Fox Business cut ties with Trish Regan on Friday evening, less than a month after she claimed in a monologue that President Donald Trump’s enemies were using the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 as “yet another attempt to impeach the president.” Her unhinged rant went viral and swiftly came to personify the paranoid and propagandistic treatment of the story common on Fox Business and its sister network, Fox News.
But Regan’s sudden departure doesn’t indicate that Fox’s executives have suddenly switched gears, deciding that the current crisis demands they establish real standards for the network’s content. It simply shows that when a relatively unknown host came under fire and started drawing attention to the broader problems at Fox, they were willing to cut her loose to salvage the network’s reputation. And you can tell Fox’s other personalities know the network hasn’t drawn a new line, because their commentary hasn’t changed. Over the past few days, they’ve continued to promote fever-swamp conspiracy theories about the virus, lavish praise on Trump’s response, and lash out at his perceived foes.
On Sunday night -- just two days after Regan’s removal -- viewers of Fox News’ The Next Revolution were treated to a credulous discussion of whether videos posted on social media showing empty hospital parking lots may indicate that reporting on the virus has been overstated.
“You can see it on Twitter,” Sara Carter, a Fox contributor who frequently appears on Sean Hannity’s program as an “investigative reporter,” told host Steve Hilton. “People are saying, ‘Film your hospital,’ people are driving by their hospitals and they're not seeing -- in the ones that I'm seeing -- they're not seeing anybody in the parking lots. They're not seeing anybody drive up.”
“So, people are wondering what's going inside the hospital,” she continued. “How many people are actually in the hospitals that are suffering from coronavirus, how many ventilators, are the ICUs really being filled, how full are they, what's happening in my hometown?”
The “film your hospital” hashtag Carter cited on Fox is being used by conspiracy-minded right-wing activists to share videos of their local hospitals that they claim debunk media coverage that such hospitals are overcrowded with COVID-19 patients (in fact, the relatively empty parking lots are likely the result of visitor restrictions). One such video of the parking lot of a New York City hospital, produced by former Fox contributor Todd Starnes, has been viewed millions of times.
Carter was not the only Fox personality to push a coronavirus conspiracy theory on Sunday. That morning, Maria Bartiromo used her Fox News show to help spread the debunked claim that the virus originated in a Chinese research laboratory (scientists say examinations of the virus’s genome prove that it originated naturally).
Fox’s biggest stars seem similarly nonplussed.
Just hours after Regan left the network, Hannity told Fox viewers that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo should stop "whining, bitching, and complaining” about shortages of ventilators and medical supplies and start praising Trump’s response. “By the way, that's a nice hospital behind you,” he said, addressing Cuomo. “Thank Donald Trump. Maybe once in a while just say, ‘Thank you, Mr. President.’”
On her program the following hour, Laura Ingraham attacked the press, claiming that journalists are angry that the pandemic isn’t going as badly as they supposedly thought it would.
Fox’s stable of hosts and contributors understand the game the network’s executives are playing. Fox came under harsh criticism when on-air talent spiraled out of control during the pandemic -- highlighted by a brutal New York Times piece that described Fox founder Rupert Murdoch’s decision to hand the network over to his son Lachlan as a “dangerous mistake.” Someone had to take the fall in order to curtail the media cycle, and Regan’s low profile prior to her coronavirus meltdown made her the natural sacrifice.
But nothing Regan actually said diverged in any real way from the work of her colleagues. Fox hosts, contributors, medical correspondents, and guests spent weeks fitting the virus into their typical pro-Trump propaganda work. With few exceptions, they downplayed the danger posed by the virus, rallied around the president, and offered up absurd, over-the-top attacks on the Democrats and journalists who dared to criticize the administration’s response.
Indeed, as Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple points out, Regan’s comments were virtually identical to remarks Hannity made on his own show the prior week -- but Hannity’s were even more dangerous for the public, because his audience is so much larger than hers. Wemple’s conclusion is that “Hannity must go.” I’d argue that such a move is necessary but insufficient, and that the network should bench the entire “opinion side” (and anyone else spreading dangerous medical misinformation at the network) if it can’t control them. But these are the sorts of results we’d see if Fox had a real commitment to standards, rather than an occasional desire for better PR.
Advertisers and cable providers should take note -- nothing has changed at Fox. The network’s executives are still unwilling or unable to control the on-air talent, and they know it. And during the coronavirus pandemic, that has dire consequences.