavirus infection, is particularly unhinged. But is it really worse than Fox star Sean Hannity’s use of his program to champion conspiracy theories about the murder of former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, which garnered no public chastisement from the network?
Fox executives are caught in a trap of their own making. The network’s core business model relies on vitriolic right-wingers stoking the anger and fears of its audience to keep them coming back for more. Its personalities become stars by providing the red-meat bigotry and extreme attacks on progressives that its viewers demand. But the network brass also can't entirely ignore the concerns of Fox’s advertisers and cable providers, who are correctly wary of being associated with the network’s worst excesses because they fear that it damages their own brands.
So Fox executives have settled on a strategy of trying to tamp down their PR problems by occasionally taking action against low-level commentators who attract too much negative attention and trying to spin that as responsible behavior, even as they allow their most prominent voices to act with impunity. If you are important enough to the network’s bottom line, there are no rules (unless your sexual harassment settlements become too embarrassing).
This played out a month ago when the network made former Fox Business host Trish Regan the scapegoat for its much-maligned coverage minimizing the danger posed by the coronavirus in late February and early March. Regan had claimed that Trump’s enemies were using the coronavirus “an attempt to demonize and destroy the president,” describing this as “yet another attempt to impeach the president.”
That language closely matched how other Fox personalities had talked about the virus, notably star host Sean Hannity, as The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple noted. But when Fox took heat for its coronavirus programming, the network’s executives threw Regan overboard and took no action against Hannity.
We saw something similar play out last year. In March 2019, Fox host Jeanine Pirro used her Saturday night program to question whether Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-MN) wearing of the hijab indicates “her adherence to sharia law which in itself is antithetical to the United States Constitution.” After Pirro’s comments generated a media firestorm, Fox condemned them and quietly suspended her for two weeks.
But bigoted anti-Muslim attacks on Omar are common on Fox, and the network’s action against Pirro did nothing to slow them. A few months later, Carlson called her a “living fire alarm” and “living proof that the way we practice immigration has become dangerous to this country.” Carlson’s comments were widely covered and condemned. But not by Fox: The network issued no statement on his remarks, and Carlson said on his program that its executives were standing by him. Pirro's comments weren't worse than Carlson's; he’s just more important to the network than she is, and so the network doesn’t try to hold him to any standards.
Likewise, after Judicial Watch activist and regular guest Chris Farrell drew attention for falsely blaming the billionaire philanthropist George Soros for a migrant caravan during an October 2018 interview, Fox permanently banned him from future appearances.
Farrell had no reason to think the network might have a problem with his attack despite its anti-Semitic overtones -- he had made a similar remark on Fox that May, which garnered no media attention and thus no ban. And numerous other Fox personalities, including prime-time host Laura Ingraham, had similarly suggested that Soros was behind the caravan without drawing any pushback from the network.
Fox’s executives have made the calculation that its big stars are too big to fail. Unless further pressure from advertisers and cable providers changes the financial equation, they will have no reason to hold them accountable.