Viewers who tuned in to Fox News for the start of the Republican National Convention on Monday heard an unhinged and dishonest diatribe from Tucker Carlson about the purported ineffectiveness of face masks in preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
The network star deceptively cropped a quote from guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to falsely claim the agency had reported that “wearing a mask may be completely irrelevant to the spread of the virus.” Carlson then postulated that the press and Democrats were hiding that fact to keep the public fearful and help Joe Biden defeat President Donald Trump in November.
Public health experts at the CDC and elsewhere recommend widespread use of cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Experts say masks help trap droplets expelled by the wearer that carry the virus, reducing the risk they will pass them to others. Surgical masks and N95 masks, while more effective, are typically reserved for health care workers because they remain in limited supply, and researchers say cloth masks can still reduce transmission, if imperfectly. Since the virus can be spread by presymptomatic or asymptomatic people who do not know they have COVID-19 it is crucial for as many people to wear masks as possible. Masks are not force fields that stop 100% of droplets 100% of the time, so their use does not reduce the risk of community spread to zero -- but wearing them is a simple step that experts say will likely help limit the spread of COVID-19.
But while some at Fox have promoted wearing masks -- and the network’s executives have required their use at Fox headquarters’ public spaces -- others, like Carlson and fellow Fox prime-time host Laura Ingraham, have waged a nightly war against their use. Given Fox’s outsized influence over both the president and its audience, these attacks have helped turn masks into a culture war issue, with network viewers and Republicans much less likely to say they use them.
On Monday, Carlson denounced elites he claimed are criticizing Americans for refusing to wear masks. “It’s a scam; it’s an obvious scam,” he said.
Carlson went on to cite a “data point … that you won’t see on television,” a set of guidelines the CDC issued on July 31 for state health agencies detailing best practices for tracing the contacts of people with COVID-19. “In a footnote in the release,” he said, “the CDC acknowledged that researchers lacked evidence that, quote, ‘masks offer any protection’ against coronavirus, any at all.”
“As health officials work to track the spread of the virus,” he continued, “the CDC suggested that they ignore whether or not people were wearing masks.”
Carlson interpreted the CDC’s footnote as evidence that the CDC has concluded that “wearing a mask may be completely irrelevant to the spread of the virus” and “there is still no proof that masks protect us against COVID-19.”
The Fox host presented this as a “blockbuster story” and questioned why “the entire media, the entire leadership class of the United States of America [is] ignoring it.” He then answered his own question, stating that Democrats are “using fear of the coronavirus” to defeat Trump and the press, presumably, is helping them do it.
Carlson’s irresponsible conspiracy theory is based on a misreading of the CDC guidelines. The guidelines do not suggest, as Carlson claimed, that “there is still no proof that masks protect us against COVID-19.” Instead, they state that since the protection provided by masks is imperfect, “as a conservative approach,” people who had extended contact with a person with COVID-19 should quarantine whether or not either of them were wearing cloth masks at the time.
In claiming that the footnote “acknowledged that researchers lacked evidence that, quote, ‘masks offer any protection’ against coronavirus, any at all,” Carlson deceptively cropped the CDC’s actual conclusion, which compared how “research indicates masks may help those who are infected from spreading the infection” to how “there is less information regarding whether masks offer any protection for a contact exposed to a symptomatic or asymptomatic patient.”
Here’s the relevant portion of the footnote Carlson cited:
While research indicates masks may help those who are infected from spreading the infection, there is less information regarding whether masks offer any protection for a contact exposed to a symptomatic or asymptomatic patient. Therefore, the determination of close contact should be made irrespective of whether the person with COVID-19 or the contact was wearing a mask. Because the general public has not received training on proper selection and use of respiratory PPE, it cannot be certain whether respiratory PPE worn during contact with an individual with COVID-19 infection protected them from exposure. Therefore, as a conservative approach, the determination of close contact should generally be made irrespective of whether the contact was wearing respiratory PPE, which is recommended for health care personnel and other trained users, or a mask recommended for the general public.
While Carlson now presents the elite consensus in favor of mask use as a conspiracy theory aimed at the public, he previously presented the effectiveness of masks as an obvious fact that elites were hiding from the public.
“Of course masks work. Everyone knows that. Dozens of research papers have proved it,” he said on his March 30 broadcast. “In South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, the rest of Asia where coronavirus has been kept under control -- masks were key.”