Fox News prime-time host Tucker Carlson has spent ages both lying about COVID-19 vaccines and lying about his lying about the vaccines. On a larger scale, the network has waged a long campaign to undermine public scientific awareness of the coronavirus pandemic — especially in its nightmarish content on the vaccine rollout, and even curiously neglecting to cover news items that might have encouraged its viewers to get their shots.
Throughout 2020, Carlson’s show often featured updates from Fox News medical contributor and close Trump administration ally Dr. Marc Siegel, on the ongoing efforts to create the vaccine. But even in those days, there were some early hints that once a vaccine arrived, Carlson might not be fully on board.
For example, on May 20, 2020, Carlson speculated about possible side effects: “Does the government still have a right to endanger you by forcing you to take it?” On August 24, 2020, he denounced the notion of any continued public health measures once a vaccine was available: “It will never end. You can get your injection. They'll make you get it. But you'll still be under arrest.” And on December 9, 2020, soon after the vaccines were announced, he warned: “It's so safe, they have to threaten you to take it. If they do that, that could lead to a legitimate crisis.”
And in the time since the Biden administration took office in January 2021, Carlson has broadcast at least 28 segments that have either:
- Questioned the vaccines’ efficacy, alleging that authorities are lying to the public.
- Questioned the continued practice of any public health guidelines in combination with vaccinations.
- Fearmongered about efforts to get Americans to receive the shots.
- Encouraged people who have refused to get vaccinated.
- Hosted other conspiracy theorists to undermine the vaccines and other public health measures.
With the platform that Carlson has and the kind of rhetoric he pushes, he has emerged as one of the network’s top public health menaces.
Carlson oversimplifies a complex situation to attack measures to control the pandemic
A recurring motif in Carlson’s body of work during the pandemic is to latch onto every instance in which a health care expert or a political leader — his frequent targets in this regard include President Joe Biden and his chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci — exercise some continued element of caution or nuance, rather than viewing the current situation in terms of a quick fix.
For example, the reason vaccinated people are still urged to socially distance is because of the possibility that they might become asymptomatic carriers when interacting with nonvaccinated people. Furthermore, no vaccine is 100% effective, but instead it remains a collective task for all of society to reach a 70% to 90% vaccinated level in order to achieve herd immunity.
But where people grounded in reality see a complex road ahead, Carlson takes advantage of the human desire for simplicity — in this case, a dream that a person could just get their vaccines and life would go back to normal, which no responsible leader would’ve promised to begin with — in order to cast doubt on the entire body of scientific research and recommendations. And this could potentially have dangerous consequences.
Carlson regularly undermines vaccine efficacy and pushes a debunked claim that vaccines are killing thousands
Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch received his first dose of COVID-19 vaccine back in December. But around that same time, Carlson was busy casting doubt on the rollout — though he insisted he really supports vaccines.
“So, how are the rest of us supposed to respond to a marketing campaign like this? Well, nervously,” he said, when discussing the initial media coverage. “Even if you're strongly supportive of vaccines, and we are, even if you recognize how many millions of lives have been saved over the past 50 years by vaccines, and we do, it all seems a bit much. It feels false, because it is. It's too slick.”
And as the rollout has continued, Carlson’s conspiratorial talk has only gotten worse.
“If the vaccine was so great, why were all these people lying about it?” Carlson said on February 9. “Honest question. And they were lying, clearly they were lying. You know that for certain, because from the moment the COVID vaccine arrived, the most powerful people in America worked to make certain that no one could criticize it.”
And on March 15, he posed “some pretty tough questions” such as “how effective is this coronavirus vaccine?” and “how necessary is it to take the vaccine?” — all information that has been readily available for months. But Carlson still demanded that public health experts “answer the questions — especially now.”
In April, Carlson also continued to speculate that the reason for vaccinated people to still wear masks was because “maybe [the vaccine] doesn't work and they’re simply not telling you that.” And in response to the widely expected news that people would likely need a booster shot in 12 months — just like with regular seasonal flu shots — Carlson claimed that the Pfizer CEO has suggested “the dose that Pfizer is administering doesn't work.”
