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Fox News Executive Tries To Rein In Stars As They Cheer On Anti-Lockdown Rallies

People gather outside the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus on Monday to protest the state's stay-at-home order, which is in effect until May 1.
People gather outside the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus on Monday to protest the state's stay-at-home order, which is in effect until May 1.

Updated at 4:41 p.m. ET

Fox News personalities have been cheerleading protesters across the U.S. gathering in defiance of state lockdown orders. This week, the situation became so extreme that a top executive at the network tried to rein in his stars.

Fox News President Jay Wallace sent a directive Monday urging Fox anchors to take time on the air to remind protesters to practice social distancing, according to a senior executive at Fox. The executive said Wallace issued it at the behest of Fox CEO Suzanne Scott. Wallace and Scott declined to be interviewed for this story.

Public health officials say the coronavirus can spread easily when people are packed in tight quarters — including at these protests. Fox hosts have hailed the protesters for standing up for liberty and fundamental American rights, yet have rarely noted the risks involved in those very demonstrations. The hosts have, for the most part, been anchoring their shows from the safety of their own home studios.

Shortly after Wallace's guidance went out Monday, Fox host Harris Faulkner interrupted a guest who said the protesters were not opposing safety measures. Faulkner noted that the footage on the air at that very moment reflected demonstrators clustered closely together, sharing phones and cameras and failing to wear masks.

Few major media outlets have been so resolutely devoted to President Trump's fortunes as Fox News Channel. The crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic has proved a test of that loyalty. And with few exceptions, Fox has passed with flying colors — in the sense that its most prominent figures have bolstered the president, even when he has taken a lurching, and at times seemingly self-defeating, approach to the crisis.

Trump's actions stand in contrast to many governors who have acted decisively to close businesses and schools to slow the spread of the virus. They generally have gotten higher marks than the president in polls on the pandemic.

Trump has called on Americans to "liberate" their states from such governors in his drive to reopen U.S. businesses, despite warnings from public health advocates. And Fox News stars have responded on air.

"They want to keep us locked in our homes. They want to keep us from our churches and synagogues. They want to make sure we don't go back to work," said Fox host Jeanine Pirro, a Trump ally.

"They're protesting in Kentucky, Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia," said Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade. "And as more states go online and get their rights back, that is going to fuel, I believe, other states to go, 'Wait a second — this is getting ridiculous!' "

"Why are you arbitrarily shutting down my places of worship, my ability to access the Second Amendment and my right to assembly in some cases?" said weekend host Pete Hegseth, whom Trump had considered for a Cabinet post. "[It] feels un-American to a lot of people." His co-host, Jillian Mele, noted that Americans who know people who have died from the disease may feel differently.

The liberal watchdog group Media Matters found that Fox News had devoted more than six hours over the past week to the protests, despite the fact that they have drawn relatively small crowds.

Columbia University media scholar Nicole Hemmer, who wrote the book Messengers of the Right, said the rallies draw upon many sources of inspiration. Gun-rights and property-rights activists have gathered, in addition to people frustrated over the weeks of seclusion. There have also been displays of racially charged and anti-Semitic sentiment.

"What Fox does is it takes this very small phenomenon and not only amplifies it, but gives it a particular political meaning," Hemmer says. "It lets people know that there are upcoming rallies — much like we saw back in the day of the Tea Party — as a way of not just throwing light on what's happening, amplifying these protests, but also encouraging them as well."

She noted that Trump himself feeds off Fox by citing interviews and claims made on its programs. In defending their coverage, Fox News officials have pointed to earlier moments when hosts alluded to the importance of people's security and taking safety measures at public protests, observations often made in passing.

For weeks, Trump touted the possible anti-coronavirus benefits of hydroxychloroquine, a drug used to treat malaria and lupus. He was following the lead of Fox News hosts and guests such as Dr. Mehmet Oz, who championed the drug too.

But initial anecdotes of successes yielded to shortages for lupus patients and widespread doubts among public health officials about its usefulness, as Fox's Laura Ingraham learned to her chagrin in an interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

A new analysis of patients being treated by the Veterans Health Administration found "more deaths, no benefit," in the words of the Associated Press. According to CNN, Fox News buried that development on its website in a story that quickly disappeared. A Fox News spokeswoman noted that Oz returned Wednesday morning, to Fox & Friends, and addressed the new VA study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed.

Other researchers say that what Fox News does on the air has real-life consequences for its audience.

"The media can have significant effects on behavior," says Harvard University graduate student Aakaash Rao, who studies how messages in the media affect public health outcomes. "If [viewers] hear suggestions from the anchors, then they'll take their suggestions into account, whether those suggestions are about hand-washing or social distancing or, you know, attending public gatherings."

Rao is part of a team of researchers that makes that case in a pointed way. In a working paper posted online this week, the researchers concluded that viewers of Fox's Sean Hannity were more likely to have contracted COVID-19 and to have died from it than viewers of his colleague Tucker Carlson. Hannity, one of the president's strongest allies, consistently downplayed the risk of the coronavirus until late February, when he started to present it more seriously. Carlson put a spotlight on those perils far earlier.

The study relies on overlaying granular geographic television ratings data, county-by-county COVID-19 infection rates and a survey of more than 1,000 Americans 55 years old and above. (More than half of Fox News' viewers are over age 65.) The study, overseen by economics professors at the University of Chicago and the University of Zurich, has not yet been peer-reviewed.

"The selective cherry-picked clips of Sean Hannity's coverage used in this study are not only reckless and irresponsible, but down right factually wrong," Fox News said in a statement released through a spokeswoman. She pointed to specific instances earlier this year in which Hannity had expressed concern about the virus.

Indeed, even before Wallace's directive on Monday, Fox News hosts would obliquely allude to concerns for the safety of protesters. But Fox programs became much more consistent about it afterward.

Even so, prime-time hosts have continued to defend the protesters from criticism, including Carlson, who had sounded the alarm about the pandemic early.

"When politicians arrest people who disagree with them, what sort of moment is that?" Carlson asked Monday night.

And Fox was back in the fold.

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