Fox News Set the Stage for America’s Poor Coronavirus Response

The network has conditioned its viewers to hate experts and to trust miracle cures for 25 years.

Donald Trump and Sean Hannity.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images and Fox News.

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On Monday, as he does most weekday nights, Sean Hannity went on television to inform his viewers that the mainstream media are a bunch of dirty liberal liars. On Fox News, the reason why they are liars is always moving target, but the current one is a real corker: hydroxychloroquine.

For much of the past week, Hannity has insisted over and over again that the media is downplaying the promise of the anti-malarial drug in order to damage Donald Trump, who has repeatedly touted hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus treatment. That hydroxychloroquine is effective “is not anecdotal anymore,” Hannity said Monday. “We are now beyond that point, in spite of what the mob and the media is telling you.” Hannity went on to cite a selection of anecdotal evidence in support of his point. He disparaged the very idea of rigorously testing whether hydroxychloroquine was safe and helpful before prescribing it to patients. “ ‘Hold on, virus. We need a clinical trial.’ That doesn’t work that way,” Hannity sneered. He went on to repeatedly brandish a testimonial from a lupus doctor who said that hydroxychloroquine is a very safe drug, as per his years of experience prescribing it for the treatment of lupus. He noted that Dr. Mehmet Oz, of Oprah fame, is a big hydroxychloroquine fan. That should settle it!

Except that there have been no large-scale, randomized, controlled studies that show hydroxychloroquine to be effective against COVID-19. Though some small studies have provided reason for optimism, others have found hydroxychloroquine to have neutral or negative health effects in study subjects. The risks inevitably rise when desperate people decide to self-medicate without first consulting their physicians; officials in Nigeria, for instance, reported two cases of chloroquine overdoses soon after Trump first started praising the drug, while in Arizona a man died after mistaking chloroquine phosphate, which is aquarium cleaner, for hydroxychloroquine. In any event, there simply isn’t enough data yet for anyone to claim that the drug indisputably works against the coronavirus, and most credible news outlets have reported this, which is what made Hannity so mad. Trump has spent weeks now assuring the world that hydroxychloroquine may well be “one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine,” and Hannity’s sole purpose these days is to serve as the president’s loudest lickspittle.

Trump’s recent fixation on hydroxychloroquine has bordered on the monomaniacal, even as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the immunologist who has emerged as the administration’s most credible voice on the coronavirus pandemic, has gone out of his way to urge caution. Still, Trump has continued to hype hydroxychloroquine at every possible opportunity. He has mentioned it in most of the press conferences he has given since mid-March, issuing wildly speculative statements like a huckster trying to convince you to lose money on penny stocks.

Perhaps the president just wants the quickest way out of a crisis he can barely pretend to manage. Whatever it is, this whole dumb gambit is just the latest iteration of something that Trump and his allies do all the time. For the duration of his presidency, and indeed long before, they have taken half-baked ideas from dubious sources, laundered them through pliant news outlets, and crowded out all dissent until those ideas either become policy or at least dominate the news cycle and shift the terms of debate. They have spun these ideas into fly-by-night miracle cures to complex social problems—build that wall!—and through sheer force of repetition convinced millions of Americans that these slogans are actual solutions. Fox News is the key to the whole operation, and its output during the pandemic has shown that the network will follow Trump into even the darkest corners.

The American coronavirus crisis—in which governmental inaction and avoidance now threatens millions of lives and positions us to have the worst response to this pandemic of any developed country—is the inadvertent product of a concerted, decadeslong right-wing media effort to empower useful idiots and ideologues who will commit to policies that further enrich a coterie of plutocrats while rendering threadbare the fabric of middle-class society. For almost 25 years, Fox News has promoted risibly easy answers to big questions while waging war on legitimate expertise. The network has systematically given prominent platforms to fringe theorists and hacks who present as respected experts and pragmatists. It has weaponized its viewers’ latent anti-intellectualism into active distrust of all sources located outside of the right-wing mediasphere. It has profited by airing commercials intended to convince gullible old people to sink their retirement savings into specious investments. It has consistently characterized government bureaucracies as hotbeds of conspiratorial intrigue, and an expansive federal system as the unequivocal enemy of liberty, thus tacitly sanctioning the sorts of paranoid ideologues who would preemptively decimate America’s public health infrastructure and interpret stay-at-home orders as intolerable and illegitimate signs of government overreach. It has spent decades setting the stage for the maddening, unnecessary tragedy that is now playing out all around us.

When Fox News was founded in 1996, the ostensible goal was to create a conservative-leaning cable news network that would counteract the perceived left-wing bias in existing televised news sources. The creator of Fox News was Rupert Murdoch, the Australian media mogul and billionaire, who, like most rich people, wanted to keep his money instead of giving it to the government. Fox News, in part, was borne out of a mogul’s desire to help advance policies that would work to that effect.

The man in charge of Fox News from 1996 until his harassment-related departure two decades later was Roger Ailes, a television executive and former Republican campaign operative. Ailes came by his conservative leanings honestly, but he was also a propagandist par excellence. As a young man, he had worked on Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, producing TV spots designed to make the fulminating, beetle-browed Nixon seem not just palatable but benevolent. Over the course of his tenure at Fox News, Ailes worked to perform the same magic trick on countless conservative policies and personalities that primarily served the interests of a very wealthy few.

