Trump’s Fox News Fixation Shaped Disastrous Pandemic Response
Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters
Fox News helped set the direction of nearly every aspect of the disastrous federal response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
President Donald Trump's early downplaying of the danger posed by the virus, the brief period in which he treated it more seriously, his unceasing championing of an antimalarial drug as a miracle cure, his breakneck swerve against social distancing measures, and his incessant demands to reopen the economy regardless of whether public health officials believe it to be safe all have their roots in the network's coverage.
He leaned on Fox hosts like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham for advice, and urged top administration officials to reach out to regular network guests, including the celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz.
In White House meetings, he peppered top health officials with questions about what he had seen while watching the network, shifting federal resources in important ways.
Fox, in turn, got exclusive access to the administration. When Trump and his aides chose to give interviews, they communicated largely through Fox, allowing them to escape scrutiny as the federal effort faltered.
Of the 21 national cable and broadcast interviews Trump has conducted in 2020, 17 were on Fox News or Fox Business, including two town hall events (the other four interviews were on Fox Sports, CNBC, the right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Network, and ABC's World News Tonight).
Trump is obsessed with the network's often sycophantic programming, watching hours of its coverage each day and frequently tweeting about what he sees. He has filled his administration with familiar Fox faces, regularly seeks counsel from the network's hosts, and often bases domestic and foreign policy decisions on what he sees on his television.
The president's response to the novel coronavirus -- which has caused more than 1.2 million infections and more than 71,000 deaths in the United States as of publication -- proved no different. And the consequences of that Fox-Trump feedback loop were dire.
With coronavirus, the consequences of a Fox News-Trump feedback loop are direwww.youtube.com
Timeline of Events
JanuaryKey Events: The novel coronavirus is identified as the source of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China; the Chinese government locked down the city; the first U.S. case is reported in Washington state; the World Health Organization officially declares a "public health emergency of international concern"; Trump is repeatedly warned, including in his daily intelligence briefing, that the virus posed a serious threat.
- Worldwide, as of January 31: 11,950 total recorded cases, 259 recorded deaths.
- HHS Secretary Azar tried to salvage his job with Fox interviews. Republican politicians seeking presidential support for their policy initiatives, business owners trying to get federal contracts, and would-be Trump administration operatives have all used Fox appearances to try to reach Trump directly. In January, as he sought to try to focus Trump's attention on the threat of the coronavirus, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was also reportedly distracted by his need to use this strategy to preserve his position. "Azar, having just survived a bruising clash with a deputy and sensing that his job was on the line, spent part of January making appearances on conservative TV outlets," Politico reported, adding that Azar "routinely fawns over the president in his TV appearances on Fox News."
- Trump live-tweeted Fox as the virus spread. Trump is perpetually distracted by Fox's coverage, watching hours of it each day and often tweeting about what he sees. He sent 69 tweets in response to Fox News or Fox Business programming over the month of January, live-tweeting the networks on 19 separate days. He live-tweeted Fox programming about a wide variety of topics on and after key dates in the virus' spread, including the day after Washington state announced the first U.S. case and in the days following the Wuhan lockdown.
- Key Events: Major surges of coronavirus cases in Europe and Iran; first cases in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America; cruise ship Diamond Princess quarantined off Japan as hundreds test positive for COVID-19; first U.S. death reported in Washington state; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testing kit fails; top CDC official tells reporters to expect community spread in the U.S. and possibly "severe" disruptions to daily life; public health officials and intelligence agencies continue to warn the president about the threat of the virus.
- Worldwide, as of February 29: 86,604 total recorded cases, 2,977 recorded deaths.
- United States, as of February 29: 68 total recorded cases, one recorded death.
- Trump continued live-tweeting Fox as the virus surged around the globe. Trump sent 52 tweets in response to Fox News or Fox Business programming over the month of February, live-tweeting the networks on 21 separate days. He live-tweeted Fox programming about a wide variety of topics on and after key dates in the virus' spread, including the day the first death was recorded in Europe and the days after Italian officials locked down 10 towns in the Lombardy region in response to the epidemic there.
- February 2: Trump told Fox's Hannity, "We pretty much shut [coronavirus] down coming in from China." Fox News host Sean Hannity asked Trump "how concerned are you" about the coronavirus during an interview that aired before the Super Bowl. He replied, "We pretty much shut it down coming in from China," referring to travel restrictions his administration put in place the previous week. But tens of thousands of people continued to travel from China to the United States over the following months. Moreover, researchers subsequently determined that travelers brought the virus to New York from Europe, from which travel was not restricted until mid-March.
