Ann sat behind a mess of paperwork on her kitchen table, attempting to prepare a lesson plan for her next batch of second graders as best she could. The school year was starting in August — just under two months away. Stressful as it was to try and figure out how to teach kids over Zoom, the task oddly proved to be a good distraction from the crumbling state of the world. Until her retired 82-year-old father called from California.
Immediately, Ann’s stomach dropped; she sensed something was wrong. Living a state away in Nevada, the staunchly liberal 58-year-old had spent the last several months listening to her conservative father argue that the coronavirus was nothing more than the flu, a Democratic hoax designed in a lab to undermine President Trump.
As much as she begged her dad to take the pandemic seriously, she felt powerless against “the barrage of information coming out of Fox News” that he spent his days consuming. Not long after the pandemic began, her dad started traveling and going out to eat without a mask on. Unsurprisingly, he quickly became sick — so sick he was too weak to eat or drink water. Yet he remained in denial that it was COVID, and refused to get tested or go to the hospital. Ann did all she could from out of state and checked in with him multiple times a day, seeing to it that he hydrated and ate something when she did.
Pushing back her lesson planning to take his call, Ann recalls that her dad’s voice seemed to drift further away with every word. “It was so low I could barely hear him,” she says, “but he kept saying he wasn’t sure he was going to make it.” Earlier that day, he had been rushed to the ER with severe nausea and stomach problems, where he tested positive for coronavirus. Suddenly, the widening political divide between her and her father didn’t exist anymore. She was no longer afraid of simply “losing” her dad to Fox News by way of insurmountable political differences. Instead she feared the virus he’d been led to believe was a hoax would kill him. “I panicked but tried to sound calm and keep reassuring him that he would be okay,” she says. “Honestly, I wasn’t sure he would be.”
In that moment, it didn’t matter who was right or wrong so long as she knew her dad continued fighting. But still, she couldn’t help but feel a swelling anger that it didn’t have to be this way. “He worked in hospitals my entire life, so he clearly understood safety measures, because he had taught them to us as kids,” Ann tells me. “But the barrage of information coming out of the president and Fox News, especially in the early days, was that [COVID] was like a flu and wasn’t particularly dangerous to regular people.”
Maybe if Fox News hadn’t downplayed the seriousness of coronavirus, Ann wouldn’t have been begging her dad to keep fighting for his life in the ER after losing 30 pounds in three weeks. And she wouldn’t have to worry about her mom, who also tested positive and is still experiencing residual respiratory symptoms.
“It seems insane that intelligent people like my dad fall for BS like ‘wearing a mask is a liberal plot’ to get them to conform, but my dad believed it, refused to be careful and ended up in the hospital, hooked up to oxygen and IVs as he called his daughters to say goodbye,” Ann continues. “The constant bombardment of non-fact-based information seems benign enough until it’s about something like COVID-19. This is a life-or-death situation, yet they’re taking advantage of people who trust them and politicizing the virus for their own gain.”
“I’m a staunch advocate for the First Amendment, but there’s a limit to what a media outlet should be allowed to say, and I think that limit is crossed when people start to die,” explains Arthur West, board member and spokesman for the Washington League for Increased Transparency and Ethics — or WASHLITE — who filed a lawsuit against Fox News in early April.
The Washington-based attorney cites the 2017 Supreme Court opinion wherein Justice Anthony Kennedy described the internet as the new “electronic town square,” in which regulating free speech would be no different than regulating it in a public park. “The whole paradigm is that speech should be free, because the more free it is, the more ability the truth has to come forward,” West tells me. “But Fox News isn’t just talking in a town square, they have a bullhorn. And that’s where I believe the model of counter-speech in the town square breaks down.”
According to WASHLITE’s complaint, thanks to deals with monopolistic cable companies like Comcast and AT&T, Fox News is piped into approximately 87 million American households whether they want it or not. In 2019, it was the top-rated cable network, averaging 2.5 million nightly viewers — nearly 40 percent of which are 65 or older, the age demographic most at risk for coronavirus being fatal.
