Pandemic conspiracy theorist Alex Berenson’s latest turn on Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s show, in which he called for the withdrawal of the mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 and said that “no one should get them” or “get boosted,” based on the false premises that the vaccines do not work and are “dangerous,” has rightly spurred a wave of revulsion.
As everyone from progressive MSNBC hosts to conservative National Review writers has noted, programming like this is killing Fox’s viewers by discouraging them from taking shots that are incredibly effective in preventing hospitalizations and deaths from the virus.
And that’s apparently how the Fox brass likes it.
Berenson’s pattern of spreading coronavirus misinformation is well-documented – he’s been described as “the pandemic’s wrongest man” and banned from Twitter over his constant falsehoods. But his “contrarian” willingness to denounce any and all measures to contain the pandemic, from masks to vaccines, has made him a fixture on Fox: Tuesday marked his 105th appearance since January 2020, 47 of which have come on Carlson’s show.
While Carlson himself is a constant font of anti-vaccine talking points and doubtlessly wants to host people who agree with his lies, the responsibility for Berenson’s ongoing presence on the network’s most-watched programs ultimately rests with Fox’s executives, like Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch and Suzanne Scott. Even if they aren’t willing to part with Carlson for the sake of their viewers, they could dispense with Berenson in a second if they wanted to. Over the years, they have repeatedly – and effectively – banned particular guests from the airwaves based on their off-air behavior or on-air commentary. Carlson has obeyed those diktats when they have come down, just like his fellow prime-time stars.
Fox hosted Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) hundreds of times from August 2017 to March 2021, including at least three dozen hits with Carlson, according to the Media Matters guest database. But on March 30 of the latter year, The New York Times reported that he was under federal investigation for alleged sex trafficking. After one last bizarre appearance on Carlson’s show to respond to the story that night, the network apparently left him for dead.
Fox’s executives were responsible for Gaetz’s disappearance from the network, with The Daily Beast reporting a few weeks later that Fox’s executives had put the congressman “on an informal blacklist” for trying “to rope the Fox News star into the congressman’s scandal.” Gaetz regularly appears on other right-wing networks like Newsmax, but he has not returned to Fox. Carlson, who was reportedly initially “livid” with Gaetz but subsequently suggested on-air that the congressman had been treated unfairly, has not defied that corporate mandate.
Something similar appears to have happened to Republican lawyers Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing, both longtime fixtures at Fox who were apparently banished from its airwaves in fall 2019. Both of them stopped appearing on Fox News amid reporting that they were deeply involved in the genesis of the Ukrainian dirt about Joe Biden that they were often called upon to opine about. The pair continued to appear on Fox Business, vanishing from that outlet as well after diGenova was widely criticized for an odious antisemitic rant about progressive philanthropist George Soros.
Fox refused to respond to reporters’ queries about whether the pair had been formally banned in the months after they disappeared, but they have not returned in the years since – including to Carlson’s show, which had hosted diGenova at least 27 times, according to the Media Matters guest database.
Similarly, in October 2018 a top Fox executive publicly condemned the rhetoric of Judicial Watch’s Chris Farrell, and a spokesperson said he would not be allowed to return to Fox News or Fox Business, following an uproar caused by the conservative political operative using an appearance on the latter network to falsely accuse Soros of masterminding a caravan of migrants headed toward the U.S. border from Central America.
Fox does not have anything resembling a consistent standard for this type of despicable commentary – indeed, Carlson just did an odious anti-Soros special for Fox Nation – but what matters for this discussion is that the ban stuck and Farrell has not been allowed back in subsequent years. Likewise, no Fox program has violated the network’s public bans of Harlan Hill (who tweeted in 2020 that Kamala Harris “comes off as an insufferable lying bitch,” or retired Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney (who said on-air in 2018 that torture “worked” on then-Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).
Fox’s executives have proved themselves to be capable of keeping unsavory guests off the air when they chose to do so. But with Berenson, they haven’t bothered trying. The network has made the calculation that keeping its viewers from needlessly dying isn’t worth it. As one Fox insider explained, the network is running anti-vaccine commentary because it is “great for ratings.”
The more than 3 million people who tuned into Carlson’s show on Tuesday heard a kook denounce lifesaving vaccines and urge them not to take them. If they listen to him, they could die. And Fox’s leadership is entirely uninterested in preventing that dire outcome.