The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fox News wants you to wear a mask. The network’s top stars want to ridicule them.

Contributor Tomi Lahren has referred to facial coverings as ‘face diapers.’ Even news anchor Martha MacCallum has questioned their effectiveness.

News Corp.'s headquarters in Manhattan. (Jeenah Moon for The Washington Post)

Fox News broadcast a 30-second public service announcement at the beginning of February, urging viewers to “keep up the fight against covid” — endorsing the same pandemic safety measures as the federal government and most infectious-disease experts.

“Wear a mask. Distance where possible,” Fox News host Dana Perino told viewers. It was hardly the first time the network has promoted face coverings, despite their relative unpopularity with part of Fox’s core audience: Republicans and conservatives.

At the same time, some of the network’s top personalities seem to be undermining that message.

“#BURNTHEMASKS,” reads the label on a March 2 Instagram video from Tomi Lahren, a regular contributor on Fox’s daily panel show “Outnumbered.” Lahren refers to masks as “face diapers” in the video and calls government mandates of the devices “tyranny.” In a tweet the same day, she proposed a “mask burning party.”

“Tonight, we’re learning that mask mandates might constitute a risk to air travel,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson announced on his show Monday night, basing his statement on an anonymous email shared on Twitter, written by someone claiming to be an air traffic controller. In the same segment, Carlson attacked federal guidance encouraging vaccinated people to wear masks in some situations. “Lying begets lying,” he said.

These two conflicting messages have run through Fox News’s pandemic coverage since the early weeks of the crisis: corporate-backed pleas to follow conventional public health advice on the one hand, and fact-challenged outbursts against that same advice on the other.

“Fox News Media has continuously provided viewers with the latest news on the global pandemic over the past year, hosting over a dozen pandemic-related town halls, while extensively promoting mask-wearing and vaccinations to our audience via public service announcements across all platforms,” the company said in a statement to The Washington Post. “Any suggestion otherwise is pure cherry-picking and a deliberate mischaracterization of the facts.”

Over the month of March 2020, many Fox News anchors and personalities went from doubting the seriousness of coronavirus to calling it a public health crisis. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Last year, Carlson was one of several Fox stars who came out loud, strong and early in favor of facial coverings. “Of course masks work,” he said in March 2020. “Everyone knows that. Dozens of research papers have proved it.”

Network employees were ordered to wear masks in the company’s office buildings. Last summer, top-rated Fox News host Sean Hannity appeared in a PSA to declare that was okay by him. “I don’t have a problem wearing a mask,” he said, “especially if it means we can go to a ballgame, or to defend Grandma, Grandpa, Mom and Dad.”

But a rift was already starting to emerge between the network’s public health push and its personalities’ desire to ride a wave of conservative anger against local and state anti-contagion efforts, much of it stoked by President Donald Trump. Carlson was one of several Fox hosts who attacked what he called “mindless and authoritarian” stay-at-home orders in Michigan last April, just as conservatives began to protest such measures in cities nationwide.

Masks became the most obvious symbol of the conflict. Fox News opinion host Laura Ingraham wore one to a Trump campaign rally in October. The president noticed and mocked her for it in front of the crowd. “No way — are you wearing a mask?” he said. “Oh, she’s being very politically correct.”

In tweets the next month, Ingraham blasted “mask-mania” and wrote that “there is zero hard evidence of benefit” from mask-wearing. (In fact, there is a large body of peer-reviewed scientific evidence showing masks hinder the coronavirus from spreading.)

On Jan. 18, Fox News news anchor Martha MacCallum (not an opinion host like Ingraham and Carlson) laughed when a guest mocked some experts’ recommendation that people wear two masks if possible by suggesting that they wear 10. “I always think we’re going to look back at these studies and wonder about the true effectiveness of masks and whether they really did make a difference,” MacCallum said on her show Monday.

“If I get the vaccine, I am not wearing a mask,” Fox News contributor Katie Pavlich declared during a prime-time appearance on Feb. 22. Her guest, Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald, said that every American following a mask mandate “has been turned into a walking billboard of fear.”

And on Wednesday morning, “Fox & Friends Weekend” co-host Will Cain interviewed uniformly maskless patrons at a full-capacity diner in Texas, where the Republican governor recently ended a mask mandate against the advice of many scientists. “This is freedom right here,” Cain said.

At the same time, prominent Fox News personalities such as weekday morning host Ainsley Earhardt and weekend host Jeanine Pirro have faced mockery on social media for wearing masks.

After Earhardt posted a photo with her daughter on Instagram to commemorate International Women’s Day on Tuesday, the insults rolled in. “Take off the masks,” read one. “You are way too smart for that!!!”