With that in mind, WASHLITE argues that Fox News “willfully and maliciously engaged in a campaign of deception and omission regarding the danger of the international proliferation of the novel coronavirus,” which created “a false belief in a statistically significant percent of the population that the coronavirus is a ‘Hoax,’ [thus creating] an epidemiological hazard.” To do so was a violation of the Consumer Protection Act, West believes, which “prohibits deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce.”
However, a Seattle judge dismissed WASHLITE’s case on the basis that the group’s “assertions do not hold up to scrutiny.” “We tried to argue that the Constitution wasn’t a suicide pact, but it looks like many people interpret it more like it is,” West says, adding that WASHLITE is in the process of filing an appeal. “Under the guise of the First Amendment, Fox News can broadcast whatever they want to 87 million households every day, information that isn’t only injurious, but potentially deadly. When we originally filed the case, there were only about 4,000 Americans dead, and I don’t think we could have even imagined how bad it was going to get,” he says. As of late September, coronavirus deaths in America have surpassed 200,000, just in time for a “Fall Surge,” according to the New York Times. “Had we known at that point that 200,000 Americans were going to die, we would have done even more.”
After celebrating the dismissal as a First Amendment win, saying in a statement that WASHLITE “attempted to silence a national news organization to settle a partisan grievance,” Fox News countersued WASHLITE for $334.94 in legal fees and reportedly bolstered their arsenal of attorneys in preparation for more lawsuits. According to Vanity Fair reporter Gabriel Sherman, people at Fox were quietly expressing “real concern … that their early downplaying of the coronavirus actually exposes Fox News to potential legal action by viewers who maybe were misled and actually have died from this.”
Meanwhile, Sherman adds that the Murdoch family was privately taking coronavirus very seriously. According to Brian Stelter’s new book Hoax, so too were many other Fox News executives, who were allegedly having their Manhattan offices deep-cleaned and preparing talent to work remotely. Nevertheless, the network reiterated to their audience that the virus was no worse than the flu, and, as Sean Hannity claimed on March 9th, that Democrats and the media were “scaring the living hell out of people” as a way to “bludgeon Trump with this new hoax.”
Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that in early March (as coronavirus deaths neared 10,000), Pew Research polled 8,914 people and found that 79 percent of Fox News viewers responded that the media “exaggerated the risk of the pandemic.” Comparatively, 54 percent of CNN viewers and 35 percent of MSNBC viewers said the same. In the following weeks, two more polls produced similar results. According to the first, by YouGov and the Economist, those who mostly consumed Fox News expressed the least amount of concern for coronavirus, and per the second, by Survey 160 and Gradient Metrics, registered Republican voters who had watched Fox News in the 24 hours prior were more likely to believe the threat of coronavirus was exaggerated and ignore stay-at-home orders.
Meanwhile, three independent studies released in June — one from economists at the University of Chicago, another published in the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review and the third from the National Bureau of Economic Research — found that there’s a strong correlation between watching Fox News and physically not taking preventative measures during the pandemic. Case in point: The National Bureau of Economic Research used anonymous location data to analyze social-distancing practices in regards to how popular Fox News was in a given zip code. According to their results, “a 10 percent increase in Fox News cable viewership leads to a 1.3 percentage point reduction in the propensity to stay at home.”
“Given all the data we have seen, and all the studies we are reviewing, we can say that empirical evidence clearly shows that [those who routinely watch, read and follow right-wing media and social media] tended to take the disease less seriously and delayed their own response to the virus,” Irene Pasquetto, chief editor of the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review told the Washington Post.
Moreover, Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, explains that it’s not just what the network says, it’s how they contextualize it. “They’ll say, ‘The media was wrong about Hillary Clinton winning, all those polls were wrong, obviously this coronavirus thing is being overhyped, too,’” he tells me. “Immediately it’s beyond merely presenting information; they’ve built an emotional attachment to the idea that everybody else is wrong about this, and it’s being overblown to undermine Donald Trump.”
