Why Fox News Has Blood on Its Hands
Brian Stelter on the Disastrous Downplaying of Coronavirus as a ”Hoax”
Fox News enabled Donald Trump in ways that changed the country forever. Trump was afflicted by “Fox News brain,” a diagnosis that was ID’ed by a White House aide. It was fun for a while, at least for Fox stars like Sean Hannity, to treat the most powerful man in the world like a marionette. But in 2020 and 2021 the Trump-Fox feedback loop had life-and-death consequences. And there has to be a reckoning.
Trump’s vow to end “American carnage,” which was rooted in the fear-mongering that Fox aired during Barack Obama’s eight years in office, ended in actual carnage at the Capitol. America came shockingly close to a massacre of congressional leaders. It was a riot of lies, led by people who internalized right-wing media’s 24/7 talk of “taking our country back” and actually tried to do it. One of the men arrested in connection with the assault at the Capitol was a frequent Fox News guest.
The riot was certainly not the first time that televised lies had provoked physical pain. Precisely one year earlier, in January 2020, the president’s Fox obsession combined with the network’s obsequiousness did real damage when the world learned of the novel coronavirus. While the virus was silently spreading across the United States, some of Fox’s biggest stars denied and downplayed the threat it posed; Trump echoed them; and they echoed back. “The thing that’s going to end this is the warmer weather,” Fox jester Greg Gutfeld said on February 24, 2020. “Thank God for global warming,” cohost Jesse Watters wisecracked. “It’s going to disappear,” Trump said on February 27. “One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.”
By the fourth and final year of Trump’s presidency, most Americans knew that he was untrustworthy, but the Fox base still trusted him. They also trusted Hannity, who dismissed “coronavirus hysteria,” and Ingraham, who called Democrats the “panDEMic party,” and Watters, who said, “I’m not afraid of the coronavirus and no one else should be that afraid either.” Fox’s longest-tenured medical analyst, Dr. Marc Siegel, told Hannity on March 6, “at worst, at worst, worst case scenario, it could be the flu.”
This was shockingly irresponsible stuff—and Fox executives knew it, because by the beginning of March, they were taking precautions that belied Siegel’s just-the-flu statement. The network canceled a big event for hundreds of advertisers, instituted deep cleanings of the office, and began to put a work-from-home plan in place. Yet Fox’s stars kept sending mixed messages to millions of viewers. This went on and on until March 13, when Fox & Friends cohost Ainsley Earhardt claimed it’s “actually the safest time to fly” and guest Jerry Falwell Jr. said people were “overreacting” to the virus. Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott finally asserted herself and hauled the show’s producers into her office. No more denialism, she said. But she was two or three weeks too late, just like Trump was. The virus had been unleashed.
There were dozens of reasons why the United States lagged so far behind other countries in preparations for the pandemic. Some were cultural, some were economic, some were political. But one of the undeniable reasons was televisual. Fox failed its viewers—including the commander in chief—at key moments during the pandemic. Four out of five Fox viewers were over the age of fifty-five, in the demographic most at risk. Plus, the network was favored by men, with 54 percent male viewership, and Covid-19 was much deadlier among men. As ICU admissions surged and the death toll rose, Fox’s most vociferous critics said the network had blood on its hands.
No one will ever be able to say, with absolute certainty, how many Fox News devotees died from the virus. And it is impossible to know how much an individual’s choices are influenced by the TV hosts they trust. But just as doctors are taught to do no harm, journalists are trained to “minimize harm,” in the words of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethical code. Some Fox staffers privately admitted that the don’t-worry tone of the talking heads was harmful. They used words like “dangerous,” “unforgivable,” and “hazardous to our viewers” to describe the network’s early coverage of the pandemic.
Fox’s conduct had spillover effects because of the network’s influence in the Trump White House and throughout the federal government. It is impossible to know how many Americans who died as a result of Covid-19 would have survived if the government had acted more swiftly in February and March. But it is obvious that Fox’s fingerprints were all over the government’s response. As the months stretched on, Fox booked guests who minimized the death toll and mocked mask-wearing. The tone was set early, from the top, when Trump rallied the ideologically faithful in South Carolina on February 28. “The Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. You know that, right? Coronavirus. They’re politicizing it,” he said. He likened the Democrats’ conduct to “the impeachment hoax” and said, “this is their new hoax.”
It was his new favorite word, on the trail and on Twitter: HOAX. He used it almost every day, and so did his friends. Hannity used the same frame as Trump on March 9, when he bashed Democrats and members of the media for exaggerating the threat of the virus. “They’re scaring the living hell out of people and I see it again as like, ‘Oh, let’s bludgeon Trump with this new hoax,’” he said.
The word “hoax” was one of Trumpworld’s weapons. “Hoax is a potent word, in being an angry and mean one,” linguist John McWhorter told me. “It’s the quintessence of Trumpian self-expression.”
Before running for president, Trump used the word to dismiss global warming. It is “a total, and very expensive, hoax!” he tweeted in 2013. He continued to shout about “global warming hoaxsters” in 2014, then dropped it for a while. “Fake news” became his mantra after the 2016 election. When its effects started to wear off, he shifted to hoax.
“Hoax” carries something that “fake” doesn’t, McWhorter said: “Hoax carries an air of accusation, of transgression. The hoaxer is being accused of deliberately hoodwinking the public, of being a Barnum. FAKE is more flexible—the news could end up ‘fake’ on the basis of assorted factors, such as blinkered ideology, mission creep, there being multiple perspectives, etc. But to say HOAX clears away all of that nuance and just calls people out as malevolent.”