Carlson also jumped on the news that the distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was briefly paused due to reported cases of blood clots that occurred at a rate of one-in-a-million doses. Carlson acknowledged that the risks from the J&J vaccine were lower than blood clots from conventional birth control pills — but far from using this fact to put the matter in perspective, he alleged that “those in fact are not the real numbers — the real numbers may be much higher than that.” (The pause has since been lifted.)
In response to Carlson’s rants, Fauci said in April: “That's just a typical crazy conspiracy theory. Why would we not tell people if it doesn’t work?”
In response, Carlson just dug in more defiantly: “Who is doubting that vaccines work? For the record, we never for a minute doubted it. … The only reason we are asking the question is because the people in charge are acting like it doesn't work.”
Carlson has since escalated his campaign of misinformation, spreading a false claim that thousands of people have died after taking the COVID-19 vaccines. This statement was based on a public Food and Drug Administration system known as VAERS, to which anybody can submit a report of adverse health events, which is not only unverified but is also separate from any key context of what other factors might have contributed to an individual’s negative health events. (For example, a report that a 2-year-old died after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine during clinical trials has been removed from the VAERS system for being “completely made up.”)
CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta expressed his own disgust at “people like Tucker Carlson”: “People are on their hands and knees begging for these vaccines, and here we are throwing shade at it in order to embolden this vaccine hesitance.”
On the May 11 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, the host intoned: “Suddenly the entire country is under intense pressure, social and legal pressure, to take the vaccine regardless, and anyone who says, ‘Maybe I don't want the vaccine,’ is written off as some kind of lunatic, anti-science, anti-vaccines.”
He then interviewed Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) who has publicly declined to get a vaccine on the grounds that he was already infected — which is not itself a guarantee of immunity, and vaccination is still recommend — and praised the senator, telling him it was “brave of you to admit your personal health decision in public.”
Also during the interview, Johnson repeated the unverified claim that thousands of people had died after taking the vaccines, and credited Carlson for having talked about it.
Carlson has platformed the conspiracy theory that politicians would use vaccines to exercise social control
One of Carlson’s major themes has been the idea that the pandemic has constituted a political power-grab by Democratic politicians. “Nothing has made elected Democrats more powerful than the COVID pandemic,” he declared on March 2. “They began as politicians. Lockdowns made them God.” He has latched on to the idea that the vaccine distribution is also a plot by Democratic politicians and corporate elites to consolidate power.
“Yeah, it's your body, it's your right. Oh sorry, COVID. Actually it's Bill Gates' body now,” he declared on February 22. “Bill Gates is not God, just a big shareholder in Microsoft. But since COVID, Bill Gates has gained extraordinary powers over what you can and cannot do to your own body. Bill Gates would like you to take the coronavirus vaccine. That's not a request.”
On March 11, President Joe Biden delivered a national address to announce that all adults will be eligible for a vaccine by May 1, thanks to a full mobilization of the federal government. Carlson, for his response that very night, ominously warned of what sounded like a military dictatorship: “The military will give you that shot. And if you take that shot, things potentially could get back to normal. No, no mention at all of the people who might not want to take that shot. But the president said if you take that shot and wear your mask and listen to Dr. Fauci, it is possible, not assured, but possible that you might be able to gather in small groups with the ones you love for the Fourth of July. We might have to rescind that right. But it's possible if you're obedient, you'll get it. ”
Carlson continued this narrative the next night: “Biden didn't mention drones, but we will need soldiers and that's why Joe Biden is building a vaccination corps that will include active duty members of the military, an army of vaccinators. … That sounds amazing. But it does raise at least one vexing question: What if you don't want to get vaccinated?”
And on May 3, Carlson railed against the decisions by colleges across the country to require their students get vaccinated. “In effect, it is a national mandate. Though because it has happened piecemeal, school by school, each apparently making an independent decision, few have recognized that as it's happened,” Carlson said “But a national mandate is what it is. The question is why? Why are schools doing this? And is it a good idea?”
