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His colleagues at Fox News called coronavirus a ‘hoax’ and ‘scam.’ Why Tucker Carlson saw it differently

Tucker Carlson on set in 2018.
Tucker Carlson is seen in the studio on the set of his Fox News program on Oct. 1, 2018 in New York.
(Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

Like other journalism organizations, Fox News has gone into overdrive to cover the coronavirus crisis in recent weeks, hiring medical experts and expanding its live broadcast hours to give viewers up-to-date information. The network has also moved aggressively to protect the health of its employees — as of Monday, four have tested positive for COVID-19 — allowing most of its anchors to broadcast from their homes.

It’s a sharp turn from the attitude of its prominent conservative opinion hosts on the network such as Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, who earlier in the month were saying the COVID-19 outbreak was being overplayed by the media and used as a political weapon by Democrats against President Trump. Fox Business Network anchor Trish Regan, who described the pandemic as an “impeachment scam” on March 9, has been put on hiatus.

But their colleague Tucker Carlson took a different path after a government official warned him that the pandemic was potentially dangerous and devastating. He warned his viewers of the dangers of the virus while steering clear of criticizing the Trump administration.

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When it didn’t appear that the White House was listening, Carlson went to the president in person to deliver the message. While conservative and provocative — his problematic remarks on immigration have alienated many major advertisers from his nightly program — Carlson has become the least predictable cable news talking head. He spoke to The Times on Friday from his Florida home where he has been broadcasting in recent weeks.

You’re getting a lot of attention because you’re really the first opinion host of Fox News to say, “Hey, this is not a hoax, it’s time to take this seriously.” Were you concerned about some of the things you were hearing on your own network such as that this was not that serious?

I’m not much of a TV watcher, so I wasn’t responding to that so much as I was responding to the internal voice I had that said, “This was probably something to worry about.” We’ve been following it since January, and my view was then — and I said it on the air at the time — a lot of the stories that were getting saturation coverage at that moment that were not really relevant to anything and that they were distracting us from a lot of things happening in the country and in the rest of world, and this was one of them.

The first week of February — that was Trump’s impeachment trial and my view was we knew what the outcome was going to be. So it’s irresponsible to spend all your time covering something that you can explain in two minutes and yet the other channels were absolutely wall to wall on this. Meanwhile, there was this epidemic rising in eastern China. And the Chinese, who are pretty good at controlling their own population, couldn’t get it under control. And that seemed very ominous to me. … I was just enraged that no one was covering it.

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Were you concerned that your own network was downplaying it and using the word “hoax” to describe it?

It’s not my job to get involved in that. My feeling is that the cost of lying in news coverage for three and a half years and making every story about Donald Trump and how he is a bad person, which everyone in the news media has done, has made 40% of the country deaf to what you’re saying.

No one believes the media because every story rotates around the axis of Trump. And it’s just ludicrous. I’m not saying Donald Trump is blameless. I’ve criticized him many times on my show. ... I wasn’t pivoting against my own network. I was pivoting against the entire news establishment which was ignoring this because Donald Trump was on trial in the Senate.

But isn’t skepticism toward the president understandable because he does not always have a precise grasp of the facts?

My position for the last three and a half years has been our problems are basically bipartisan problems. I went after a Republican Senate committee chairman last night [Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, who sold stock holdings after being briefed on the severity of the coronavirus]. I think what he did is wrong — a very common attitude among people in charge which is, “I don’t care about you; I care about me.” I don’t think that’s a partisan thing. I don’t think it’s a Republican versus Democrat problem at all. You watch MSNBC or CNN. The Democrats are saintly and anyone on Trump’s team is evil. … They are liars because they are telling viewers that it’s that simple. It’s not that simple. It’s not one party is on your side and the other is against you; it’s the people with power don’t care about you. That’s my view and it always has been.

But a lot of people on your network were saying that the coronavirus is not that big a deal and was being used to get Trump. That was happening.

You’re the one who covers TV. You can handle that because you have a better sense of it than I do. I just felt I understood what our viewers thought on the 8 o’clock show. And their view was, “If [the mainstream media] is telling me Trump must lose because of some virus from China, they are probably overstating it because they hate Trump.” And I don’t think that it is an irrational thing to conclude. I felt I knew what they were thinking. My opinion was, “I understand why you feel that way. I’m not calling you names. I’m not judging you. I get it. I think, in this specific case, you’re wrong.”

