Fox News has been planning its election night coverage for weeks, prepping staff and on-air talent for the biggest news night of the year. But now Fox faces uncertainty after the network’s president and many of its key on-air stars may have been exposed to COVID-19.
“Everyone is in a panic about election night,” said one current Fox News staffer.
On Sunday, The New York Times reported that top Fox News executives and talent will quarantine and get tested after flying on a network-chartered flight from Nashville to New York—following Thursday night’s presidential debate—with a staffer who later tested positive for the coronavirus. Passengers included network president Jay Wallace and on-air political hosts and analysts like Bret Baier, Martha MacCallum, Dana Perino, and Juan Williams. (A Fox News spokesperson would not confirm the Times story or the exposure, citing employee confidentiality.)
All four of those stars were expected to play key in-studio roles for Fox’s election-night coverage. But now it’s unclear how the network plans to proceed with its top talent potentially unable to gather in the same room.
“I believe it will put election night-plans into chaos,” another current Fox staffer told The Daily Beast under condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. “It will be like starting from scratch… It’s not good for anyone.” The employee added: “It’s insane that there’s a possibility the anchors will have to host the biggest night of 2020 from their homes.”
In a Monday internal memo obtained by The Daily Beast, Wallace and CEO Suzanne Scott acknowledged that some staffers had tested positive for COVID-19, and said that the network would reduce staff in buildings and implement “enhanced testing procedures.” The executives said that the network will further pare down its in-person election night coverage, and that “only those employees who are critical to that night’s production will be permitted to work from [Fox’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters].”
The plane debacle isn’t the only reminder of the danger of the pandemic for the network’s employees in recent days. Last week, an internal memo was sent to Fox News staffers noting that web video producer Rob Brown, who had been with the network since 1999, had died. While the memo did not specify a cause of death, several sources, including a family member, confirmed to The Daily Beast that Brown—who had not been in the office since March—died from coronavirus complications.
“Rob was a wonderful employee and a bright light to those of us who were blessed to have worked alongside him,” a Fox News spokesperson said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family.”
The news of last week’s debate-night flight exposure has alarmed Fox News staff, many of whom have felt relatively safe because of the network’s fairly robust testing protocols and skeleton in-person staffing at the Washington and New York City offices.
Still, some employees were not surprised by the exposure of leadership and talent, noting how Fox execs have sent large groups of staffers to travel for the debates—even when the network had no primary role in the events.
“Last week in Nashville, [NBC reporter Kristen] Welker was the moderator. But NBC had almost no footprint. ABC had almost no footprint,” one source familiar with the situation told The Daily Beast. “But [Fox News] had a huge, huge footprint? Why is that?” (In addition to Wallace, MacCallum, Baier, Williams, and Perino, the network separately flew in pundits Karl Rove, Katie Pavlich, and Donna Brazile.)
Williams and Perino, who co-host midday talk show The Five, both showed up at the offices on Friday after the flight in which they were potentially exposed to the virus, raising alarms among staffers after the Times report, per network insiders. And several of the show’s unabashedly pro-Trump hosts, Greg Gutfeld and Jesse Watters, meanwhile, have taken an ambivalent stance towards large-scale anti-coronavirus measures like a national mask mandate, which experts say could save tens of thousands of lives.
“They think mask-wearers are punks,” the source said of Watters and Gutfeld, noting how the pair have repeatedly echoed Trump’s dismissive suggestions that we are “turning the corner” on the pandemic that has now killed more than 225,000 people in the United States, with no end in sight. A recent Instagram post from The Five’s official account shows Watters standing in the greenroom without a mask.
In light of their colleagues’ at-times cavalier attitude towards the coronavirus—both on- and off-air—some Fox staffers have begun to re-examine in-office behavior and expressed concerns that some colleagues aren’t taking the crisis seriously enough.
“In the elevators, everyone’s good about masks,” one source said. “But in the offices, nope.”
Since the pandemic began, the network has been operating with a skeleton crew from its hubs in New York City and Washington, D.C., and have taken some precautions to ensure that staff are tested. Some network talent take regular weekly saliva tests facilitated by the network, and the traveling cohort to major events including debates and conventions receive rapid tests. Fox News also installed plexiglass in the control rooms between seats and the building is routinely sanitized.
Still, some employees have been hesitant about returning back to in-studio programming amid the pandemic, including Williams himself. The Five returned to the studio in recent weeks and has featured the hosts sitting in socially-distant high chairs. Prior to the pandemic, the set featured all five hosts crammed together around a small table.
While on-air talent is subject to the network’s rigorous testing protocols, they appear to be sending a message to viewers that social-distancing isn’t that important. Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, for instance, were seated nearly shoulder-to-shoulder throughout Thursday evening’s coverage of the presidential debate. Baier, meanwhile, noted on Monday that he has since tested negative.
Thursday’s debate coverage wasn’t the only time that lack of social distancing was noticed on-air. Following the first presidential debate last month in Cleveland, Ohio, pro-Trump Fox News host Sean Hannity interviewed presidential son Donald Trump, Jr.—who refused to follow mask-wearing requirements during the debate—inside the debate hall as the two sat right next to each other. (They even joked about being so close together without masks.) Fox News commentator Donna Brazile, who also traveled to Nashville, was in Salt Lake City for the vice-presidential debate and was within arm’s length of anchor Bill Hemmer on set.
Besides the network sending big teams to cover these political events, Fox News stars have also individually placed themselves in harm’s way.
For instance, Laura Ingraham and Pete Hegseth—both Trump loyalists and informal presidential advisers—were present at the Rose Garden ceremony last month announcing Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination that turned into a super-spreader event. This even resulted in one especially awkward on-air moment, in which Fox News anchor Harris Faulkner mistakenly believed that Hegesth had confessed to testing positive for the coronavirus.
—With reporting from Lachlan Cartwright.