First, Fox downplayed the coronavirus threat for weeks. Then, two weeks ago, their anchors abruptly pivoted. But on Monday night, the network’s coverage of the crisis slid back off the rails in spectacular fashion.
All three of the shows making up the network’s top-rated primetime lineup — Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham — featured segments about the coronavirus that ran with misinformation President Trump has embraced, from advocating that people start thinking about heading back to work even if it could leave more people dead to promoting unproven and potentially dangerous drugs as coronavirus cures.
Trump and his high-profile backers are struggling to come to grips with the reality that there are no shortcuts back to normalcy. And now shows watched by millions could put a lot of people’s health and lives in danger.
“Those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country.”
Tucker Carlson’s Monday night broadcast came on the heels of Trump’s marathon news conference — one in which he insisted that he plans to reopen the American economy next week even though 138 Americans died from the coronavirus on Monday, the most on a single day yet.
Carlson, however, didn’t seem particularly bothered by Trump’s position that trying to revive the economy is just as important as saving lives through social distancing. And during his interview with Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), the quiet part was said loudly.
“My heart is lifted tonight by what I heard the president say,” Patrick said. “My message is, let’s get back to work. Let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it. And those of us who are 70-plus [years old], we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country.”
“So you’re basically saying that this disease could take your life, but that’s not the scariest thing to you. There’s something that would be worse than dying?” Carlson asked.
“Yeah,” Patrick replied.
Tx Lt Gov Dan Patrick says grandparents would be willing to die to save the economy for their grandchildren pic.twitter.com/wC3Ngvtsbj— Andrew Lawrence (@ndrew_lawrence) March 24, 2020
Patrick’s position, in short, is that after just a week of social distancing measures, older Americans like him — the demographic experts believe are most at risk of dying due to Covid-19 — should be willing to risk death to get the economy going again. And in that respect, his thinking echoed the president’s, who claimed on Monday that keeping the economy shut down “causes other problems, and maybe it causes much bigger problems than the problem we’re talking about now.”
The choice that Trump and Patrick alluded to between trying to get the coronavirus under control or restoring the economy is a false one. In reality, there will be no economic recovery until the number of coronavirus cases in the country stabilizes and the pressure on the health care system is relieved.
Hannity pushes quackery
On the heels of Carlson’s show, Sean Hannity hyped a shortcut that he thinks might take care of both problems at the same time.
During an interview with Vice President Mike Pence, Hannity read a letter “from a doctor in the New York area” recommending an unproven drug “regimen” involving the anti-malarial hydroxychloroquine that supposedly treats Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus:
This is what he has seen: Him and his team have now treated about 350 patients ... and another 150 patients in other New York areas. His results — “We have had zero deaths, zero hospitalizations, zero incubations.”
Good lord, Sean Hannity just reads off a letter he says he got from a doctor with a drug "regimen" that the doctor says has kept people from getting infected pic.twitter.com/9MzwmUHKlB— Andrew Lawrence (@ndrew_lawrence) March 24, 2020
Beyond the dubiousness of a doctor who discovered a miracle coronavirus drug immediately reaching out to Hannity of all people, the “regimen” he talked about is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
Taking drugs for unapproved usages is risky, but Trump has promoted part of that treatment — hydroxychloroquine taken with azithromycin — repeatedly and against the advice of his experts. And that rhetoric has already had tragic results: On Tuesday, NBC broke news about an Arizona man who died after listening to Trump tout the unproven coronavirus treatments and decided to take a similar substance (chloroquine phosphate, from a fish treatment) in an effort to protect himself from the coronavirus.
The man’s wife told NBC News she’d watched televised briefings during which President Trump talked about the potential benefits of chloroquine. Even though no drugs are approved to prevent or treat COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, some early research suggests it may be useful as a therapy.
“We were afraid of getting sick.”
Ingraham touts unproven drugs as well
But Hannity wasn’t the only Fox News host to push medical quackery on Monday. Immediately following his show, Laura Ingraham interviewed a coronavirus patient named Rio Giardinieri, who not only attributed his recovery to an unproven hydroxychloroquine treatment but also gave Ingraham direct credit for the fact that he’d heard about it in the first place.
Annnnd we now have Fox News hosts literally taking credit for saving coronavirus patients' lives. pic.twitter.com/52HuX7dJRx— Justin Baragona (@justinbaragona) March 24, 2020
As my colleague Umair Irfan has detailed, despite Trump’s public enthusiasm for the drug, hydroxychloroquine is unproven and “right now, the evidence for its effectiveness is sparse.” And while it’s good that the man Ingraham interviewed is recovering, it’s unclear what role, if any, hydroxychloroquine actually played.
Lots of people watch Fox and take Hannity and company seriously
The triple hit of absurdity during Fox News’s primetime programming on Monday demonstrated how the network continues to struggle to cover the pandemic, even if its hosts are no longer dismissing it as the “coronavirus impeachment scam” and framing criticism of the federal response as just another attempt to take down the president.
As I detailed last week, this sort of coverage has consequences. In 2019, Fox News’s primetime averaged 2.5 million viewers, and polling indicates that when it comes to the coronavirus, its viewers are less likely than others to be worried about the virus and more likely to believe that other media sources are overplaying the dangers.
People who tuned in on Monday may have been convinced that exchanging humans lives for better GDP and jobs numbers is a reasonable trade-off for policymakers to consider, or that unproven drugs can save them if they get sick. As the man in Arizona has shown, buying into this sort of rhetoric can lead to high-risk behavior at worst. And at best, viewers don’t end up more informed about how they can protect themselves and their families from a pandemic that experts — including those in the Trump administration — say will get worse before it gets better.