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I dislike Fox News. But as a scholar curious about our polarized political landscape I want to learn more about this infotainment network, which 60% of Republicans watch as their primary news source.[1] Especially during a pandemic it’s important to ask what information is conveyed, and how. Fox News’s COVID-19 coverage, and its aesthetics, demands our attention.

Fox’s vitriol is unpleasant (as is MSNBC’s, though quantifiably less so). Sean Hannity says “the Democrats, the media mob....Their rage, hate Trump psychosis....they are now using the natural fear of a virus as a political weapon....a shameful politicizing, weaponizing of, yes, the coronavirus....they are smearing the president.”[2] With lives and livelihoods at stake, this dismissal feels painful. I followed the virus’ progression from Wuhan’s first cases. Why didn’t I realize that, with so many government agencies recently dismantled or in disarray, protective measures weren’t unfolding? Fox News is often described as Trump’s state TV, his mouthpiece. Fox and Trump are mirrors.[3] Given Hannity’s “coronavirus-is-a-hoax” rhetoric, and many Fox News pundits claiming coronavirus was no worse than the flu, why didn’t I infer the contagion would spread, relatively unchecked?[4]

The New York Times noted that, as Trump’s responses shifted across four vantage-points, Fox’s coverage followed suit.[5] At one moment I was surprised to find myself giving Fox credit. Chris Wallace and Anthony Fauci met across a table. Wallace asked, “Why don’t we have tests?” and Fauci responded “I don’t know” (a punt?). But a sober discussion followed about risks, responses, and other nations’ experiences.[6] Next, Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson interviewed Fauci; they appeared unusually ruffled while Fauci maintained an equipoise that seemed to derive from his command of the science.[7] 

Figure 1a-c: Fox News hosts interview Dr. Fauci.
Figure 1a-c: Fox News hosts interview Dr. Fauci.

Fox News’s interviewer/guest split-screen often withdraws authority from the guest. The interviewer is placed slightly forward, elbowing out the guest; the editing places the strong beats with the interviewer, and the stream of scrolling imagery seems to sweep away the interviewee. This dynamic is less apparent with guest Dr. Fauci, perhaps because he’s atypically sometimes granted a full screen. 

Media Matters notes that Fox presents a constellation of coronavirus themes. It started in China, it’s their fault, and they need to pay.[8] China’s a major threat. The left is focused on identity politics (though Fox keeps dwelling on attributions of racism).[9] Trump’s doing a great job, he’s responded quickly, and he closed the borders.[10] We need to preserve our way of life. We can’t shut down the economy, and we need to think about letting some people die. Treatment and a cure are around the corner.[11]

Fox News highlights valuable information about the pandemic. Yes, China makes much of our products, and a break in the supply chain, especially for PPEs and pharmaceuticals, would be dangerous.[12] But what’s not said is dangerous. Experts note that border closings bought us a week or two (and couldn’t Trump have envisioned risks from COVID-19-positive European-originating travelers?).[13] Trump dismantled the NSC’s pandemic unit in 2018, and received many intelligence reports warning about COVID-19’s spread through January and February.[14] Other countries have saved more lives through better testing and tracking.[15] Many workers without paid sick leave will feel compelled to come to work, risking infection. A proactive government, less socioeconomic inequality, and a better healthcare system could have staved off this catastrophe.

Fox’s aesthetics shapes the information the network delivers. The lines are strong, chunky, and bold. The colors are deeply saturated, emphasizing blues and reds. The lurid red grates, especially with the “Chinese” coronavirus imagery. The forecasters appear beefed up, sometimes pudgy. They’re not finely drawn individuals. MSNBC hosts’ physiognomies differ, though both stations’ talent possess androgynous features. Fox newscasters show chips on their shoulders: “You want to fight with me, ma’am? I’m a fighting man!” But it’s schoolyard stuff. Carlson looks like he was just slugged in the face; Hannity looks like he’s had too many lollipops. Ingraham too has a touch of bullying horsiness. (Perhaps saying this is unfair, but I don’t think I’d want to be in her clique; she looks like a bully to me.) Perhaps Trish Regan’s tremulousness (weepy, also grade-school) lent variety.

Figure 2a-c: Fox’s boxy aesthetics complement Sean Hannity’s physiognomy. Note the shrine to Trump.
Figure 2a-c: Fox’s boxy aesthetics complement Sean Hannity’s physiognomy. Note the shrine to Trump.

