How Fox News hosts started attacking COVID-19 vaccines after Biden took over the rollout from Trump

  • Fox News hosts such as Tucker Carlson have spread doubt in COVID-19 vaccines.
  • The hosts may see it it as a way of undermining the Biden administration and boosting ratings. 
  • Studies have found that COVID-19 misinformation spread on the network is acted on by viewers.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

In December, an 89-year-old man in the English county of Oxfordshire was among the first patients in the UK to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

The man was Rupert Murdoch, the billionaire CEO of a sprawling media empire that includes Fox News and the New York Post as well as a range of prestigious titles in the UK and Australia.

After receiving the jab, Murdoch thanked Britain’s National Health Service “and the amazing scientists who have made this vaccine possible.”

“I strongly encourage people around the world to get the vaccine as it becomes available,” the News Corp chairman wrote. 

Yet on Murdoch’s Fox News network, which is run by his son Lachlan, some of its top-rated hosts have had a very different message for viewers.

In a segment of his top-rated show on February 10, Tucker Carlson alleged that unspecified powerful forces were “lying” about the vaccines and trying to suppress questions being asked about them.

In a statement to Insider, a representative said the network had “extensively” promoted vaccines across the breadth of its output. But its most prominent personalities have not always been on board.

A week before Carlson’s segment, Laura Ingraham hosted Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on her podcast. Kennedy, the nephew of John F. Kennedy, is one of the most prominent anti-vaccine activists in the US. Though the podcast is not a Fox News product, she is one of the network’s biggest stars.

On the show, Kennedy attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is playing a key part in building trust in the vaccines, describing him as “a very sinister guy who has turned this country over to Big Pharma.”

Sean Hannity, unlike some other hosts on the network, had urged viewers to wear masks during the coronavirus pandemic. But in recent remarks on vaccines he suggested the evidence was at best unclear.

When discussing the vaccine on the January 27 edition of his show, he said he’d “been telling my friends I’m going to get the vaccine” but added he was “beginning to have doubts.”

“I don’t know who to listen to,” he added.

The skepticism about vaccines stirred by the hosts is starkly at odds with that of US public-health experts and authorities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the vaccines authorized by the Food and Drug Administration are safe and effective and have been “evaluated in tens of thousands of participants in clinical trials.”

“The vaccines met FDA’s rigorous scientific standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality needed to support emergency use authorization,” the CDC’s website says. The agency continues to monitor their safety. 

Fox News hosts have at times echoed the consensus of scientists and experts on the vaccines. Carlson is said to have played a key role impressing on President Donald Trump the seriousness of the pandemic last year, while Ingraham congratulated Trump on the rollout of vaccines.

But critics say the frequency with which Carlson and other hosts are seeking to undermine faith in vaccines appears to be increasing.

Matt Gertz is a senior researcher at Media Matters, a nonprofit that monitors right-wing media in the US. He said that Carlson had pushed vaccine skepticism long before the pandemic but that his criticism became muted as Trump rolled out his Operation Warp Speed program to hasten vaccine development.

“I began noticing over the summer that over summer Carlson in particular would make an offhand comment while talking about the vaccine specifically he’d say things like — ‘the Dems want to make you get the vaccine — they don’t want you asking questions about the vaccine, just take the shot,’ that sort of thing.”

“It’s definitely stepped up since Biden became president,” he said.

Speculating on their motives, he remarked: “If people want to get vaccinated on a swift timetable that’s a victory for Joe Biden and that it something they are not willing to allow.”

Felix Simon, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, said that Fox News hosts often experiment with attack lines against political foes. Boosting vaccine skepticism allowed it to target the liberal elites who are the main foil for its prime time hosts, he said. 

“Vaccines being a partisan issue, they could provide an attack line against the Biden administration or against groups long distrusted by Republican voters such as experts and scientists, Bill Gates — all the ‘elites’ that are currently supporting the vaccination efforts,” Simon told Insider.

