Fox News’ apparent split personality—a more polite term here than “hypocrisy”—doesn’t simply describe the disconnect between its straight-news anchors, who regularly call Joe Biden “the president-elect,” and the prime-time and other opinion hosts touting Donald Trump’s baseless claims of a stolen election.
The case of Fox & Friends First co-anchor Todd Piro, who recently tested positive for COVID-19, highlights a potentially dangerous contradiction between the network’s stated safety policies and the allegedly cavalier way that management is carrying them out, according to staffers of the top-rated, right-leaning cable outlet.
Current Fox News employees, who asked not to be further identified out of fear of retaliation, told The Daily Beast that they received no official alert or explanation after Piro stopped showing up for work at the network’s Midtown Manhattan studios as of Nov. 9, while his co-anchor, Jillian Mele, has continued to host the early morning broadcast in close quarters with members of the production staff.
“They’re definitely getting lax about COVID,” said a staffer, noting that Piro’s diagnosis was serious enough that he wasn’t able to attend the birth of a daughter over this past weekend, lest he infect his new baby, McKenna; his second wife, local Connecticut television anchor Amanda Raus; and members of the medical team. “They haven’t been mentioning names because of health data [privacy]. This place lets the anchors run the show, and their airtime is more important than our safety."
The staffer added: “They’re doing the minimum with regard to COVID to not get sued. Everyone is talking about him [Piro] being positive. Some are wondering why his co-anchor is still allowed in the building. Most are worried that the company is too lax with its COVID response.”
Mele apparently tested negative a few days after Piro’s diagnosis, this staffer said, “but nobody seems to care about the incubation period. The company is also going with less than 15 minutes of cumulative exposure being OK. Staffers are more afraid of not enough being done to avoid being exposed, especially being that it’s very easy for these people to just do their shows from home.”
Even without naming names, and thus preserving the privacy of Piro and Mele, the company never officially alerted employees about their possible exposure to infected and potentially infected coworkers, they said.
“To me the more concerning part of this is Mele still being allowed in the building,” a staffer said. “She sits next to him [Piro] for at least an hour. Then she goes to Fox & Friends after that. So her potential to expose people is very high.”
Mele and Piro—whose surname is pronounced with a hard “i,” unlike Fox News personality “Judge Jeanine” Pirro—didn’t respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Fox News Media, however, said in a statement to The Daily Beast: “Since the start of the pandemic, Fox News Media has implemented strict company-wide protocols adhering to all CDC and state guidelines, including regular testing of all in studio on-air personalities as well as mask mandates and daily health assessments for all employees entering the building.”
The spokesperson added: “Following the positive diagnosis of Todd Piro, the network immediately began contact tracing and all those within contact were notified. Notably, neither of his on-air colleagues [including news reader Carley Shimkus] were ever within six feet of Piro for 15 minutes leading up to his diagnosis, both of whom have since reported multiple negative tests following. The health and safety of employees continues to be our top priority.”
The Fox News employee, however, told The Daily Beast that the company didn’t officially notify staffers of Piro’s diagnosis, and that it only came to be known after the anchor took it upon himself personally to inform a member of the crew. This was in stark contrast, said the employee, to Fox News’ more rigorous practices in the early months of the pandemic, when the company regularly alerted staffers to new COVID-19 cases, disclosing on which floors the infected employees worked.
The executive management team of Fox News—including Fox Corp. Executive Chairman and CEO Lachlan Murdoch, Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott, and its president Jay Wallace—have made all the right noises concerning the company’s efforts to take safety precautions against exposing employees to the potentially lethal virus.
“We have endured the personal and professional changes caused by the pandemic,” Rupert Murdoch’s eldest son wrote in a recent company-wide memo, “and my thoughts are with the many of you whose lives and families have been personally impacted by COVID-19.”
Instead of the original return-to-office plan of January 2021, Murdoch announced that most employees will continue to work remotely at least through March 2021. “We made this decision with the well-being of the entire Fox organization in mind,” he wrote.
Scott and Wallace, meanwhile, have sent several memos claiming, as a recent one said, that “we have been operating under the strictest health and safety protocols throughout the pandemic with the majority of our workforce operating remotely.”
However, unlike the safety procedures at other television organizations such as NBC News—which has medical personnel on site to take employees’ temperatures and administer COVID-19 tests, as required, before they can be allowed to work at 30 Rockefeller Center—Fox News has contracted with an outside provider, WorkCare, to remotely administer COVID-19 screenings in which staffers, using their cellphones on the honor system, “self-assess” their health in a questionnaire and report their self-taken temperatures before coming into the workplace.
On the air, Fox News’ prime-time stars have frequently flirted with COVID-19 denialism. Back in April, New York Times columnist Kara Swisher slammed Sean Hannity for giving false comfort to her 86-year-old mother, a loyal Fox News viewer, that concerns about the pandemic were essentially a hoax.
“Among the different personalities at Fox, he’s the most importantly egregious,” Swisher told The Daily Beast at the time. “And my mom watches it, and I heard from her what he was saying hours later or soon after. So I was using him [in the column] as an entry point and saying, ‘Look, Sean, I’m not gonna sue you, but Jesus Christ, what the fuck are you doing?’… He’s a super-spreader of bad information.”
Over the past few weeks, and especially with public-health experts recommending people not travel and gather for Thanksgiving as coronavirus cases and deaths spike, a number of Fox News hosts and commentators have decried such guidelines as an unwarranted restriction on basic American freedoms.
Prime-time star Laura Ingraham, who for months has been one of the network’s more brazen coronavirus skeptics, grumbled last week that social-distancing restrictions and mandates were just an effort by liberals to “shame you” for spending Thanksgiving with your family, adding that Democratic governors are implementing the guidelines because they “relish the prospect of controlling our most intimate choices.”
Tucker Carlson, meanwhile, explicitly said this month that lockdowns and masks don’t work to stem the spread of the virus, pointing to the recent surge in cases as proof. “If masks and lockdowns prevented spikes in coronavirus infections, we wouldn’t be seeing spikes,” he insisted, ignoring all scientific evidence to the contrary.
And Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade loudly argued with his co-hosts on Monday that essentially all COVID-19 guidelines were nonsense, even as Steve Doocy and Ainsley Earhardt tried to explain that local leaders were placing capacity and curfew restrictions on bars and restaurants to stop hospitals from being overwhelmed.
“Well, they don’t trust us!” Kilmeade fumed. “Because they’re making these restrictions and taking personal decisions away. That’s what they’re saying. They know more, which I find unbelievably disrespectful.”
As for Todd Piro, after weeks of silence, he finally went public about his COVID-19 infection late Monday in an apparent attempt to get ahead of the story.
—Diana Falzone was an on-camera reporter for Fox News from 2012 to 2018. In May 2017, she filed a gender discrimination and disability lawsuit against the network and settled, and left the company in March 2018.