There's something similar in place to ensure that examples of negative vaccine reactions aren't missed. Called the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, it's a tool that allows people to report adverse reactions to vaccines. Again, the idea is simple, allow the country to self-report issues and, then, for the government to evaluate possible patterns.
One effect of these tools is that there’s a lot of publicly available data which can be accidentally or willfully misinterpreted. At the beginning of the pandemic, for example, Fox News’s Laura Ingraham tried to downplay the spread of the coronavirus by pointing at reported flu cases, suggesting incorrectly that covid infections were in reality just misdiagnosed cases of the flu. More recently, people hoping to elevate skepticism about the coronavirus vaccines, like former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson, have been using reports submitted to VAERS to suggest that something worrisome is happening.
There’s no actual evidence of problematic patterns related to the vaccines used in the United States beyond the rare issue that emerged with the Johnson & Johnson shot. But if you want to claim that there is something dubious about the vaccines, pointing to VAERS is useful, just as those who want to claim that voter fraud occurred find it useful to point to the hundreds of affidavits collected by President Donald Trump’s campaign in Michigan alleging weirdness in the 2020 election. Having a lot of information that doesn’t prove a point isn’t actually more useful than having only a little bit of information that doesn’t prove a point, but it seems like it is. So people elevate the numbers.
On Wednesday night, Fox News's Tucker Carlson became the most prominent person to raise questions about the coronavirus vaccines based on the VAERS data. Carlson has hundreds of thousands of viewers a night, a platform he's repeatedly offered to Berenson. That scale gives his skepticism about the vaccine a particularly dangerous tinge so, in short order, multiple reporters including our Aaron Blake debunked Carlson's claims.
The Fox host was characteristically unchastened on his Thursday show. Instead of admitting that he was basing his wild rhetoric on flawed assumptions and dubious data, he blamed the Biden administration for making the dubious data available. He then adopted his go-to fallback position of covering his own tail.
The vaccine is “a medicine that’s being distributed to, as the president said the other day, 70 percent of the U.S. population,” Carlson said, making it “fair to ask how much harm will this medicine cause? But again, no one has told us. Their position is, you don’t need to know the rate of injury. That doesn’t matter. Anyone who asks about harm is immoral. That’s what they’re arguing.”
“If you ever find yourself arguing that, then you will know for certain you have lost the thread,” he continued. “You are no longer at that point advocating for public health, you’re doing something else entirely.”
This, too, is characteristic. Everyone who is a critic of Carlson is engaged in some devious effort to undermine him and his supporters, the truth-teller and the real Americans. The hyper-wealthy host of a popular cable-news show somehow still manages to stand athwart the establishment, fighting for truth in the face of a shadowy left-wing cabal.
Or, maybe, Carlson's claim is nonsense. Maybe it's not that the position of health-care professionals is not “you don’t need to know the rate of injury,” it's that “these numbers by themselves don't actual tell us the rate of injury.” Maybe the issue isn't that they're trying to hide the ball; maybe it's that they object to a guy eternally trying to keep his viewers on the verge of taking to the streets with pitchforks from casually misrepresenting data to keep his Nielsen ratings up.
In a sense, it's been useful to have Carlson misinterpret bad data because it reveals how he approaches his job. It's a direct example of how he cherry-picks information to make a point centered on tearing down his perceived opponents and agitating his audience.
We can point to other examples, like his embrace of the “replacement theory” of immigration that's popular among white nationalists. Carlson has argued that Democrats embrace new immigrants to replace White Americans because they will otherwise lose elections. This is a particularly gross bit of nativism, but it's also dumb. Democrats control the House (having earned nearly 5 million more votes in House races nationally in 2020), the Senate (despite the extent to which the chamber is weighted in favor of rural Republican states) and the White House (with Biden beating Trump by 7 million votes last year). If Democrats are doomed to losing elections, no one told the voters.
Carlson also amplified Trump's claims that the 2020 election was stolen in the days after Biden was declared the winner. At one point, he elevated claims touted by Trump's campaign that certain dead people had voted in Atlanta. When those voters turned up very much alive in a local television interview, Carlson was forced to sheepishly admit his mistake. But, he added after his apology, “a whole bunch of dead people did vote” — which is also not true.
The pattern here is consistent. Carlson makes a visceral argument that he claims is centered on some demonstrable evidence, scoffing at the idea that he's doing anything other than giving it to his viewers straight. Implying that it is his opponents who are defying reality to carry out their destructive plans. After even slight scrutiny, those claims collapse, threatening to take Carlson's argument with them. But he just slices off the withered evidence and continues with the original claim as though it was still robust.
It remains unclear the extent to which Carlson is simply reflecting his own angry worldview and how much he's adopting that worldview to keep his audience engaged. The net effect is the same.
But the VAERS example, in particular, serves as a useful reminder that any claim from Carlson that is presented as being rooted in objective analysis is worth considering with a grain of salt. It’s possible — just possible! — that he’s cherry-picking to make a rhetorical point.
And to paraphrase Tucker Carlson, you are no longer at that point doing journalism. You’re doing something else entirely.