Surgeon General Jerome Adams implored the American public to wear cloth masks to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 on Monday, saying that “this whole administration is now supportive of masks” because they are “one of the most effective ways to open our country.” But wearing them “relies on the individual people of America doing the right thing,” he told the hosts of Fox & Friends. “That’s why I’m pleading with your viewers, I’m begging you, please understand that we are not trying to take away your freedoms when we say ‘wear a face covering.’”
Fox News was the correct venue for Adams’ appeal. Mounting evidence shows that mask use is a vitally important tool to curtail the spread of the pandemic that has caused more than 140,000 U.S. recorded deaths. But major Fox figures helped politicize face coverings, turning their usage into a culture war issue, and continue to blatantly misrepresent scientific findings to dispute their effectiveness.
Public health experts recommend widespread use of cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the coronavirus. By physically blocking the mouth and nose of a person with COVID-19, these masks limit dispersion of the exhaled respiratory droplets that carry the virus and make it less likely they will infect others. Surgical masks and N95 masks are generally more effective, but they are typically reserved for health care workers because they remain in limited supply, and researchers say cloth masks still reduce transmission.
It’s crucial to get the mask use rate as high as possible, as the virus can be spread by presymptomatic or asymptomatic people who do not know they have COVID-19. But Fox prime-time stars Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham have repeatedly told their audiences that masks are not effective, potentially reducing the likelihood that their viewers will take that step. The pair have disparaged a host of public health recommendations, arguing that the measures are ineffective and that the virus poses little threat.
Carlson criticized “forcing everyone to wear a mask when there is no evidence that helps” on his show last Monday, citing this as an example of “what happens when science intersects with politics.” The purported unscientific nature of mask recommendations has been a frequent refrain on Carlson’s program, which is the highest-rated in the history of cable news.
Ingraham, his prime-time colleague, has been an even more devoted critic of the public health consensus around masks. While Ingraham is quick to say that she is “not telling anyone not to wear a mask,” she suggested that cloth face coverings are ineffective on three consecutive nights last week. And she’s distorting the scientific evidence to do it.
On Wednesday, Ingraham cited a 2015 study of flu and flu-like virus transmission among health care workers in Vietnam. “Well, the results may surprise you,” she said. “The rates of all infection outcomes were highest in the cloth mask arm, penetration of cloth masks by particles was almost 97 percent, and medical masks, 44 percent.”
Ingraham added that the study “had this stunning conclusion: ‘The results caution against the use of cloth masks. This is an important finding to inform occupational health and safety. … Moisture retention, reuse of cloth masks and poor filtration may result in increased risk of infection.’”
During the segment, Fox emphasized the purported malfeasance of the public health community by airing on-screen text reading, “What They’re Not Telling You” and “‘Experts’ Ignoring The Science On Wearing Masks.”
Ingraham’s treatment of the Vietnam study is deceptive. While the study does conclude that “the results caution against the use of cloth masks,” that is within the context of health care workers, for whom the alternative is the standard practice of wearing disposable surgical masks. But Ingraham applies this conclusion to the public, for whom the alternative is wearing no face covering at all, thus falsely suggesting that the researchers found that cloth masks are ineffective for the public’s use. In fact, the study’s lead co-author is a vocal proponent of wearing cloth masks to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Moreover, the study in question assesses whether health care workers wearing masks are infected by viruses. But public health officials are recommending widespread mask usage to prevent infected people from transmitting the virus to others, a different mechanism altogether.
Ingraham returned to the topic on Thursday to push back against government officials who have sought to require mask use. “We've already showed you how the science behind the mask mandates is shaky — and that is putting it charitably,” she said, “but what about the legality of these orders?”
And on Friday, Ingraham and her guest, Dr. Ramin Osquoi, suggested that cloth masks are dangerous because they make the wearer more likely to be infected by viruses, deceptively citing the same Vietnam study as evidence.
Ingraham is currently the network’s biggest promoter of coronavirus misinformation by far, according to a Media Matters analysis of a recent five-day stretch of Fox programming. But the network is running promotions hyping her show as a reliable source for the data behind the virus.
Both Ingraham and Carlson boast huge audiences. And that viewership is particularly potent because it often includes President Donald Trump. The president watches their programs and has sought their advice on his response to the coronavirus. The more he hears that masks are ineffective, the less likely it is that he will promote them to his supporters.
Fox’s brass understand that masks are important. Its executives have reminded staffers to wear face coverings in the common areas of its headquarters. The network has even run public services announcements in which Sean Hannity, one of the network’s pro-mask hosts, encourages their use “to defend grandma, grandpa, mom and dad.”
Indeed, Carlson and Ingraham know it, too. Both originally promoted the effectiveness of masks to fight the coronavirus, but started opposing them after public health officials and politicians started recommending their use.
Their ongoing misinformation campaign is helping to politicize mask wearing and risking the health of their viewers.