Sean Hannity’s vaccine coverage got much worse after journalists foolishly praised him

No one had to hand it to Hannity over vaccines

Sean Hannity: "I have never told anyone to get a vaccine. I have been very clear"

“The science shows the vaccine will not necessarily protect you” from the novel coronavirus,  Fox News host Sean Hannity declared on Wednesday night, adding that “it's not protecting many people.” That’s a dishonest and irresponsible way to talk about drugs that lower your chance of infection and vastly reduce your chances of developing a serious bout of a virus that has killed more than 600,000 Americans to date. 

Baselessly undermining the vaccination effort has proved to be par for the course for Hannity and his network. But these latest remarks stand out for their timing -- nearly one month to the day after the host drew a series of unearned plaudits from journalists for supposedly endorsing the COVID-19 vaccines during his July 19 show. Their praise for Hannity, already embarrassingly ignorant at the time, has aged incredibly poorly.

In fact, new Media Matters data reveal that over the weeks beginning with that broadcast, Hannity dramatically increased his show’s coverage of the vaccines, and almost all of it included statements undercutting the vaccination campaign. There’s no reason to believe Hannity’s viewers were coming away from his show more encouraged about getting vaccinated. 

The snippet of video from Hannity’s show that went viral on Twitter during his July 19 broadcast was relatively banal. The clip showed a roughly 30-second monologue in which the host urged viewers to “take COVID seriously” and said that he “believe[s] in the science of vaccination” but stopped short of directly telling his viewers they should get vaccinated. 

Those comments came in the middle of a segment in which Hannity denounced colleges and universities that are requiring their students to get vaccinated, on a program sandwiched between shows that have promoted even more hostile coverage of the vaccines. But most journalists don’t watch Fox, and when they viewed Hannity’s remark in isolation on Twitter, some thought they were seeing the network change its tone in a way that could keep more of its viewers alive.

The next morning, the clip was the lead item in Politico Playbook, an influential newsletter that often drives discussion in the D.C. political world, which declared it the “monologue of the night.” NPR was among the outlets using Hannity’s remark to frame a story about a “change in tone” at Fox. For the likes of The Associated Press, The Atlantic, and The New York Times, the comment was a key example of conservatives coming around on the need to promote vaccinations. MSNBC and CNN spent roughly 50 minutes discussing Hannity’s comments over the following four days, running numerous segments touting them as a dramatic shift in Fox’s handling of the vaccines, according to a Media Matters review of the networks’ coverage.

CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota, Hannity's former colleague at Fox, was particularly impressed with the snippet, repeatedly returning to it on her show the following day.

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Citation From the July 20, 2021, edition of CNN Newsroom.

“Kudos to Sean. People listen to -- the people who watch his show trust his judgment. And kudos to him for saying that the vaccine, you know, will keep you from being killed,” she said at one point. “I think that that was his version of a public service.” CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash replied, “I totally agree.”

Later in the segment, Camerota said that the clip showed that “something has changed” at Fox, adding that “however he got there is to be applauded.”

“Just glad he did,” replied her co-anchor, Victor Blackwell. “Yes, let's just be glad for that message last night,” Camerota responded. “That will help people.”

They were all getting spun up over nothing, as I noted at the time and as became abundantly clear over the following month. Hannity scrambled in the face of a right-wing backlash to the notion that he had been urging his viewers to get shots that might save their lives, explicitly telling his Fox audience, “I have never told anyone to get a vaccine,” while praising those who refused to get vaccinated on his radio show later that week. 

In reality, Hannity’s July 19 broadcast marked the beginning of a drastic increase in anti-vaccine coverage on his Fox program, according to a Media Matters review. 

Hannity had aired only three segments about vaccines over the previous three weeks, all of which included claims undermining the vaccination program. But in the three weeks beginning that day, vaccine coverage on the program increased to 30 segments, 27 of which included such claims. 

Over those latter three weeks, Hannity personally made at least 23 separate claims undermining the vaccination effort; his guests added another 28 of those statements. Hannity and his guests combined for 23 remarks that the vaccines might be unnecessary or dangerous, and 35 suggesting that the vaccine effort was coercive. 

For example, Hannity argued on his August 3 broadcast that “the best immunity one could have” is that conferred by being infected by the virus, rather than by getting the vaccine. The following night, he denounced New York City’s pending requirement that patrons show proof of vaccination before entering some businesses, calling Mayor Bill de Blasio a “socialist, Marxist, communist, authoritarian figure” who is stripping away “your precious freedom.”

Nor did the July 19 snippet augur a sea change in Fox’s coverage more broadly. The network remained as committed as ever to discouraging its viewers from getting vaccinated.

Journalists who don’t regularly watch Fox should be more careful before assuming that an out-of-context clip they see on Twitter marks the beginning of a trend. The network has spent the last 18 months lying to its audience about a deadly pandemic. That’s a remarkably consistent pattern of deception, and one that shows little sign of abating any time soon.