Fox News’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been, start to finish, a complete and total disaster.
Every step of the way, the conservative media behemoth has missed the mark: Fox News is one of the reasons masks became political. Fox News is one of the main reasons people thought hydroxychloroquine was some kind of miraculous COVID-19 treatment. Fox News is one of the reasons people believed the lie that COVID-19 was “just the flu.”
And now, just as the world can start to see a bit of daylight at the end of this long and dark tunnel, Fox News is politicizing the COVID-19 vaccination push.
Vaccines can bring an end to this pandemic if enough of the public gets inoculated, but this requires buy-in from the general public, and Fox News’ prime-time coverage has been undercutting those efforts in a nakedly and dangerously partisan play. In fact, while some Fox News hosts and anchors appeared in a public service announcement released last month urging its audience to get vaccinated, its prime-time hosts have led viewers in the opposite direction.
Fox prime time has been baselessly fearmongering about the Biden administration’s vaccine rollout.
On his show Monday night, Fox News host Tucker Carlson argued that “our leaders and public health experts are clearly guided, some of them anyway, by politics” and accused them of hiding important information from the public about questions related to the various vaccines’ efficacy, necessity, and safety. Answers to these questions are just a simple Google search away, but the questions were clearly more of a tool for Carlson to sow doubt among his viewers than they were actual inquiries.
Carlson has spent recent weeks ratcheting up vaccine-related outrage and confusion. On March 9, Carlson hosted “COVID contrarian” Alex Berenson to discuss guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending that people who have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus continue to wear masks and adhere to some precautions. Berenson used this opportunity to claim that vaccine effectiveness has been overstated, and he even added a conspiratorial element to it by saying that he believed “the CDC is very afraid that there will be cases of people getting vaccinated and sick or dying, as has happened in Israel. We know that’s happened in Israel.”
Berenson’s implication is either that the vaccine was somehow responsible for deaths in Israel or that world governments were covering up a surge in hospitalizations and deaths among vaccinated individuals. The former claim was found to be unsupported when fact-checked by Reuters in February, and the latter is simply a bizarre and baseless conspiracy theory.
Immediately after President Joe Biden finished addressing that nation on March 11, Berenson again joined Carlson to play up conspiracy theories about the possibility of the federal government making vaccination “effectively mandatory,” which Carlson said would not “shock” him. The following night, Carlson picked up where he and Berenson left off by railing against a mandatory vaccination plan that neither Biden nor public health officials have endorsed.
“If you don't take the shot that Joe Biden wants you to take, if you persist in making your own personal decisions about your own personal health care, then Joe Biden is going to have to shut the country down again,” Carlson said, tilting at windmills. “No socially distanced barbecues for you, buddy. You're going to have to eat your hot dogs alone, inside.”
On December 17, Carlson criticized pro-vaccination campaigns as something that should be viewed “nervously,” and slammed Twitter for “censoring any claim that this vaccine might be used to quote, ‘control populations.’” On February 9, he baselessly claimed that health experts were “clearly lying” about how safe and effective these vaccines are.
Additionally, Carlson has been trying to raise the specter of mandatory vaccinations since at least May 20 of last year, when he asked former Jeffrey Epstein lawyer Alan Dershowitz whether “the government still has a right to endanger you by forcing you to take” a vaccine. On August 19, he baselessly accused Democrats of pushing “propaganda” to promote “a mandatory vaccine.” On August 24, Carlson falsely claimed that the commonwealth of Virginia was making the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory. On his December 9 show, Carlson stated that “the people who run the country … are planning to force you to take the coronavirus vaccine,” a claim based on a stalled bill in the New York state Senate with virtually zero chance of becoming law.
Similar to Carlson, The Ingraham Angle host Laura Ingraham has used her prime-time platform at Fox News to question whether vaccines are safe or even necessary to end the pandemic.
