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Fox News’s dangerous decision to downplay the threat of coronavirus

The US needs to brace for coronavirus. But Fox News is framing efforts to prepare as a partisan fight.

Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt, and Brian Kilmeade of Fox & Friends at Fox News Studios on March 19, 2018.
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Conservative commentators on Fox News are downplaying the potential risk of the novel coronavirus spreading throughout the US — describing the panic over the pandemic as a partisan tool that has been used to attack President Donald Trump.

On his evening show Thursday night, host Sean Hannity spent the bulk of his opening monologue accusing detractors of Trump’s response to Covid-19 of sowing partisanship and hysteria — a message that has resonated with the president, who is an avid viewer and tweeted about it after the show.

“Since the beginning, all they’ve done is use the virus, politicize the virus to bludgeon President Trump,” Hannity said, referring to Democrats. “All the same people who have done the same thing for three straight years. ... Russia, Russia. Ukraine, Ukraine. And impeach, impeach. Now, corona, corona.”

Friday morning, Fox & Friends suggested that it’s safe to travel.

“It’s actually the safest time to fly,” host Ainsley Earhardt said.

And Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of the evangelical Liberty University, spread unfounded conspiracy theories about how Democrats are playing up the virus to attack Trump and how it could potentially be a bioweapon.

Fox News is communicating that panic over the virus is the problem. But at this point, the American public needs to take the threat of the virus seriously.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 1,200 cases nationwide as of March 12, but due to insufficient testing, there are likely many more cases that have gone unidentified. Congress’s in-house doctor told staffers on Wednesday that 70 million to 150 million people in the US could eventually be infected. Experts recommend that people practice social distancing, but if they fail to do so, the virus could spread too quickly, overwhelming medical resources and leading to unnecessary deaths.

What Fox News has been publicly telling viewers is very different from how the network has been responding to the virus internally: Network executives have taken a number of significant precautions, the Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani reported. They told employees in a memo that they would implement work-from-home policies, decrease the number of in-studio guest bookings, and deep-clean their offices, and urged staff to keep in mind that they are “providing an important public service to our audience by functioning as a resource for all Americans.”

But at least some Fox shows haven’t heeded that advice.

On Friday morning as a guest on Fox & Friends, Falwell claimed that the public was overreacting to the threat of virus, incorrectly likening it to the flu. He suggested that Democrats’ attempts to raise alarm over coronavirus is just their latest ploy against Trump following their failed effort to impeach him. He even proposed, without any evidence, that North Korea could be behind the virus.

And Fox & Friends’ Earhardt claimed that it’s not just a safe time to fly but the safest time to fly, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been urging Americans to avoid nonessential travel and practice social distancing. With reports that one passenger who tested positive for coronavirus was on a recent JetBlue flight, it’s even more concerning.

Just as the American public was coming to grips with the reality of the virus on Thursday, Hannity made it about partisan politics: He accused Democrats and the media of “working hand-in-hand to smear the president” and using coronavirus as a “bludgeon” against him. Yet he even acknowledged that some of the critiques of the administration’s response have been valid, including the frustrating lack of testing.

He also sought to contrast then-President Barack Obama’s response to the 2009 pandemic of H1N1, also known as “swine flu,” to the way that Trump has acted on coronavirus, imposing a ban on travelers who had recently traveled to China in January and then another ban on Europeans (with some exceptions) effective Friday at midnight. He accused Obama, by comparison, of not acting quickly enough to avert the nearly 274,000 Americans hospitalized and nearly 13,000 deaths in 2009 alone.

But Obama did act quickly on H1N1. In April 2009, when there were only 20 cases nationwide, the administration declared it a public health emergency and days later made a funding request to Congress for the response. It wasn’t until that June that the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic. In late October, after more than 1,000 people in the US had died, Obama then escalated it to a national emergency.

Hannity also attempted to liken H1N1 to coronavirus:

But comparing coronavirus to H1N1 is misleading. H1N1 posed a smaller threat than coronavirus — as my colleague Dylan Matthews writes, it was “not very deadly, with an overall mortality rate estimated at 0.02 percent, so the societal disruption was limited and the loss of lives, while tragic, didn’t overwhelm medical systems.”

As far as we know now, the mortality rate of coronavirus is much higher, estimated at about 3 to 4 percent by the WHO, and it is already causing a much bigger disruption to everyday life, resulting in widespread school closures, event cancellations, workplaces sending employees home, and calls for social distancing. If it continues to spread, there are concerns that there could be shortages of medical equipment, such as respirators to help patients breathe and capacity at medical facilities.

Trump nevertheless repeated Hannity’s talking points on H1N1 on his Twitter account on Thursday night, using it as an opportunity to lob an attack on Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, who is a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.