In April Fox News aired a one-hour special, ‘America Together’, that featured some of its biggest stars. In a radical departure for the fiercely partisan network, the show ostensibly marked the launch of a new “editorial initiative” aimed at promoting national unity. The content of the special, however, remained typically Fox. “As we face this COVID-19 crisis, you, me, our kids, our parents and our grandparents: We can and should turn to one place for comfort – the Holy Bible,” host Peter Hegseth advised viewers with a commendably straight face.
This was the same Peter Hegseth who alleged on air on 28 February that Democrats were “rooting” for the infection. “They have yet to find a reason to drag down the presidency of Donald Trump,” he said. Sean Hannity, one of Fox’s most famous names and a close ally of Trump similarly told viewers, “If you are over the mass hysteria, if you're over politicizing and weaponizing the coronavirus, you are not alone.” With only one exception – the extreme right-wing host Tucker Carlson – Fox News repeated the line that COVID-19 was nothing to worry about, no more dangerous than the flu, or “a hoax” that was being used to “bludgeon Trump”, in Hannity’s words.
This was not simply a matter of a big media outlet getting the story wrong. This was the biggest, most consequential mistake of Fox News chairman Rupert Murdoch’s career, including the Hitler Diaries farce and the UK phone hacking scandal, which cost his companies well over £300 million. Fox’s support for Trump’s line, from January to mid-March, that the threat from the virus was negligible and that the spread was, in any event, under control may have cost lives among its devoted viewers who, with a median age of 65, are most at risk from the often fatal outcome of the disease.
Fox not only failed to report the chaos and missteps in the White house, it also cheered the president’s denial and delay, the effects of which are writ large in the United States coronavirus figures.