The Fox News Defense Machine
The Media Research Center plays a lot of whataboutism to shield Fox News for credible charges that it has pushed coronavirus misinformation -- while also touting Fox News' ratings.
By Terry Krepel
In a Feb. 27 post, NewsBusters blogger Randy Hall gushed over how "Primetime was a great time for Fox News in February, when the channel drew its highest ratings ever and attracted an average of 3.5 million viewers during the second month of 2020.... the 44th consecutive month the FNC has been the most-watched channel in all of basic cable and a 218-month streak as the most-watched cable news network."
Since then, the Media Research Center has steadfastly defended Fox News against charges that the channel has put out misinformation on the coronavirus in service of its pro-Trump agenda -- not by refuting the charges, mind you, since they're basically true, but by playing a lot of whataboutism. Typical of that approach was Kyle Drennen's March 13 post: "MSNBC was eager to exploit the coronavirus to bash cable competitor Fox News, accusing the rival network of spreading 'misinformation' about the disease and even endangering the lives of its viewers. The discussion took place on the same show that labeled the virus President Trump’s 'Chernobyl' on Thursday."
A March 17 post by Curtis Houck engaged in more juvenile name-calling:
Between Monday night and early Tuesday morning, CNN political commentator Joe Lockhart and MSNBC/NBC legal analyst Glenn Kirschner rhetorically molded and mounted on their heads matching tin-foil hats, insisting that the Fox News Channel and President Donald Trump should face “criminal” and “serious liability” for misinforming the public on the deadly nature of the coronavirus. In the latter’s case, he compared the President to murderers in Washington D.C. he threw in prison.
Houck added: "Someone alert Lockhart to what the likes of primetime host Tucker Carlson and straight-news reporters like Bret Baier, Shannon Bream, Bill Hemmer, Ed Henry, and Martha MacCallum. He probably views them all the same as the equivalent of news anchors on TASS, but you can’t fix ignorance." But Houck made no effort to reverse that alleged ignorance by citing any actual examples of their work.
Scott Whitlock complained on March 19:
Socialist MSNBC anchor Lawrence O’Donnell on Wednesday night kicked off his prime time show by snarling that competitor Fox News is “endangering your life” with Coronavirus “lies.” The Last Word host, who has himself politicized the virus, insisted that “Fox now takes the pandemic seriously.” But “the sudden switch to taking the pandemic seriously at Fox proves that Fox was lying about it deliberately for weeks and weeks when they were lying in the way they believed Donald Trump wanted them to lie.”
Whitlock didn't counter the claim, nor did he explain why he felt the need to label O'Donnell a "socialist" in a post that had nothing to do with the subject.
The next day, Whitlock served up more whataboutism at another MSNBC host:
Brian Williams is angry at “freaky” Fox News, deriding the network for thinking we’re all “stupid.” The MSNBC late night host, a man who lost his NBC job for lying, on Thursday night attacked Fox for not being honest in its past coverage of the Coronavirus. Talking to Michael Steele, Williams ranted, “The other attempt to tell us what we ourselves saw and heard or did not see and hear really has, at its core assumption, that we must be stupid.”
As before, Whitlock failed to explain what bringing up Williams' long-ago sins -- twice! -- had anything to do with anything now beyond gratuitous piling on. He did, however, attempt a weak defense by pointing out that Hannity said other things on that show that didn't downplay the virus. Which, of course, doesn't exactly refute the fact that he did.
But in a March 27 column, Tim Graham effectively admitted that Fox News pushed misinformation, which he reframed as not buying into alleged hype about the virus from the "liberal media":
The liberal pack is prosecuting Fox for supposedly shoving Americans off a coronavirus cliff with “misinformation.” Then they equate “misinformation” with the argument that the pandemic gave the liberal media a new rationale to cripple President Trump politically.
Of course, that worst-case scenario basically came true. Don't expect an apology for that.
A few days later, Graham complained that in an MSNBC appearance, Rep. Ted Lieu "launched a smear of Fox News Channel and its viewers as benighted deniers of coronavirus," committing the offense of noting that Fox News gave "false information, misleading information to many Americans." He spewed boilerplate in response: "This is odd, since Fox has run all the task force press conferences with all the dire scenarios. [Host Ari] Melber just accepted this line, because it's MSNBC." And Graham defends Fox News, because it's the MRC.
Meanwhile, time for a ratings break. Once again, Randy Hall gushed: "During the first quarter of 2020, the Fox News Channel continued its reign as the highest-rated network on cable television, beating shows from both MSNBC and CNN in total day viewers and the coveted advertising bracket of people from 25 to 54 years of age." The next day, he cheered how MSNBC's ratings were STAGNANT -- the all-caps are in the headline -- and a couple days after that cheered that "liberal station" CNN "has since fallen so far in the ratings that it was unable to generate even one program in the top 20 list during the first three months of 2020."
Back to defense mode
Alexander Hall portrayed Sean Hannity's meltdown over New York Times columnist Kara Swisher's calling out of Fox News for its coronavirus misinformation as an example of how he all-caps SCHOOLS Swisher with a tweetstorm of whataboutism. Hall complained that Swisher "seemed to imply that Fox News hosts were downplaying the virus for political reasons" -- something neither he nor, apparently, Hannity disproved. Nicholas Fondacaro pushed more whataboutism in another apparent attack on Swisher: "In an on-air response to an article attacking him and the network, Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson flipped the tables on The New York Times Thursday night when he called out the liberal paper for “screwing up coronavirus stories from day one.”