- February 10: Trump told Fox's Regan, "We're in very good shape." Asked about the coronavirus by then-Fox Business host Trish Regan, Trump said in part, "We're in very good shape. We have 11 cases and most of them are getting better very rapidly." He also said of the virus, "You know in April, supposedly, it dies with the hotter weather."
- February 13: Trump told Fox's Rivera, "We only have, basically, 12 cases," and said the virus would be killed by heat in April. Trump told Fox correspondent-at-large Geraldo Rivera that the virus was mainly a problem for China during an interview on his radio show, saying, "In our country, we only have, basically, 12 cases, and most of those people are recovering and some cases fully recovered. So it's actually less." He also again suggested it would go away in April, saying, "The April date is very, very important because if that's the case, if he does, in fact, kill that's when it starts getting hot and this virus reacts very poorly to heat and dies."
- Mid-February: As the virus spread, Fox lulled Trump with praise for his response. If Trump was tuning in to much of Fox's coverage of the coronavirus during this period, he would have come away thinking he was doing a great job responding to its spread. Fox hosts and contributors frequently lavished Trump and his administration with praise. For example, Fox News medical contributor Dr. Marc Siegel said he "can't believe how well" the administration is handling the outbreak, while Fox Business host Lou Dobbs argued, "The government has done an amazing job, I think, in constraining the spread of the virus into this country."
- February 25-26: Fox feedback loop generated and reflected Trump's coronavirus attacks on media and Democrats. Fox irresponsibly downplayed the threat of coronavirus, likely leading to Trump failing to take the virus seriously during initial weeks that were vital to curbing the spread. On February 25, the stock market fell dramatically after top CDC official Dr. Nancy Messonnier warned of potentially "severe" disruption to daily U.S. life. That night, Fox hosts lashed out at familiar Trump foes, with Hannity attacking Democrats for "politicizing tragedy," while Laura Ingraham claimed that the press was "actually relishing in this moment." Trump was watching the network's coverage and fuming as he flew back from a state visit to India. The next day he picked up their attacks on the press and Democrats on Twitter and in a press briefing. And Fox hosts in turn amplified and validated his attacks that night. The president and his Fox allies continued minimizing the virus for weeks.
- Key Events: WHO declares COVID-19 a global pandemic after it reaches at least 114 countries; nationwide lockdowns issued in countries including France, Italy, United Kingdom, and India; most U.S. states order nonessential businesses closed and issue shelter-in-place orders; Trump declares national emergency; U.S. officially takes global lead in confirmed cases.
- Worldwide, as of March 31: 863,184 total recorded cases, 44,043 recorded deaths.United States, as of March 31: 193,353 total recorded cases, 5,151 recorded deaths.
- March 5: Trump told Fox town hall, "It's going to all work out." During a Fox town hall, Trump praised his handling of the coronavirus, saying "that's why we have only, right now, 11 -- it's a lot of people, but it's still 11 people -- versus tremendous numbers of thousands of people that have died all over the world. We have 11." He later added, "It's going to all work out. Everybody has to be calm. It's all going to work out."
- March 6: Trump said he was getting information about coronavirus from Fox -- as the network downplayed its lethality. During remarks from CDC headquarters in Atlanta, Trump said that he had been watching Fox for updates about the virus, telling reporters, "As of the time I left the plane with you, we had 240 cases -- that's at least what was on a very fine network known as Fox News." Trump's comment came during a period in which the network was aggressively minimizing the threat posed by the coronavirus in an effort to shield the president from political backlash. Fox hosts and personalities were arguing that the virus was, in the words of then-Fox Business host Regan, "yet another attempt to impeach the president," and falsely claiming it was no more dangerous than the flu.
- March 7: Fox host Carlson met with Trump and urged him to take the coronavirus more seriously. Tucker Carlson revealed in an interview that he had gone to Trump's Mar-A-Lago resort and met with the president for two hours, warning him that coronavirus "could be really bad" and "may have missed the point where we can control it." Trump frequently seeks advice from Fox hosts, and Carlson reportedly played a key role in U.S. foreign policy in 2019.
- March 9: Carlson monologue on coronavirus was a "turning point" that reportedly caught Trump's attention. On his first show after his meeting with Trump, Carlson said during his opening monologue, "People you know will get sick. Some may die. This is real. That's the point of this script — to tell you that." Without directly chastising the Trump administration or his colleagues, Carlson criticized people who "have spent weeks minimizing what is clearly a very serious problem," including by suggesting it was partisan politics and just like the flu. The Washington Post reported that this was a "turning point" because "Carlson's riff caught Trump's attention and was one of the factors that led the president to start to reconsider his position" on the virus.
