COVID-19 and the false hope of empirical deliverance
The coronavirus emerged from China’s Wuhan province in late December of 2019. A month later the United States would report its first positive case of COVID-19 on 20 January 2020. It took the disease only three months to turn American society upside down. With unprecedented speed, the stay-at-home directives would bring the US economy to a halt, destroying millions of jobs and shuttering thousands of small businesses. From 1 March to 31 March, COVID-19 cases jumped from fewer than a hundred to hundreds of thousands. By 28 April, the virus had claimed over 58,365 American lives, more than were killed in the Vietnam War (Welna 2020).
Yet through the pivotal month of February and well into March, the Trump administration and the president’s favourite channel, Fox News, downplayed the severity of the virus, repeatedly suggesting it was no more dangerous than the ‘standard flu’. On the 27 February 2020 episode of Hannity, Fox’s number one show, host Sean Hannity said sarcastically, ‘I can report the sky is . . . falling. . . . We’re all doomed . . . and it’s all President Trump’s fault. . . . Or at least that’s what the media mob would like you to think’ (Wemple 2020).
As someone who has studied Fox’s opinion shows for over a decade, I cannot say I was surprised by this response (though Tucker Carlson Tonight did, to its credit, take a different tack). From the beginning, the editorial agenda of Fox’s primetime shows has been devoted as much to how other outlets cover the news as to the news itself, something Ronald Jacob and Eleanor Townsley term ‘media metacommentary’ (2011). Fox’s opinion hosts have long depicted journalists as a ‘villainous’ social group (Conway et al. 2007), using rhetoric that dovetails with Trump’s repeated casting of the press as ‘the enemy of the American people’. And like Trump, Fox hosts endow journalistic interpretations with the capability of determining the nation’s destiny (Jamieson and Cappella 2008: 51), a media power so menacing that Fox hosts deemed countering the negative press Trump was receiving for his handling of the crisis more important than the physical threat of the outbreak itself.
It is unclear how this will finally affect Trump’s political future, but one can safely predict that the COVID-19 crisis will not end the science wars anytime soon. And yet American liberals continue to hold this hope that the empirical conditions of national crises, if severe enough, will pierce through the ‘epistemic closure’ of the right-wing media bubble. Rather than challenging the right by advancing an alternative populist narrative or by building a news channel that could surpass Fox in popular appeal and cultural relevance, liberals tend to prefer a more passive-aggressive approach to defeating the conservative opposition.
The liberal strategy seeks to fix the US media’s informational culture by reasserting the tenets and practices of professional journalism. This way political disputes can be, once more, decided by facts and third-party experts. In such an ideal media environment, liberal journalists would not need to directly take on the right-wing media ecosystem; it would die oft on its own accord as the public comes to view its reporting as erroneous and untrustworthy. By this logic, Fox News, and Sean Hannity in particular, would have to pay a steep reputational price for the misinformation they spread in the critical early stages of the COVID-19 crisis. But, if recent history is any judge, I doubt they will.
Just days before the financial collapse on September 15, 2008, Hannity criticised doomsayer economists and claimed that the fundamentals of the Bush economy were strong (Khanna 2008). Not only did he not face any repercussions for this epically bad take; in April 2009 Hannity and fellow Fox host Glenn Beck helped galvanise the Tea Party movement and successfully redirected public anger away from Wall Street greed towards taxation and ‘government tyranny’. The Tea Party’s electoral gains in the 2010 midterm elections effectively killed President Obama’s progressive economic agenda and skyrocketed Fox’s ratings and profits to record levels.
Like the Great Recession, the COVID-19 crisis has exposed the fragility of America’s public infrastructure and laid bare the nation’s race and class inequalities. While this contemporary crisis should be presenting yet another opportunity for the Democratic left to assert the need for New Deal—style policies and government programmes such as guaranteed health care, unemployment, and living wages. Yet, 1 do not see many liberals meeting NAACP leader Reverend Barber’s call for progressives to forge a ‘fusion coalition’ around ‘a deeper moral language to name the crisis’ (Barber 2017, January 30). Instead, as I write this in late April of 2020, we are witnessing a Tea Party—affiliated ‘liberty movement’ actively trying to drive the political narrative of the COVID-19 crisis (Vogel et al. 2020). These pro-Trump ‘liberty’ groups are protesting the stay-at-home measures public health officials have instituted to contain the virus, thus baiting leftists to devote their political focus to defending medical expertise as opposed to highlighting and addressing the plight of front-line ‘essential workers’.
This layout of rhetorical political positions plays into Fox News’s hands in several ways. It assists the network’s long-term hegemonic strategy of naturalising the link between political conservatism and working-class counter-knowledge. It also leads the liberal analysts to adopt a limited, informational understanding of Fox’s political communication strategies. By only focusing on how Fox deceives its audience with ‘bad science’ and misinformation, the analyst is distracted from seeing how the network actually derives its cultural authority.
To move the discussion on populism and conservative media forwards, communication and journalism scholars must be able not only to address questions of epistemology and bias but also to think beyond them. More consideration should be given to the persuasive power of moral framing and to the political-identitarian pull of aesthetic style. Otherwise, we risk getting trapped in an endless Ailesian loop wherein a media partisan like Hannity defends his coronavirus coverage by simply counter-charging that it is his academic critics, not him, who live in a world where ‘politics trumps truth’ (Bond 2020).