A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
“Get vaccinated,” Senator Mitch McConnell said Tuesday. And, he added, just as importantly, “ignore all of these other voices that are giving demonstrably bad advice.”
McConnell’s words were newsworthy because of the “other voices” he mentioned — the anti-vaccination talking heads that have overwhelmed common sense in GOP circles this year.
For every knowledgeable right-wing leader who has pointed to the vaccines as the only way out of the pandemic, louder know-nothings have instilled doubt and denial via radio, TV and the web. The result has been measurable through maps of deaths and disease.
“Conservative swaths of the country are being hit particularly hard,” Jonathan Weisman and Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote in The New York Times on Tuesday. “Intensive care units in southwestern Missouri and northern Arkansas are filled or filling fast, while 40 percent of new cases are cropping up in Florida.”
So is there a path out of this political divide and out of the pandemic? Media reporters have observed some small changes on Fox’s airwaves at the same time congressional reporters have noticed shifts in tone among some GOP lawmakers. But attitudes around vaccination have hardened as the year has gone by. And some of Fox’s highest-rated shows are spreading anti-vaccination storylines…
“Suddenly, Conservatives Care About Vaccines”
The Atlantic’s David A. Graham wrote Tuesday: “A number of leaders on the right suddenly urged their audiences to get vaccinated in the past day. Why now?” Graham cited Rep. Steve Scalise’s decision to get inoculated, plus pro-vaccination pronouncements by Fox News and Newsmax.
“Yesterday I went and got the jab at CVS,” Fox Business host Charles Payne said Tuesday. “The place was dead,” he said, observing that “there was no demand” for the vaccine.
Elsewhere in the Fox orbit, host Kayleigh McEnany went out of her way to promote the “Trump vaccine;” anchor Neil Cavuto defended Dr. Anthony Fauci from far-right villainizing; and multiple anchors directed viewers to the Vaccines.gov website. A TVEyes database search shows that Fox shows have plugged Vaccines.gov at least seven times this week, after going six weeks without mentioning the website at all.
So as Graham wrote: “Why now?”
There probably is no single or simple answer. An optimist might say, innocently, that the Fox machine is raising awareness about vaccines right now because the Delta variant is causing newfound alarm about Covid-19, particularly in Republican strongholds where Fox is influential. A cynic might say that Fox is trying to score PR points and rebut its critics so that the Biden White House doesn’t name and shame them, like President Biden did with Facebook last week.
Speaking of Biden…
The White House’s outreach to Fox
The White House is trying to fix the problem of slowing Covid-19 vaccinations by engaging with an unlikely source: Fox News.
We all know the network has been a home for vaccine hesitancy and outright hostility. And we all know the network is remarkably popular among Republicans. So, as Kaitlan Collins and I reported on Tuesday, “the White House has attempted some outreach to Fox News over the last several months, though it’s unclear how successful the administration has been. A source familiar with the talks told CNN that there have been regular conversations between the White House and Fox News regarding the network’s coverage of the pandemic and the vaccines.”
Meantime, notice what the administration hasn’t done: “The White House hasn’t called out the network. Nor has it engaged it aggressively,” Politico’s Christopher Cadelago and Sam Stein wrote. “Some supporters of the vaccine campaign say that’s a mistake…”
An “ocean of doubt”
We live in a media environment in which a few minutes of pro-vaccine commentary by Steve Doocy or Sean Hannity is used to portray Fox as a responsible, even though those minutes are undermined by hours of reckless programming. The Washington Post reporter Jeremy Barr described how Doocy’s pro-vaccine message “has run up against his longtime co-host Brian Kilmeade, who has bristled at the push to encourage Americans to get vaccinated, even as cases have spiked in recent days because of the delta variant of the virus.”
Philip Bump, also of the Post, wrote that “it’s tricky to determine whether Fox’s coverage is reflecting or driving its viewership,” but “there’s clearly a correlation between viewership and skepticism. And since the vaccine rollout began in earnest, the default position of the network’s heavily watched prime-time shows has been to sow doubt.” That has certainly been true for both Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham. Bump called it an “ocean of doubt.”
MSNBC’s Chris Hayes summed up the Fox message in a Tuesday night segment: “It’s not, ‘Don’t get vaccinated.’ It’s, ‘We’re just asking questions. We don’t take a position. Don’t take medical advice from people on TV. They’re trying to get you to comply, so you should not comply.’ It’s like, anti-pro-vax.”
That’s how Sean Hannity addressed the matter on Monday night in a widely-noticed clip. He said “I believe in the science of vaccination” but also talked about “medical privacy” and told people to “research like crazy.”
Personalities like Hannity and Carlson reach far more people than GOP elected officials like Mitt Romney, who said last week that “if you hear things from conservative media that suggests it’s dangerous to get a vaccine, you’re not being served well by that media.”
That’s ultimately what this is about — whether viewers and listeners are being well served by the sources they trust.
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