The shameless sycophants at Fox News, who spent late February and early March deluding their audience about the danger posed by the novel coronavirus, are arguing that President Donald Trump was correct -- in fact, noble -- to intentionally “play it down,” as he claimed in an interview with The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward.
In taped interviews with Woodward for his forthcoming book, Trump said on February 7 that the virus was “more deadly than even your strenuous flus” (contradicting his public statements at the time), and added on March 19 that he was “playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
The Wednesday leak of those interviews triggered a media and political firestorm over the president’s deception. But Fox quickly rallied to the president, and after he doubled down at an afternoon press conference by saying that he intentionally downplayed the virus to avoid a “frenzy,” the network’s hosts have settled on the position that he was right to do that. Their argument implicitly excuses their own irresponsible coverage as the virus spread across the country.
Sean Hannity, who used his prime-time show during the period between those two Trump interviews to compare the virus to the flu and to argue that Democrats and the media were “weaponizing” concerns about it as a “new hoax” to damage the president politically, claimed on Wednesday night that Trump’s coronavirus statements were comparable to those of President Franklin Roosevelt during World War II or President George W. Bush after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.
“The president's job is to maintain order, and by the way, right the ship during and after a crisis, not spread panic, not spreading fear among the population,” he added, assuring his audience that “President Trump has never misled or distorted the truth about this deadly disease.”
On Fox & Friends, where co-hosts had claimed on March 8 that “the more I learn about this, the less there is to worry about” and on March 13 that “it’s actually the safest time to fly,” Trump’s coronavirus statements were similarly likened to Roosevelt’s “fireside chats to calm America,” and 9/11.
“What we have heard from the leaders on both sides is that during times of trouble, our leaders know what’s going on behind the scenes, but they don’t want us to freak out,” Steve Doocy explained. “Did we know everything back then that we know now? No, absolutely not,” he continued. “And so when Bob Woodward brings out these recordings, it looks like, ‘Ah ha!,’ but nonetheless, when you hear the president say, ‘I just wanted people to calm down, I didn’t want them to freak out,’ does that make sense to you? That’s the big question.”
There are two major flaws with Fox’s Trump-excusing fairy tale.
First, contrary to Trump’s claims and those of his Fox supporters, the president wasn’t simply adopting a measured tone to prevent panic during the period in question. He was telling the public -- including Fox’s audience -- that the number of patients suffering from COVID-19 was minimal and would soon fade away, that the virus was “not that severe” and comparable to the flu, and that Democrats and journalists were talking up the dangers of the virus to hurt him politically.
This misinformation -- disinformation, if his March 19 statement to Woodward wasn’t another of his constant lies -- encouraged people not to take the virus seriously or take steps to protect themselves and others, and it coincided with a lax federal response. Trump’s message was amplified and validated by Fox hosts like Hannity, and it got people killed.
Second, the notion that Trump was intentionally downplaying the virus because he wanted to keep the public calm is literally incredible given everything else he has done over the course of his political rise and presidency.
From deliberately panicking Americans over Ebola in 2014, to his inaugural speech warning of “American carnage,” to threatening nuclear war over a Fox segment, to a midterm message that revolved around the danger posed by the “angry mob” of Democrats and purportedly violent migrant caravans, to his frequent, paranoid claims this year that Democrats are plotting to “steal” the election and will “destroy this country” if they succeed, he constantly acts to raise the political temperature, not to lower it.
In fact, here he is projecting calm and trying not to panic the public, just like FDR, on Thursday morning:
More than 200,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. It didn’t have to be this way. But Trump and Fox spent crucial weeks locked in a feedback loop in which they told the public that the virus was nothing to worry about, and here we are.
Now, rather than take responsibility for how badly they failed their audience in a moment of crisis, Fox hosts are valorizing Trump’s response. It’s sickening -- but it’s not surprising.