It was a logical leap for a pathological president who indulged illogical conspiracy theories and led a war on truth.
Trump mostly employed the word in connection with impeachment and Russia. He used it just once in the context of the pandemic, but it was still unconscionable. Amanda Carpenter, the Ted Cruz communications director turned CNN commentator who wrote a book about Trump’s make-you-question-your-reality techniques, known as gaslighting, said she thought the “nonsense about calling it a ‘hoax’ initially but then saying he was only referring to the Democrats’ ‘overreaction’ was really strong gaslighting. He clearly wanted the idea of a ‘hoax’ associated with the virus.” And it wasn’t just Trump, Carpenter said; it was parrots like Hannity too: “They were downplaying the threat and acting like anyone who was worried about it wasn’t sincere and this was all a scam to get Trump. That’s something that stuck and did tremendous damage.”
By autumn, when the Covid-19 death toll surpassed two hundred thousand souls, Fox executives were candid with me: Their audience did not want to hear about the coronavirus anymore. Period. End of story. But the audience needed to hear it, because the story was growing and getting worse as Americans headed indoors for the winter months. Trump, the Fox viewer in chief, personified the network’s disregard for the crisis. Everything about his demeanor, even his body language, screamed, I’m over it. When he came down with the virus himself, he became severely ill and his team hid that fact from the public; then they tried to turn his hospital stay into a triumphant superhero tale, complete with a dramatic flight home to the White House at sunset. There, he went back to ignoring Covid-19.
All Trump wanted was to stay in office, even though he showed pathetically little interest in doing the job. At nearly every campaign rally, he threw around the word “hoax” and planted seeds of doubt in the minds of his voters and viewers. On October 25 in Manchester, New Hampshire, he ranted about mail-in balloting and said “The Democrats know it’s a hoax, and they know—and it’s going to cause problems.” On October 26 in Lititz, Pennsylvania, he said, “You don’t want the ballot hoax, because wait and you’ll see, they’ll have so many problems.” On October 27 in Omaha, Nebraska, he denounced “the whole ballot hoax” and said “there’s so many bad things happening.” The lies were as egregious as they were voluminous: “You know, they throw away ballots if it has the name Trump on it, boom.” And the conspiracy theories were as sweeping as they were stupefying: “It’s a big tech hoax,” he said, claiming that social media platforms forced negative news about Trump to “trend.”
Every lie about the integrity of the election was a deposit. And on November 3 he started to make withdrawals. He tried out new slogans: “Mail-in ballot hoax,” “Rigged election hoax.” Eventually he just started to call it the “Election Hoax” and expected his fans to know exactly what he was talking about. Most of them did. This is really what it meant to have “Fox News brain.” First the network’s shows obsessed over so-called “irregularities” and fears of voter fraud. Then, once the lies and distortions had sunk in, the shows obsessed over the polls that revealed how many GOP voters fell for the lies. I felt like I was watching the TV upside-down. Nothing made sense anymore.
Trump despised the news anchors on Fox News. They had a tendency to be “nasty,” he told aides, and some of them belonged on CNN or MSNBC, not on the network he promoted to his tens of millions of followers. So he avoided the newscasts and relied on propagandists like Hannity and Maria Bartiromo to tell him what he wanted to hear. He depended on them to keep the walls of his alternative reality intact. And they abused their access to him.
On November 27, Fox announced that Trump’s first TV interview since losing the election would be a phone call to Bartiromo on her show Sunday Morning Futures. Of course, Fox didn’t bill it as his first interview “since losing.” Bartiromo was on his side and wanted him to prove his case. But first she wanted to say her piece, so she kept Trump waiting while she read a mind-numbing introduction and interviewed a senator about “radical” Democrats.
The power imbalance was something to behold: The president had the joint chiefs and the cabinet and any number of world leaders at his beck and call, but when it came time for an interview on Fox News, he was just another caller who needed to be patched into the control room switchboard.
When Bartiromo finally welcomed Trump to the show, he basically read his Twitter feed out loud. He threw in a couple “hoax” references for good measure. “This election was a fraud,” he said. “It was a rigged election.” Bartiromo’s response showed that she agreed: “This is disgusting,” she said. “And we cannot allow America’s election to be corrupted.”
The election was over, everywhere except in this radicalized prison of propaganda, where it would never be over. Bartiromo thought she was doing Trump a service; she was so proud that she had been able to book the president, so proud to provide a platform for his claims. But she was really doing Trump a grave disservice. She was exposing just how delusional he was. Time and time again, the Fox stars who ostensibly wanted to help Trump actually hurt him.
I wasn’t alone in noticing that the same people who doubted the lethality of the pandemic were now disputing the results of the election too. It made for a particularly pernicious combination of denialism, something that one of Fox’s liberal commentators, Marie Harf, identified early on. Republicans were pushing two stories, she said on the talk show Outnumbered on November 20: They were rejecting Covid-19 safety measures and they were “pushing to reject the election results.”
“Both are broader trends that are really disturbing,” she said. “Both are a rejection of math, of expertise, of science, and both are really dangerous to the American people and to our democracy.”
Harf was right. The GOP’s state of denial was all-consuming. Fox management claimed that they didn’t mind someone like Harf saying so; they wanted to be able to say that the network was home to all points of view. But they also knew that the Fox base hated hearing progressives’ provocations. And they knew that Harf’s truth-telling at lunchtime was seen by a fraction of the audience that Hannity had at night. Prime time had the real power. And management had no control over prime time.
Excerpted from Hoax, published by One Signal/Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2021 by Brian Stelter.