Fox employs more flowery aesthetics, too. The river-of-gold light or ectoplasm streaming from Carlson’s left materializes the intimate link between the White House and him. The layered marquee accentuating text and images becomes his classical Greek shield. A rock & roll bumper against the flag salutes his entrance. Rippling waves and twinkles of light bathe him in oceanic plentitude. Rather than show real people suffering from the virus, Carlson reads their letters, so we don’t form interpersonal connections.[16] His sentences are harsh and clipped, interrupted between them with pauses. I’ve seen Fox, drawing on post-production techniques, tint B-roll opposing speakers’ faces green.[17] The show’s tone is an amalgam: alarmist, forceful, brutalist, and reassuring.

Figure 3: Fox News’ and Tucker Carlson’s aesthetics form an amalgam - alarmist, forceful, brutalist, and reassuring.
Figure 3: Fox News’ and Tucker Carlson’s aesthetics form an amalgam - alarmist, forceful, brutalist, and reassuring.

Aesthetic techniques matter. Compare the New York Times’s and Fox’s hospital tours: what is and isn’t shown, modes of address, cinematography and editing, soundtracks, and affect. Imagine expressions, voices or deportment delivered differently, or the soundtracks exchanged.[18]

Figure 4a-d: Contradictory depictions of the coronavirus in the hospital – Fox News and The New York Times.
Figure 4a-d: Contradictory depictions of the coronavirus in the hospital – Fox News and The New York Times.

As Fox pivots and exhorts us to get back to work, it fails to note that anyone can get COVID-19, and medical costs will fall on the infected. 20% experience extremely painful symptoms. The lungs’ white coating (from fluid and decayed cells) causes organs to fail. Victims feel like they’re burning up or breathing underwater. ICU patients must be restrained as they flail, struggling to breathe. They’ll die alone, without friends, family or proper funerals.

Figure 5a-b: Coronavirus-infected lungs; 21st U.S. death from COVID-19.
Figure 5a-b: Coronavirus-infected lungs; 21st U.S. death from COVID-19.

Is Fox News amoral? While Hannity was calling the virus a hoax, Murdoch canceled his own birthday party, and Fox’s head of staff was disinfecting its studio.[19] The Washington Post has posted video critiques, but it’s hard to grasp the network’s approach without watching long stretches.[20] Like many people I wish I could talk to the producers at Fox News, and to those who’ve come to depend on it. I hope more voices besides politicians, journalists, and the wealthy might contribute to the conversation. Let’s participate in the COVID-19 conversation and follow Fox carefully.[21]

Author Biography

Carol Vernallis teaches at Stanford, and her areas of research include contemporary audiovisual aesthetics, digital technologies, and popular culture. Her books include Experiencing Music Video: Aesthetics and Cultural Context (Columbia University Press, 2004) and Unruly Media: YouTube, Music Video, and the New Digital Cinema (Oxford University Press, 2013). She lead-editor of Transmedia Directors: Artistry, Industry and New Audiovisual Aesthetics (Bloomsbury, 2020) and The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics (Oxford University Press, 2013) as well as co-editor for The Oxford Handbook of Sound and Image in Digital Media (Oxford University Press, 2013). She is currently lead-editing Cybermedia: Scientists and Humanists Face the Machines (under contract with Bloomsbury), and completing Embracing the Media Swirl: Politics, Audiovisuality, and Aesthetics

Notes

    1. Mark Jurkowitz and Amy Mitchell, “About one-fifth of Democrats and Republicans get political news in a kind of media bubble,” Pew Research Center, Journalism and Media, March 4, 2020. https://www.journalism.org/2020/03/04/about-one-fifth-of-democrats-and-republicans-get-political-news-in-a-kind-of-media-bubble/return to text

    2. “Donald Trump Jr. slams critics of the Trump administration’s response to coronavirus” (transcript). Fox News. March 2, 2020. Accessed March 29 2020. https://www.foxnews.com/transcript/donald-trump-jr-slams-critics-of-the-trump-administrations-response-to-coronavirus

      Fox News, “Hannity: Media using coronavirus coverage as political weapon.” YouTube. 3.9.20

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-EQy2eawqS0return to text

    3. Jane Mayer, “The Making of the Fox News White House” The New Yorker, March 4, 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/03/11/the-making-of-the-fox-news-white-house

      Murdochs Failed To Rein In Fox News ‘Hoax’ Narrative Amid Coronavirus: NYT | All In | MSNBC, March 23, 2020.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBBfa_wVbasreturn to text

    4. JM Rieger, “Sean Hannity denied calling coronavirus a hoax nine days after he called coronavirus a hoax,” The Washington Post, March 9, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/03/19/sean-hannity-denied-calling-coronavirus-hoax-nine-days-after-he-called-coronavirus-hoax/return to text

