Early Friday morning, when the world learned that both President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump had been diagnosed with COVID-19, I went to bed with one question on my mind: How would Fox News cover the story the next day?
The network has been a key vector for bad coronavirus information all year. From initially claiming that COVID-19 was basically just the flu, to touting hydroxychloroquine as a remedy without any compelling scientific evidence for the claim, to amplifying the president’s sneering disdain for masks, state and regional shutdowns, and his own administration’s health experts, Fox News personalities speaking to the network’s vast and elderly audience have surely helped make the pandemic worse than it otherwise might have been. Now that their beloved leader has been hit by the virus, how would they react? By 9 a.m. Friday, after watching Fox & Friends, I had my answer: by pandering to the president, incessantly referencing hydroxychloroquine, and somehow still finding a way to make the story about Joe Biden, the Democrats, and the sickos in the liberal media.
Trump’s diagnosis was the only story that Fox & Friends covered on Friday, but the potential leadership vacuum left by an ill executive was hardly on the anchors’ minds. After noting that the president’s case of COVID appeared mild, citing a statement from Trump’s personal physician, co-host Steve Doocy came around to the real story: “It is unclear whether or not Joe Biden even knows this has happened yet, because famously, out on the trail, he has said a number of times, ‘I get up at 8.’ You got to wonder whether or not his aides woke him up early to tell him the news.”
“Well, you have a good point, Steve,” correspondent Griff Jenkins responded. “It’s interesting: [It’s] now after 6 a.m. on the East Coast and the former vice president has not responded. No statement, no Twitter.” Even now, the message was that slugabed Biden is hardly a match for our vigorous president, who gets up with the crows (to spend many, many hours watching morning television each day).
Next came Fox News medical contributor Marc Siegel, who reassured viewers—especially the program’s most important viewer—that the president’s lack of comorbidities, such as diabetes or heart disease, bode well for his recovery, despite his age and his obesity. To be clear, Trump does have moderate heart disease, and Siegel’s assessment of his health was, to be generous, rosy. Anyway, the Friends wanted to know about possible pharmaceutical remedies. What about the fact that the president had at one point been taking hydroxychloroquine as a prophylactic measure? Would that impact anything?
“Well, listen, Steve, I think early in the pandemic we all thought that that was a really good treatment,” Siegel said. (We did not all think that.) “As time has gone on, research has not really backed that up. But it’s still being used in many places around the world with zinc. And I would have to tell you honestly, I don’t think it’s ever been ruled out.” (A recent study showed that the drug “did not show any benefit versus placebo in reducing coronavirus infection among healthcare workers,” according to Reuters.)
Later, we heard from Dr. Qanta Ahmed, from NYU Langone Medical Center, who advocated blasting the president with remdesivir while also noting that Trump is “constitutionally incredibly strong. He operates more like a 45-year-old than a 74-year-old in terms of his stamina. He has no underlying comorbidities. He will naturally resolve this quickly.” Ahmed also suggested the president’s early dabbles with hydroxychloroquine may well “have conferred him some protection” and that hydroxychloroquine has been ”unfairly vilified.” It is remarkable that even now, after most rational people have decided Trump’s early fixation with hydroxychloroquine was bizarre and possibly suspect, Fox News still just can’t let go of this discredited miracle cure.
At the top of the 7 a.m. hour, Doocy recapped the headlines for viewers who were just tuning in and reiterated that “we do not know at almost 7 Eastern time whether or not Joe Biden has been told that the president tested positive for COVID. You know, the president and first lady sent out tweets in the 1 a.m. hour, and Joe Biden has famously said out on the campaign trail that he doesn’t get up until 8 in the morning. So, it’s interesting.” (It was not!)
Fox & Friends is the president’s favorite show, in part because the three hosts spend much of each program talking directly to him. The synergy loop between Trump and the show’s three hosts has been well documented, and the stories on any given episode of Fox & Friends can set the president’s Twitter agenda for hours thereafter. You can’t really say that Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt, and Brian Kilmeade use their power wisely or responsibly, but they do use it. At one point on Friday, Doocy and Earhardt also lobbied hard for a check-in call from the program’s most famous viewer. “I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if the president did phone in something today or put something else on Twitter,” said Earhardt.
“He knows our number,” said Doocy.
