The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s announcement on Monday that it had granted full approval to Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 years and older could have provoked a reevaluation at Fox News of the network’s efforts to undermine the vaccination campaign. The announcement was a potential offramp for Fox personalities who have regularly suggested that coronavirus vaccines are unsafe and ineffective and that efforts to get the public vaccinated are overly coercive impingements on freedom, offering them a chance to pivot toward urging their viewers to take the potentially life-saving shots.
But Fox didn’t take that opportunity. Instead, the network gave the news significantly less coverage than its competitors, while its right-wing propagandists weaponized it to stoke conspiracy theories and paranoia.
The FDA’s much-anticipated announcement is a big deal. All of the coronavirus vaccines had previously been issued only under an emergency use authorization while the agency continued to study their safety and efficacy. While FDA officials, like other public health experts in government, had urged people to get the shots, the lack of full approval put organizations that wanted to require the vaccines in a legal dilemma until the FDA completed its laborious analysis. Full approval “is likely to set off a cascade of vaccine requirements by hospitals, colleges and universities, corporations and other organizations” and could convince some holdouts to get their shots voluntarily, which should trigger an uptick in vaccinations, as The New York Times reported after the FDA’s announcement.
But Fox didn’t treat the news as a game-changing development with the potential to save the lives of many Americans. Instead, Fox gave the FDA announcement significantly less coverage than CNN or MSNBC, as CNN’s Brian Stelter reported. Some Fox programs, like flagship “news”-side show Special Report, provided only brief coverage buried in the broadcast, while others ignored the news altogether.
And Fox’s treatment of the story took a dark turn when the evening “opinion” shows came on, as right-wing propagandists who have regularly sought to derail the vaccination campaign used the news to fearmonger against the effort.
“Today, the FDA approved Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine,” host Jesse Watters said at the beginning of a segment on the erroneously named Fox News Primetime. But for Watters this was bad news, “opening the door for, you guessed it, more mandates.” Warning that now, employees “are on the risk of being fired for refusing to get vaxxed,” Watters suggested that this might “hurt the economic recovery.” His guest, talk radio host Dana Loesch, argued that full authorization “doesn't change the fact that there are people who have questions,” and she lashed out at “vaccine bullies trying to smear people who have questions as being anti-vax.”
“You're not allowed to ask questions anymore, Dana, that's clear,” Watters concluded. “Questions are dangerous.”
Fox host Sean Hannity, like Watters, first addressed FDA approval in warning that “now they're going to mandate employers” to force people to take the vaccine even if “your doctor says don’t get it” (in fact, employer mandates often include medical exemptions). He also went on to decry “one-size-fits-all medicine.”
In a rare break from the Fox prime-time norm, later in the segment, Fox medical contributor Dr. Nicole Saphier said that “the FDA approval of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at this point is another step forward to encourage people to get vaccinated,” noting that the agency “poured through over 200,000 pages of data and over the 20,000 trial participants.”
“There's a lot of safety and efficacy data there and they have done their due diligence on that,” she added. But Saphier went on to criticize vaccine mandates, saying they “continue to ignite the personal accountability war.”
Fox host Laura Ingraham similarly treated the FDA announcement as bad news for her viewers. “The FDA approved the Pfizer COVID vaccine today, I know you're shocked,” she said at the top of a segment that started 51 minutes into her broadcast. “And of course, President Biden is using it as justification to take away your rights.”
Hosting one of her regular “Medicine Cabinet” guests, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, Ingraham asked, “Professor, did they not push this FDA approval too fast, especially when you compare it to the normal approval process?”
“They did,” Bhattacharya replied. “Normally it would take years to get a vaccine tested and approved through the FDA approval process.” He later added that “the FDA approval does not change the fact that we don't have long-term safety data with the vaccine.”
The next morning’s Fox & Friends opened with a clip of Ingraham saying, “the Biden administration is using the FDA' vaccine approval to punish more Americans.” Over the rest of the three-hour broadcast, “vaccine” was mentioned only 10 times, according to a closed caption search. And the only full segment focused on the FDA approval was framed around the allegation that the Biden administration had gotten it to distract from the Afghanistan withdrawal.
After spending years convincing their viewers that other news outlets can’t be trusted, Fox’s hosts have a unique moral responsibility to try to get them vaccinated. But they’ve shirked that responsibility at every turn throughout the pandemic, and the FDA’s authorization hasn’t changed anything for them.