Fox News host Sandra Smith on Wednesday wasn’t in the mood for garden-variety coronavirus minimization rhetoric. She was interviewing Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, organizer of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). The late-February conference was the subject of much coverage, considering that an attendee who later tested positive for the novel coronavirus interacted with Republican lawmakers.
Those lawmakers, in turn, had contact with President Trump. The whole to-do attracted generous media attention. In Schlapp’s view, journalists were “trying to fan the flames of panic" on the coronavirus.
Smith dissented, telling Schlapp: “Of course, the president was then in contact with those lawmakers who were self-quarantining, which brought up the questions from many reporters.”
Moments of actual news coverage relating to the coronavirus at Fox News don’t receive much attention these days. The work of chief Trump propagandist Sean Hannity and other network opinionmongers speaks much louder. “I’m sure, in the end, the mob in the media, well, they will be advancing their new conspiracy theory and their newest hoax,” said the host earlier this week. That language overlaps with talking points from Trump himself and his former acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who alleged at CPAC that the media has selectively highlighted the coronavirus to inflict political damage on Trump.
Another ploy of Hannity’s is to compare the coronavirus to the flu, even though experts have noted that the former is about 10 times more fatal than the latter. “Now, let’s put this in perspective. In 2017, 61,000 people in this country died from influenza, the flu. Common flu,” he said in February. “Around 100 people die every single day from car wrecks.” And he has greeted the news with resignation: “Sadly, these viruses pop up time to time,” Hannity said on Tuesday night. “Pandemics happen, time to time.”
Competition for the most irresponsible televised coronavirus analysis emerged on Monday night from Fox Business host Trish Regan, who said, in part, “We’ve reached a tipping point. 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.” After much criticism, Fox on Friday evening announced that Regan’s show — along with Fox Business program “Kennedy" — will be on hiatus “until further notice,” part of a resource realignment to beef up coverage of the coronavirus, according to Fox News.
Compare what Regan said to the remarks of Hannity on Feb. 27: “Tonight, I can report the sky is absolutely falling. We’re all doomed. The end is near. The apocalypse is imminent, and you’re going to all die, all of you in the next 48 hours and it’s all President Trump’s fault,” he said. “Or at least that’s what the media mob and the Democratic extreme radical socialist party would like you to think. They’re now sadly politicizing and actually weaponizing an infectious disease, in what is basically just the latest effort to bludgeon President Trump."
Though Hannity has indeed insisted that the coronavirus is a serious matter, his other pronouncements have sent a different message. On that same Feb. 27 show, for instance, Hannity knocked the “left” for advocating “extreme” measures, including canceling large gatherings. Yeah, what a crazy idea!
Could we please have a hiatus for “Hannity,” too?
And never forget the sagacious medical analysis of Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, who said last weekend, “Now, they say the mortality rate for coronavirus is higher than a flu. But consider though that we have a flu vaccine, and yet in 2019, 16,000 Americans died from the flu. Imagine if we did not have the flu vaccine, the flu would be a pandemic,” said Pirro. “So all the talk about coronavirus being so much more deadly doesn’t reflect reality. Without a vaccine, the flu would be far more deadly.”
Such stupid and dangerous commentary often contradicts, upends or grinds against the reporting on many other hours at the network. During Fox News’s so-called straight news hours — “so-called” because they occasionally succumb to the network’s tilt — hosts and correspondents have been cycling through coronavirus updates with the sort of professionalism and thoroughness of a news network.
Reportorial deployment has been extensive: Jonathan Serrie, a 21-year Fox News veteran, has been reporting from Atlanta on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Benjamin Hall, who’s based in London, has covered the international diffusion of the virus. Jonathan Hunt, from Los Angeles, has reported on the Department of Health Human Services’ handling of the crisis. David Lee Miller, from New York, has reported on the widening path of the virus. Jeff Paul, a West Coast correspondent, has covered a cruise ship sub-crisis and California’s handling of the coronavirus. Claudia Cowan, a San Francisco correspondent, has reported on Oregon’s countermeasures as well as the cruise ship beat. Rick Leventhal has reported on the National Guard deployment in New Rochelle, N.Y.
All that is just a point of departure. As if to rebut President Trump’s frequent dismissals of the coronavirus, Fox News has provided extensive programming on the issue. There have been interviews with experts and players ranging from Vice President Pence to HHS Secretary Alex Azar to the NIH’s National Institutes of Health’s Anthony S. Fauci to U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams to New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson to people infected with the coronavirus.
In a memorable encounter on her Thursday night program, host Martha MacCallum pressed Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, on whether hospitals had the equipment necessary — ventilators and intensive care units — to handle a coronavirus surge. Verma ducked the question multiple times. Though MacCallum noted that Verma hadn’t provided a “direct answer,” the indirect answer said quite a bit: No, those hospitals are not prepared.
There’ll be much, much more, too: Fox News has announced an upheaval in its daily schedule — “around-the-clock live coverage” — to accommodate demand for news on the coronavirus.
So you can find helpful coronavirus coverage on Fox News. Does that consideration mitigate, contextualize or minimize the unhelpful coverage?
