Throughout the early weeks and months of the Coronavirus pandemic, Fox News hosts repeatedly downplayed the significance of the outbreak. In line with commentary from President Donald Trump’s administration’s own officials, they suggested that concern about the virus was just some kind of plot to make Trump look bad. Now, over 57,000 Americans are dead from the virus, and outlets like The New York Times have pointed out the not exactly helpful role that Fox News played in dealing with the seriousness of the outbreak in its early stages. Fox’s Sean Hannity demanded an apology and retraction for the Times for that coverage, but the paper sent a terse reply rebuffing his complaints on all counts.
The paper’s legal counsel David E. McCraw wrote as follows to Hannity attorney Charles Harder:
‘The columns are accurate, do not reasonably imply what you and Mr. Hannity allege they do, and constitute protected opinion. In response to your request for an apology and retraction, our answer is ‘no.”
New York Times newsroom lawyer David McCraw delivers this response to @seanhannity request for retraction and apology related to @nytimes coverage: "No." Addressed to Hannity lawyer Charles Harder: pic.twitter.com/0v7URfo1kz
— ErikWemple (@ErikWemple) April 28, 2020
On Monday, Harder had sent the paper a lengthy letter outlining complaints about a number of Times articles zeroing in on Hannity’s coverage. For example, on April 18, the paper published a piece from Ginia Bellafante about a Brooklyn bar owner named Joe Joyce who had gone on a cruise in early March and eventually died from the Coronavirus. Joyce, personal accounts reveal, did not believe warnings about the Coronavirus’s severity, which had already even plagued the cruise industry in particular by the time of his cruise departure.
The Times article about Joyce’s death points out Hannity’s own dismissals of the virus on-air, but the host’s legal counsel insists that he should be in the clear because the specifically quoted excerpt from Hannity’s remarks came after Joyce had already left on his cruise. The problem is — the example still represents the tone of coverage at Fox, and pointing out that even after Joyce’s cruise, Hannity was still complaining about the Coronavirus as supposedly some kind of intended bludgeon against the president’s public image doesn’t exactly help his case.
Hannity’s lawyer wrote to the Times:
‘You have acted with actual malice in publishing the foregoing statements. As detailed herein, it was readily apparent at the time of publication that Mr. Hannity had devoted substantial, truthful coverage to the coronavirus, and his remarks attributed by you were made eight days after Mr. Joyce had already embarked on his cruise… in order to mislead your readers and support your false narrative, you withheld the date of Mr. Hannity’s comments from your story.’
The date of Hannity’s comments does not change the fact that Fox News spent a considerable deal of time downplaying the effects of the Coronavirus. His insistence upon downplaying the disease even after Joyce’s cruise means there must be a whole lot of dismissals that came before that, too.
Fox’s dismissive perspective has been consistently supported by the president’s own remarks. In the early days of the pandemic, he dismissed coverage of the disease as a plot to make him look bad, thereby wasting valuable time that could have been used to prepare.