Why the Left Blames Fox News for COVID Deaths

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Last week, a group of professors and teachers of journalism and communications signed a scathing open letter calling out Fox News’ coverage of the coronavirus crisis, describing it as “a danger to public health” and blamed Fox of contributing “to the spread of a grave pandemic.” 

The letter doesn’t provide specific examples of how Fox has done this or why. It only claims Fox dismissed the pandemic as nothing special or are diversion from impeachment. From there it argues that since a large chunk of the Fox audience is over 65 and at high risk for contracting COVID-19, downplaying the threat will encourage seniors to go about their lives as nothing has changed and likely die.

Such thinking seems to be what inspired New York Time columnist Ginia Bellafante to accuse Fox and Sean Hannity for the death of Brooklyn bar owner.  Bellafante notes that “early in March Sean Hannity went on air proclaiming that he didn’t like the way that the American people were getting scared “unnecessarily.’’ Bellafante writes that Joyce -- who watched Fox News -- promptly went on a cruise to Spain, contracted the coronavirus and died. She goes on to quote Joyce’s daughter: “He watched Fox, and believed it was under control,’’ Kristen told me. (Hannity made that statement on March 9. Joyce went on vacation March 1st. Bellafante – whose previous claim to fame was writing that observant Jews are ignorant welfare sponges and for implying Hasidim are semi-literate. – tweeted on February 27th “I fundamentally don't understand the panic: incidence of the disease is declining in China. Virus is not deadly in vast majority of cases. Production and so on will slow down and will obviously rebound.”

The statements about Fox made by Bellafante, the academics and others in the media do raise an important question: Does where you get your news from shape your perception of risks or does your perception of risk share what news you watch and what you think of other outlets?

A group of University of Chicago researchers claims that watching Hannity did cause people to die. They claim that Hannity’s viewers on average changed their behavior in response to the coronavirus five days later than other Fox News viewers, while Carlson’s viewers changed behavior three days earlier than other Fox News viewers.” They go on to conclude: Given the critical importance of early preventative measures (Bootsma and Ferguson, 2007; Markel et al., 2007) this difference in the timing of changes in cautious behaviors may have significant consequences for health outcomes.”

It is hard to take this study seriously but let me try: Set aside the assumption that one can claim a shift in outlook of a couple of days directly caused people to die. Set aside the fact that other outlets — including CNN — downplayed (in retrospect) the pandemic. The fatal flaw of this exercise is that it failed to ask people about their attitudes and values before the pandemic.

In fact, we have some idea of what those perceptions about risk are. A Pew Research Center Election News Pathways project, recently asked dozens of questions about how people perceive the threat of the pandemic, what steps should be taken to combat it and how it is affecting others, etc. So have other major polls. It turns out that regardless of party, ideology, gender, region, sex, income, the vast majority of Americans believe the pandemic is a serous threat.

At the same time, there are deep differences in how fearful people are. Eighty percent of liberals think COVID-19 is a major threat compared to 48 percent of conservatives. Meanwhile 59 percent of conservations believe the risks of the pandemic have been exaggerated compared to 20 percent of liberals.  

Over twice as many conservatives (48%) think the pandemic is a minor threat to public health compared to progressives (19%). Progressives are twice as likely (44%) than conservatives to say that coronavirus outbreak is a major threat for the daily life in their own community. Meanwhile, compared to progressives (18%), three times as many conservatives (47%) believe that the virus will cause a slowdown in the economy but not a recession.

The difference is not a function of what news outlet people watch or what party they identify with. Rather, as the late political scientist Aaron Wildavsky documented, what we choose to fear is shaped by different world views and “ideologies entailing deeply held values and beliefs defending different patterns of social relations and underlying interpersonal relationships.”

The deference to expert opinion and urge to control ‘outsiders’ explains why CNN and MSNBC trashed using hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 as dangerous and unproven while Fox News has supported wide use of the medication. On the flip side, conservatives are more likely to rail against stringent government limits on using playgrounds or buying paint while the left is all in on sheltering in place until everyone is tested.

The conflict about Fox coverage and the tit-for-tat between media outlets has intensified. But the allegations that any cable network is brainwashing, or misleading people is absurd. Rather, the ideological conflict is really a battle of two different cultures: a hierarchical or authoritarian urge on the part of the radical left to control behaviors – and the ‘deplorables’ -- that threaten their way of life and an individualist culture of die hard conservatives that social engineering in favor of informal and voluntary relationships. Put simply, the contest is between those who trust people to choose wisely and people who believe only they should choose wisely for others.

Robert Goldberg is Vice President at the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest (CMPI)

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