There’s nothing new about Fox News spreading lies. For years they’ve lied about climate change, immigration, crime, and guns with sometimes lethal consequences, but this is different. Aunt Edna knows she won’t be around to see her Florida vacation home swamped by rising seas. She probably won’t be killed by a deranged white guy with an AR-15. She won’t be herded into a concentration camp on the border. Since she has Medicare, she was never going to suffer from a dysfunctional for-profit health insurance system. Over the years, Fox News has made a living lying to its viewers about matters that would kill other people. Until now.
Fox News enjoys the oldest, whitest viewer base in television news. Only 1 in 5 Fox News viewers are under 50. More than half the network’s audience is over 65. If you’re looking for a place to pitch gold coins, reverse mortgages, or useless protections against cybercrime, there’s no better audience on television.
Take a close look at the mortality statistics from the COVID-19 outbreak in Italy, the only nation outside China yet to experience an extended period of uncontained spread:
So far, 75% of confirmed cases in Italy have been in patients over the age of 50. As of March 13, 2020, almost 90% of deaths from COVID-19 in Italy have been in patients over 70. With almost 18,000 confirmed cases so far in Italy and more than a thousand fatalities, no one under 40 has died.
One might expect that a TV network built on its appeal to aging white people would be very concerned about this virus. Here’s the catch. Every cult eventually faces a conflict rising from its dissonance with reality. At some point, its commitment to a leader or to an imaginary vision of the world, forces it into tension with the reality. It must either abandon course, or let its followers get terribly damaged. Cults almost always sacrifice their followers to protect their leader.
Imagine for a moment what might happen if you blindfolded yourself and decided to drive your car guided only by The Force. For a brief, magical moment, it might seem like it’s working, but persist a little longer and the bill would come due.
Fox News has been able to stay in business because their blindfolded viewers mostly aren’t driving their own car. They’ve had their pale shaky hands on our collective political steering wheel while everyone else struggles to keep them from driving us off a bridge. Fox has survived because the impact of their disinformation has fallen disproportionately on non-viewers. The Fox News cult has been able to roll on, despite the rising toll of damage around them, because its aging white viewers, holed up in their deteriorating provincial backwaters, experienced precious little of the damage they caused. That’s about to change.
COVID-19 placed Fox in their version of the Trolley Problem. They could tell the truth about the outbreak and send that trolley car barreling into Donald Trump, perhaps damaging his re-election hopes. Or they could protect Trump and his Republican enablers by sending that death machine hurtling toward their vulnerable, elderly viewers. Fox decided to kill its viewers to save Trump. Tax cuts uber alles.
Here’s a little sample of what you’ll learn about COVID-19 from watching Fox News.
Fox host Ainsley Earhardt urged people to disregard warnings about travel. “It’s actually the safest time to fly.”
“It’s just their next attempt to get Trump,” Jerry “pool-boy” Falwell explained on Fox. He then pivoted to speculate that this virus was created by North Korea and China.
Trish Reagan summed up the Fox News line, opening her show Monday with the bananas headline: “CORONAVIRUS IMPEACHMENT SCAM.” She then explained “This is yet another attempt to impeach the President.”
An illness is a health problem. A pandemic is a political problem. No one dies from typhus, cholera or tuberculosis in a healthy political system. Germany has seen only 8 COVID-19 deaths in almost 4000 confirmed cases. South Korea is approaching 10,000 cases with only 72 deaths. Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong have millions of people packed in close quarters, in intensive contact with China. Yet they’ve only had a few hundred total cases with a tiny mortality rate, while adopting minimal restrictions on travel on large events. Life has carried on more or less as normal there, thanks to politics.
At the beginning of February, there had been only 70 COVID-19 cases in the US, all of which were connected with overseas travel. As of March 14, there were more than 2000 confirmed cases, spread across 49 states, driven by weeks of uncontrolled and unmeasured local transmission. By yesterday, when our federal government took its first semi-coherent measures to contain the disease, our window to halt local transmission had long closed. Our leaders made choices that placed us on Italy’s trajectory rather than Singapore’s or Taiwan’s. We wouldn’t have had these corrupt incompetent leaders without the overwhelming, enthusiastic support of Fox New viewers.
Fox News viewers made the choice that would transform a minor infection into a pandemic back in November 2016. The man they elected appointed an incompetent grifter to head the CDC in 2017. He replaced her with a religious nut in 2018. Trump fired the CDC’s pandemic response team in 2018. He waited two years to even select a White House Science Advisor. Obama’s last Science Advisor was a physicist trained at MIT. Trump’s new one is weatherman from Oklahoma who is already downplaying the importance of federal research funding. Disease is personal. Plague is politics.
How are we supposed to feel about this tragedy looming over the Fox News crowd? The epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the US was a nursing home in the Seattle area, where the mortality rate has thus far reached almost 40%. Nursing homes are particularly vulnerable and containing the spread there is critical.
A Washington Post story this week summed up the danger and denial at the heart of this disaster. After a new case was discovered at another Seattle area nursing home, a reporter documented this interaction with a resident.
On Tuesday morning a pipe-smoking resident rolled his motorized wheelchair down one of the compound’s paved, tree-shaded paths. He said he did not believe covid-19 was there, and that restrictions were “overblown.”
“They’re having residents not have their meals [together] and gather in large groups. I think it’s already been blown out of proportion,” said the man, who declined to identify himself as he steered toward a crosswalk, adding that he “was heading out.” The man zoomed off to a congested strip of shops, cafes and restaurants in the Seattle suburb.
Fox News has reached its Kool Aid moment, and their viewers have made their choice. Their deliberately ill-informed audience is slurping their poison and heading off to endanger others.
Similar anecdotes are emerging elsewhere. Ask a Fox News viewer about this pandemic and you’re likely to hear bizarre talking points comparing COVID-19 inaccurately to the seasonal flu or blaming the Obama Administration for the outbreak. Then you run across incidents like this one described in a tweet from Rod Dreher:
How are we supposed to feel about this tragedy? Probably much like how we felt watching once-respected friends and relatives embrace our version of Fascism. How does it feel, after all, to look at footage of Berlin or Dresden in 1945?
Fox News has decided that risking the lives of their viewers is a better business decision than alienating their political masters or compromising their cult beliefs. Fox News’ viewers may perhaps dodge this bullet, this time, but we will not escape the rising toll of political dysfunction forever. Elections do, indeed, have consequences.