When Fox News star Sean Hannity begged his viewers to take COVID-19 seriously and promoted the vaccine on Monday, heads turned. Was the network that’s long downplayed the pandemic, cast doubt on the efficacy of vaccines, and politicized both finally using its influence over conservative America to spread accurate public health information?
It would be nice to think so, especially as the delta variant of the virus takes hold around the country. But while Hannity’s monologue quickly swept across liberal corners of the internet, the viral moment probably did more for Fox News’ public image than it did for vaccine uptake, which remains much lower among conservatives. In reality, the network is still letting its top hosts run wild spreading vaccine misinformation.
The approximately 2.59 million people who watch Hannity’s show ― not just snippets on Twitter ― heard his remarks this week in a very different context. Shortly before he implored his viewers to “take [COVID-19] seriously” and said he did “believe in the science of vaccination,” Hannity railed against universities mandating the vaccine for all students “regardless of whether they had natural immunity” ― wrongly conflating the effects of recovering from the virus with getting vaccinated. Later in his show, Hannity told the story of a woman who was temporarily paralyzed by a different vaccine in 2019 and is now refusing the COVID-19 shot ― stoking fears about a highly unlikely side effect.
In the days that have followed, Fox News has made it clear that it has no real plans to ramp down vaccine skepticism. Nowhere is that more obvious than on Tucker Carlson’s show, which is the network’s biggest ratings juggernaut and the country’s most-watched cable news show.
On Tuesday night, Carlson kept up with business as usual and spent much of his show casting doubt on the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I’m hardly attacking vaccines or trying to convince people not to get them at all. I never have done that and I won’t. However, I’m against lying, and they’re telling us that once you get vaccinated, you can’t get it or spread it,” he said. “Here you have vaccinated people getting it and then spreading it to other vaccinated people. Maybe we should start being honest about the limitations of the medicine, no?”
In reality, the vast majority of COVID-19 outbreaks are among the unvaccinated, which is still about half the country. But Carlson plowed ahead: “Weird how many vaccinated people seem to be spreading the virus at this point, so, maybe it’s not as simple as unvaccinated bad, vaccinated virtuous,” he said, adding later, “It makes you wonder if what [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi has been saying about masks and vaccines is actually science, doesn’t it?”
Central to Carlson’s diatribe was that six fully vaccinated Democratic lawmakers from Texas have tested positive for the virus in recent days ― showcasing that, as with every vaccine in the history of medicine, breakthrough cases are possible. What Carlson didn’t mention Tuesday night is that all of those lawmakers’ cases are either largely or completely asymptomatic. That’s the vaccine doing its job by reducing viral loads ― the amount of virus in a person’s blood ― in an infected person.
Carlson’s talk of vaccines was much the same on Monday night, as it’s been for months now. And Laura Ingraham, another top Fox News star, was right there with him this week. On Monday’s and Tuesday’s episodes of “The Ingraham Angle,” she repeatedly referred to the shot as the “experimental vaccine” and the “emergency use vaccine” while painting the push for inoculation as a government conspiracy.
“The more you try to coerce people, the more suspicion grows,” Ingraham said. “The more defensive the experts are about answering legitimate questions, the more questions they end up raising.”
Perhaps most bizarrely, after more than a year of the coronavirus being a consistent presence in the U.S. and killing more than 600,000 Americans, Ingraham told her viewers Tuesday: “This virus may indeed be seasonal.”
The vaccine opposition on Fox News’ airwaves ― which appears in 60% of all vaccine-based segments, a Media Matters report found ― continues to play out despite the network instituting a strict COVID-19 policy in its office similar to the ones Hannity, Carlson and Ingraham have railed against. In order to work in the network’s offices without a mask or social distancing, employees must show proof of full vaccination.
The one Fox News personality who’s consistently spoken positively and accurately of the vaccine is Steve Doocy, co-host of the popular morning show “Fox & Friends.” On Monday morning’s show, he implored viewers: “If you have the chance, get the shot. It will save your life.” He’s been making similar remarks on air for months, even as his own co-hosts contradict him.