‘We have a responsibility’: Fox News declares coronavirus a crisis in abrupt U-turn

2020-03-17 14:24:41

<span>Photograph: Richard Drew/Associated Press</span>
Photograph: Richard Drew/Associated Press

Fox News, the rightwing channel that is a favorite of Donald Trump and conservatives across the US, spent the first weeks of the Covid-19 outbreak downplaying the threat of the virus.

Hosts often claimed that those warning of the danger were “panic pushers”, or engaged in “mass hysteria”. Some on Fox News even claimed it was all an effort to try to bring down the president.

But in recent days Fox News has performed an abrupt U-turn, and declared coronavirus a crisis.

Related: Fox News accused of downplaying coronavirus as it moves to protect staff

On Tuesday, the three hosts of Fox & Friends, Fox News’ flagship morning program and a known favorite of Trump, co-hosted the show while practising social distancing, appearing on a split screen instead of their usual format of sitting together on a couch.

“We have a responsibility to slow down this virus and to think of other people during this time,” Ainsley Earhardt told viewers. “So if you can keep your distance, and prevent someone from getting close to you that might be sick, you can save your family, you can save the elderly, and help our country as a nation.”

Three days earlier, Earnhardt struck a different tone, when she suggested people should take advantage of the crisis to take a trip.

“It’s actually the safest time to fly,” Earhardt had said. “Everyone I know that’s flying right now, terminals are pretty much dead – ghost towns.”

In minimizing the threat, Earhardt and her colleagues had been echoing Trump’s own response to coronavirus, which initially was to repeatedly downplay its impact. Yet one by one, Fox News hosts and personalities have fallen in line with doctors, health experts and science, in judging the coronavirus outbreak to be severe.

On 10 March Sean Hannity, Fox News’ most-watched host and a personal friend to Trump, accused the left of creating “hysteria”. He attempted to downplay Covid-19 by comparing it to the flu, and also suggested the Democratic frontrunner, Joe Biden, was using it as an excuse to cancel rallies.

Hannity’s outlook had changed by last Friday.

“This virus is serious,” Hannity said. “We’ve been telling you that from day one. We need to take the flu seriously. We need to take cancer seriously, this virus seriously. Of course, we all need to prepare accordingly.”

There are signs that the shift is supported, or mandated, by Fox News executives. On Friday, Trish Regan’s show on Fox Business, which is owned by Fox News Media and echoes the conservative tone of the Fox News channel, was suspended after Regan offered a particularly strident avalanche of misinformation on air.

As the graphic: “Coronavirus impeachment hoax” appeared on screen, Regan claimed Democrats had created “mass hysteria to encourage a market sell-off”.

Regan added: “Many in the liberal media [are] using [the] coronavirus to demonize and destroy the president.”

She also claimed the left was using “melodrama” in its response, and questioned why there was not the same response to Sars and Ebola, which she said were “far more deadly”. While they did have a higher mortality rate, only 8,000 people contracted Sars and 33,500 Ebola. As of Monday, 167,000 people have contracted Covid-19, in at least 150 countries.

“Why the melodrama?” she asked. “I’ll give you two words: Donald Trump.”

In a development that illustrates the strange times we find ourselves in, usually-controversial conservative host Tucker Carlson has been credited as one of the few Fox News personalities to treat the coronavirus seriously.

Carlson, who in the past has demonized immigrants and described white supremacy as a hoax, criticized those making light of coronavirus more than a week ago, describing it as a “major event”.

“People you trust, people you probably voted for, have spent weeks minimizing what is clearly a very serious problem,” Carlson told viewers on 9 March, at the same time other Fox News hosts, and Trump, were doing that very thing.

“It’s just partisan politics, they say: ‘Calm down. In the end, this is just like the flu and people die from that every year. Coronavirus will pass, and when it does, we will feel foolish for worrying about it.’

“That’s their position. But they’re wrong.”

The median age of a prime-time Fox News viewer is 66, meaning many viewers fall into the most at-risk category for complications from the coronavirus.

Carlson, who with Hannity makes up a cadre of Fox News hosts-cum-informal Trump advisers, reportedly took his concerns straight to the president earlier in March. Trump finally seemed to acknowledge the seriousness of the coronavirus on Monday, just as Fox News did the same. Whether the same sober tone lasts over the coming months remains to be seen.

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