The Fox response to this report, which is reproduced in full at the end of the article, pushed back against this characterization. The network highlighted that it held town hall events to provide information, and broadcast public service announcements on the coronavirus, one in February, another in March last year, and a third in April. 

The spokesperson also mentioned an unpublished YouGov survey from December which they said highlighted increased willingness among GOP-voting Fox viewers to get a vaccine in comparison with other Republicans.

Fox viewers less likely to take virus precautions, says study

In response to a defamation lawsuit last September, Fox News attorneys successfully, if surprisingly, argued that Carlson should not be taken as a serious source of fact. They say he’s a provocateur and entertainer, voicing opinions outside the liberal consensus. 

But studies conducted over the past year have shown that Fox News viewers do seem to take the claims of its top-rated hosts about the coronavirus seriously. They are less likely to observe restrictions designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus, researchers at the University of Southern California found.

A working paper by economists at the University of Chicago last year found that in areas where many people watch Hannity, who consistently downplayed the importance of virus in its initial months, there was a larger number of COVID-19 cases and deaths. 

Fox pushed back on the conclusions of the Chicago study, pointing Insider to a statement given to The Hollywood Reporter that called the study and other cited as “nothing more than a transparent PR stunt by organizations seeking media attention.” 

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communication at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert on right-wing media, in an email to Insider said that “there is an association between reliance on such outlets as Fox and [late conservative radio host Rush] Limbaugh and belief in conspiracy theories about COVID -19.”

She also cautioned that it is difficult to attribute such behaviors directly to Fox, since “Fox viewers are also likely consumers of other conservative outlets.”

It’s a dynamic that has has doctors concerned. For vaccinations to offer population-level protection, at least 70% of people have to take it. If the vaccination rate is too low, new variants can emerge more frequently, potentially with resistance to existing protections.

A recent Gallup poll found that about 35% of Americans say they are unwilling to get a COVID-19 vaccine. The survey found a widening partisan divide on the issue, with 45% of Republicans surveyed in the poll saying they would get vaccinated, a five point dip. 83% of Democrats said they’d get the vaccine. 

Social media platforms are cracking down on misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, but on conservative broadcast media platforms such claims get a platform, often unchallenged. 

Fox News is facing a ratings dip 

In the wake of the chaotic end of the Trump presidency, Fox News’ ratings dipped. Forbes reported that in January it slid behind CNN and MSNBC in ratings for the first time since 2000.

Fox News says that overall its post-election ratings grew, though during much of the time its hosts were pushing Trump’s baseless election fraud claims. 

The dip could be a factor, say experts, in why network hosts are lurching further to the right and pushing vaccine skepticism. 

Simon, the Oxford researcher, said Fox News was eager to head off the challenge from smaller right-wing outlets like OANN or Newsmax. Its competitors frequently give a platform to conspiracy theories, and he suggested that Fox News feels compelled to air more extreme material to compete. Fox News has denied these outlets constitute serious competition.

“While they [Fox News] still dominate, we’ve seen before the election that there are fringe competitors trying to eat into Fox’s audience shares often with even more outlandish coverage with conspiracy theories and the like.

“Fox News has also taken quite a hit after the US election,” said Simon. “You could argue that in the competition they are going to have to pander to these audiences if they don’t want to be overtaken by someone else.”

In the battle for ratings and potent new lines of attack against the Biden administration, vaccine safety appears to be a new partisan battleground that Fox News hosts are keen to exploit.

Fox News response

In response to this story, a Fox spokesperson said: “FOX News Media has continuously provided viewers with the latest news on the global pandemic over the past year. Both FOX News Channel and FOX Business Network hosted over a dozen pandemic-related town halls over the last 11 months, while extensively promoting the use of mask-wearing and vaccinations to our audience via public service announcements across all of our key platforms.

“Additionally, according to a recent survey, Republicans who are FOX News Channel viewers have expressed a greater willingness to get vaccinated. We will continue to serve a resource for all Americans as the nation battles this ongoing health crisis.”

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