Cartoon by Bob Englehart
On Fox News, suddenly a very different tune about the coronavirus
By Paul Farhi and Sarah Ellison
The Washington Post: For weeks, some of Fox News’s most popular hosts downplayed the threat of the coronavirus, characterizing it as a conspiracy by media organizations and Democrats to undermine President Trump.
Fox News personalities such as Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham accused the news media of whipping up “mass hysteria” and being “panic pushers.” Fox Business host Trish Regan called the alleged media-Democratic alliance “yet another attempt to impeach the president.”
But that was then.
With Trump’s declaration on Friday that the virus constitutes a national emergency, the tone on Fox News has quickly shifted.
On his program on Friday, Hannity — the most watched figure on cable news — lauded the president’s handling of what the host is now, belatedly, referring to as a “crisis.”
“Tonight, we are witnessing what will be a massive paradigm shift in the future of disease control and prevention,” he said. “A bold, new precedent is being set, the world will once again benefit greatly from America’s leadership. . . . The federal government, state governments, private businesses, top hospitals all coming together, under the president’s leadership, to stem the tide of the coronavirus.”
In all, it has been a complicated dance for a network whose hosts are among Trump’s most ardent boosters and defenders — an increasingly challenging position to take as the crisis grew in magnitude. Trump, meanwhile, has long looked to Fox News and its personalities for guidance and approval, a dynamic that may have been pivotal this week after host Tucker Carlson reportedly visited with the president in person to urge him to take the coronavirus seriously.
Until then, Trump’s allies on Fox News were inclined to take the same stance that the president himself promoted for several weeks — that this coronavirus that had sickened and killed thousands of people in China was no worse a threat than the seasonal flu.
Just a week ago, Hannity shrugged at the pandemic. “So far in the United States, there’s been around 30 deaths, most of which came from one nursing home in the state of Washington,” he said last Tuesday. “Healthy people, generally, 99 percent recover very fast, even if they contract it.”
By way of comparison, he added: “Twenty-six people were shot in Chicago alone over the weekend. I doubt you heard about it. You notice there’s no widespread hysteria about violence in Chicago. And this has gone on for years and years. By the way, Democratic-run cities, we see a lot of that.”
From February: Conservative pundits blame a grab bag of supposed villains amid the coronavirus outbreak
Ingraham, whose program follows Hannity’s, also seems to have had a fast-dawning recognition that the social and economic dislocation of the virus was more than just a Democratic talking point wielded against the president.
In late February, Ingraham called Democrats the “pandemic party” and displayed photos of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) alongside enlarged images of coronavirus molecules. “How sick that these people seem almost happiest when Americans are hurting,” she said.
She kept at it through last Tuesday when, in front of a graphic reading “Trump confronts the panic pushers,” Ingraham said, “The public in some ways seems a lot more levelheaded than the so-called experts. . . . The facts are actually pretty reassuring, but you’d never know it watching all this stuff.”
Her advice: “We need to take care of our seniors. If you’re an elderly person or have a serious underlying condition, avoid tight, closed places, a lot of people, don’t take a cruise maybe. Everyone else wash your hands, use good judgment about your daily activities. Yeah, pragmatic thinking, especially if you’ve been overseas recently in one of the hardest-hit areas.”
In fact, health experts have repeatedly said that everyone, not just “seniors” or the chronically ill, should avoid contact with other people, a strategy known as “social distancing.” Their advice extends to people everywhere, not just those who recently traveled abroad. (On Friday, Ingraham tweeted that it was a “great time to fly if not in at-risk population!” The tweet was later deleted.)
By Wednesday, after Trump announced a travel ban on people from the European Union, Ingraham had started calling the pandemic “this dangerous health crisis.” She characterized warnings issued by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases head Anthony S. Fauci about the potential spread of the disease as “sobering and scary to hear.”
Regan’s on-air speculation at the start of last week that coronavirus was merely another impeachment gambit for Democrats drew widespread pushback. Clearly the mood was changing at Fox by the time the network announced late Friday that her discussion-and-commentary program on Fox Business would leave the air indefinitely, to be replaced by long-form programming — part of a larger overhaul of the prime-time schedule, Fox officials said, intended to free up resources that would help bolster coverage of the crisis during “critical market hours.”
Fox insiders said that Regan’s removal from air showed that only some hosts — those with the biggest ratings — are protected at Fox News. “If you put Trish’s comments up against Laura [Ingraham’s], you can’t honestly tell me that Trish is off the air” because of her coronavirus commentary, said a former Fox News executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about his past employer >>>