Far-right anti-vaccine extremists succeeded in shutting down a major coronavirus vaccination site in Los Angeles for nearly an hour on Saturday. These individuals, who strategically concealed their support for former President Donald Trump even as they bore signs highlighting their belief in QAnon-adjacent conspiracy theories, represent the leading edge of a broader right-wing opposition to vaccination. Only 45% of Republicans are willing to receive a vaccine for a virus that has already killed at least 440,000 Americans, compared to 83% of Democrats, according to a recent Gallup poll.
Fox News has a moral responsibility to change those numbers. The coronavirus vaccines are safe and incredibly effective, and their broad and rapid distribution will save lives and allow the country to resume normal activity. But mainstream news outlets can’t successfully reach skeptical Republicans with those facts thanks to the all-too-effective campaign by Trump and Fox to delegitimize them. It’s Fox that has influence over that group -- and the network should use it to convince its audience to take the vaccine.
Fox should treat vaccination with the same urgency it typically devotes to Democratic pseudoscandals or nascent right-wing protest movements. Its hosts should get the shots in their arms -- live on their shows -- as soon as they meet the local criteria for receiving them. The network should air public service announcements featuring Fox stars urging their fans to get vaccinated. And its reporting should regularly reflect that the drugs work and that it is in the interest of viewers to take them. Fox is a propaganda outlet that relentlessly brainwashes its viewers. This is a way the network can use that power for good.
Fox’s executives know that vaccination is important -- network founder and head Rupert Murdoch reportedly received it -- and could compel any recalcitrant hosts to behave responsibly for the sake of their viewers. But so far, that hasn’t been reflected in the network’s coverage, which has veered between demands that Trump receive more praise for purportedly ensuring vaccine development and warnings about their supposed downsides.
Tucker Carlson regularly dabbles in anti-anti-anti-vaccine commentary, snarling at the “too slick” pro-vaccination campaign as an effort in “social control” by would-be dictators practicing “eugenics.” Laura Ingraham has claimed that vaccination might not be necessary in some places and hosted a guest who warned her audience the drugs were “downright dangerous” and will send you “to your doom.” And Sean Hannity recently opined that he is “beginning to have doubts” about whether he will personally get the vaccine because half of his friends “wouldn’t take it in a million years” and he doesn’t “know who to listen to.”
This rhetoric is poisonous for Fox viewers who count on people like Carlson, Ingraham, and Hannity to be -- as the network’s current “opinion”-side branding goes -- “the voices America trusts.” But it might be good -- in the short term, at least -- for the network’s ratings. Fox’s executives and hosts are desperate to win back viewers who have switched to fringe-right rivals or stopped watching cable news since the election. They’ve sought to rebuild the network’s appeal by defending white supremacists, QAnon adherents, Proud Boys, and other far-right groups, and so it’s not surprising they would also make a play for the right-wing anti-vaccine audience.
But competing like this with outlets like One America News -- which has portrayed the coronavirus and its vaccine as part of a “population control” conspiracy by global elites -- or Infowars -- which has waged a campaign of misinformation and conspiracy theories about the vaccines -- comes with a terrible cost. In the absence of more credible information, Fox’s viewers are easy prey for far-right social media conspiracy theorists. Some will likely die because they refused to get the vaccine when they could.
OAN last May vs. Laura Ingraham last night. pic.twitter.com/iV0UH74GJK
— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) February 3, 2021
Fox has consistently failed its viewers throughout the pandemic. The network’s on-air talent claimed the nascent virus was no worse than the flu as it spread across the country, and they depicted concerned Democrats and the press as implementing a “hoax” to hurt Trump. They went on to champion anti-malaria drugs later found to be ineffective in fighting the virus as a miracle cure, turn mask wearing into a culture war flashpoint, promote protests against social distancing measures, and lift up political hacks as experts to the point where one ended up running the White House pandemic response. The results were devastating.
Vaccination poses the last opportunity of the pandemic for Fox to demonstrate that it cares about keeping its viewers alive. All its hosts need to do is show a fraction of the excitement they gave to hydroxychloroquine.