- March 13-17: After Carlson meeting and show, Trump declared national emergency -- triggering sea change in other Fox coronavirus coverage. After Trump declared on March 13 that the coronavirus constituted a national emergency, Fox's tone shifted sharply (albeit temporarily) to properly treat it as a "crisis." "Until then," The Washington Post reported, "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." On March 16, the White House issued its "15 Days to Slow the Spread" social distancing guidelines. The next day, Fox hosts began practicing social distancing on-air.
- Mid-March: Polls showed Fox viewers were taking coronavirus less seriously, GOP pollster warned that its coverage endangered the base. Six different polls conducted in March found that Fox viewers were taking the coronavirus less seriously than people who got their news from other sources. Republican pollster Neil Newhouse reportedly warned GOP leaders in a mid-March memo that Fox's coverage was endangering the lives of the party's base by influencing them not to take steps to protect themselves from the virus.
- March 19-20: Trump publicly touted antimalarial drugs after Fox hosts promoted them as a coronavirus treatment, leading to shortage. Chloroquine and its derivative hydroxychloroquine are drugs approved by the FDA to treat malaria, lupus, and arthritis that are being tested for their effectiveness in treating the coronavirus. Carlson and Ingraham ran segments on March 16 and 18 touting their purported benefits as a virus treatment, hosting lawyer Gregory Rigano, who cited small, flawed studies by a French microbiologist. Trump then became obsessed with the drugs. He repeatedly promoted them during press briefings on March 19 and 20, publicly contradicting his own top health officials, who warned that their effectiveness was unproven, that evidence was anecdotal, and that the drugs needed to be tested in clinical trials. The president's promotion led to soaring demand for the drugs, causing a major shortage that made it more difficult for patients who take them for other conditions.
- March 21: Live-tweeting Ingraham, Trump highlighted "game changer" treatment -- then asked advisers about it during an Oval Office meeting. Apparently responding to an Ingraham segment from the night before highlighting the results of a "small and hastily designed" French study, Trump tweeted: "HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine." He added that the drugs should "be put in use IMMEDIATELY. PEOPLE ARE DYING, MOVE FAST," and tagged the Twitter handles of the Food and Drug Administration and CDC. He reportedly asked about the drug combination during a subsequent Oval Office meeting, forcing the head of the FDA to explain that it could cause heart toxicity.
- March 21: Trump personally pressured health officials on antimalarials after Fox segments, leading to new CDC guidance on drugs as possible coronavirus treatment. According to Reuters, during March 21 conversations, Trump "personally instructed top officials at the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health to focus on the two drugs [chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine] as potential therapies." Later that day, the CDC issued guidance to doctors proposing the drugs as coronavirus treatments, "the first time the federal government's disease control agency had officially floated the idea." Reuters noted that "Trump's push for action came after" Fox News ran multiple segments about the benefits of the drugs.
- March 22: Trump sends Fox live-tweet that "we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself," kicking off his push for economic reopening. Fox host Steve Hilton argued against social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders on his March 22 Fox show, saying, "You know that famous phrase, 'The cure is worse than the disease'? That is exactly the territory we're hurtling towards." A few hours later, Trump tweeted, "WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!" Leading Trump associates subsequently began signaling that it was time to focus energy on reopening the economy, not stopping the virus, an argument recklessly promoted by others on Fox.
- March 24: In Fox interview, Trump pushes for Easter reopening of economy. During a Fox town hall in which the network's anchors repeatedly failed to challenge his assertions, Trump indicated that he wanted the economy reopened by Easter. He explained: "Easter is a very special day for me. And I see it sort of in that timeline that I'm thinking about. And I say, wouldn't it be great to have all of the churches full?" As The New York Times reported, "Public health officials were horrified by Mr. Trump's statement, which threatened to send many Americans back into the public square just as the peak of the virus was expected." The president subsequently reversed himself and extended social distancing guidelines.
- March 29: Following weeks of Fox promotion, FDA authorizes use of antimalarials to treat coronavirus. The FDA issued an emergency use authorization enabling doctors to prescribe chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine in certain cases as treatments for COVID-19. Fox had heavily promoted the drugs, doing so 146 times between March 23 and 29. The Washington Post reported that the decision "was widely seen as an effort to placate Trump," who "kept hearing about the controversial anti-malarial drug on his favorite Fox News Channel programs." Former FDA leaders criticized the move, stating that it could actually impede clinical trials, contribute to drug shortages, and undermine the FDA's scientific authority.
