The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion 25 years of Fox ‘News’ is nothing to celebrate. No company has done more to inflame partisanship and the pandemic.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson in New York in March 2017. (Richard Drew/AP)
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Last week, Fox “News” Channel celebrated 25 years since its launch. More than 700,000 victims of covid-19 were not available for comment.

Oh, I’m not suggesting that Fox is responsible for all, or even most, of the covid deaths. That would be the kind of cheap shot you would expect to be aimed at the “libs” by the “fair and balanced” network. What I am suggesting, however, is that the covid death toll is higher than it would have been if Fox did not exist.

This is, after all, the most watched basic cable network in America. In September, it averaged 2.49 million viewers a night in prime time, and its impact is magnified by social media (such as Facebook), where its clips often go viral. What Fox says matters. So what has Fox been saying about the worst pandemic in a century?

From the start, Fox hosts dismissed “coronavirus hysteria,” compared the pandemic to the seasonal flu, and opposed lockdowns and social distancing. “I’m not afraid of the coronavirus, and no one else should be that afraid either,” Jesse Watters said on March 3, 2020. On March 9, Sean Hannity said: “This scaring the living hell out of people — and I see it, again, as like, ‘Oh, let’s bludgeon Trump with this new hoax.’” On April 8, Tucker Carlson announced that the “short-term crisis . . . may have passed,” and “it hasn’t been the disaster that we feared.”

To be sure, Fox’s hosts — hardly models of consistency — sometimes backtracked from their Pollyannaish pronouncements. Just nine days after calling the pandemic a hoax, Hannity said, “This program has always taken the coronavirus seriously. We’ve never called the virus a hoax.”

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But even when Fox hosts admit that the threat is real, they always act as a coronavirus “fifth column” to sabotage efforts to fight the disease. On April 23, 2020, Laura Ingraham said, “If we wait for Dr. Fauci’s seal of approval to reopen America, we may not have an America to reopen.”

Opinion: Happy 25th anniversary, Fox News. Look at what you’ve become.

Little wonder that several academic studies in 2020 found that Fox viewers were less likely to treat the disease seriously. A May 2020 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, for example, found that “a 10% increase in Fox News cable viewership . . . leads to a 1.3 percentage point reduction in the propensity to stay at home.”

In 2021, the network seamlessly morphed from attacking social distancing and mask mandates to attacking vaccine mandates — and vaccines themselves. The liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America reported on Oct. 5: “Fox pushed a claim undermining vaccines during 99% of the days in the past six months.” Fox’s top-rated host, Carlson, has been one of the worst offenders. When he isn’t promoting white supremacist theories, he is pushing anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. One of his guests recently suggested that coronavirus vaccines are more dangerous than the disease.

Some doctors say they are treating so many unvaccinated patients because of Fox’s pernicious influence — and a new study supports that conclusion. A working paper from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology found that “watching one additional hour of Fox News per week for the average household” in May-June 2021 reduced “the number of vaccinations by 0.35 to 0.76 per 100 people.” The influence of Fox and other right-wing media helps explain why vaccination rates are far lower — and recent rates of coronavirus infections and deaths are often far higher — in red states than in blue states.

While its hosts attack vaccine mandates as “totalitarian tactics,” Fox itself requires that anyone entering its building must either show proof of vaccination or submit a daily test. More than 90 percent of Fox Corp.’s full-time employees have gotten a vaccine shot compared with only about 60 percent of Republicans.

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes aired a must-watch segment last week calling out Fox’s talking heads for glorifying vaccine-resisters while they meekly submit to vaccination themselves. Their cynicism is galling. It suggests that Fox hosts aren’t lunatics or fanatics. They are merely amoral opportunists who are willing to kill their viewers to gain ratings.

Sadly, Fox’s awful influence on America isn’t limited to its coverage of covid-19. Over the past 25 years, it has exacerbated partisanship in the country and provided a platform for crazy conspiracy theories — from the assertion that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States to the claim that the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol wasn’t carried out by supporters of President Donald Trump. As my colleague Greg Sargent reported, a recent poll found that among Americans who trust Fox News or other right-wing sources, 76 percent believe the election was stolen and 64 percent blame left-wing activists for the Jan. 6 attack.

Fox News chief executive Suzanne Scott says, “I sleep well at night.” I imagine the producers of “blood diamonds,” cigarettes, guns, opioids and toxic pollutants also get a good night’s rest. But that doesn’t make their products any less dangerous or destructive.

Fox is poisoning the minds of millions of Americans. That should trouble Scott — and her bosses, Rupert Murdoch and Lachlan Murdoch — more than it evidently does. Facebook may be catching up, but I can’t think of any company that has done more damage to American democracy over the past quarter-century than Fox “News.” That’s nothing to celebrate.