DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Across the country, people are staging protests against shutdown orders. Now, these protests have been relatively small. But the protesters have been drawing inspiration from many places, and that includes Fox News. As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, this is fueling a fresh wave of criticism of the network, so much so that Fox News' president privately tried to rein in his stars on Monday.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: There are few major media outlets more devoted to the fortunes of President Trump than Fox News. As Trump has blasted governors setting down restrictive policies to combat the pandemic, so has FOX.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HANNITY")
JEANINE PIRRO: They want to keep us locked in our homes. They want to keep us away from churches and synagogues. They want to make sure we don't go back to work.
FOLKENFLIK: There's Fox host Jeanine Pirro, a Trump ally, adviser and fan, slamming governors - mostly Democrats, at that - and egging on the people protesting against them.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HANNITY")
PIRRO: They don't get it. The American spirit is too strong. And Americans are not going to take it.
FOLKENFLIK: Public health officials say the coronavirus can easily be spread by people packed together, like, say, at a protest. Fox hosts like Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and others have cheered the protests - usually from the safety of their own home studios - yet have done so without explicitly noting the risks involved. Take "Fox and Friends'" Brian Kilmeade announcing future spots with the precision of a train conductor.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX & FRIENDS")
BRIAN KILMEADE: Guess where else they're protesting? They're protesting in Kentucky, Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia. And as more and more states go online and get their rights back, that is going to fuel, I believe, other states to go, wait a second. This is getting ridiculous.
NICOLE HEMMER: So what Fox does is it takes this very small phenomenon and not only amplifies it, but gives it a particular political meaning.
FOLKENFLIK: Nicole Hemmer is a Columbia University scholar who studies conservative media. She says the protests are about a lot of things, including gun and property rights issues. But on Fox, they're a way to channel support for a president under siege.
HEMMER: It lets people know that there are upcoming rallies, much like we saw back in the day of the Tea Party - as a way of not just throwing light on what's happening, amplifying these protests, but also encouraging them as well.
FOLKENFLIK: The liberal watchdog group Media Matters found Fox spent six hours covering the protests over the past week despite drawing relatively small crowds. Other researchers say what Fox does on the air has consequences.
AAKAASH RAO: The media can have significant effects on behavior.
FOLKENFLIK: Harvard graduate student Aakaash Rao (ph) is a part of a team of academics studying how messages in the media affect public health outcomes. They're scrutinizing Fox News' primetime closely these days and how that might influence viewers.
RAO: You know, when people listen to these shows, if they hear suggestions from the anchors, then, you know, they'll take their suggestions into account whether those suggestions are about handwashing or social distancing or, you know, attending public gatherings.
FOLKENFLIK: Fox has gotten pushback publicly from critics. But it's also stirred some internal friction. On Monday, Fox News President Jay Wallace sent around a memo directing journalists to remind the public on the air that for those who do protest, social distancing is a must. That's according to someone with direct knowledge. Shortly after, Fox host Harris Faulkner interrupted Fox News contributor Mike Huckabee's soaring tribute to the protesters.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "OUTNUMBERED")
MIKE HUCKABEE: Well, I think the key is understanding that they're not protesting social distancing. They're not protesting wearing masks. They're not protesting taking good care and washing hands and doing those things. What they're protesting is over-the-top regulations...
HARRIS FAULKNER: Governor, forgive me. Can you see this video?
FOLKENFLIK: Demonstrators were shown on-screen at that very moment clustered together in bunches mostly without masks. Even so, later that night, Fox News primetime star Laura Ingraham sang the protesters' praises once more, landing right back where she and Fox had started.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF FEVERKIN AND VACANT'S "MARCH")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.