How Fox News helped turn masks into another culture war flashpoint

Ingraham masks

Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters

Novel coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are once again soaring in the United States, with new epicenters in Republican-led states like Arizona, Texas, and Florida. In response, numerous Republican leaders have finally started urging Americans to wear masks in public spaces to slow the spread of the virus. But those GOP officials are fighting against figures with at least as strong a hold on their supporters as they have -- Fox News stars like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham.

Carlson, Ingraham, and several of their colleagues have denounced masks and those who promote them, even as evidence has accumulated that masks are one of the most effective countermeasures against the coronavirus. The network’s viewers have been told that mask usage is not only ineffective, but part of a conspiracy by Democrats and the media to keep Americans living in fear and under their control.

The explanation for why masks work is simple: The coronavirus largely spreads through expelled respiratory droplets, making an infected person less likely to pass it along if they are blocking their nose and mouth with a covering. But it isn’t enough for only people who suspect they may have the virus to wear masks -- many infected people are asymptomatic or presymptomatic, meaning that they could spread the virus to other people without knowing they have it. And while professional-grade masks are the most effective, supplies of them remain limited and are needed for health care workers. That’s why, in early April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed its earlier flawed guidance and recommended that all Americans wear cloth face coverings in public spaces. Research suggests that adopting widespread mask usage in this fashion could prove critical for limiting the spread of the virus. 

But that evidence hasn’t convinced everyone, particularly on the right. President Donald Trump is notably reluctant to don a mask, refusing to set the same positive example for the country as his presumptive Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. The Plandemic conspiracy theory video, which racked up millions of views on social media earlier this year, falsely alleged that masks “activate” the virus. And Fox personalities like Carlson and Ingraham have treated the mask debate as little more than another opportunity to own the libs. 

Others at Fox have behaved more responsibly -- and in line with the network’s corporate position, which urges mask use in the public spaces of Fox’s headquarters. On Tuesday morning, Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy pressed for Trump to “be a good role model” and wear a mask. Prime-time host Sean Hannity frequently speaks out on the importance of wearing masks (albeit not to Trump’s face), saying on Monday night that he wears one himself when he goes out because “they work.” 

The split on masks is part of a broader Fox divide about the response to the coronavirus. While the network’s leading personalities have been united in urging a swift end to the business closures and stay-at-home orders governors implemented to slow the spread of the virus, there are two camps as to how to accomplish that aim. Some Fox figures, like Hannity, have called for the adoption of new procedures such as mask usage that they say would allow that reopening process to happen safely. Others, like Carlson and Ingraham, have fixated on trying to debunk all the measures that public health experts say would be effective.

Studies and polls suggest that Fox’s coverage has had a powerful impact on its viewers’ perception of the pandemic -- and the actions they take to keep themselves and others safe. Poll respondents who say they watch Fox frequently or occasionally are much less likely to say they wear masks than those who never watch it, according to a poll from Daily Kos/Civiqs released Wednesday. And because Trump watches the network religiously and takes advice from its programming, Fox has also shaped the federal response to the virus. 

A full-fledged effort by Fox to champion masks could have increased their usage and saved lives. Instead, too many of the network’s personalities decided to do what they always do: trying to divide Americans for political gain. And they appear to have succeeded.


Tucker Carlson

Carlson knows that masks are an effective tool in fighting the coronavirus. “Of course masks work,” he said in late March. “Everyone knows that. Dozens of research papers have proved it.”

But the Fox host has been loath to focus on that central point by urging his prime-time audience of 4 million people to wear face coverings so fewer of them might die. Instead, he’s been lashing out at Democrats, the media, and public health experts for doing so, castigating those culture war villains as tyrants or hypocrites. 

On May 5, for example, Carlson seized on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s comment at a press briefing that “you could literally kill someone because you didn't want to wear a mask.” Rather than amplifying the message that mask usage saves lives, Carlson focused on Cuomo not wearing a mask during the event. 

“Do they hear themselves when they talk like this? On some level they do. They know they are hypocritical frauds,” Carlson sneered. “And that's exactly why they lecture you so hysterically, it makes them feel better. They probably suspect you know it, too. It's just so obvious.”