    5. Murdochs Failed To Rein In Fox News ‘Hoax’ Narrative Amid Coronavirus: NYT | All In | MSNBC, March 23, 2020.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBBfa_wVbasreturn to text

    6. Dr. Anthony Fauci on efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus in US, Fox News, March 15, 2020. https://youtu.be/zYqAYe-Nkc4return to text

    7. Dr. Fauci: No doubt the US is still in the escalation phase of coronavirus, Fox News, March 18, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bOGO2S5FOTcreturn to text

    8. Hannity: Once we beat back coronavirus, China must be held accountable, Fox News, March 18, 2020.

      https://youtu.be/8A9lkLZd65oreturn to text

    9. Tucker: Coronavirus pandemic is a real fear, Fox News, Feb 24, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lydWQoqDNp8

      Tucker: Why would America's media take China's side amid coronavirus pandemic? Fox News, March 17, 2020.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5W9vjsFQUUUreturn to text

    10. Hannity: Left wants you to believe coronavirus is Trump's fault, Fox News, March 6, 2020

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wbqZyapMgzYreturn to text

    11. Ingraham: 'Contain the virus, protect our freedom,’ Fox News, March 12, 2020. https://www.foxnews.com/media/ingraham-contain-the-virus-protect-our-freedomreturn to text

    12. Guy Taylor, “'Wake-up call': Chinese control of U.S. pharmaceutical supplies sparks growing concern,” The Washington Times, March 17, 2020. https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2020/mar/17/china-threatens-restrict-critical-drug-exports-us/return to text

    13. Lily Hay Newman, “No, a Border Wall Won't Stop Coronavirus,” Wired, March 3, 2020

      https://www.wired.com/story/border-wall-wont-stop-coronavirus/

      Charles Kenny, “Pandemics Close Borders—And Keep Them Closed,” Politico, March 25, 2020.

      https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/03/25/trump-coronavirus-borders-history-plague-146788return to text

    14. Deb Riechmann, “Trump disbanded NSC pandemic unit that experts had praised.” AP News, March 14, 2020.

      https://apnews.com/ce014d94b64e98b7203b873e56f80e9a

      Beth Cameron, “I ran the White House pandemic office. Trump closed it.” The Washington Post, March 13, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/nsc-pandemic-office-trump-closed/2020/03/13/a70de09c-6491-11ea-acca-80c22bbee96f_story.html

      Shane Harris, Greg Miller, Josh Dawsey and Ellen Nakashima, “U.S. intelligence reports from January and February warned about a likely pandemic.” The Washington Post, March 20, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/us-intelligence-reports-from-january-and-february-warned-about-a-likely-pandemic/2020/03/20/299d8cda-6ad5-11ea-b5f1-a5a804158597_story.htmlreturn to text

    15. Coronavirus: US death rates v China, Italy and South Korea, BBC News, March 30, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-us-canada-52066105/coronavirus-us-death-rates-v-china-italy-and-south-koreareturn to text

    16. Nurses write to Tucker sharing experiences facing coronavirus pandemic, Fox News, March 27, 2020. https://youtu.be/8506miurvpQreturn to text

    17. “Clinton: Civility starts by electing Democrats.” CNN, October 9, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2018/10/09/hillary-clinton-republicans-amanpour-intv-vpx.cnn/video/playlists/hillary-clinton/

      “Andy Ngo on Tucker Carlson Tonight (9 Oct, 2018).” Fox News, October 9, 2018.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtxMPiv3OgY

      Eliza Relman, “Fox News host Tucker Carlson slams 'false' outrage over the alleged murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” Media Matters October 22, 2018

      https://www.businessinsider.com/tucker-carlson-calls-uproar-over-death-of-saudi-journalist-a-stunt-2018-10return to text

    18. ‘People Are Dying’: Battling Coronavirus Inside a N.Y.C. Hospital | NYT News, March 26, 2020.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bE68xVXf8Kwreturn to text

    19. Murdochs Failed To Rein In Fox News ‘Hoax’ Narrative Amid Coronavirus: NYT | All In | MSNBC, March 23, 2020.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBBfa_wVbasreturn to text

    20. Fox hosts shift to emphasizing economy amid coronavirus outbreak (Washington Post), March 25, 2020.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PI32zdQPw7oreturn to text

    21. The FC editors and I believe that not just journalists, corporations, politicians, and the rich should be shaping the discourse about COVID-19. Film Criticism, In Media Res, and Flow are all addressing the coronavirus pandemic. Flow has an open call for 500 and 1,000 words. Film Criticism will consider pieces on this topic. Please also check out In Media Res’s week devoted to the COVID-19, too.return to text