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Why the Murdochs backed Donald Trump’s COVID-19 denialism

Fox News has been accused of ‘deceiving the public’ in its coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. Has it finally gone too far?

Henry Porter
17 April 2020, 2.07pm
Sean Hannity, one of Fox News's biggest stars, said that the coronavirus was a "new hoax" in March.
Fox News

Earlier this month, 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. At the time of writing, the US has had 609, 516 reported cases of COVID-19 and 26,057 deaths from the virus, a third of which have occurred in New York State. The disease is spreading rapidly from big conurbations, which are largely Democrat to the Midwest and South, which tend to be Republican.

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This week, Trump clashed with state governors, including those in his own party, over who has the ultimate authority to reopen states and when. Meanwhile, protests have erupted in some conservative and rural counties demanding an end to stay-at-home measures. Fox News's Laura Ingraham was among those heaping praise on protesters, tweeting that it was "time to get your freedom back".

Hammy contrition

Fox’s lets-bring-America-together-again response is reminiscent of the hammy contrition displayed by Murdoch’s News International after the phone hacking scandal, but it is unlikely to silence the anger over Fox’s coverage. MSNBC, CNN, the New York Times, Boston Globe and the Washington Post regularly remind their audiences of how Trump and Fox News supported each other’s denialism. Trevor Noah’s ‘Daily Show’ on Comedy Central gathered all the clips from Fox and other corona-sceptics in one item, which they called the “Heroes of the Pandumbic”. More seriously, an open letter signed by 74 journalism professors criticised the company for spreading misinformation that endangered the public. In addition, Washington non-profit WASHLITE has filed a suit against the company alleging it “wilfully and maliciously deceived the public.”

Fox viewers were far less likely to take the crisis seriously... 90% said that they were not staying at home.

Since its founding under the former Nixon aide Roger Ailes, Fox News has been seen as a damaging and divisive force in journalism. But now, there seems to be striking evidence that actual, physical harm may have been caused by Fox’s editorial line on COVID-19 before its mid-March volte face. A poll by Survey 160 and Gradients Metrics carried out between 13-16 March shows that Fox viewers were far less likely to stay at home, or take the crisis seriously, which is important given that its viewership is particularly at risk from the virus. Of those who identified as Republican and who had watched Fox News in the past 24 hours, 90% said that they were not staying at home. That fell to 70% among those Republicans who had not watched Fox News. 

The link between cause and effect will never be conclusive. Nonetheless, it is significant that when asked whether the threat from COVID–19 had been exaggerated, 60% of Republicans who had watched Fox New said “yes”, while only 40% of those Republicans who hadn’t watched agreed. The difference between the two may be a measure of Fox News’s influence.

Murdoch has promised a robust defence of the case brought by WASHLITE and this, too, is reminiscent of the company’s initial response to the phone-hacking allegations, when it threw everything at the Guardian newspaper, which published the allegations over several years, and its then editor Alan Rusbridger. “They went round the lobby (in Parliament) saying it was all lies,” he recalls, “issued a statement that it was all lies, published pieces in the Sunday Times and Times saying it was all lies. Let’s not forget this was a public company making dishonest statements.” 

Fox Corp, which owns Fox News, is also a public company, although the Murdoch family have 39% of the voting power. Rupert Murdoch, 89, executive co-chair of Fox News and his eldest son Lachlan, 48, co-chair and chief executive, have clearly decided that the only way to deal with this disaster is to pretend it never happened. That is why Fox now promotes uplifting stories of Americans helping each other. They are counting on mass forgetfulness and hope Sean Hannity, its biggest star, will be believed when he said of the journalism professors, “It’s the same Democrats, media mob and liberal professors who are so lazy they won’t even look at what I’ve said about the virus… I never called it a ‘hoax’. I said it was a hoax for them to be using it as a bludgeon on Trump.”

Hannity’s contortions are a footnote to the national tragedy. The bigger story is about Fox’s journalism and Murdoch’s credibility as a media owner. While every other established outlet can point to Trump’s record and hold him to account in the run up to the election on 3 November, Fox must abjure because of its past support for the president’s calamitous policy failings. 

Murdoch’s miscalculation

Even though those who, like me, regard Rupert Murdoch and his interests as an international menace, still credit him with a sure judgment when it comes to using politicians to further the interests of his company. In the past, he has never had a problem shedding long-standing allies to catch a new political wind. He famously deserted the British Conservative Party in the mid 90s to support Tony Blair’s New Labour, despite the Tories’ support for him through his fight with the print unions. In 2016, he quickly discarded Jeb Bush in favour of Trump in the run up to the primaries, but not before tweeting in 2015, “When is Donald Trump going to stop embarrassing his friends, let alone the whole country?” Trump is more than an embarrassment now. The economy is tanking, a depression is threatened, thousands of Americans are dying and record numbers of them are filing for unemployment, but Fox can’t apply itself to the job of scrutiny without questioning its own role. 

When Murdoch plumped for Trump in 2016, it seemed a sensible business decision.  No obstacles were placed by the Trump administration in the way of the $71 billion sale of Twenty-First Century Fox’s film and TV assets to Disney, although Trump was revealed to have tried to block a very similar merger between AT&T and Time Warner which also went through a year ago. The new Fox Corp which runs Fox News and is headed by Lachlan Murdoch is doing well financially, reporting total quarterly revenues of $3.78 billion, a 5% increase from the $3.58 billion of revenues in the prior year quarter. 

Being shackled to a lunatic is all very well if it serves your purposes – until that lunatic drags you into the path of an oncoming train. For Fox, it’s too late to escape: Lachlan Murdoch has failed to create a distance between his company and Trump. In an article in the New York Times that pulled no punches, the media correspondent Ben Smith blamed Lachlan Murdoch. “Fox failed its viewers and the broader public in ways both revealing and potentially lethal. In particular, Lachlan Murdoch failed to pry its most important voices away from their embrace of the president’s early line: that the virus was not a big threat in the United States.”

How could Rupert Murdoch and his son make such a catastrophic error of judgment? Why are they still chained to Trump as he loses support and, in the face of the daily death toll, can only react with a repellent display of narcissism and self-interest? The answer is surprisingly simple. Supporting Trump wasn’t just a strategic choice, but Rupert Murdoch’s personal political conviction. It has all the hallmarks of the same crude conservatism evident in the editorial line pushed by his Australian media outlets which heaped blame for last year’s bushfires on environmentalists.

As with climate change, Rupert Murdoch put his politics ahead of business interests by pushing coronavirus skepticism. It’s bad for him and Fox, but much, much worse for humanity.

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