Later in the program, “COVID contrarian” Alex Berenson, a regular Carlson guest, criticized officials for “spending time haranguing us about masks and destroying the economy with lockdowns.” 

Carlson replied, “It sounds like you're suggesting that some of the people espousing these measures -- which are really warping and destroying, in some cases, our society -- know that they're really not necessary.” 

“If they don't know, they are fools and haven't read the data,” Berenson responded.

The following week, Carlson focused his mask commentary on deceptively criticizing the comments of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s top infectious disease expert. Like others in the public health community, Fauci originally recommended against the public wearing masks in the early days of the pandemic, when surgical and N95 masks were in critically short supply and needed for medical workers, but he more recently praised Americans for wearing cloth face coverings.

On May 12, Carlson aired Fauci’s remark that he was happy to see Americans wearing cloth masks in public. “Yes, they're following Fauci's orders, and of course, he is pleased by that,” Carlson commented. “He didn't expect to have this much power at the age of 79.” 

“The funny thing is, though, it was just two months ago that Fauci was in the chorus of high officials lecturing the rest of us that actually wearing a mask was pointless -- maybe worse than pointless -- and people shouldn't do it,” Carlson added, before airing Fauci’s comment from months earlier urging the public not to use professional-grade masks urgently needed for doctors and nurses.

Carlson went on to say that Fauci “may be even more off-base than your average epidemiologist” and called him “the chief buffoon.” 

“Is this the guy into whom you want to vest all of your trust,” he asked his Fox audience. “Is this the guy you want to chart the future of the country?” 

Carlson returned to the topic the next night, mocking Fauci as “a stone-cold genius who you are not allowed to question” and claiming he “told us that masks do not work, in fact, they may harm you. Now, he is telling us they are completely essential.”

Notably, in attacking Fauci for purportedly changing his position on masks, Carlson never got around to explaining which one was correct -- whether his viewers should wear them or not. 

On May 15, Carlson lashed out at Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who had implemented a mask order the day before. 

“The citizens who remain stuck in Los Angeles are effectively hostages of the mayor,” he said. “Garcetti is demanding that anyone who goes outside for any reason as the heat rises in L.A. must wear a mask.”

Carlson went on to say, “It goes without saying there is no science to back up this order or any of Garcetti’s so-called health decisions. In fact, it’s possible that requiring masks outside will not prevent a single person from being infected in Los Angeles. But Garcetti doesn’t care. Anyone who disobeys this order will be punished.”

Later in the month, Carlson accused CNN host Chris Cuomo of hypocrisy because he “shamed Americans for daring to step outside without a mask” after reportedly not wearing one while infected with COVID-19. As with his criticisms of Fauci and Garcetti, there was no indication from Carlson whether wearing masks is actually a good idea. All that mattered for Carlson is that there were culture war enemies to attack.

But sometimes, Carlson’s show did touch on the actual underlying issue. On June 23, for example, he hosted Berenson again, who argued that “there’s not a lot of evidence that masks would help.”


Laura Ingraham

Ingraham has been all over the map on masks, largely staking out a position wherever the public health consensus isn’t.

Before public health officials recommended face coverings, Ingraham was a leading promoter of their use for fighting COVID-19. In late March, she used her Twitter feed and Fox program to tout their effectiveness, going so far as to air a YouTube instructional video so viewers could make their own masks at home.

But after the CDC came around to her initial position and recommended the public wear cloth masks, the Fox prime-time host reversed herself. A few days later on April 8, she and Fox contributor Raymond Arroyo mocked Democratic leaders for wearing them improperly. And later that month, after Vice President Mike Pence was criticized for not wearing a face covering during a visit to the Mayo Clinic, she began unleashing unhinged rants painting them as part of a conspiracy. 

“They'll say this whole mask thing is ‘settled science’ just like they do with climate change, of course it is not and they know it,” she said on April 29. “Our own experts have gone from masks aren't necessary to masks are essential and you have to wear them when you go jogging in just a few weeks time.” 

