Viewers following Fox News’s stars for the latest in the coronavirus story may have felt a bit of whiplash over the past several days — again.
For weeks, hosts scoffed at the looming coronavirus crisis, only to make an abrupt about-face last week when President Trump acknowledged the severity of the pandemic and declared a national emergency to fight it.
But now, Fox’s pundits have changed their minds once more — and Trump is listening.
Early this week, the cable network’s most prominent figures began urging the president to ditch the restrictions and get people back to work, even if doing so risks the public’s health.
The commentary dovetails with, and may even have encouraged, Trump’s expressing a desire for businesses to start reopening after the federal government’s 15-day, stay-at-home period ends on Monday. Trump made his intentions clear Tuesday during a town-hall style interview on Fox, saying he wants to have the country “opened” by Easter — April 12.
Public-health officials have opposed such an action, saying it could cause infection rates to soar, overwhelm hospitals and lead to a higher death toll. Officials, even within the Trump administration, have recommended that restrictions remain in place longer.
The change of rhetoric on Fox began Sunday night when weekend host Steve Hilton said in his opening monologue that working Americans will be “crushed” by the prolonged closure of businesses and the loss of paychecks.
“You know that famous phrase, ‘The cure is worse than the disease?’ ” asked Hilton, an adviser to David Cameron when Cameron was prime minister of Britain. “That is exactly the territory we are hurtling towards. You think it is just the coronavirus that kills people? This total economic shutdown will kill people. … Flatten the curve, but not the economy, and do it before it’s too late.”
A few hours later, Trump echoed the sentiment almost exactly, tweeting in all caps: “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself. At the end of the 15 day period, we will make a decision as to which way we want to go!”
Others on Fox began making similar comments.
On Monday morning, Laura Ingraham tweeted: “Doctors provide medical treatment and cures — they should not be the determinative voices in policymaking now or at the end of 15 days. … In one week we need to be heading back to work, school, stores, restaurants and churches with new protocols in place. The risk if we don’t is that we lose far more in terms of death, pain and suffering than this pandemic will bring.”
On the same day, Sean Hannity touted a letter from a New York State doctor, whom he didn’t name, claiming to be treating covid-19 patients with a “regimen” of commonplace drugs, with “zero deaths.”
In an interview on Fox, Trump’s chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, picked up the refrain, saying “the cure can’t be worse than the disease.”
The commentary represents at least the third stanza in what has at times appeared to be a feedback loop between Trump and some of his favorite TV hosts.
In the first stage, Ingraham, Hannity, Lou Dobbs and weekend pundit Jeanine Pirro cast criticism of Trump’s handling of the virus’ outbreak as a conspiracy by Democratic officials and members of the news media to undermine his reelection chances. They called critics “panic pushers” who were inciting “mass hysteria.”
They also minimized the impact of the virus, which could have a potentially disastrous effect on higher-risk groups such as older people — coincidentally, the most loyal cohort of Fox viewers. Nielsen Media Research says the median age of its viewers is 67, slightly younger than MSNBC and somewhat older than CNN.
Fox & Friends’ co-host Ainsley Earhardt, for example, observed on March 13 that it was “the safest time to fly” because airports and flights had become less crowded. In fact, health experts said it was risky to fly because of the risk of infection.
To date, neither Fox nor any of the network’s hosts have apologized for, clarified or retracted any of their earlier statements. (Fox’s media representatives offered no comment Tuesday).
But, in the second stage, Fox’s most prominent figures had a quick change of heart after Trump declared a state of emergency on March 13, acknowledging that the pandemic could have devastating health and economic consequences.
“Tonight, we are witnessing what will be a massive paradigm shift in the future of disease control and prevention,” Hannity said on his program that evening, describing the pandemic as “a crisis.” “A bold, new precedent is being set. The world will once again benefit greatly from America’s leadership. … The federal government, state governments, private businesses, top hospitals all coming together, under the president’s leadership, to stem the tide of the coronavirus.”
A third message seems to have germinated on Sunday with Hilton’s monologue.
On his program Monday, Tucker Carlson, who previously had warned of the virus’s severity, agreed with Trump’s new, less-restrictive view. “You can’t just let epidemiologists run a country of more than 320 million people,” Carlson said, arguing that it was important to find a balance between fighting the virus and keeping the economy going.
He later interviewed Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who said he would rather risk his life than see continued controls damage the economy. He said he believed “lots of grandparents” would agree with him.
“My message: Let’s get back to work, let’s get back to living, let’s be smart about it, and those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves,” said Patrick, who is 69. “Don’t sacrifice the country. Don’t do that.”
Patrick asked whether senior citizens were “willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren. … If that’s the exchange, I’m all in.”
The message was reinforced Tuesday morning on “F0x & Friends,” during which Fox medical correspondent Marc Siegel, a medical doctor, suggested there were “moderate” ways of handling the crisis.
“What if there are no cases in certain states?” he asked, although every state is now handling infections. “What if it’s very low? Maybe there is a way to test, to target, to isolate and then to have more-moderate ways of approaching it in areas that aren’t yet affected. And then, of course, restrict travel from one area that has a lot of it to one that doesn’t. I think that’s a more practical approach, because otherwise the economy gets in worse and worse shape.”
Co-host Brian Kilmeade replied that the issue had divided experts. “You have economists on one side, health officials on the other,” he said. “Maybe the right thing is in the middle.”
Correction: A previous version of this report incorrectly stated attribution for Fox viewers’ median age to the network instead of Nielsen Media Research.