Keep in mind, colleges already require a number of vaccines, with lists varying across the country. So this is hardly a new concept, nor is it shocking to see COVID-19 vaccines added to the lists after the year-long pandemic.
Carlson has promoted anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists on his show
Carlson has hosted serial pandemic misinformer Alex Berenson at least eight times on his TV show so far this year, with appearances covering a broad range of pandemic denialism — including spreading mistruths about the vaccines.
In a very interesting example on February 10, Carlson spoke with Fox News medical contributor Marc Siegel, who boasted that because of the vaccines he would soon be able to visit his elderly parents without fear — only to later chat with Berenson, who said he’d been working on “the question of whether vaccines are as efficacious as you know as a clinical trial data made them seem.”
On March 8, Berenson claimed, “It's increasingly clear that the vaccines aren't quite as effective as that 95% headline figure was given. … I think the CDC is very afraid that there will be cases of people getting vaccinated and sick or dying, as has happened in Israel.”
In reality, the vaccination campaign in Israel has actually been exemplary for just how safe and effective the vaccines are. As later discovered by The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, Berenson’s citations on this subject have included an article written in Hebrew, which actually highlighted deaths among people who were not vaccinated.
Carlson then hosted Berenson to rebut Thompson’s article, during which Berenson insisted he was not some mere crackpot: “I'm not telling you, ‘Oh, the vaccine plus 5G will make your brain explode,’ OK? That's why they hate me; they hate me because they can't dismiss me.” (Meanwhile, Carlson’s segment with Berenson was avidly promoted on the website of notorious anti-vaccine conspiracy theory peddler Robert Kennedy Jr.)
On April 22, Berenson declared on Carlson’s show: “People are very nervous about the vaccine and why shouldn't they be after the lies and the miss — you know, the elite religions and all the stuff that they've been told in the last year?”
“It's not our fault, it is theirs,” Carlson responded. “That is exactly right.”
But it’s not just Berenson as Carlson has given a platform to other anti-vaccine miscreants.
Carlson did a friendly interview on February 22 with author Naomi Wolf, a rampant anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist and frequent Fox News guest. During the interview, Wolf described the public health responses to the pandemic as “a coup situation, a police state situation,” along the lines of fascism in Mussolini’s Italy. For his part, Carlson apologized that he hadn’t taken her seriously before, given her background as a feminist writer: “I'm so embarrassed. … I guess I just assumed that we wouldn't agree on stuff, so I didn't read your tweets, and I obviously should have been, and I missed a lot.”
But on the subject of another type of “coup,” on April 2 Carlson promoted an interview on his online Fox Nation show with Dr. Hooman Noorchashm. During the full interview, Noorchashm alleged that adverse reactions to the vaccines would really be so prolific, they would “sacrifice the lives of a minority subset of people for majority benefit.” Noorchashm continued: “If you tolerate minority harm over time, Tucker, what happens is that minority becomes the harmed majority. And you know what the harmed majority does? The harmed majority starts burning and looting and climbing up the walls of the United States Congress to overthrow this thing, OK? Because that's what Americans do.”
Carlson also spoke on April 15 with former Fox News host Glenn Beck, who at once insisted he wasn’t anti-vaccine but also compared anti-vaxxers to the persecuted Galileo: “Galileo was the guy who gave us the system of science and honest questioning. He spent his whole life up in a tower because he refused to give in.”
This entire progression really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. On April 28, far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones heaped praise upon Carlson: “That's one of the things I'm proud of is that I was instrumental in deprogramming Tucker Carlson … And so he’s come out. He’s being demonized for saying, ‘Hey, if the vaccine works, why do I got to wear a mask,’ or, ‘If the vaccine works for you, why do I have to have a vaccine?’”
So at the end of the day, there’s really no difference between Fox having Carlson on in prime time now, compared to having somebody like Beck on a decade ago — or even just going all the way to Alex Jones.