After spending weeks downplaying the deadly virus that now has nearly the entire U.S. under some form of lockdown, several Fox News stars are now attempting to gaslight viewers by claiming they sounded the alarms over the coronavirus all along while it was actually the media and Democrats who dismissed it.
The network’s most-viewed primetime host Sean Hannity has recently devoted much airtime to insisting he has “always taken the coronavirus seriously,” despite no less than a month ago suggesting the pandemic might be a “deep state” plot to hurt the economy or, at another point, claiming concerns over the novel virus was a “new hoax” designed to “bludgeon” Trump.
Like many of his Fox colleagues, Hannity suddenly changed his tune late last month on the virus after President Donald Trump finally pivoted to treating it seriously. The Fox star and unofficial Trump adviser has since taken aim at Democrats and critics who have rightly called out his previous coverage, claiming that all along he was the one warning of the coming disaster while they were the ones turning a blind eye.
But despite Hannity’s perceived confidence in his coronavirus coverage, video and audio recordings do exist. The Fox star spent weeks misleadingly comparing the deadly virus to the seasonal flu while claiming Democrats were “politicizing and actually weaponizing an infectious disease” to “bludgeon” Trump. (Those comments throughout February and March that Democrats were nearly identical to those infamously made by now-former Fox Business host Trish Regan, who, on March 9, with an on-air graphic blaring “Coronavirus Impeachment Scam,” insisted the outbreak was “another attempt to impeach” Trump and “demonize and destroy the president.” Weeks later, Regan was let go by Fox.)
Comparing the novel virus to the seasonal flu, meanwhile, was a tactic Trump and his allies adopted for weeks on end to downplay the deadliness of COVID-19 and excuse the president’s slow response. But that misleading comparison was thrown in Hannity’s face last month during an interview with top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci.
When the primetime host asked Fauci how “dangerous” the virus is “compared maybe to the regular flu,” the top doc replied, “But Sean, to make sure your viewers get an accurate idea about what goes on, you mentioned seasonal flu. The mortality for seasonal flu is 0.1 [percent]. The mortality for this is about two, two-and-a-half percent. It’s probably lower than that, it’s probably closer to one. But even if it’s one, it’s 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu. You gotta make sure that people understand that!”
But now Hannity insists he was sober on the virus all along—and he’s gone to war with any reporter who says otherwise.
Having already issued a toothless threat to sue other news outlets for criticizing his coronavirus coverage, the Fox star blew his top on Wednesday, melting down over tech journalist Kara Swisher’s New York Times column blaming Fox News for her mother’s initial lack of concern over the virus. The president’s confidant unleashed his own Trump-like tweetstorm, blasting Swisher on both his radio and television shows, and hinted that he may take her to court.
“One far-left media mob maniac over at The New York Times is using the virus to attack her least favorite network and yours truly,” Hannity blared. “Now, if she actually watched our coverage and cared about the truth—actually she should put a correction in her newspaper. She would know that we reported without fear from the very beginning.”
The rest of his Wednesday night rant, which included a bevy of childish insults directed at other reporters and networks, largely followed a formula Hannity’s has honed in recent days: Cherry-pick a handful of op-ed headlines to claim mainstream outlets downplayed the crisis in February, credit Trump’s partial China travel ban for saving “thousands of lives,” and highlight an interview he did with Fauci in January as proof he was always concerned about COVID-19.
Pointing to one New York Times column from early February by a travel reporter questioning the efficacy of the travel restrictions, Hannity asked on his radio show if Swisher’s mom may have been planning a trip to China. “Maybe she had a planned trip! If she was listening to her daughter’s newspaper at the time, that would have been a really, really, really dumb idea,” he yelled, adding, “I’ll put my timeline up against yours.”
Additionally, the Fox News star—infamous for peddling the insidious Seth Rich conspiracy and other assorted “deep state” claims involving Hillary Clinton—has also now taken to framing the rest of the media as the real conspiracy theorists. In a Monday night tirade, Hannity labeled rival network MSNBC “Conspiracy TV” while wondering aloud—without a hint of irony—how the public could trust “outright conspiracy theorists” on the coronavirus.
But Hannity is not the only Fox News personality to pretend he never played a role in peddling the dismissive, often-misleading coronavirus talking points he is on-record as saying.