- Key events: There have been millions of worldwide cases in at least 171 countries and hundreds of thousands of deaths; more than 20 million American jobs are lost; the International Monetary Fund projects the worst global economic downturn since the Great Depression; U.S. takes global lead in COVID-19 deaths; White House releases "Guidelines for Opening Up America Again."
- Worldwide, as of April 30: 3,303,544 total recorded cases, 233,824 recorded deaths.
- United States, as of April 30: 1,095,023 total recorded cases, 63,856 recorded deaths.
- April 3: After Fox's Ingraham visited the White House to advise Trump on antimalarials, the coronavirus task force sent the drug to hot spots. Ingraham and two doctors who regularly appear on her show went to the White House to brief Trump and FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn on the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat the coronavirus, according to The Washington Post. After the meeting, Trump's coronavirus task force "decided to rush-deliver hydroxychloroquine to hospitals and pharmacies in the New York area, Detroit, New Orleans and other coronavirus hot zones," the Post reported. The Post further reported that William Grace, a New York-based oncologist who has regularly appeared on Ingraham's program to tout the anti-malarials, "has suddenly emerged as an influential voice in Trump's orbit despite having no formal links to the government."
- April 5: Frequent Fox guest Dr. Oz is reportedly advising the administration. At Trump's urging, top administration officials working on the coronavirus response, including Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Seema Verma, had consulted with the notorious celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, The Daily Beast reported. Oz had made dozens of appearances on Fox over the previous weeks, particularly on Trump-favorite shows like Fox & Friends and Hannity, and used that time to relentlessly promote hydroxychloroquine's use to treat the coronavirus. CNN subsequently reported, citing a White House official, that Trump had "been intrigued" by those interviews and "has mentioned Oz's television appearances to aides when discussing" hydroxychloroquine.
- April 7: As Trump again admitted watching Fox for coronavirus information, Fox prime-time hosts declared the crisis over. Trump told Sean Hannity during an interview that he had been watching Hannity's show for guidance on which states need additional ventilators from the federal government. That night, Fox's prime-time hosts sent a unified message to the president: The pandemic's threat had been overstated by public health experts but the crisis is over, so now it is time to dismantle social distancing restrictions and reopen the economy.
- April 13: Trump aired a video attacking the press that was lifted from Hannity's show. During the daily White House coronavirus task force briefing, Trump aired a video attacking the media's coverage of the pandemic. Part of that video was taken directly from a clip reel which aired during the March 26 episode of Hannity.
- April 14: Fox's Ingraham returned to White House to advise Trump against contact tracing and in favor of reopening. The Washington Post reported that during an Oval Office meeting with the president, Ingraham "reiterated her belief that the country needed to reopen and argued for limits on contact tracing."
- April 14: Trump took Hannity's advice and named former Fox contributor Moore and Laffer to the White House economic recovery task force. Stephen Moore is a conservative economic commentator and former Fox contributor who, along with Reagan economic adviser Art Laffer, began lobbying the White House to scale back its social distancing recommendations shortly after they were announced, including in Fox appearances. On his April 6 show, Hannity urged Trump to appoint Moore and Laffer to an "economic task force" dedicated to "getting this country back to work." When Trump rolled out just such a group the next week, Moore and Laffer were on it.
- April 17: Trump endorsed anti-social distancing protests after seeing a Fox segment on them. In mid-April, Fox heavily promoted protests by right-wing activists against stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders issued by numerous state governors. The network's encouragement mimicked the playbook Fox deployed in 2009 to bolster the tea party movement's protests against the Obama administration. Minutes after one such April 17 segment featuring protests in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia, Trump endorsed the effort, sending multiple tweets saying, "LIBERATE MINNESOTA!," "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!," and "LIBERATE VIRGINIA."
- April 29: Trump celebrated "reopening our country" as the Fox Cabinet insisted that it was time. Public health experts warned against a precipitous end to social distancing efforts, and polls showed Americans thought it was too soon to return to work. But Trump absorbed the message of numerous Fox segments in which the hosts and guests he trusts argued that the experts were wrong and it was time to restart the economy. And as the month ended and some state governors began removing restrictions -- even in violation of the White House's own guidelines for doing so -- Trump cheered them on. "We're reopening our country, and it's very exciting," he said during remarks to industry executives. "Everybody wants to get open. They want to get open, and they want to get back to business. And their constituents, the citizens of this country, want to get back. And that's what's happening."
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