The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republican men are a central part of coronavirus vaccine resistance

Fox News does not appear to be helping to change that opinion.

Hollie Maloney, a pharmacy technician, loads a syringe with Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine in Portland, Maine, on March 2. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)
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Fox News went out of its way to let its viewers know on Thursday evening that the unfiltered presence of President Biden on their screens was an aberration that would soon be rectified.

The network preempted its normal programming to carry Biden’s first prime-time address to the country live, but coupled it with a Twitchesque live shot of host Tucker Carlson’s reaction to what Biden was saying. Carlson isn’t known for his emotive diversity, so Fox viewers simply saw Carlson flickering around, befuddled and bemused, as the text at the bottom of the screen assured them that it would all be over soon.

Then it was over. It is not usually the case that the bulk of the hour Carlson hosts would be dedicated so robustly to messages beneficial to the political left or so focused on the utility and urgency of getting vaccinated against the coronavirus. So Carlson quickly set about rebalancing his show’s humors.

“His plan consisting essentially of vaccines, vaccines and more vaccines,” Carlson said, summarizing one part of Biden’s speech. “By May, he said, there’ll be enough vaccines for every person in America. The military will give you that shot. And if you take that shot, things potentially could get back to normal.”

“No mention all of the people who might not want to take that shot,” he continued. “But the president said if you take that shot and wear your mask and listen to Dr. [Anthony S.] Fauci, it is possible, not assured, but possible that you might be able to gather in small groups with the ones you love for the Fourth of July.”

“We might have to rescind that right,” he said. “But it’s possible, if you’re obedient, you’ll get it.”

He then announced his first guest: vaccine skeptic Alex Berenson. Berenson, it turns out, agreed with Carlson.

One could break apart Carlson’s claims into a dozen pieces quite easily. Biden didn’t say “the military would give you the shot,” for example; he said that he was mobilizing active-duty military among others like retired doctors and nurses to increase the rate at which vaccines can be administered. But we can and should simply take Carlson’s misleading objection as a whole: The oppressive government was mandating that you do this scary thing, because this is what leftist government does.

It’s easy to overstate Carlson’s influence. But his is one of the most popular shows not only on Fox News but on cable television, with millions of viewers last month. More people watched Tucker Carlson’s show on Feb. 18 than watched CNN’s town hall with Biden the night before, according to Fox News viewership numbers.

The group most dependent on Fox News as a source of information is Republican men. Pew Research Center measured America’s media consumption habits last year and found that a third of Republican men cited Fox News as a major source of post-election news, with another 40 percent identifying the network as a minor source of information. That 72 percent was higher than other sources of information like CNN (37 percent), network television (62 percent, mostly as a minor source), NPR (24 percent) or conservative radio (52 percent). No other group was as likely to cite Fox News as a source.

Earlier in the day on Thursday, NPR released the results of a poll conducted by Marist College with PBS NewsHour. Among the questions included in the poll was one asking Americans if they planned to get vaccinated for the coronavirus when vaccines became available. No group was more likely to say that they wouldn’t than Republican men, about half of whom rejected the idea.

Interestingly, the percentage of Republican men rejecting the vaccine is up substantially from December, when Marist asked the same thing. Then, only about a third of Republican men said they wouldn’t get the vaccine. No other group turned so robustly against the vaccine over that period.

It’s possible that this is a statistical anomaly. Such things happen. But this finding that Republicans are among the most fervent vaccine skeptics tracks with other polls, like one released earlier this week by Monmouth University. In that poll, 36 percent of Republicans said that they didn’t plan to get the vaccine — a lower percentage than the Marist poll but similarly larger than other groups. In both polls, for example, Republicans were more likely to express skepticism about the vaccine than non-White Americans, a group that has been a focus of concern about vaccine uptake.

One question worth asking is why. Why is Tucker Carlson so hostile to a plan to distribute a vaccine that, on Friday morning, his colleagues on “Fox & Friends” were complaining that Biden didn’t sufficiently credit to Donald Trump? Why are so many Republicans similarly skeptical?

It seems hard to extricate those views from Carlson’s obvious hostility to the idea that something presented as important by the government should therefore necessarily be treated as dubious. That sentiment is hardly new on the political right, and it’s one that Biden specifically tried to undercut in his speech. But on this issue, it’s also a sentiment that Fox News, Carlson and Trump all amplified repeatedly over the past 12 months. With the coronavirus pandemic raging and Trump seeking reelection, he and his allies sought to cast the spread of the virus and the burdensome efforts to contain it as the fault of other people, including Fauci.

Once Trump grudgingly left the White House, the incentive to stand against the government only increased. There is a wide-open market for critical assessments of the Biden administration and Carlson is happy to set up shop and peddle his own snake oil.

The tell in Carlson’s reaction, by the way, was his hand-wringing that Biden didn’t “mention all of the people who might not want to take that shot.” What, exactly, was Biden going to say that met Carlson’s concerns in that regard? If Biden had said, “I know some of you are hesitant, perhaps because you’ve seen a TV host interviewing people who’ve revitalized their careers by amplifying skepticism and you shouldn’t be,” would Carlson have been content?

I guess we’ll never know. Also: No, he wouldn’t.