She went on to cite talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, who “said the virus itself as it weakens and states start reopening, the media that have been selling panic, panic, panic for weeks and weeks and weeks, they have fewer images to sell their hysteria to justify continued lockdowns.”

“But the masks,” she added, “well, they're kind of a constant reminder. You see the mask and you think you are not safe. You are not back to normal. Not even close.”

The next night, Ingraham distorted an epidemiologist’s comments to claim that cloth masks are also ineffective.

She explained that she had worn a mask herself in public spaces early in the pandemic. But after seeing people (presumably liberals) shaming others (presumably conservatives) for not wearing them, she subsequently “started to ask questions” about whether “these masks -- a lot of them are homemade -- really slow the spread of COVID.” 

Ingraham said she read an article in Live Science in which May Chu, a clinical professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health, suggested that cloth masks are ineffective because they “only stop about 2% of the airflow coming in.“ But the purpose of cloth masks is to stop droplets going out, not air coming in, and in that interview, Chu said that while cloth masks were less effective than professional-grade ones, she nonetheless recommends them as part of a comprehensive effort to slow the spread of the virus.

Later in the program, Ingraham added that “we did survive many bad flu seasons without everyone wearing masks on planes,” compounding her criticism of masks by minimizing the danger of the coronavirus.

In late May, as public officials began instituting orders requiring mask use in public and Biden’s appearances wearing a mask began putting more pressure on Trump to do the same, Ingraham unleashed another salvo at face coverings.

“If it's all for safety, then everyone should know this is not a temporary thing,” Ingraham warned on May 26, at the conclusion of an interview with a lawyer who argued that state orders requiring masks might be unconstitutional. “They will -- if they get real power -- pass a rulemaking at the Department of Transportation mandating that masks from here on out on public transportation, whether it's a plane or a bus -- forever, not just now, because, if that's the argument, then you've got to wear it all the time during flu season, forever masked.” 

“It's not just during COVID. It's forever,” she concluded.

During the same broadcast, she and Arroyo mocked Biden for wearing a mask at a Memorial Day ceremony. Arroyo said Biden had been “virtue-signaling” and looked “grim,” while Trump, who had not donned a mask at his own event that day, “seemed to be aligning himself, visually at least, with that American spirit of defiance in the face of adversity.”

Ingraham responded that “blue state governors” were pushing for masks as a “visual to keep people scared” because “they need a visual to keep this narrative going, since the curve has long since been flattened,” though she allowed that she wasn’t “saying it has no use.”

“Now we're reading stuff about how you can damage yourself by wearing a mask,” she concluded. “We're going to read an article a month from now about how unhygienic masks are now super-spreaders of the virus.”

The next night, Ingraham claimed that “some elected officials never liked the free market that much, they’d prefer to keep a lot of you deplorables locked down and afraid. They want you masked -- not just during this virus but until the end of time -- because remember, there will always be another potential virus lurking out there right around the corner.”

“Don’t you want to protect others?” she added. “What kind of monster are you if you don’t want to wear a mask forever?”

For such a staunch critic of mask-wearing, Ingraham offered an oddly timed semi-endorsement of them earlier this month.


Other Fox personalities to criticize masks on the network include:

  • Fox contributor Mike Huckabee, who on April 24 described a mask mandate in Houston, Texas, as “trampling the constitutional rights of American citizens.”
  • Fox senior legal analyst Andrew Napolitano, who used a May 21 Fox & Friends appearance to plug his op-ed at and spitball about whether “the masks that we’re all wearing don’t stop COVID-19” and that thus “we’d be happier if we took care of ourselves rather than the government taking care of us.”
  • Fox senior political analyst Brit Hume, who on May 26 defended Trump for not wearing a mask on the grounds that “Biden, like anybody else wearing a mask, looked ridiculous,” and the president “doesn't want to look that way.”
  • Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade, who slammed Trump’s critics on May 26, saying that “the president's got special things around him like Air Force One, like Secret Service, and he also gets tested every day."
  • Fox regular guest Pam Bondi, who on June 26 compared Biden’s call for a national mask requirement to “Cuba, where Castro makes all school-age children wear the Pioneers’ scarf.” She added, “What's going to be next? Banning guns?”