During the December 2 episode of her show, Ingraham hosted retired microbiologist Dr. Sucharit Bhakdi, who claimed that the vaccines were “downright dangerous” and would lead to “doom.” On December 14, Ingraham repeated the long-debunked claim that COVID-19 is “less lethal than the flu,” and her guest baselessly suggested that North Dakota and South Dakota may not even need vaccines because the states had achieved natural herd immunity, which was simply not true. That same evening, Ingraham aired a video of deceptively edited and out-of-context clips from public health experts and people in media discussing the pandemic. In late February, Ingraham and her guest, Dr. Harvey Risch, floated a conspiracy theory that the creation of these vaccines is all part of a plot to financially benefit public health experts. This is, of course, an utterly irresponsible thing to say on air without evidence to back it up. The March 8 episode of The Ingraham Angle included a monologue in which the Fox host argued that viewers should “just ignore” public health officials. Days later, she would refer to Biden’s prime-time address as “vaccine propaganda.”
The most glaringly partisan vaccine misinformation from Fox’s three-headed prime-time Cerberus came from host Sean Hannity, who last month dismissed the need for the Biden administration to fund “vaccine information” because people can just ask “Dr. Google” and they’ll get all the answers they need.
While Donald Trump was in office, Hannity was his biggest booster, defending virtually every decision the president’ made in addressing the pandemic. When Trump banned some travel from China, an action that 38 other countries had taken at the same time or before the U.S., Hannity called it “the single most consequential decision in history.” When Trump was trying to downplay the threat posed by the virus, Hannity went to extraordinary lengths to do the same. Hannity also promoted hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment, repeatedly compared the death toll to gun violence in Chicago or the number of annual flu deaths, and offered Trump praise for “the number of Americans that did not contract” the virus.
At one point last March, Hannity even said people were simply faking concern about the virus as a way to “bludgeon Trump with this new hoax,” and days before the election he argued that “coronavirus hysteria” was an attempt to “demoralize voters, especially the supporters of the president.” All the while, Hannity would feature people like fellow Fox News host Mark Levin to sing Trump’s praises for progress on the creation of vaccines and to baselessly claim that Democrats “don’t want a vaccine before the election.”
Then Joe Biden took office. On January 26, Hannity, who had championed virtually every project that Trump slapped his name on, including vaccine development, announced on air that he was “actually beginning to have doubts” about the vaccine.
To successfully exit the pandemic, we need a significant portion of the population to get vaccinated. Unfortunately, the most watched and most influential voices on Fox News are loudly bleating anti-vaccination talking points.
Herd immunity is a term used to describe the indirect protection an individual gets because others around them are immune -- as the World Health Organization explains, “Vaccinated people are protected from getting the disease in question and passing on the pathogen, breaking any chains of transmission” that could spread it to those who are vulnerable. Herd immunity is what protects people who either haven’t been vaccinated or whose bodies haven’t developed immunity from their vaccinations, and it’s the reason diseases like polio or measles have either vanished or are significantly rarer than they used to be.
The trouble with reaching herd immunity is that it takes a fair bit of guesswork to figure out what portion of the population needs to be vaccinated in order to achieve it, as it varies among diseases. According to the WHO, the herd immunity threshold for polio is roughly 80% and the threshold is about 95% for measles. For COVID-19, estimates range from 70-90%. This makes this next statistic a bit worrisome.
A recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll of 1,227 people found that 30% of American adults say they will not get vaccinated against COVID-19. Among Democrats, just 11% say they won’t get vaccinated; among Republicans, that number jumps to 41%.
Now, there’s no telling how many people will actually refuse a vaccine, but if 30% of Americans actually decline, it could make herd immunity a lot harder to achieve -- or at the very least, it could extend the time it takes before we’ve hit that mark.
Republicans and Republican-leaning independents trust Fox News more than any other news network, making the game its increasingly influential prime-time lineup is playing on vaccines that much more concerning. If Fox continues to misinform its audience and scaremonger about vaccines, the country as a whole could suffer severely.