Misinformer of the Year: Fox News
In 2019, the U.S. federal government ran a simulation of a global influenza pandemic. A draft report on the effort, published earlier this year by The New York Times, pointed to a host of flaws in the simulated response that now appear prescient as the country continues to grapple with the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. But one crucial element appears missing: No one contemplated that a major national news source would try to stymie the response -- or that the outlet could convince the president to take its side against the government’s public health experts.
That’s what Fox News did this year. The right-wing network has promoted coronavirus misinformation an estimated 13,551 times on its weekday programs over the course of the pandemic. And its lies had a deadly impact.
President Donald Trump spends much of each day watching and tweeting along with Fox. The network, long a uniquely destructive force in American political life, reinvented itself as his personal propaganda outlet over the course of his presidency. The Fox obsession shapes Trump’s worldview, provides him with his most trusted advisers, encourages his worst impulses, and in 2020 thus far triggered at least 475 live tweets of Fox News and its sister network, Fox Business. Once a curiosity that served to explain his most bizarre tweets, this insidious Trump-Fox feedback loop came to set the course of our nation’s politics.
And this year, the country has suffered the consequences of Fox’s unrivaled influence on the president and federal government. The feedback loop fueled Trump’s disastrous handling of a pandemic that has taken the lives of more than 300,000 Americans to date. It stoked bigotry and violence amid a national reckoning on racism and police brutality as the network’s typically abhorrent treatment of Black Americans turned uglier than ever. And as the year came to a close, the feedback loop was powering Trump’s attempt to overthrow the election, shaking our political system to its foundations.
For the first time, Media Matters is naming Fox News its Misinformer of the Year for 2020. While we have previously given that title to specific Fox leaders and employees, it has never gone to the network as a whole. But never before have its personalities and executives had the blood of this many Americans on their hands.
Fox spent 2020 recklessly minimizing the pandemic as it took the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans. It’s impossible to calculate how many might still be alive if the network had treated the coronavirus as a real threat to the health of its viewers and the general public rather than a political obstacle for its beloved president.
The network’s viewers desperately needed credible information about the threat posed by the virus in late February and early March, as public officials sounded alarms about its first wave spreading across the country. Instead, they got propaganda.
Fox painted the virus as a minor problem, no more dangerous than the flu, and claimed that Democrats and journalists arguing otherwise were ginning up fears to damage Trump politically. Those raising concerns, the network’s hosts told their audiences, were simply trying to “bludgeon Trump with this new hoax” in “another attempt to impeach the president.”
Fox briefly took the coronavirus somewhat more seriously after Trump declared a national emergency to slow its spread. But on April 7 -- around the time it became clear that the virus’s victims were disproportionately Black and brown -- the network’s prime-time hosts effectively declared victory, arguing that public health experts had exaggerated the danger it posed and giving their predominantly white viewers license to ignore the measures designed to curb it.
The U.S. outbreak was still in its early days, with only a tiny fraction of the current total of coronavirus cases and deaths recorded. But Fox’s pivot to demands for ending public health restrictions and reopening the economy had already begun. The network’s commentators never looked back for the rest of the year, undeterred by overflowing hospitals and soaring death totals as they preached the need to preserve businesses rather than people.
It’s difficult to imagine what prime-time stars Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham might have done differently if they were deliberately trying to get as many Americans killed as possible. The hosts and the assemblage of kooks and cranks they brought on for supposed expertise used their massive platforms to wage a nightly, systematic assault against virtually every measure that public health officials supported.
They denounced social distancing, masks, quarantines, and increased testing as ineffective and dictatorial, while praising both the purportedly miraculous properties of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, which studies show is ineffective against the coronavirus, and the less-restrictive response of Sweden, which ultimately failed. They baselessly claimed at first that the coronavirus death toll had been inflated, and eventually stopped mentioning those figures altogether. They embraced protests against stay-at-home orders, valorized small business owners who flouted coronavirus restrictions, and denounced credible experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci. Over a single week in July, their shows combined to push misinformation about the virus at least 83 times.
But while those hosts stand out, the entire network has been complicit in its campaign of deception, with the network’s purported “straight news” shows often hammering the same misinformation as its “opinion” programming.
As the year came to a close, the U.S. daily death toll from COVID-19 had crested 3,000, a horrific rate that the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said could continue for two to three months. Fox, meanwhile, was hiding that staggering death toll from its viewers while encouraging them to violate coronavirus restrictions and gather together for the holidays.
This coverage had an impact. Fox’s viewers consistently told pollsters they were less worried about the virus than did people who got their news elsewhere, triggering fears among party leaders that the network’s programming was endangering the lives of the GOP base. And because of the nature of infectious disease, Fox viewers who did not change their behavior because they were convinced the virus was overblown also endangered those around them.
But Fox’s unique hold on the president’s attention, and his eagerness to seek out advice on how to handle a deadly pandemic from its personalities, pushed the impact of its coronavirus coverage far beyond its own audience.
Trump didn’t just live-tweet Fox coronavirus coverage at least 89 times, or parrot the network’s most unhinged coronavirus conspiracy theories, though he did do that. He ensured that the federal government’s response would track the complaints, obsessions, and blind spots of its right-wing ideologues. The network’s fingerprints are everywhere, from the lax attention paid to the virus during its early spread, when Fox was telling Trump it wasn’t a problem; to the stockpiling of unproven and ineffective drugs; to Trump’s unwillingness to serve as a positive example by wearing a mask and forswearing heavily attended indoor events; to his refusal to provide desperately needed funds to state and local governments.
