For years, Donald Trump built his career on the false claim that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. But Trump’s birther campaign was more calculated than many might remember. Rather than explicitly claiming Obama wasn’t born here, he generally just raised it as a suggestive question under the guise of letting people decide for themselves. The seed was planted and fertilized extensively, though, leading large swaths of the Republican Party to come to the dangerous conclusion Trump had mostly avoided — that the nation’s first Black president wasn’t a legitimate one.
A similar thing is happening right now on Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s show. While broadcasting an increasing onslaught of coronavirus vaccine skepticism, Carlson repeatedly says that he’s just asking questions — and that we should ask questions.
That much is true. But Carlson often serves up those questions with a heaping side of innuendo and little due diligence.
“Don’t dismiss those questions from ‘anti-vaxxers,’ ” Carlson said Monday, using his trademark scare-quote voice, while noting that some European countries have paused the AstraZeneca vaccine over concerns about blood-clotting (that vaccine hasn’t been approved for emergency use in the United States). “Don’t kick people off social media for asking them. Answer the questions. … It turns out there are things we don’t know about the effects of this vaccine — and all vaccines, by the way. It’s always a trade-off.”
“Democrats believe vaccines are the answer to everything,” Carlson said in November. “‘Shh. Don’t ask questions. Just take the shot.’”
He said last month that “from the moment that coronavirus vaccine arrived, the most powerful people in America worked to make certain that no one could criticize it.”
Nobody is disputing that questions should be asked. But vaccines present a special case for the media. That’s because for them to work properly and kill off disease, large swaths of the population need to take them. This requires an extra degree of care in reporting on them because misinformation and disinformation could have a disproportionately negative impact. Lives are literally on the line.
The problem with Carlson’s coverage isn’t that he’s raising questions; it’s that he’s raising them in a haphazard way and relying on dubious sources. This has been a feature of Carlson’s show dating to the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, when he suggested the death toll was being inflated. He cited a decline in pneumonia deaths and argued that perhaps they were being wrongly classified as coronavirus deaths.
Except even a cursory review of the data showed it was incomplete (such official data often lags by several weeks). And even for the period he was talking about, the rise in coronavirus deaths was significantly smaller than the supposed drop in pneumonia deaths. It was a nonsensical claim, and it was a wonder how it ever found its way onto one of the most popular shows on cable TV.
While that segment might have given people a false sense of the danger of the virus and discouraged them from taking precautions, the stakes are arguably even higher when it comes to vaccines. Yet the approach demonstrated by Carlson back then persists.
Last week, Carlson invited vaccine and coronavirus skeptic Alex Berenson on his show. Berenson argued that the advertised 95 percent effectiveness rate of certain vaccines has been disproved. He pointed to Israel, which has led the world in getting its citizens vaccinated. “I think the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] is very afraid that there will be cases of people getting vaccinated and sick or dying, as has happened in Israel,” he said. “We know that’s happened in Israel.”
But several of the deaths of elderly people in Israel that some have suggested might have been caused by vaccine haven’t actually been linked to them. What’s more, data released later in the week showed the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in Israel was 97 percent effective at preventing illness.
At other points, Carlson has accused the authorities of lying to people about vaccine, though without actually substantiating the claim. He has suggested the government is using vaccine as a form of “social control.” He has said Bill Gates has “extraordinary powers” over what we do with our bodies — a claim that reflects baseless Internet claims about Gates and vaccine. He has cast vaccinations as something approaching mandatory, even though the government can’t force and isn’t forcing people to take them. “Joe Biden told you last week if you don’t [get the vaccine], you can’t celebrate the Fourth of July,” he said after Biden’s speech last week. A deliberate oversimplification, yes, but also one that feeds into conspiracy-theorist thinking.
And he has criticized the marketing of the vaccines by saying “it feels false, because it is. It’s too slick.” He pointed to coverage of an Alaska woman who suffered an allergic reaction in December after getting vaccinated and, according to her doctor, still expressed gratitude for being able to get her first dose. “The lady who couldn’t breathe is enthusiastic as she is rushed to the emergency room? Come on. This is patronizing,” Carlson said. No evidence was presented for the claim that this didn’t actually happen.
Carlson’s approach is notably a departure from many on his network, which has run public service announcements about the importance of the vaccine and did an hour-long special on it. Rupert Murdoch was also among the earliest to get vaccinated.
It’s not that questions shouldn’t be asked; it’s that they should be asked carefully, so as not to create false perceptions. The media must always consider how someone might misread or misunderstand reporting that might otherwise be factual or at least not provably wrong. There is always a decision when raising questions about whether those questions are actually legitimate ones — or whether people might interpret raising them as suggesting the truth isn’t clear in a way that could fuel misinformation.
Accusing health officials of lying amid a pandemic is a huge claim and one that should be done with extreme care. That doesn’t mean these officials are above reproach, and certain health officials’ conduct has invited skepticism, most recently with how the CDC handled its guidelines. But if you’re going to make such a claim, it shouldn’t rest on innuendo and your suspicions. The stakes are far too high.
Carlson is someone whom Fox News’s own attorneys have recently defended in court by saying you can’t take him literally. A judge largely agreed, saying that the “‘general tenor’ of the show should then inform a viewer that [Carlson] is not ‘stating actual facts’ about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in ‘exaggeration’ and ‘nonliteral commentary.’”
Much like Sean Hannity, who has occasionally argued that he isn’t actually a journalist, and former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, who downplayed his role as an actual newsman, that’s a convenient way to avoid the responsibility that comes with being a source of information. It’s also a cop-out, and it ignores how many people truly rely upon them for such information. Carlson’s show often ranks as the highest-rated in cable news.
Carlson has every right to raise questions, but he knows how much influence he has and how his words can be interpreted. His conservative viewers, polls show, are already among the most unlikely to get vaccinated. One question he should ask is whether he’s okay with that.