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Opinion Fox News has succeeded — in misinforming millions of Americans

Protesters outside the Fox News headquarters on March 13 in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Pew Research finds:

The group who names MSNBC as their main news source is far more likely than the Fox News group to answer correctly that the coronavirus originated in nature rather than a laboratory and that it will take a year or more for a vaccine to become available. On both questions, the portion in the CNN group to answer correctly falls between the MSNBC and Fox News numbers.

(Disclaimer: I am an MSNBC contributor.)

The extent of the partisan information gap is quite striking. “Those who call MSNBC their main political news source (92 percent) are far more likely to say the media covered the [novel coronavirus] outbreak somewhat or very well than the Fox News group (58 percent)," Pew finds. "And they are much less likely than those who name Fox News as their main source to say the media exaggerated the risks posed by the pandemic (35 percent of the MSNBC group vs. 79 percent of the Fox News group).”

Let’s be blunt: The virus did not originate in a lab, we will not have a vaccine soon and the media did not exaggerate the threat of a pandemic that may claim roughly one-quarter of a million lives. The people who listen to Fox News got not merely biased information but wrong information — information that might have induced them to expose themselves unnecessarily to deadly risks (e.g., ignore social-distancing instructions).

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

As one would expect, the Fox New pandemic of disinformation afflicts Republicans disproportionately. “About three-quarters (76 percent) of those who name Fox News as their main source are conservative Republicans and Republican leaners, while 57 percent who name MSNBC are liberal Democrats and Democratic leaners." CNN falls somewhere in between. (“Fully 38 percent of those who name CNN as their main source are liberal Democrats, while another 40 percent are moderate or conservative Democrats.”)

In short, Fox News — its anchors, its contributors, its panelists and its guests (e.g., Republican elected officials) — have spread provably wrong information to its viewers on arguably the most important story in our lifetimes. A large percentage of Americans who form the Trump cult and absorb his misleading information (It’s like the flu! Plenty of tests!) get their misinformation reinforced by an outlet that seeks as its main goal to support the president.

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While it is highly unlikely (given that they are making money from bamboozling the public) the Murdochs, the Fox Corp. board (which includes former House speaker Paul Ryan), Fox executives and Fox News advertisers might want to reflect on a business model that depends on misinforming millions of Americans about a life-threatening pandemic. (As Ben Smith reported, the Murdochs were protecting themselves by social distancing at a time their network was misinforming the public.)

Trump may think he can sugarcoat coronavirus, but media critic Erik Wemple says it is time for the government to speak with one clear voice about public health. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Fox News has hid behind two canards for years: First, it is a counterweight to “liberal bias." Second, there is a division between straight news during the daytime and evening opinion shows. Neither rationalization holds up.

Facts are neither liberal nor conservative — at least they did not used to be. One does not combat bias (real or exaggerated) by presenting false narratives, ignoring factual material that contradicts one’s ideological preferences or attacking outlets that are presenting accurate information (i.e., the mainstream media). The Pew survey demonstrates that Fox News is not merely counteracting supposed bias against Trump but conveying false, and in this case, dangerous, information.

Likewise, the dividing line between straight news and opinion programming on Fox was obliterated long ago. In its choice of story lines (Benghazi! Immigrant caravans! Virus threats exaggerated!) Fox’s daytime programming is every bit as misleading and inaccurate as its nighttime fare. Its interviews are generally embarrassing softball affairs that allow misinformation to go unrebutted (e.g., its recent White House town hall). Moreover, at least in traditional journalism, slapping “opinion” on your lies is no excuse. The underlying facts, be they in opinion or in daytime shows, for every other outlet must be accurate, must be fact-checked and must be corrected if wrong. At Fox News, the entire schedule has tolerated — even promoted —false accounts in order to reinforce its audience’s partisan preferences.

The Opinions section is looking for stories of how the coronavirus has affected people of all walks of life. Write to us.

The bottom line is that Fox New is not performing the most basic journalistic function, namely, to inform the public. It blasts out propaganda and misinformation. That is morally obnoxious in normal times. In the era of covid-19, however, it may have deadly consequences.

Read more:

Erik Wemple: CNN, MSNBC refused to carry full Trump coronavirus briefing. Yay!

Karen Tumulty: How reporters should handle Trump’s press briefings

Max Boot: Trump and Rubio’s latest attacks on the media are grotesque

Video: Trump fans believe him over the media on coronavirus. This is dangerous.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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