At the top of Wednesday’s broadcast of The Five, Fox’s popular late-afternoon chatfest, co-host Jesse Watters—who made headlines early on for his dismissive, often-cavalier attitude towards the virus—took up the Hannity line of criticizing Democrats and the media for downplaying the pandemic.
In a transparent attempt to deflect criticism of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, Watters praised the president for “slapping the travel ban on China” (the only example of early action he can cite, of course, because the president subsequently dragged his feet on preparedness and claimed the virus was not going to severely affect the U.S.) and for briefly mentioning the disease in his State of the Union address in February. “The address that Nancy [Pelosi] ripped up afterwards,” Watters added.
Watters continued with the partisan shots: “Not too long ago, Cuomo was saying go eat out in New York City. [Bill] de Blasio had all of the schools open. Nancy Pelosi said bring your friends to Chinatown and go to the bars. Joe Biden said the travel ban was racist.” (On Jan. 27, a group of 31 Democratic senators sent Trump’s health secretary a letter expressing concern that the administration wasn’t prepared to provide a “quick, robust, and comprehensive approach to the outbreak.” A day before that, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called on HHS to declare a public-health emergency. The following week, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) lamented that Trump officials “aren’t taking this seriously enough.”
And Watters fired off at the media: “Every column in The New York Times, The Washington Post, downplaying this thing.” ( On Jan. 22, former White House ebola czar Ronald Klain wrote in the Post that we’re now “past the ‘if’ question and squarely facing the ‘how bad will it be’ phase of the response.” A day later, Yale Institute for Global Health Director Saad Omer warned in the Times that the U.S. was not ready for an outbreak, offering preparedness tips for the administration.)
While the Fox News host is now attempting to broadly paint Trump critics or the media as the real coronavirus downplayers, Watters is of course on-record as explicitly telling his viewers that the coronavirus was no big deal.
“If I get it, I'll beat it,” he said on March 3. “I’m not lying. It's called the power of positive thinking, and I think America needs to wake up to that.” He patted himself on the back for sitting next to an “Asian guy” on the subway and ordering “Chinese food.”
“I'm not afraid of the coronavirus, and no one else should be that afraid either,“ Watters declared.
Even after the president finally addressed the nation on the pandemic and cities began to lock down, Watters still adopted a cavalier attitude about the disease.
“I’m taking coronavirus seriously but I’m not panicking,” he declared at the top of the March 14 broadcast of his weekend show Watters’ World. “If I get it, I get it. And I’ll beat it, It’s not the plague. I’m a healthy young guy.”
Later in his monologue, he compared COVID-19 to the 2009-10 H1N1 pandemic, which was highly contagious but had a low mortality rate of 0.02 percent. “Nearly 13,000 Americans died from swine flu,” Watters stated. “So far, just a few dozen Americans have died from coronavirus. A few dozen versus 13,000. In one year. This isn’t downplaying, this is just context. Now doctors say things will get worse, but that’s how it stacks up to the last big health scare.”
Less than three weeks after those comments, more than 6,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus, and the White House task force’s most optimistic projection of the U.S. body count is between 100,000 to 240,000 deaths.
At one point, as the president pivoted away from downplaying the pandemic’s risks, Watters admitted on March 16 that he did not take the threat “seriously” enough until then, days after telling Fox viewers that he would “beat it” and touting the then-low death toll.
Despite these Fox stars’ protestations that they were actually the ones issuing dire warnings, there is empirical evidence that Fox News has directly influenced its (mostly older) viewers to believe that concerns about the pandemic are overblown. According to a recent Pew Research poll, 79 percent of the network’s viewers feel the media has exaggerated the risks.
Dozens of journalism professors, meanwhile, recently wrote an open letter to Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch and his son, Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch, accusing the network of peddling misinformation on the virus.
“The average age of Fox News viewers is 65. It is well established that this population incurs the highest risk from the COVID-19 pandemic. In other words, Fox News viewers are at special risk from the coronavirus,” the letter read.
“But viewers of Fox News, including the president of the United States, have been regularly subjected to misinformation relayed by the network—false statements downplaying the prevalence of COVID-19 and its harms; misleading recommendations of activities that people should undertake to protect themselves and others, including casual recommendations of untested drugs; false assessments of the value of measures urged upon the public by their elected political leadership and public health authorities.”
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