Imagine you were the host of a show on Fox News right now, with the entire country focused on the potential for the coronavirus to turn into a pandemic. What would you be saying?

In a world where even a hint of ambiguity or uncertainty goes against everything they stand for, conservative media are positively flummoxed. Is this a threat, or isn’t it? Is it dramatic, and therefore all the more important that we rally behind President Trump’s heroic and inspiring efforts to keep us safe, or is it all a big hoax? And how can we blame the whole thing on the Democrats?

This is the dilemma they’re facing, and they haven’t yet figured out how to resolve it. Let’s take a quick tour around some of the madness:

  • Rush Limbaugh saw a conspiracy at work, claiming that Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, must be overhyping the danger as a way to undermine Trump because her brother is Rod Rosenstein, the former deputy attorney general.
  • Tucker Carlson claimed that the media underhyped the threat of the virus, insisting bizarrely that Americans had been told “if you think maybe we ought to take some steps to protect ourselves from it, then you’re a bigot.”
  • Laura Ingraham speculated that China is trying to use the virus to damage Trump’s reelection, “if they can pull that off.”
  • Bill Gertz, a writer for the conservative Washington Examiner, has been pushing the conspiracy theory that the virus “may have originated in a laboratory in the city of Wuhan linked to China’s covert biological weapons program.”
  • “The coronavirus is the common cold, folks,” said Limbaugh, saying that it was not much of a danger and it’s merely “an effort to bring down Trump” by getting everyone worked up over nothing.
  • One Fox News personality after another has turned their focus to Democrats with lengthy diatribes about how the opposition is politicizing the virus. “Democrats and their media cronies have decided to weaponize fear and also weaponize suffering to improve their chances against Trump in November,” said Ingraham.

Under ordinary circumstances, the ability to repeatedly pound home a single message is what makes conservative media such a potent political force. But right now they’re all over the map.

Ingraham’s point about fear brings us to the heart of their problem. Anyone even vaguely familiar with conservative media in general and Fox News in particular knows that fear (along with anger) is the very foundation of what they do. Fear is hot, fear is compelling, fear is engaging. Fear keeps viewers from clicking away and brings them back.

It’s well summarized by a line from the recent film “Bombshell,” in which a Fox News producer tells a new hire how to understand what they do at the network:

You have to adopt the mentality of an Irish street cop. The world is a bad place, people are lazy morons, minorities are criminals, sex is sick but interesting. Ask yourself what would scare my grandmother or piss off my grandfather, and that’s a Fox story.

When you hammer your viewers with that day after day, there’s one message that simply doesn’t fit: “Everything is fine.”

Yet that’s just the message Trump wants to send to the public, and what he’s been tweeting out (along with criticisms of Democrats, of course). We have it under control, there’s nothing to worry about, let’s all just keep buying stocks.

There’s another interesting element to this story, which is that there is a substantial body of research showing that conservatives react more strongly to stimuli that inspire disgust than liberals do.

That would make this a perfect story if a Democrat was president, causing viewers to react powerfully to information about viruses and transmission and bodily fluids, then turn their rage on the president. But they can’t encourage that now.

President Trump on Feb. 28 spoke of expanding the travel ban to more countries with coronavirus and blamed the media for stoking public fear. (The Washington Post)

Going even deeper, Trump is asking his media allies to say things that undermine the fundamental argument conservatives make about government, that it is inherently inept and acts only to harm Americans, not to protect them. They could be telling stories about what a fantastic job the Trump administration is doing, but that would show government working, something they’d ordinarily like us to think is impossible.

This is very different from the actions they ordinarily praise Trump’s administration for, because those are just about cutting government and getting out of the way of the free market in its perfect wisdom. And of course, the government’s response to the virus is being carried out by the very career bureaucrats and scientists Trump has spent three years berating, making it awkward to suddenly start praising them now.

It seems unlikely that conservative media will figure out how to craft a coherent message out of this. But one particular moment seemed to perfectly capture Fox News’ problem.

On Friday, the network interviewed a man who had been released from quarantine with a clean bill of health, in a segment that was probably intended to be reassuring. Unfortunately, the man couldn’t stop coughing, and at one point took a water bottle out of the hands of his daughter, who was sitting on his lap, took a swig, and then handed the bottle back to her so she could keep drinking.

At least you can give the Fox News hosts credit for not doing what most people watching probably did, which is to shout “My god, no, what are you doing?!?” at their screens. It was great TV. But it may not have served Fox’s most urgent goal — helping Trump.