Fox News’ dangerous coronavirus “Mission Accomplished” moment

Laura Ingraham hosts her show with photo of closed store front and chyron reading: "Did flawed projections tank economy?"

Tuesday brought the highest number of recorded COVID-19 deaths in a single day in the United States since the novel coronavirus reached our shores. The COVID Tracking Project identified 1,941 new fatalities -- eclipsing Saturday’s previous record of 1,352 -- and placed the overall total at 12,621 -- a greater number than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate of H1N1 flu deaths calculated after the first year of that outbreak. 

While those numbers are grim, experts are pointing to some positive signs to suggest that the social distancing mandates put in place across most of the country are flattening the curve of new cases. The result, we hope, is that this means that while COVID-19’s toll will still be horrific, it will be less so than the nightmarish initial projections of millions of U.S. deaths if no action was taken to slow the virus’ spread.

But Fox News’ response to these signs of improvement are putting any hard-won progress in jeopardy. The network’s prime-time shows all but declared victory last night -- and Fox hosts are already pushing to dismantle social distancing and reopen the economy. That could have a devastating effect on public health, as weakening efforts to contain the virus without a broader plan to track new patients and quarantine those who came in contact with them would just let the outbreak spiral back out of control. 

“The short-term crisis, the ones that we worried about so fervently in which pressure on hospitals grew so exponentially day by day, with no end in sight -- that short-term crisis may have passed,” argued Fox News host Tucker Carlson on Tuesday. He added that “now it's time to look ahead” and begin discussing how to get Americans “back to work.”

“Shouldn't this experience make us less willing to rely on the same experts to help determine when and how we should reopen our economy?” Laura Ingraham asked later that night, making air quotes with her fingers as she said the word “experts.”

Fox’s prime-time programs are pushing three major flawed premises which together suggest to the network’s audience that the danger posed by coronavirus is relatively low and no longer justifies the measures government officials have taken to curtail its spread. 

Top-rated Fox shows fixated Tuesday night on how recorded COVID-19 death totals are coming in lower than the initial projections and using that disparity to question the public health response to the coronavirus. According to Fox senior political analyst Brit Hume, the numbers suggest that “the disease turned out not to be quite as dangerous as we thought,” while Ingraham claimed that the numbers show the U.S. should have taken action “less damaging to the economy.” But in fact, experts say that while it is very difficult to model the possible impact of a new disease, the lower death tolls we have seen are precisely because social distancing steps have been more effective than originally anticipated

Fox personalities also suggested that the recorded death tolls under discussion are themselves inflated. Hume honed in on how “all deaths from anyone who died with coronavirus is counted as if the person died from coronavirus,” claiming that this is not “an accurate count” of the “real death total.” Carlson responded by suggesting this was a deliberate effort by reporters to get an “inaccurate death count.” It’s unclear how exactly Hume and Carlson would like to disaggregate the coronavirus’ impact on patients who have the virus and die of respiratory failure from any underlying conditions they might have in order to establish a more “accurate” number. But in reality, the COVID-19 death toll is almost certainly an undercount, as many people dying with symptoms of the virus aren’t actually being tested for it. 

And of course, all three Fox prime-time shows continued the network’s rampant promotion of the use of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19. The hosts were particularly interested in denouncing media figures and doctors who questioned its effectiveness, with Ingraham openly laughing at a doctor who had said during an earlier Fox interview that the drug might have a “very mild effect” at best. In fact, while we hope the drug works as a COVID-19 treatment given the effort President Donald Trump has forced the federal government to put behind it, there’s little evidence to suggest that it does.

The message Fox is sending its viewers is quite clear: Coronavirus isn’t as lethal as the experts originally said, the steps they called for in response are unnecessary, and if you do catch it you can just take some hydroxychloroquine and recover “like Lazarus.” This is putting them in real danger by suggesting that they don’t need to practice social distancing and other public health measures. That could have a calamitous effect -- a top GOP pollster warned last month that Fox’s coverage was making the party’s base more likely to dismiss the virus and skip the steps needed to combat it.  

And one of those viewers is Trump, who is watching the network’s coverage and taking notes. The president has been live-tweeting Fox segments about the coronavirus, telling the public that he relies on the network for information about its spread, and even bringing Fox personalities like Ingraham into the White House to advise his administration. He told Sean Hannity just last night that he has been watching Hannity’s show for guidance on which states need additional ventilators from the federal government. 

A clash between public health officials and others in the administration over when it is safe to reopen the economy is likely to come sooner rather than later. And we may see Trump intervene in that dispute based on what he sees on Fox.

That’s exactly what Fox hosts like Ingraham are encouraging him to do.