HBO’s John Oliver dedicated his entire 21-minute show on Sunday night to a deep dive into false information being peddled by Fox News and other conservative media outlets about the coronavirus, and the impacts those falsehoods are having on President Donald Trump and his decision-making.
It’s a stunning exposé into, as Oliver puts it, how “the feedback loop between Fox and Trump has run way ahead of the science.” (You can – and should – watch the whole segment here.)
But there was one thing – actually one sentence of 11 words – that really stood out to me in the Oliver segment. And it was this, when he was talking about Fox News’ coronavirus coverage:
“They only pretend to believe these things on television for money.”
The point Oliver was making was that even as many Fox News anchors were pushing the idea that coronavirus was less virulent than the flu and that it was the product of a hyper-partisan media trying to “get” Trump, the company was warning its employees to stay at home and “reducing the staff footprint at our headquarters in New York.”
Why the contrast between what their anchors were pushing and the internal guidance being given to staff? Because, as Oliver rightly notes, Fox News is in the business of selling a certain kind of news to its largely conservative (and very large) viewer base. And that “news” is generally speaking, centered around the idea that the mainstream media is in cahoots with Democrats to screw, frighten and otherwise mistreat the average Joe and Jane out there.
Or, as Oliver put it: “Many in conservative media have found it easy to fold this virus into narratives that they have been carefully building up for decades.”
So when coronavirus deaths began to mount across the world, and it became clear that the hopes of limiting community spread in the United States were in vain, it was simply too tempting for Fox News. They played the coronavirus story as they play virtually every other story – as an indictment of the media and its biases. See, the real story here – that the mainstream media isn’t telling you – is that this is all overhyped! This is like a cold virus! Hydroxychloroquine will knock it all out anyway. And on and on and on.
It’s why Fox News viewers have a very different view of coronavirus – its origins, the search for a vaccine etc. – than do non-Fox viewers.
In a recent Pew poll, 51% of Fox News viewers said it would take a year or more for the vaccine to be available while 78% of MSNBC watchers said it would take more than a year for a vaccine. Almost 6 in 10 CNN viewers said the same. (A vaccine is not expected for at least another year.) That same poll showed that just 37% of Fox News viewers said the virus came from nature while 66% of MSNBC viewers and 52% of CNN watchers said the same. (For those of you noting that the coronavirus may have been made in a lab, I would say this: We know US intelligence officials are looking into that possibility. We also know that they have warned that it is far too early in the investigation to draw any conclusions.)
The truth here is that Fox News knows exactly what it’s doing. It – or, really, the late Roger Ailes – has created a brand that revolves around its viewers’ distrust in societal pillars like government, the education system and, yes, the media. Every story – and I mean every story – is funneled through that lens.
Take how Fox News has been covering the recent protests in states around the country over quarantine guidelines by governors. Here’s Fox host Jeanine Pirro during a recent interview on Sean Hannity’s show:
“They want to keep us away from churches and synagogues. They want to make sure we don’t go back to work. They don’t get it. The American spirit is too strong, and Americans are not gonna take it.”
Who is they? Pirro never says. She doesn’t need to – because the Fox audience already knows who “they” is: The elites, the media, the Democrats, the establishment.
Or this tweet from Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham in support of the protesters: “Time to get your freedom back.”
Back from whom? Again Ingraham doesn’t say. But she, like Pirro, knows that the audience will fill in the gaps.
The most noxious part of all of this – and it’s what Oliver’s 11 words hit directly on the head – is that Fox News is covering the story this way not because it comports with known facts or because they believe it’s the “real” narrative but rather because they know that covering the coronavirus pandemic this way means more viewers – and more money to sell ads.
Why? Because Fox News has spent years conditioning their regular viewers to believe that anything “the media” – or any other establishment institution (other than them), of course – must not be telling the whole truth about anything. And that the reason the establishment isn’t telling the truth is because the truth is somehow bad for them.
It’s an incredibly vicious cycle – and has been for a long time. But it’s never been as clear as it is right now.