Drennen complained that "MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle kept up her network’s effort to actually blame competitor Fox News for the spread of coronavirus across the country. She and her guests repeatedly suggested that Fox was providing 'misinformation' that would 'put people’s lives in danger.'" Like the others, Drennen never disproves the allegation, but instead notes that Wallace had Swisher on as a guest and that "Hannity hammered her [on] Twitter."
Mark Finkelstein did a lot of huffing about an MSNBC segment in which Joy Reid and Gabriel Sherman advanced the idea that Fox News could be sued over its coronavirus misinformation:
There's the "novel coronavirus"and then there's the "novel legal theory" concerning it floated by Joy Reid, pursuant to which Fox News could somehow be legally liable for the death of its viewers from the virus. So much for all the alarm in the liberal media about legal punishments for news organizations in the Trump era.
Houck cranked out even more whataboutism to deflect, complaining that while CNN has engaged in "venomous, tiresome Fox News-bashing," the channel was "holding its March 5 upfront event (dubbed the CNN Experience) with hundreds in attendance, plus an overflow room. Instead of taking precautions and following competitors like Comcast (parent company of NBC News) and Fox News in canceling their upfronts, CNN parent company WarnerMedia went ahead with its flashy Hudson Yards confab."
Houck returned to go full insult mode in an April 20 piece:
In the repugnant, never-ending liberal media crusade to not only annihilate but mortally wound Fox News (thus putting thousands out of work), New York Times columnist Ginia Bellafante took the not only false but grotesque plunge in her April 18 column blaming FNC for the April 9 death of 74-year-old Brooklyn bar owner Joe Joyce from the coronavirus.
It's an unfortunate condition of the MRC that there's enough of a doubt about its commitment to basic human decency (when it comes to non-conservatives, that is) that he must express empathy that should otherwise go without saying. (And speaking of things that will go without saying, Houck won't tell you that "the great Comfortably Smug" is kind of a creep in real life and has a long history of sh*tposting.)
What Houck also won't tell you: While the Times did make a mistake in linking that particular Hannity quote to the death of the man who went on the cruise, the Washington Post's Erik Wemple pointed out that "Hannity, after all, couched coronavirus as a political ploy before and after Joyce left for his cruise."
Graham once again showed his anti-smart people elitism in an April 21 post, sneering that "so-called "social scientists" are also seeking to establish that Hannity has caused a wave of coronavirus deaths. A new paper from the University of Chicago's Becker Friedman Institute for Economics -- named for two free-market economists! -- reviewed "Misinformation During a Pandemic." Four academics -- Leonardo Bursztyn, Aakaash Rao, Christopher Roth, and David Yanagizawa-Drott -- compared Tucker Carlson (who apparently didn't lead people off a corona-cliff) with Hannity." The researchers argued that exposure to Hannity correlated with a greater number of deaths, compared with exposure to Carlson. Graham couldn't dispute this, of course; all he did was sneer, "It was Hannity who was really rolling out an 'expansive set of robustness tests.'"
Alex Christy complained that "CNN's Brian Stelter takes the opposite stance of whatever Fox News says," though he was actually citing research showing hydroxychloroquine -- the beloved would-be coronavirus treatment of Fox News and President Trump and, thus, the MRC -- didn't work as well as advertised and, in Christy's words, claiming that "President Trump and various Fox News personalities are endangering people by promoting it." Christy offered a rather lame defense: "It's not as Trump just pulled hydroxychloroquine of a hat. It's not as if trained health care professional are prescribing treatments based on what Trump, Fox, or CNN says. Some coronavirus patients felt the drug saved their lives."
Houck touted how "Hannity publicly demanded The New York Times implicating him in the death of 74-year-old Brooklyn resident Joe Joyce from the coronavirus," further gushing how "The letter went on to name other instances of The Times ’s entries in the liberal media-wide smear campaign to inflict (perhaps fatal) damage on FNC, the network the liberal media so vehemently hate." Houck didn't note that Hannity's lawsuit threat has no merit; instead, he groused that the Times responded by declining to apologize because it thinks the article is protected opinion under the First Amendment and Hannity's status as a public figure.
Jeffrey Lord served up his own take on the Hannity-Times battle, leaning on the well-worn crutch of whataboutism: "Whether it was the false allegation against Sean Hannity or the paper’s own coverage of both American history or the Trump-Russia collusion, the problem is the same. In the words of former editor [Tom] Kuntz, this is because the paper now 'embraces partisan and results-oriented agendas.' Bingo." And Hannity doesn't have a partisan agenda?
And, needless to say, Randy Hall once again chimed in by cheering that "in April with Americans clammoring [sic] for sensible, sober updates on the coronavirus pandemic, viewers gave FNC its highest-rated primetime audience in history and second highest total daily ratings since April 2003 (for the early days of the Iraq War)."
That, not facts, are what's really important at the MRC. It will never explicitly admit that Fox News did misinform -- that would require actual research, after all, and we know the MRC would never do anything in-depth on Fox News.