No, it does not. Take the nonsense that oozed from the set of “Fox & Friends” on Friday morning. Co-host Ainsley Earhardt advised viewers to take advantage of the crisis and … get on a plane. “It’s actually the safest time to fly,” said Earhardt, who was perhaps unaware that most airline passengers are separated from one another by negative-five inches. The NIH’s Fauci counseled strongly against air travel these days. Whose advice are you going to take?
Every viewer who trusts the words of Earhardt or Hannity or Regan could well become a walking, breathing, droplet-spewing threat to the public.
Opinion shows on Fox News, joked Bill Maher, are the shows “that people watch" — a reference to the disparity in ratings between wildly popular programs such as “Hannity," “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” “The Ingraham Angle” and the daytime news shows. The Erik Wemple Blog has seen this effect in real life. Over the years, we have interviewed Fox News fans at network gatherings and at conferences including CPAC and the Values Voter Summit. Asked who they trust for their news, attendees nearly always cite one of the Fox News opinion personalities, with Hannity first among equals.
These folks tend to skew older — the very demographic most at risk from the coronavirus.
When Hannity recycles Trump talking points on the coronavirus, he obliterates the work of his colleagues on the news side of the operation. “I don’t know how you could spend the day building a sandcastle … only to have primetime come in at night and kick it over," says Angelo Carusone, president of the Fox News-monitoring group Media Matters for America. Intra-Fox News tensions of this sort have persisted for years. Just last year, daytime news anchor Shepard Smith — a fellow who would have vocally counter-programmed Hannity on the coronavirus — left the network after a clash with Tucker Carlson.
Carlson, by the way, has appropriately alerted his audience to the dangers of the coronavirus, a strain of coverage consistent with the role of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” in watching out for real and imagined threats.
Fox News, that is to say, has some viewpoint diversity on the coronavirus: On its news shows, it produces wide-ranging coverage of the latest developments; on one prominent opinion show, it instructs viewers to brace themselves; on yet other opinion shows, it has cast concerns about the coronavirus as a political plot in accordance with the rhetoric of Trump himself. News organizations commonly seek a diversity of opinions, the better to serve a broad audience and otherwise advance discussion of contemporary issues. It’s just not too helpful when “opinions” pooh-pooh a pandemic.
It’s a wonder that Fox News doesn’t erupt in a journalistic civil war, such is the discrepancy between its sane and insane programming. The coronavirus has at least provided a clear indication that the network’s senior managers comprehend the deadly nature of the viral threat. The company, after all, issued an internal memo requesting employees to work at home, among other measures. "Please keep in mind that viewers rely on us to stay informed during a crisis of this magnitude and we are providing an important public service to our audience by functioning as a resource for all Americans,” noted the memo, as reported by CNN’s Oliver Darcy.
Maybe Fox News management could resend that memo to Hannity?
Speaking of Hannity, he earned some applause for questioning HHS Secretary Azar on Thursday night on the scarcity of coronavirus testing. Here’s the exchange:
HANNITY: Let me ask you this — the one criticism and that seems valid, seem to be, that we were slow. We didn’t have enough test kits available. The president mentioned that, it’s since been rectified.A, is it rectified? And why didn't we have them more quickly?AZAR: Yes. So, the CDC invented a test within two weeks of China posting the genetic sequence, and we've developed a test, and it's been available and we had actually capacity at all times to do testing for people that needed to be tested, but it has not worked as well as we would like.We have four and a half million tests out there. There are a surplus of tests out there, but the connection from the patient-doctor-hospital to those lab tests and the labs has not been as seamless as we'd like.HANNITY: When will -- when will every American if they want to test for their own peace of mind, when will that be available to anybody who wants it? And I know the president, by the way, did get the co-pays removed from the insurance companies who he met with. That’s a big deal in my mind.When will it be available to everybody who wants it, anyplace, anytime?AZAR: So, he did get those co-pays removed on those tests.It's getting better and better every day. We're getting the private sector involved and that's going to make it a more seamless experience. We're already seeing in Washington, Colorado, and Minnesota, and now, in New Rochelle, New York, drive through sampling so you can get sampled, the test will get sent away and you get those results.So, we’re making it a more seamless experience each and every day.
Actual accountability journalism from Hannity. Except that, earlier in the program, the host expressed a more definitive take on the testing issue: “I have no problem with cancellations, no problems taking every precaution necessary,” said Hannity. “I understand the criticism — the testing kits took too long to come out, fair criticism. That’s been rectified. Now they are becoming readily available.”
The Post’s View: Our bitterly divided House has done the right thing to address the coronavirus crisis
Coronavirus: What you need to know
End of the public health emergency: The Biden administration ended the public health emergency for the coronavirus pandemic on May 11, just days after WHO said it would no longer classify the coronavirus pandemic as a public health emergency. Here’s what the end of the covid public health emergency means for you.
Tracking covid cases, deaths: Covid-19 was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States last year with covid deaths dropping 47 percent between 2021 and 2022. See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world.
The latest on coronavirus boosters: The FDA cleared the way for people who are at least 65 or immune-compromised to receive a second updated booster shot for the coronavirus. Here’s who should get the second covid booster and when.
New covid variant: A new coronavirus subvariant, XBB. 1.16, has been designated as a “variant under monitoring” by the World Health Organization. The latest omicron offshoot is particularly prevalent in India. Here’s what you need to know about Arcturus.
Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?
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