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And people on your own network were wrong.

Anybody who imagined that this was just media hype turned out to be wrong. … Feb. 3 is the day that it was confirmed to me by a U.S. government official that this was a huge problem and that a lot of people could die. That’s when I learned it. And that’s the night we went on the air and said, “Wow this is something you really need to worry about.” Was there anybody else in politics on either side who was standing up in public and saying, “Drop what you’re doing and worry about this? I just don’t remember that there was.”

You mentioned earlier how you suggested Sen. Richard Burr should resign. Why didn’t you cite him by name on your program Thursday night?

I didn’t say his name for a couple of reasons. One, it was not a segment, it was a tease of [Friday’s] show. Two, there was a nagging feeling at the back of my mind. I was mad about it but I didn’t want to be unfair. I didn’t have time to metabolize it. He had not issued a statement yet.

You also didn’t mention President Trump by name when you opened your show in March and raised questions over the way the administration was dealing with the coronavirus. You seem to avoid any criticism of him directly. But clearly you were not happy with his performance on the issue.

Was it unclear?

It wasn’t unclear. But you always know what you’re doing and I want to know why you didn’t mention his name when you’re critical of the administration?

My job is to communicate what I think is true and what I think is happening. … My job is to do that in the most effective way. It may not be in the way you would choose. But it’s the way that I think is most effective, and that’s just the bottom line. It’s the way I think people can hear it. As I write my scripts every day, I think, “How can I write my show in a way so that people can clearly understand what I’m saying?”

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It was reported that when you attended a party in Mar-a-Lago earlier this month, you met with President Trump to tell him he needed to take the coronavirus more seriously. Does it fundamentally concern or trouble you that you had to take it upon yourself to do that?

I will tell you this, I knew I shouldn’t be doing it. I wasn’t going as a Fox News employee. I would have been highly embarrassed if anyone I worked for found out because it’s not my role. It wound up in the New York Times. I tried to hide it. I told my executive producer and my wife and that’s it.

But why were you driven to do that?

I had become convinced that this was a big deal. I thought, “I’ve got to do everything I can to make sure everyone who can have an effect on the outcome knows this.” … At the last minute I didn’t want to do it. I thought it could be embarrassing to Fox, and they haven’t OK’d it. I’m under contract, and I can’t do stuff like that, and I don’t. I thought I’d get in trouble with Fox. I tell my wife this and she says, “What? No. Of course you have to do this. It’s your duty.” She’s a very fervent Episcopalian and she’s all about duty. So she kind of bullied me into it.

How did Fox News executives feel about your visit with the president?

Not one person has mentioned it to me. I hope they’re not mad. … Maybe I’m getting fired. I don’t know. [Laughs]

Does the misinformation that comes out of the president’s daily briefings on the coronavirus concern you?

It depends on what specifically you are talking about.

Saying a malaria drug had been approved by the FDA [for coronavirus treatment] when it wasn’t. Saying everyone can get a test for COVID-19 when they can’t get a test, which you know from personal experience [Fox News attempted and failed to get a test for Carlson after he attended the Mar-a-Lago party, where a number of attendees had been exposed to the virus. He said he has no symptoms and feels fine].

There is great deal of misinformation out there. The World Health Organization told us at the beginning that the disease could not be spread from person to person. One of the perils of focusing everything on Trump is that you miss the fact that Trump is a symptom, not the cause, and the whole system is rotten and everyone in charge is an idiot. That’s my view. More specifically, the one thing I remain upset about in the administration’s response is the testing. I think that’s held us back. I don’t know if you had universal testing that you’d save many lives. But you would alleviate some level of anxiety.

You’ve referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus.” Is it wise in a heated situation like this to attach an ethnicity to the disease?

Chinese is a nationality. [China] is a nation state that is responsible for the spread of this virus. I think it’s essential to call it that because it’s true. You shouldn’t lie at a time like this. The media’s attempt to make the rest of us lie at gunpoint, denouncing us as bigots for not lying, is really shocking to me.

This virus spread because the Chinese government lied about it. … We know for a fact that China prevented international health inspectors from coming into their country. We know they lied about the transmission of the disease. We know that they silenced doctors in China during the early stages. They are part of the reason the rest of the world wasn’t prepared for this. I don’t know why it’s racist to say that. It’s not.


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