On Wednesday night, Sean Hannity informed the viewers of his nightly Fox News program that—and I am not being hyperbolic—the thing to know about the novel coronavirus was that the Trump administration had done a great job containing it. “No president has ever done more, acted more quickly, to slow the spread of a disease,” Hannity declared of the viral outbreak that has been deemed a pandemic by the World Health Organization, prompted the suspension of most professional and amateur sports, and killed thousands of people worldwide. “We labeled it [as the coronavirus] on Jan. 7. On Jan. 31 of this year, three weeks later, the Trump administration declared a public health emergency. No president ever acted that fast.” Go, team!
Since the novel coronavirus first came to America, many marquee Fox personalities have been rushing to diminish its seriousness while simultaneously blaming everyone but the Trump administration for the virus’s rapid spread across the United States (which, of course, is not that serious). On Wednesday, as he has done all week, Hannity argued that the novel coronavirus was less of a threat than the seasonal flu. “There have been 1,200 cases of corona versus 34 million cases of the flu,” Hannity said. “As the senior director at Johns Hopkins pointed out this week, the flu is having much more of an impact than coronavirus. These are facts.” On her own program Wednesday night, Laura Ingraham echoed Hannity’s skepticism. “Where the risk is minimal, the business of America must go on,” she said. “FDR told us that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Earlier this week, on the Fox Business Network, host Trish Regan informed her viewers that the “chorus of hate being leveled at the president is nearing a crescendo as Democrats blame him—and only him—for a virus that originated halfway around the world. This is yet another attempt to impeach the president.”
On this matter, as on so many other things, Regan, Ingraham, and Hannity are dead wrong. First of all, it beggars belief to say that the Trump administration has done an exemplary job of containing the spread of the coronavirus. “This is an unmitigated disaster that the administration has brought upon the population, and I don’t say this lightly,” Harvard Global Health Institute director Ashish Jha told Bloomberg; on Twitter, Georgetown University global health law professor Lawrence Gostin called Trump’s temporary European travel ban “incoherent.” Second, in point of fact, COVID-19 isn’t just a more mild version of the flu. It’s something different, and it is incredibly dangerous for the elderly and immunocompromised. Fox News is risking its aged viewers’ lives by downplaying the risks of COVID-19. The network’s coverage here is grossly irresponsible.
But this irresponsibility with the facts should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever watched Fox News. This is, after all, the same network that insisted that Uranium One, the Steele report, and Peter Strzok’s text messages constituted the real Russia scandal; that brought the word Burisma into the national conversation and consistently referred to the impeachment proceedings as the “Schiff-Schumer Sham Show”; that ginned up a fearsome migrant incursion in order to drive xenophobic voters to the polls at the 2018 midterm elections; that has consistently minimized the dangers posed by man-made global warming when it has bothered to report on it at all; that has mainstreamed the notion of a vast “deep state” conspiracy against President Donald Trump; that confers the mantle of expertise on idiots such as Dan Bongino, the ex–Secret Service agent and thrice-failed political candidate who, in the most recent episode of his podcast, urged listeners to “Take a Stand Against Coronavirus Hysteria.” The Trump-boosting minimization of the novel coronavirus pandemic may well be a new low for Fox News—but it’s also a logical extension of the network’s decadeslong war on objective reality.
Ever since Fox News launched in 1996, the network has labored to construct its own closed epistemic system, underpinned by a variety of questionable “facts” and baseline assumptions that validate right-wing viewpoints while demonizing liberal values. The point is to prop up right-wing politicians by training its viewers to hate, fear, and distrust anyone who leans even the slightest bit left. Critical to the success of this initiative has been the discrediting of traditional authorities, such as mainstream journalists and academic scholars, that traditionally take a more liberal view on the world. Since Trump became president, this reflexive anti-intellectualism has redoubled as the network has engaged in an all-out campaign to support and bolster Trump by discrediting his many enemies. Who are Trump’s enemies? Anyone who contradicts, criticizes, or disagrees with him, for one thing; anyone who insists on citing objective, observable facts to challenge the president’s narcissistic, narrative-driven worldview.
Seen through that lens, the network’s subpar coverage of the coronavirus is just another example of Fox doing what it does best: carrying water for a dangerously unqualified president by encouraging its viewers to believe that Trump’s personal grievances are and should be their own. Aggravating in the best of times, this rhetorical strategy is downright unforgivable now, when lives are in the immediate balance and the difference between accurate and inaccurate information could literally mean the difference between saving those lives or losing them.
Are some Fox News guests and anchors expressing appropriate levels of concern about the coronavirus? Yes, of course they are. But it doesn’t actually matter that Tucker Carlson and others have been broadly reasonable about the coronavirus. One of the hallmarks of Fox News is how the network will set an official line, and then allow for minor deviation from it, in order to combat its critics’ claims that the network is a mere amplifier for paleoconservative propaganda. But far from canceling out the dreck, the more reasonable takes on Fox News just serve to enable the worst takes.
There are some situations that even Fox News would be hard-pressed to ignore or wave away: an earthquake, a volcanic eruption, other actual disasters. You’d think that a true global pandemic in which many thousands of Americans might die would rise to that level, and if many thousands of Americans do start dying, perhaps Fox News will shift its tone. If the network does start treating the coronavirus outbreak seriously, expect it to do so in the most reactionary way possible: to use the pandemic as an excuse to amplify xenophobic themes, promote gross nativism, bash Democrats as the real villains of the coronavirus story, and argue in favor of consolidating power in the hands of Donald Trump. In times of pandemic and in times of peace, Fox News wants its viewers to be afraid of what it wants them to be afraid of, to believe what it tells them to believe.