AP Photo/Steven Senne Fox News misinformation
AP Photo/Steven Senne

Fox News anchors have blamed China for the virus, downplayed the risks of COVID-19, mocked those worried about the deaths of older Americans, and accused Democrats of trying to use the virus to take down President Trump.

In an open letter released Thursday, dozens of journalism professors and working journalists put Fox News on blast for spreading misinformation and effectively minimizing the severity of COVID-19.

More than 70 academics and reporters signed the letter addressed to Fox Corporation Chairman Rupert Murdoch, and his son, Fox Corporation CEO Lachlan Murdoch. The authors say the network has been “derelict in its duty to provide clear and accurate information about COVID-19,” and has instead been a “danger to public health.”

“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,” the letter reads. 

The signatories, led by Columbia Journalism School Professor Todd Gitlin and University of Maryland Journalism Professor Mark Feldstein, called on the Murdochs “to help protect the lives of all Americans” by ensuring the network airs information “based on scientific facts.”

Since the virus began spreading across the world in January, Fox News anchors, hosts, and guests have blamed China for the virus, downplayed the risks of COVID-19, mocked those who’ve worried about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of older Americans, and accused Democrats of trying to use the virus to take down President Trump. 

“The misinformation that reaches the Fox News audience is a danger to public health. Indeed, it is not an overstatement to say that your misreporting endangers your own viewers,” the signatories wrote, noting that the average age of Fox viewers is 65, the demographic most vulnerable to COVID-19. 

In Europe, 95% of COVID-19 deaths have been people older than 60, according to Dr. Hans Kluge, the regional director for the World Health Organization Europe. In the U.S., the novel coronavirus has sickened more than 225,000 Americans and killed over 5,300, 80% of whom are 65 or older, according to CDC analysis of initial data.

In calling out the network’s irresponsible coverage, the signatories specifically cited Sean Hannity’s labeling of the coronavirus as a “hoax” perpetuated by Democrats and the media, and Tucker Carlson’s praise of a “flimsy French study on the use of two drugs to treat COVID-19,” as examples of dangerous misinformation. President Trump later touted the drugs Carlson referenced as being possible “game changers,” despite little evidence to back that up. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, walked back Trump’s praise for the drugs and urged caution because the treatment remained unproven.

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Perhaps no segment has drawn more backlash than one from former Fox News host Trish Regan, who tried to deflect from Trump’s many failures by saying that Democrats were trying to create “mass hysteria” to cripple the economy and that the coronavirus was “yet another attempt to impeach the President.” She also accused the “liberal media” of “using coronavirus in an attempt to demonize and destroy the president.”

Regan was benched following her comments and later dismissed from Fox News altogether. But Hannity, Carlson, and others remain, and the “network’s delinquency” has been effective, the signatories said. They cited a March 15-17 YouGov/Economist poll showing that Americans who paid the most attention to Fox News were “much less likely” than others to express concern about the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, a new Pew Research Poll released this week found that 79% of Fox News viewers surveyed believed the media has exaggerated the risks of the pandemic. More than six in 10 Fox viewers believe the virus poses only a minor threat to the health of the country. The letter notes that Fox has continued to downplay the virus’s severity, even after it has spread across the country, claiming thousands of lives.

“As recently as Sunday, March 22, Fox News host Steve Hilton deplored accurate views of the pandemic, which he attributed to ‘our ruling class and their TV mouthpieces — whipping up fear over this virus,’” the letter states.

Fox News anchor Maria Bartoromo and Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas have also spun conspiracy theories, claiming without evidence that the virus originated in a Chinese research lab. Pew found that 39% of Fox News viewers believe that the virus was developed, be it intentionally or unintentionally, in a lab. The virus, of course, originated in nature

News organizations are responsible for telling the truth, the letter’s authors point out, and while reporters at the network have done “some solid reporting,” the network’s amplification of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and opinions and false claims from ideological pundits and politicians have led the network to “mislead a vulnerable public about risks and harms” of the coronavirus.

“Fox News has violated elementary canons of journalism. In so doing, it has contributed to the spread of a grave pandemic,” the letter reads. “Urgently, therefore, in the name of both good journalism and public health, we call upon you to help protect the lives of all Americans—including your elderly viewers—by ensuring that the information you deliver is based on scientific facts.”