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WASHINGTON — When Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said this week on Fox News that Americans needed to wear face masks to protect themselves from the coronavirus, anchor Sandra Smith did not challenge him on the science. Or the policy. She did not accuse him of fearmongering, or working to undermine President Trump.

“For the most part, we do see a lot of people that are willing to engage in that good behavior,” Smith said instead during the notably vitriol-free Thursday afternoon interview. 

Former CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The interview followed an op-ed that the Obama-era public health expert published on the Fox News website. “The more we fight among ourselves, the more the virus divides and conquers us,” Frieden wrote, alluding to the political and cultural battles that have shadowed the medical one, against a deadly pathogen. “The more people wear masks when near others, the less opportunity the virus has to spread.”

Another headline on the Fox News website earlier this week posed a question laced with obvious skepticism: “Wasn’t summer supposed to kill the coronavirus?” Among those who had hoped as much was the president, who suggested in April that warmer weather might defeat the pathogen, which causes a potentially deadly disease called COVID-19. 

Summer has unfortunately done no such thing: More than 50,000 new infections were recorded across the country on July 1, meaning that neither the heat nor the humidity of recent weeks has managed to fend off a pandemic that has killed more than 130,000 Americans.

“COVID-19 is not the flu,” the accompanying article warned, dispelling another assertion made by Fox News hosts and contributors in the early stages of the pandemic.

It was a remarkable turn for a news organization whose most prominent personalities have been among Trump’s most trusted advisers. However haltingly and incompletely, the president’s favorite news outlet has started to acknowledge, across various programs and its news site, that the coronavirus is a far graver threat than even Trump himself will acknowledge.

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That has sometimes put Fox News at odds with the man many say it helped install in the White House. In the more than three years of the Trump presidency, the network has been routinely accused of standing blindly by him on issues ranging from foreign arms sales to Confederate statues.

The network’s coverage of the coronavirus had already been evolving, as the seriousness of the situation became apparent, but over the last several days something appears to have changed. The shift may have to do with the fact that the coronavirus has shown a ferocious resurgence in recent weeks, after a stretch during which it appeared to be in abeyance. 

The recent outbreaks have been confined primarily to the Sun Belt and the Midwest, where both Trump and Fox News tend to be popular (there is also, however, a coronavirus spike now taking place in California, a solidly Democratic state). A recent Harvard study found that “conservative media exposure correlates with higher levels of misinformation” about the coronavirus. 

Fox News personalities on display in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

That does not mean that primetime stars like Laura Ingraham or Tucker Carlson are going to open their shows in N95 respirator masks. But with even Republican leadership increasingly masked, and even Trump musing about how a mask might turn him into a Lone Ranger look-alike, the culture war over masks increasingly seems like one that is not worth fighting.

The changing messaging on masks from Fox News is just one sign that the most influential conservative outlet in the nation appears to be acutely aware of the dangers of politicizing a pandemic that is likely to remain a feature of American public life for months to come. 

“For some reason, over the last couple of weeks, a month, masks have become political,” said Steve Doocy, co-host of the president’s favored “Fox & Friends” morning program on Thursday. 

This came on the heels of close Trump adviser Sean Hannity making much the same point earlier in the week. “I went to my grocery store every week. Guess what? They wore masks. Nobody at my grocery store, thank God, got coronavirus. I think they work,” Hannity said on Monday’s program, of which Trump is said to be an avid viewer.

Fox News remains staunchly pro-Trump in its coronavirus coverage. Earlier this week, Ingraham accused Dr. Anthony Fauci of “undermining Trump’s agenda” with his dire warnings about the coronavirus, which has killed more than 130,000 Americans. She then said Fauci may as well be Joe Biden’s running mate on the Democratic presidential ticket.

Carlson recently blasted a mask decree by the mayor of Los Angeles, charging that it had been issued with “no scientific evidence whatsoever.”

Fox News personality Tucker Carlson. (Fox News)

But even as some hosts continue to rail against masks, Fox News has quietly told its own employees to follow the counsel of public health professionals and released a guidance in June mandating that newsroom employees “don a face covering in Fox News Media shared spaces, particularly when you’re not at a socially distanced workstation.”

In other ways, too, the network appears to be backing away from certain controversial coronavirus positions. 

On May 12, for example, an article on its website announced that Alex Berenson, an independent journalist and former New York Times reporter who has garnered significant attention for his skeptical views on the threat of the coronavirus, would be hosting an internet-based program called “COVID Contrarian,” in which he would presumably dispute conventional wisdom on the pandemic.

Berenson’s profile photograph on Twitter shows a face mask defiantly pulled down over his chin. 

Just how many episodes of “COVID Contrarian” were supposed to run remains unclear, though both the May 12 article and an on-air introduction from Carlson made it seem like the program would be a regular feature on a streaming platform called Fox Nation. The landing page for the program, however, has been scrubbed and shows only an error message: “Looks like you found a page with nothing on it.”

Fox News now says the intention was always for Berenson — who has continued to appear on Carlson’s show, though not as frequently as he did throughout the spring — to host a two-part broadcast on its streaming platform. Those episodes remain available online.

Berenson declined to speak to Yahoo News on the record.

“He was never paid by Fox News,” a network spokesperson told Yahoo News of Berenson.

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