Once they’ve successfully grafted the pandemic onto their narrative, they bring in a handful of experts who parrot it — a la Dr. Oz. “He’s not a reliable doctor,” Carusone says, “and yet here he was being propped up as this informator of expertise because he validates them and reinforces over and over again the idea that this wasn’t that big of a deal, and there were preventative treatments and cures out there anyway.”
Hammering home the same, simple narrative over and over again is among Fox News’ most successful strategies, particularly when it comes to convincing their audience of older, less digitally literate viewers. “If you’re disoriented, if you’re confused, even if you just don’t know what’s going on, you can walk away from watching Fox News, and in two or three sentences, you can very concisely explain to people what’s going on,” Carusone continues. “Because the narrative that they project is consistent, it’s repeated over and over and over again and it’s empowering, as it gives you a sense of clarity — especially in a pandemic.”
Even when Fox News eventually declared that they would take coronavirus more seriously, Media Matters for America found that the network still pushed 253 pieces of misinformation regarding the pandemic between July 6th and July 11th. During that time, too, the network pulled in twice their 2019 nightly average, with 4 million prime-time viewers, more than every other program between the hours of 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. including CNN, CBS’s two-hour premiere of Big Brother and even the much-anticipated return of live sports. As a result, the network is reportedly well on its way to $2 billion in profits this year.
Fox News “often processes the facts of the world as assorted weapons of war [in which] there are enemy combatants … and there are allies. The sides are always clear. So is the cause,” writes the Atlantic’s Megan Garber. When it’s come to covering the pandemic, she adds, Fox “told its viewers not to focus on the people who have died, or the many more who might, but instead to focus on themselves: Your freedom. Your future. Your America.”
The mindset Garber describes was on full display during the 2020 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, one of the largest physical gatherings to take place during the pandemic, which spanned 10 days in mid-August. Before the rally, Fox News hosts argued that masks were meant to “dehumanize” and “frighten people,” that the whole pandemic was a “liberal scam designed to hurt Trump” and that Joe Biden enacting a mask mandate would be “tyranny.” In turn, Sturgis attendees can be seen in interviews arguing that masks are meant “to keep people in fear,” that COVID is manufactured by people with ulterior motives and that being forced to wear masks is “tyranny.”
What’s missing, however, from viral interviews and academic research of Fox News’ increasingly militant audience is the collateral damage on American families. For decades the political divide between Ann and her father never got in the way of their relationship. Whenever politics came up on their weekly phone calls, Ann would say things like, “Not going there, dad,” and he’d stop. “There’d be no point because neither of us will convince the other to believe differently.”
But in 2016, Ann was surprised to see her dad betray his own long-standing moral code in voting for President Trump. “He was always right leaning, but usually his moral compass would stop him from supporting a politician who clearly doesn’t have the same moral compass,” she says. “In the beginning, he said he’d likely vote for Trump but didn’t like him as a person. I could understand that — I mean, I’ve voted for politicians who I wasn’t crazy about — but at some point in the last few years he began to change.”
During the pandemic in particular, everything became about politics. “He had started watching Fox News almost 24/7, and you could almost watch him fall prey to the propaganda. Eventually, he was constantly spouting talking points from right-wing media, and posting on Facebook about how Godly Trump was and how he was chosen for this job.”
Julia, a 29-year-old mother of two in Connecticut, is in the same boat. “My dad believes that listening to Rush [Limbaugh] and Fox News is the capital-T Truth,” she tells me. “He stresses this — that these sources are the only places that expose the truth and that Rush is the only one who has ever told him the truth.”
Growing up, Julia’s earliest memories are of listening to Rush Limbaugh’s voice and his “many little theme songs” during long car rides with her dad. “He always had this Fox News rage, but it was still possible to hold a normal conversation if you avoided certain topics. But since Trump’s presidency and even more so since COVID, it’s escalated to the point that you can’t talk to him at all, about anything, without him becoming angry, moody and exploding into some political tirade. He never did that before.”