“By fusing television’s power to conjure feelings of anger and resentment to an ideology of cultural populism that demonized liberal elites, Ailes set forth the methods and the message that would help conservative politicians win and maintain power for decades,” historian David Greenberg wrote for Politico Magazine in 2016. These methods have been perfected during the Trump administration, as the least capable and trustworthy president in American history has made his right-wing media enablers work overtime reframing his bad decisions as good ones, his mistakes as triumphs, his combative demeanor as leadership, and his personal enemies as enemies of the state. Fox News has risen to this challenge, elevating intricate tales—Burisma! Uranium One! Page and Strzok!—designed to convince viewers to reject the reporting and judgment of all other credible sources, and instead choose to believe a series of conspiratorial fables that exonerate the president from any wrongdoing while accusing his opponents of all of his misdeeds.

There has long been a mild schism at Fox News between the news and opinion divisions, and it is fair to acknowledge that my criticisms are primarily directed at the opinion side. Though Fox’s news division leans to the right, its work is still fundamentally rooted in the news, and sometimes, as in breaking news situations, that work legitimately shines. (More often it does not, but credit where it’s due.) The network’s opinion division manifests different priorities. Sometimes these anchors merely shade the truth, but these days they  frequently just tell the opposite of it. When the world first started to freak out about the novel coronavirus, it was only natural that Fox News personalities would claim that the crisis was nothing much to worry about, perhaps even a Democratic hoax. And it is only natural, now that it has been forced to acknowledge that the crisis is real, that the network has shifted to touting the president’s preferred quick fix while casting aspersions on all those who would disagree with Trump’s unqualified opinions.

According to researchers at Media Matters, Fox News reported favorably on hydroxychloroquine 275 separate times between March 23 and April 6; during that same span, network contributors raised doubts about the drug a mere 29 times. On March 23, for instance, on the Fox Business channel, Lou Dobbs called into his own program while out on self-quarantine to announce that hydroxychloroquine was “just amazing. And that is now being prescribed, it now holds great hope. And the president was right and frankly Fauci was wrong.”

During Monday’s episode of The Five, soft-handed co-host Jesse Watters noted that “there is a lot of stuff floating around about the hydroxychloroquine, and the media seems to almost be rooting for it not to work. … This is a media that is supposed to believe in science and is supposed to believe in progress, and is supposed to believe in the doctor-patient relationship, and they go crazy when the president says, ‘Hey, the drug is showing signs of hope.’ ”

Classic. Throughout the Trump era, Fox News has parried almost every single story that reflects poorly on the president by flipping the mirror around so that those stories instead appear to indict the media and the president’s critics. When other outlets lead with tales of presidential misbehavior, dishonesty, and unreadiness, Fox often leads with the ways in which those other outlets are unfairly attacking the president, rather than engage on the substance of those other outlets’ stories. The trick is to make the story a meta-story, to ground coverage in those feelings of persecution and resentment that Ailes was so skilled at stoking—to cover every pandemic, so to speak, as if Donald J. Trump were its one and only victim.

On Tuesday night, Fox’s prime-time hosts made it seem as if the coronavirus tide was turning. They touted a death rate that has underperformed worst-case projections as a sign that America was on the verge of winning this anti-viral war and would soon be lunch-pailing its way back to work, regardless of what you might be hearing from such dubious characters as Dr. Fauci. They insinuated that, perhaps, the mainstream media had actually cheered for those worst-case projections to come true as a means of undermining the president—concomitant with their ongoing efforts to diminish the ostensible effects of hydroxychloroquine. Sharing the screen with a graphic reading “Lies, Hysteria & the Media,” Sean Hannity announced that, even in the midst of a pandemic, the mainstream media “will not stop their engagement in [a] never-ending smear campaign and attacks against the president.” Hannity deemed the media’s “political agenda” and “hatred of the president” as the reasons why “they continue to claim that a potentially lifesaving treatment, hydroxychloroquine, they are telling the American people it is dangerous. And it is reckless. And that the president talks about it. Now, because the president touted its benefits, well, they’re now on a mission to seek and to destroy.”

Hannity’s program finished out with a long interview with Trump, who praised hydroxychloroquine and himself while repeatedly ripping the media. “The lamestream media has been extremely dishonest and it’s a shame. It’s very sad,” the president said, additionally bashing journalists as bad people who hate America. Also on Tuesday, according to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, 1,943 Americans died of COVID-19, bringing the nation’s ongoing death toll from the pandemic up to 12,704. The number has risen since then and will assuredly continue to rise by the thousands each day for the near future.

There was never any way to avoid American lives being lost to the coronavirus. But the death toll didn’t have to be this high. The blame rests with the anemic early federal response, as supervised by Trump, America’s foremost comorbidity. The president sat on his hands while the outbreak made its way to America, mocking and minimizing and refusing to engage with the threat until a surfeit of American deaths forced his hand. Now he is dissembling and digressing and blustering his way through the pandemic, and Fox News is doing its best to deceive its audience into thinking that Trump was on top of things all along. Hannity and most of his Fox News opinion colleagues have long maintained that to challenge, contradict, or report accurately on the president is to smear the president, and they are not about to change their tunes just because millions of American lives are on the line. The network has spent 25 years perfecting its malign rhetorical sleight of hand, inducing its viewers to suspend their collective disbelief and succumb to its brand of magical thinking, to believe in MAGA phantasms while averting their eyes from what’s actually there, and to swallow the pills that are bad for them as if doing so will save their lives.

For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to this week’s Political Gabfest.