With the US under a national emergency, Fox News hosts are admitting they didn't take the coronavirus seriously enough

  • Fox News hosts have for weeks claimed the coronavirus threat was exaggerated and part of a conspiracy to discredit Trump.

  • But on Monday there were signs that hosts were belatedly taking the threat seriously, after President Donald Trump declared the illness a national emergency.

  • "I didn't take the social distancing that seriously Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night. I went out to dinner here in the city," host Jesse Watters told viewers Monday. "And I woke up this morning I realized that was not the right move. I am no longer going out to dinner."

  • Last Friday Sean Hannity also described the pandemic as a "crisis" and praised Trump for measures to "stem the tide of the coronavirus."

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After weeks of echoing President Donald Trump's optimistic assurances that the impact of the coronavirus on the US would likely be minimal, Fox News hosts are now admitting that the pandemic might be a pretty big deal after all.

Trump's supporters at the right-leaning network had initially backed the president's previous attempts to downplay the public-health crisis, accusing the media and Democrats of exaggerating the disease's impact to damage Trump's presidency.

On Friday, the president declared the coronavirus a national emergency. And by Monday, the network's top hosts had shifted their tone as well.

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaks during a press briefing with the coronavirus task force in the White House on Monday.

Evan Vucci/AP

On Monday afternoon's edition of "The Five," host Jesse Watters said the gravity of the situation had finally hit home after the weekend.

"I went to visit my mom this weekend and she made me wear gloves to come inside her house. She is suspicious that I might have coronavirus," the Fox News host said. "I wore the gloves all afternoon in the house. That's what it is."

"I didn't take the social distancing that seriously Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night. I went out to dinner here in the city," he said.

"And I woke up this morning I realized that was not the right move. I am no longer going out to dinner."

As recently as Sunday, Watters had projected a more optimistic view of the coronavirus, telling his show "Watters' World": "Be vigilant, don't be scared, remain calm and clean — America is the greatest country on earth. We've beaten more dangerous things than this… and we'll do it again."

Weeks ago Watters was also accused of using the crisis to make xenophobic jokes about Chinese people, saying on air: "I'll tell you why it started in China ... Because they have these markets where they are eating raw bats and snakes" prompting laughter from his co-hosts.

On March 3, he also said he would use the power of "positive thinking" to beat the virus if he got infected.

"I'm not afraid of the coronavirus and no one else should be that afraid either," he added.

Fox News prime time host Sean Hannity.
Fox News prime time host Sean Hannity speaking on air on February 28, 2020.

Screenshot/Fox News

Sean Hannity, who reportedly serves as an informal adviser to the president, last week said on radio that the claims that the coronavirus is a "fraud," perpetrated by the deep state to suppress dissent and depress the US economy, "may be true."

But by last Friday, Hannity struck a very different tone, acknowledging the scale of the crisis faced by the US — and hailing the measures taken by Trump.

"Tonight, we are witnessing what will be a massive paradigm shift in the future of disease control and prevention," he said on his show, "Hannity."

"A bold, new precedent is being set, the world will once again benefit greatly from America's leadership ... The federal government, state governments, private businesses, top hospitals all coming together, under the president's leadership, to stem the tide of the coronavirus."

In another sign that the network may be waking up to the threat of the pandemic, Fox News confirmed Friday that host Trish Regan had been placed on a hiatus after she claimed on the March 10 edition of her show that the coronavirus is an attempt to "destroy the president."

She blamed stock-market collapses caused by the coronavirus crisis on Trump's rivals, calling it "another attempt to impeach the president."

A Fox News producer anonymously told The Washington Post that it was only the higher ratings of hosts like Hannity or Laura Ingraham — who also peddled the conspiracy that the virus is a Democratic plot — shielded them from being punished like Regan was.

Trump Hannity
Trump listens to Hannity speak at a rally in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, in November 2018.

Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

The network's chaotic coverage has seen misinformation and conspiracies being spread on prime slots by its hosts, while reporters try to relay accurate information to viewers, many of whom are older and so fall into the demographic most at risk from the disease.

According to multiple reports, it was partly due the intervention of host Tucker Carlson that Trump realized that the coronavirus was just like the winter flu, and started taking it more seriously.

Carlson had been one of the few hosts to take the threat of the virus seriously, and in an edition of his show last week criticized those who denied the seriousness of the pandemic.

"They may not know any better," Carlson said. "Maybe they're just not paying attention, or maybe they believe they're serving some higher cause by shading reality."

"And there's an election coming up. Best not to say anything that might help the other side. We get it. But they're wrong," he added, calling the coronavirus crisis a "major event," and stressing: "It's definitely not just the flu."

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