There’s one person who could transform all that in an instant: Fox founder Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-born media mogul who, at 89, still exerts his influence on the leading cable network — and thus on the president himself.
Chris Wallace, the independent and tough-minded Fox News interviewer who serves as the network’s chief reality officer, has revealed that the executive chairman of News Corp and co-chairman of Fox Corporation likes to give feedback on what he sees on the network.
“He cares tremendously about the news,” Wallace said, according to the Guardian. “When I have contact with him, he never is asking about ideology, just: ‘What’s going on? What’s happening? Tell me.’ ”
That’s a little hard to believe, given the network’s long history of Clinton-bashing and birtherism lies about Barack Obama, and its peddling of conspiracy theories. But Murdoch’s ultimate power at the network is not in question.
So imagine if the word flowed down from on high that Fox News should communicate to Trump that he needs to take an entirely new tack on the virus. Imagine if Murdoch ordered the network to end its habit of praising him as if he were the Dear Leader of an authoritarian regime and to instead use its influence to drive home the seriousness of the moment.
Would it matter? No doubt.
The network’s influence on Trump is clear from the presidential tweets that follow fast on the heels of a Fox News broadcast. He was always a fan of Fox News, but after entering the White House, he made it even more of an obsessive daily habit, Bloomberg News reported in 2017, to the extent of blotting out dissenting voices from other sources.
Trump made specific reference to his reliance on Fox News during his misleading press event Friday, when he offered unwarranted reassurance rather than urging extreme caution and decisive action: “As of the time I left the plane . . . we had 240 cases — that’s at least what was on a very fine network known as Fox News.”
The message: Go about your business, America, and it will all disappear soon.
Days later, 30 deaths and more than 1,000 cases have been reported in the United States, with those numbers expected to grow exponentially. (By contrast, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is telling hard truths: As much as 70 percent of that country could end up being infected.)
Matt Gertz, a Media Matters senior fellow and the foremost chronicler of the insidious Trump-Fox News feedback loop, connected the dots: “Roughly an hour before his comments, a Fox News medical correspondent argued on-air that coronavirus was no more dangerous than the flu; a few hours later, the same correspondent argued that coronavirus fears were being deliberately overblown in hopes of damaging Trump politically.”
He added: “The network's personalities have frequently claimed that the Trump administration has been doing a great job responding to coronavirus, that the fears of the disease are overblown, and that the real problem is Democrats and the media politicizing the epidemic to prevent Trump's reelection.”
On Fox Business Channel, host Trish Regan drew widespread condemnation for her over-the-top rant in Trump's defense: “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.”
(By contrast, her Fox News colleague Tucker Carlson has taken the threat seriously, though using it as an excuse to stoke anti-China sentiment along the way.)
But it’s not just the opinionators such as Regan and Trump whisperer Sean Hannity who are at fault. The news segments — while certainly more tied to reality — seldom push back in a meaningful way against the Trump message.
On Tuesday, news anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum docilely sat back and lobbed soft questions while the president’s son Eric praised his father’s crisis-management skills and blamed liberal media figures who criticize him: “He could cure cancer tomorrow and they’d say it wasn’t fast enough.”
Even if all that changed today, great harm has already been done. As The Washington Post and others have documented, the administration has repeatedly squandered chances to prepare for and manage the global epidemic.
But every moment still counts. Lives can be saved by prudent practices and aggressive government action — and lost by their absence.
But it takes leadership from the top. And so, let’s acknowledge the obvious: There is no more important player in influencing Trump than Fox News. And no more powerful figure at Fox than its patriarch.
Murdoch might consider, too, that with the median age of Fox’s viewers around 65, they are among the most vulnerable to the virus’s threats.
For Fox News, a late-breaking change of heart might finally combine a wise business decision with what’s good for the world.
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