“Exactly,” Earhardt said. “Because, just to assure the American people.” Trump didn’t take the bait—he hasn’t been heard from in daylight hours on Friday, even on Twitter—and the program soon turned to another favorite pastime: giving airtime to hacky Trump cheerleaders.
On Fox News, almost all criticism of the president is inevitably interpreted as a sign of moral depravity on the part of his critics. “I was disappointed—genuinely disappointed—to see the glee with which some people responded to this news,” said Fox contributor Mollie Hemingway later. “There is a proper way to respond to this news. For people who pray, it is a good time to pray. You should be praying for your world leaders, your leader of your country every day, but this is a good time to do it.”
Such affected incredulity over the mainstream media’s purportedly unfair treatment of Trump was a theme throughout the morning. Germ truther Pete Hegseth echoed Hemingway soon thereafter, shaking his head at the gall of those people who have expressed schadenfreude on Twitter. “Would you expect anything else at this point?” Hegseth asked. “The level of hatred for this president that they have has dehumanized him. Cue the wild conspiracies at this point. Cue the rabbit trails. Cue the vitriol.” Hegseth also noted that people who attended Trump rallies “made their own risk calculation as human beings who can make choices as free individuals to go to a rally to wear a mask or not. There will be conversations about that. I get it. But I like respecting people, and the president has respected people at every turn in this case.” (He has not!)
Chris Wallace, who came on the show in the 8 a.m. hour, had a different stance on the mask matter. Wallace noted that, at Tuesday’s debate in Cleveland, the Biden side of the room wore masks while Trump’s family did not—even after staffers from the Cleveland Clinic came up and offered the Trumps masks, in case they’d forgotten to bring them. “There was no sign during the debate of any problems with the president in terms of his health, but it is worth noting that different people treated the safety rules inside the hall differently,” Wallace said, and the Friends let him say it.
Wallace is one of the few hosts in the network’s stable who is consistently free to deviate from the network’s standard positions on any given issue. Geraldo Rivera also fits into this “loose cannon” category, and as soon as he came on Fox & Friends Friday morning, he noted that,“politically, there will be scorn heaped on the president, as soon as he is out of danger, about his cavalier attitude toward masks.” Rivera then essentially decided to speak directly to the president.
“I want the president of the United States to take a break. Take a break, for goodness’ sake,” said Rivera. “We want you to get better. We don’t want you holding, you know, little pocket campaign rallies. I think the American people would look at that askance.” It was good, sound advice—so of course Kilmeade disagreed with it.
“Geraldo, you’ve got it wrong,” Kilmeade said, creating a little angel-devil dichotomy jockeying for position in Trump’s eardrums. He argued that asymptomatic COVID patients—Trump was assumed to be one Friday morning—could actually “get a lot done” as long as they stayed away from people during their infection. “I think there’s no reason to isolate and not do anything if you’re OK,” Kilmeade said.
Geraldo lost it: “This disease kills old people, Brian. Period. And if you take it in a way that ‘Oh, I can handle this cause I’m a tough guy,’ then shame on you. I want him to be prudent now. Enough about, you know, ‘I have a mask in my pocket.’ Why wasn’t the mask on your face, Mr. President?”
It was a question too difficult for the three hosts to answer, which is perhaps why they chose to wash away Rivera’s words with a visit from congressional motormouth Jim Jordan, the Ohio representative who earlier this week had flown on Air Force One with Trump. Jordan reminded everyone of the real issue here: Joe Biden’s ongoing silence on Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis. “Look, it doesn’t surprise me that he hasn’t said anything for 12 hours,” Jordan said. “He goes days after days where he’ll close his campaign down first thing in the morning. I think he gets up, has a cup of coffee, and then calls it a day.” The president might have COVID-19, but Joe Biden is a lazy bum. Take that, Democrats!
By the time the Friends were ready to sign off for the day, the narrative they’d been peddling had taken a turn. Doocy noted that, according to the New York Times, “the president is said to have minor symptoms,” meaning that he was not actually asymptomatic, as had been the program’s assumption. Still, Kilmeade hastened to praise the president’s preternaturally robust immune system, noting that Trump “hasn’t had a cold” since entering politics several years ago. “I’m certain he’s had a cold in the last four to five years,” said Fox contributor Dr. Nicole Saphier. (In response, Kilmeade blinked.) “That being said,” Saphier continued, “it’s great news going forward right now. I have every feeling of optimism that he is gonna get through this just fine.” Just like every morning, from their mouths to Trump’s ears.