On Fox News Channel’s The Five on Monday, co-host Jesse Watters admitted he “didn’t take social distancing seriously” on Friday, Saturday and Sunday night, before waking up the next morning and realizing “that was not the right move.”
“I am no longer going out to dinner. I was trying to help my local restaurants,” he said.
As President Donald Trump has retreated from downplaying the threat of the coronavirus to calling the situation “bad” and urging the public to take on a dramatic series of steps, so too have some of his biggest defenders on the news network.
The shift in tone has been apparent on shows like Hannity, in which host Sean Hannity said Monday that “now is not the time for Washington to play games. All hands on deck. Governors, mayors, the federal government must now work together to get hospitals what they need, the equipment that might be needed, the supplies that might be needed in the future.” He had referred to the virus in terms like “deadly” and “concerning” going back to late February.
But on March 9, he downplayed the alarm being raised across the media over the threat of virus, telling guest Doug Collins, the Republican congressman, that he didn’t “like how we’re scaring people unnecessarily. And that is that unless you have an immune system that is compromised, and you are older, and you have other underlying health issues you’re not going to die 99% from this virus, correct?”
“That is correct, Sean,” Collins said.
Hannity went on to suggest that the media was “scaring the living hell out of people. And I see them again as like ‘Oh, OK, let’s bludgeon Trump with this new hoax.’ “
The network’s editorial side has been covering the outbreak throughout, and one of its opinion hosts, Tucker Carlson, did sound the alarm about the virus’ potential dangers. On March 9, he said that the threat was “real” and added, “People you trust, people you probably voted for, have spent weeks minimizing what is clearly a very serious problem.” That same night, anchor Harris Faulkner hosted a virtual town hall, with medical contributors Dr. Marc Siegel, Dr. Nicole Saphier and Dr. Manny Alvarez, along with Dr. Mehmet Oz.
Carlson, who warned viewers on Feb. 3 to pay attention to the virus, told Vanity Fair on Tuesday that “when you live in a country where everything is political and people are seeing, you know, every development through an ideological lens, either as a way to gain advantage or as a threat to their current advantage, it’s very hard to tell a straightforward story. And it’s hard to get people’s attention if you know you’re saying something that they suspect is political propaganda. It’s something that people have worried about for a long time. What if there’s a crisis, no one will believe the coverage.” A week and a half ago, he conveyed his concerns to Trump directly in a visit to Mar-a-Lago.
An NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll, released on Tuesday, showed the disparity in trust. Among Democrats, 64% said they trusted the news media a great deal or a good amount on the coronavirus, while just 36% of Republicans did. Among independents, the figure was 49%.
The shift toward urgency over the virus became apparent when the World Health Organization declared a pandemic last week and scores of businesses and organizations canceled events, and closed public gathering spots —all major turning points in the story. By the weekend, the entire economy ground to a halt.
Fox News was among many companies to institute social distancing policies, telling its workforce to limit their in-office footprint and curbing the number of in-studio guests.
In a memo to employees Wednesday outlining the new in-office restrictions, CEO Suzanne Scott and president and executive editor Jay Wallace wrote, “Please keep in mind that viewers rely on us to stay informed during a crisis of this magnitude and we are providing an important public service to our audience by functioning as a resource for all Americans.”
The network since announced the hiring of two new medical contributors, Dr. Martin Makary and Dr. Janette Nesheiwat, while starting to run commercials in a large box while continuing the coverage in a smaller box. The network also has started to produce a three-minute live news report anchored by Bill Hemmer for O&Os and affiliates, among other changes.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday the anchors from Fox & Friends, typically seated around a couch, practiced their own social distancing. They sat in different studios. “To be responsible, all three of us are showing social distancing. All three of us are apart. Same studio plenty of distance,” said host Brian Kilmeade.
One alumnus of the show took note. Gretchen Carlson tweeted, “As somebody who sat on the curvy couch for 8 years I have to say this made me literally lol this morning — suddenly Fox News is taking #COVID19 seriously — spacing out these 3 in different studios. Just 2 days ago we were all nuts & overreacting.”
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