Fox News is aggressively promoting protests by right-wing activists calling for the removal of social distancing measures that states have instituted to fight the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Experts warn that if protesters succeed in forcing an economic reopening before the virus is under control, it will trigger a second wave of COVID-19 deaths while failing to revive employment. But that hasn’t stopped Fox hosts from encouraging the activists and spreading their message to millions of viewers -- the same playbook the network deployed in 2009 to bolster the tea party movement’s protests against the Obama administration.
These new protests share “the same DNA” as the tea party movement, according to leaders of groups that supported it. But for the anti-social distancing activists to have the same political success as their predecessors, they need a helping hand from Fox to validate their efforts and swell their ranks. So far, they are getting it.
Indeed, Fox’s coverage of the demonstrations at times resembles a shot-by-shot remake of its tea party programming from a decade ago.
Fox's tea party promotion was a key point in its evolution from right-wing media outlet to GOP political organization. Its support for the social distancing protests shows the logical endpoint of that worldview. The network is risking the lives of its viewers and the broader public health for the political benefit of President Donald Trump, who has pushed for a hasty reopening of the economy.
How Fox helped create the tea party movement in 2009
Following President Barack Obama’s election in November 2008, Fox transitioned from its longtime role as a megaphone for conservative misinformation and conspiracy theories to a new one as an explicitly political actor working to benefit the Republican Party. This was no secret -- top Fox executives referred to the network as “the Alamo” and a “voice of opposition” to the new administration, and the network’s parent company handed over more than $2 million to GOP-linked political groups.
As part of this shift, Fox hosts began driving their audiences to support anti-Obama protests, beginning with those associated with the tea party.
The tea party movement was an effort by conservatives to rebrand after the faltering Iraq War and 2008 financial crisis shattered public confidence in the Republican Party. Wrapping themselves in the mantle of the Revolutionary era, tea party activists organized protests beginning as early as February 2009. Their demonstrations targeted Obama and his efforts to trigger economic recovery, particularly policies that benefited people the tea party activists considered “undeserving.” An array of deep-pocketed national conservative organizations like FreedomWorks and the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity plowed money into the movement, turning it into a significant political player with a major influence on the 2010 elections and the GOP of the era.
Fox played a preeminent role in the movement’s growth. An analysis of the tea party’s membership and emergence as a political force by Harvard University scholars describes Fox not only as a key information source for tea partiers, but also as a “national social movement organization” that spurred viewers to join it. The network, they write, thus “helped to create and sustain the Tea Party mobilization in the first place.”
Fox heavily promoted the tea party in the days leading up to its high-profile Tax Day demonstrations on April 15, 2009, airing numerous reports, frequent interviews with tea party activists, and dozens of promos.
The network’s hosts and anchors didn’t simply cover the story as a news event; they also encouraged viewers to participate, providing attendance and organizing information during on-air segments and directing their audience to a list of upcoming protests posted on Fox websites.
This was not subtle -- then-host Glenn Beck promoted the network’s live shows from the demonstrations by urging his viewers to “celebrate with Fox News.”
The effort succeeded. Dozens of national and local news reports detailed the role Fox played in amplifying the movement, with numerous tea party attendees telling journalists that they had come out to the demonstrations because they heard about them on the network.
“I don't think I've ever seen a news network throw its weight behind a protest like we are seeing in the past few weeks with Fox and these tea parties,” said media critic Howard Kurtz, then at CNN (he joined Fox four years later).
Fox’s tea party promotion didn’t stop on 2009’s Tax Day. Whenever the movement generated new rallies over the following years, Fox was there to provide them with the promotion they needed to succeed.
As one tea party leader put it, “There would not have been a tea party without Fox.”
Fox is now championing protests against social distancing
More than a decade later, we may be seeing history repeat itself. Fox spent the years following Trump’s election merging with his administration, with network hosts doubling as presidential advisers, former Fox personalities filling the White House and federal agencies, and former Trump aides taking top roles with Fox’s corporate parent. The network is utterly devoted to supporting Trump in his every position and utterance -- including the constant failures of his coronavirus response. And now, that devotion to the president has Fox supporting a new movement with potentially dire consequences for public health.
Governors across the country have slowed the spread of the coronavirus by implementing a wide range of orders to limit face-to-face contact, including banning large gatherings, closing many businesses, and requiring residents to shelter in place. That strategy has drastically reduced the projected death toll from COVID-19, even as tens of thousands have been killed. But as Americans have receded from public spaces, the resulting economic decline has triggered widespread unemployment -- and a backlash from conservatives.
President Donald Trump, his political allies, and Fox hosts have been pushing for a swift end to the lockdowns. And now conservative activists have begun launching protests calling for the repeal of social distancing measures, with attendees often wearing “Make America Great Again” caps or otherwise indicating their support for the president.
But the protests are nonetheless spreading across the country, thanks in part to the same elements that fueled the tea party -- support from national conservative organizations, Republican politicians, and Fox, which has gone into overdrive to promote the demonstrations.
Fox ran 91 segments on the protests from April 13 to April 20, and spent 6 hours of time covering the story, according to a Media Matters study. That coverage includes seven interviews with protest organizers and four more with sheriffs who say they will refuse to enforce stay-at-home orders.
As it did with the tea party, the network isn’t just covering these protests as newsworthy events -- it is actively encouraging its viewers to support and even join them.
Fox segments have advertised upcoming protests in on-screen graphics.
The network’s hosts are lavishing the protesters with praise and thanking the organizers for what they are doing.
And they are playing down the extremism of some rallygoers, featuring Infowars conspiracy theorists Alex Jones and Owen Shroyer in b-roll footage of the events without identifying them.
If the reaction of the network’s most devoted viewer is any guide, the coverage is having an impact on its audience. In a series of apparent live tweets, Trump himself endorsed the protests on Friday just minutes after Fox aired a segment on them with a flurry of apparent live tweets.
The anti-social distancing protests are still in their early stages, and we don’t yet know if Fox will be as successful in empowering them as it was for the tea party. But Dr. Anthony Fauci offered a dire warning of what might happen if the demonstrators get their way and force a premature end to the measures.
“Unless we get the virus under control, the real recovery economically is not going to happen, so what you do if you jump the gun and go into a situation where you have a big spike, you're going to set yourself back,” the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said on ABC News. “So as painful as it is to go by the careful guidelines of gradually phasing into a reopening, it's going to backfire. That's the problem.”