Most dangerous of all, Fox’s promotion of Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist and right-wing think-tanker with a contrarian take on the pandemic, attracted Trump’s attention. Trump liked that Atlas told him what he wanted to hear -- that the virus was no big deal and he was handling it brilliantly -- so he gave him a position on the White House coronavirus task force. From that post, Atlas increased his power and reportedly called for deliberately allowing the virus to spread in order to reach “herd immunity.” By the time he left office on December 1, the nation had completely lost control of the pandemic. A few weeks later, the day’s death toll exceeded that of the 9/11 terror attacks.
The failure of Fox’s pandemic strategy was predictable -- and indeed, Fox’s executives knew better than to try to implement it for their own employees. Even as the on-air talent urged a premature return to normalcy, the network largely shuttered its offices and told its employees to wear masks.
But those executives refused to take responsibility for the network’s output. During the spring, facing public outrage over Fox’s pandemic disinformation, they parted ways with a handful of low-level employees who had made particularly egregious claims. But Fox stars who had produced virtually identical commentary avoided accountability and continued to lie to their viewers and downplay the pandemic.
For Fox, mass death was simply the cost of doing business.
As Americans joined nationwide protests against racial injustice following the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd this year, Fox’s response was vicious and divisive. The network painted Black activists seeking an end to police brutality as violent terrorists endangering the lives of its viewers and civilization itself, while Fox celebrated white, right-wing vigilantes as heroes, the true victims of law enforcement.
The network’s coverage revolved around terrorizing its audience by fixating on instances of rioting, arson, looting, and property damage, at times citing hoaxes or other misinformation. Carlson in particular lashed out at the “thugs” of the Black Lives Matter movement and its supporters. The moment, he claimed at one point, “is definitely not about Black lives. And remember that when they come for you.” “Vigilante justice,” he suggested, might be needed against demonstrators in the streets. And when that inevitably came to pass, with lethal consequences, he praised its perpetrator.
Fox traditionally tolerates, and even rewards, on-air bigotry. But its coverage of the protests was so horrific that its Black employees reportedly began confronting executives. One staffer even told a reporter that executives “created a white supremacist cell inside the top cable network in America, the one that directly influences the president.”
And indeed, the president was watching the network’s coverage of the protests, live-tweeting its programming at least 58 times, and taking action in response. Trump stoked racial tensions, abandoned bipartisan police reform legislation and ordered federal law enforcement deployed to U.S. cities, put Carlson’s demagogic message at the center of his campaign, and echoed Carlson’s talking points by making the racist appeal to white suburbanites that Biden wanted to destroy their hometowns by importing low-income people.
The result was more indiscriminate violence, as law enforcement attacked protestors and reporters with impunity, cheered on by the president and his propagandists.
As this piece was written, Trump was still seeking to overturn the results of a free and fair election because he lost. Even as his lawyers have been laughed out of court for alleging nonexistent election fraud, he continues to denounce the results as rigged and seek to toss out millions of votes and have himself declared the victor. For all intents and purposes, he’s attempting a coup in broad daylight -- and his Fox propagandists are eager accomplices to his would-be authoritarian power grab.
No one can say they didn’t see this coming. Since the spring, Trump has been promoting Fox’s warnings of inevitable election fraud as the network laid the groundwork for him to steal a close election. Unfortunately for the plan, Biden won in a relative landslide, with his victory confirmed by Fox itself.
Much attention has been paid to Trump’s rage at Fox after its decision desk called first Arizona and then the election for Biden. But the network’s “news” and “opinion” sides both trumpeted his baseless fraud allegations in the days following his defeat, with stars like Sean Hannity, Lou Dobbs, and Maria Bartiromo gleefully aiding the president’s cynical effort to subvert the vote and usher in the end of American democracy.
Fox cast doubt on or pushed conspiracy theories about the election results nearly 600 times over the nine days after the network declared Biden had won, and that treatment has not abated since. Trump himself has repeatedly promoted the network’s election fraud lies on social media, apparently after watching his favorite shows. Indeed, dating back to the spring, he sent at least 89 live tweets calling the election’s legitimacy into question in response to Fox programming.
The result is that Fox’s audience doesn’t believe Biden actually won, while the network is responding to criticism by promoting increasingly unhinged lies about the election in order to tell its viewers that Trump’s victory is imminent. The results could prove catastrophic, sending the nation into the abyss.
When historians look back at 2020 in the decades to come, it will likely also be remembered as yet another year in which the U.S. did not act to stop the climate crisis.
Fox’s routine promotion of climate science denial was identified as a key obstacle to preventing change more than a decade ago. The increasing urgency of the impending calamity -- and the network’s stranglehold on the president’s attention span -- has only made its intransigence more critical.
In 2020, as massive wildfires stoked by the changing climate raged across the Australian interior and American west, Fox responded by ignoring, downplaying, and denying the situation. Trump, in turn, continued to contradict science and refuse to act, as the threat grew.
Fox’s misinformation had a direct impact on the lives of every single American this year, whether they watched the network or not. Its propagandists helped wreck the response to a deadly pandemic that killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, tried to drown a movement for justice out of racism and fear, and, as the year came to a close, waged an assault on America’s democracy.
This year was a low point in the network’s shameful history, and none of its employees should ever live it down. They betrayed their viewers and endangered their fellow Americans because they wanted to protect the president and preserve their position as his state TV outlet of choice.
Fox News is 2020’s Misinformer of the Year.