Fox News and the COVID Catastrophe

Even in a pandemic, the network continues to "undercut science experts," says researcher Tony Cardinale

In March, I wrote about how Trump and his pals at Fox News had actually made Americans more stupider as the COVID-19 virus spread across America. 

At the start of April, I interviewed researcher Tony Cardinale, who runs the firm American Insight & Strategy, to understand more about the relationship between Fox News viewers and the kind of gullible voters who would blindly follow the advice of Trump and Fox’s Sean Hannity over, say, Dr. Anthony Fauci and CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Back in April, Cardinale explained to me: “There’s an emotional segment that we’ve been studying closely that has a ‘follower’ profile that Fox News specializes in. Our working title for it is ‘Obedients.’”

Less than three months later, 128,000 Americans are dead and the coronavirus pandemic is exploding in states run by ‘Obedient’ Trump-loving Governors, such as Florida, Texas, Arizona and Georgia.

On June 25, The Washington Post reported on three new studies that “paint a picture of a media ecosystem that amplifies misinformation, entertains conspiracy theories and discourages audiences from taking concrete steps to protect themselves and others.”

So I decided to check back in with Cardinale to discuss what these new studies reveal, the status of his own research, and what we can expect in the months ahead.

Here’s what he told me now:

Can you briefly summarize what these new studies tell us?

To put it most simply, the studies, when taken together, imply that Fox News has likely caused extra Americans to die from COVID-19, compared to a world without Fox News. They show Fox News viewers have an attitude of greater skepticism about science and expert advice, which is consistent with what we’ve found in our own work on Fox News’ audience over time. And that has translated into audience behaviors that have been a drag on our ability to flatten the COVID curve.

Is it possible that their views on science are independent of Fox News, not caused by it?

As we’ve shown before, the Fox News audience is the least educated audience of any major news outlet, on air or online, unless you consider TMZ a major news outlet. And they know and care less about science than viewers of peer networks. But Fox News feeds those with that orientation a steady diet of editorial that undercuts science experts, just as Donald Trump does. Think of Fox’s audience like neighborhood cats—they don’t hang out on your doorstep unless you consistently put food out for them.

We’re now seeing a real difference between Governors who make data-driven decisions and those who either agree with Trump or simply want to please him. What does that mean for the country as a whole?

Well, the public health answer to that question is that it has caused COVID cases in Florida, Texas and elsewhere to spike in June when that was totally avoidable. But the political answer is that it may convert a percent or two of Trump’s supporters in red or swing states into non-voters or Biden voters.

Why wouldn’t they stick with him, as they have through other criticism over the past three years?

Fox News viewers are outliers when it comes to a key perception - unlike most other Americans, they think Donald Trump is very smart. But their ability to assess that, as it relates to the economy, foreign trade deals, or other policy, is very limited. Those topics are obscure and mysterious to them. In the case of COVID, they can see with their own eyes if their neighbor or their uncle is in the hospital or dead. For months, President Trump has communicated different versions of, “don’t worry, we’ll make it go away.” This is an opportunity to see and comprehend executive failure clearly, in a way that’s very hard to spin.

But they could have seen that, already, if they were inclined, by looking at the states that got hit hard early, like New York and Michigan.

If they cared. As a marketer, the first thing one learns about consumer behavior is that to change behavior, or an opinion, you have to make the consumer care about the cause. One thing that separates Fox News viewers from CNN or MSNBC viewers is that they’re less likely to care about people across the country. It’s a cliché that liberals care about people they don’t know and conservatives care about people they know, but the data says that trend is generally true. We see it in a lot of forms in survey responses —less empathy for “conceptual” children—not your own child—or the poor, or prisoners or refugees, et cetera. If you have low general social empathy, the virus may have to enter your personal circle for you to look critically at why that happened and whether it was preventable.

Most Americans are now blaming Trump for the mishandling of the pandemic. How do you think that will affect his messaging—and what Fox News viewers hear—between now and election day?

I think he’ll do what he’s doing now—he’ll repetitively say he did a great job and he’ll blame local governments for bad local outcomes. But his leadership as it relates to coronavirus has been so bad many moderates are able to see through that. The question is: how long will their memory be? Part of the answer to that is going to be driven by the COVID trend between now and November. The sad fact is that it took over 100,000 deaths to cause some voters to see Donald Trump with clear eyes.

Tony Cardinale is the President and Chief Insights Officer at American Insight & Strategy, and the former corporate head of Strategic Insights at NBCUniversal. Follow him on Twitter at @TonyatAIS or at americaninsightandstrategy.com


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