Each time Julia tried to talk to her dad about taking coronavirus seriously, the conversation became outright hostile. “My dad is over 63, overweight, has high blood pressure, is a smoker — in other words, he’s very much in the high risk category for COVID. So in the beginning of the pandemic, I had a lot of anxiety about that,” she says. “I tried explaining what the virus was, how it was affecting people and how it was different from the flu. He seemed to listen, but then the next time I’d see him, he’d start parroting back everything Rush would say, that it’s a ‘Dem hoax to ruin Trump’s election chances,’ and that it’s just like the flu.”
For months, she’d make different appeals to her dad’s logic and empathy. She read The Cult of Trump by Steven Hassan, listened to podcasts and went online in search for help in getting through to her dad. Then, toward the end of May, her 61-year-old uncle was hospitalized with coronavirus. “It ravaged his lungs as COVID does, and he didn’t survive much longer after being released from the hospital,” she tells me. “My dad was shocked at first, he and my uncle were both Fox News, Rush Limbaugh devotees. But without fail, Rush and Fox News and whatever else my dad watches brought him back to their comforting version of reality. He just believes that coronavirus is no worse than the flu, and given his brother’s age and health, the ordinary flu may have killed him too.”
Ever since, Julia has grown numb to being worried about her dad’s health. “He works on the maintenance crew in a commercial building, so at this point I’m more worried about him infecting other people, since I don’t think anything will change his mind.”
If anything, her anxiety has turned to heartbreak. “My dad is just scared, he trusts the people that are feeding him fear and then he’s angry because they follow up with ‘evidence’ to prove his fear,” she tells me. “That really grieves my heart. He’s being lied to, and it’s easy to prove most of the time, but he’s so lost in this maze of manipulation that he thinks he’s free, that he knows the truth and everyone else doesn’t.”
There is a world where Fox News’ coverage of the pandemic reflected the severity with which its hosts and executives seemingly treated it privately. But doing so would have required admitting to President Trump’s failed response and the many social injustices and wealth disparities the network has spent decades insisting don’t exist. “Big picture, one of the most damaging things that Fox did in all of this is prevent their viewers from having to confront how this pandemic laid bare their perception of America,” Carusone says. “The way that they did it was by not just spinning active misinformation about the coronavirus itself, but by perpetuating the idea that the American response to the coronavirus was far and away the most sophisticated.”
“To me, that’s more damaging than anything, because it prevented an opportunity for the very people who were most harmed by this to stop and realize that what Fox News is saying conflicts with reality,” he continues.
Had the narrative fallen apart because “experts” like Dr. Oz refused to back the network’s arguments, for example, there might have been a chance for them to have an epiphany. “Like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute, have I been sold a bag of lies for the past 10 years? I thought we were the best country in the world. Why is it that all these other countries don’t have coronavirus, and we’re still uncertain as to whether or not we can go outside. What’s going on here?’” Carusone says. “But they made sure that never happened, and somehow managed to spin both realities — which is really significant.”
After nearly losing a six-week battle with coronavirus, Ann’s dad is relatively recovered, and he’s found a new way to rationalize Fox News’ dual realities. On one hand, he readily admits the virus shouldn’t be taken lightly. “He definitely got scared, especially given how sick my mom got,” Ann says. “So at least he understands the seriousness and is a bit more willing to be careful.” But that’s as far as he’ll go. He didn’t get sick because of President Trump’s fatal mismanagement or because Fox News downplayed the severity of the pandemic and the importance of wearing masks. Rather, he blames China.
“He just cannot see who is truly responsible for the situation in the U.S., and it’s sad that getting himself and his wife sick wasn’t enough to rise above the propaganda,” Ann says. “Ultimately, I have no doubt that President Trump and Fox News have caused people to die, so I’m just focusing on how lucky I am that my parents aren’t among those numbers.”