Nearly 3 million people tuned in to Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show on the evening of June 2, a number equivalent to nearly 1 percent of the country. Among the things those viewers heard from Carlson that night was a staggering accusation of duplicity if not illegality on the part of the country’s top infectious-disease expert, Anthony S. Fauci.

Carlson accused Fauci of lying under oath, of lying during a news conference and of being somehow implicated in criminal activity based on the contents of a number of emails released publicly under a Freedom of Information Act request. Those emails included a heavy dose of redacted sections — one such section itself prompted Carlson’s speculation about criminality — but included enough Lego pieces for Carlson to build what he wanted to build.

What evidence was there, for example, for Carlson to imply that Fauci believed that the coronavirus had been created in a Chinese lab and, further, that it was a product of “gain of function” research, something Fauci denied during a Senate hearing? It centered on a Feb. 1, 2020, call among a number of researchers. The evening before the call, a scientist named Kristian Andersen emailed Fauci, saying in part that “some of the features [of the coronavirus] (potentially) look engineered.”

On the morning of the call, Fauci emailed his deputy about wanting to check in, including an attachment titled, “Baric, Shi, et al - Nature medicine - SARS gain of function.pdf.” And then there was the call itself, a discussion that Carlson claimed was declared to be “top secret.”

I’m making this sound more innocuous than Carlson did. (You can read what he said, if you wish.) It’s the nature of my medium versus his that it sounds more innocuous. He can contextualize his statements with intonations and facial expression that I can’t. His presentation included a number of grainy-emails-with-block-yellow-highlighting graphics that are useful for both validating claims and leveraging the aesthetic of a piece of evidence from a criminal trial.

Carlson necessarily can’t dive as deeply into this subject as I can, since television conveys information far less densely than does the written word. (It would take you a lot longer to read this paragraph out loud than it would to simply read it to yourself, for example.) But he didn’t give it much effort, and the result was that those 3 million viewers probably would have been left with the impression that Carlson had proved remarkable dishonesty on the part of Fauci.

He did not.

On Tuesday, The Washington Post published a report looking more closely at that Feb. 1 call.

“On that teleconference — the first known effort by senior U.S. and international health officials to determine whether human engineering or a laboratory leak might explain the emergence of the virus — most of the experts, including Fauci, concluded that the virus had probably evolved in nature and was transmitted from an animal to a human,” our Yasmeen Abutaleb and Shane Harris report. "... The effort continued over the following weeks, when the scientists unanimously concluded there was no evidence of lab manipulation.”

That assessment of the call was given to Abutaleb and Harris by Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. There’s no valid reason to assume that it’s untrue. It’s corroborated by research published in mid-March 2020 that determined that the virus “is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.” The first name listed among the researchers who staked their reputations on that document is Kristian Andersen’s.

This research was publicly available when Carlson put together his June 2 broadcast, but there’s no indication that his team sought it out. After all, his claim that Fauci had lied during a Senate hearing was based on the filename of an attachment Fauci sent in an email. That filename may well have been a reference to 2015 research not obviously related to the coronavirus that emerged in 2019 — research that was also something Carlson’s team could have dug up.

As for the call being “top secret,” that was a function of the call’s nongovernmental organizer asking participants to not discuss it until there was “agreement on next steps,” which is not the sort of prohibition that’s going to get you sent to prison for espionage.

The rest of Carlson’s attack is no more solidly grounded. In mid-April 2020, Fauci said during a news conference that the virus’s evolution was “totally consistent with a jump of a species from an animal to a human.” The source for that assertion was the research of “highly qualified evolutionary virologists,” presumably the group including Andersen that had published the prior month. Carlson declared that Fauci’s assertion was “a lie.”

It’s very important to note that this was not simply Carlson arguing on behalf of the theory that the virus leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China. He is arguing specifically on behalf of the idea that it was engineered in that lab and, further, that Fauci knew it was and was hiding it from the public. This distinction is important to Carlson because a leak from a Chinese lab mostly implicates China, while claims that it was instead engineered might implicate a broader range of actors including, in some iterations, members of the U.S. government.

China's foreign ministry hit back at the United States on May 27 after President Biden ordered an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. (Reuters)

The question of where the virus originated is in vogue, thanks in part to a report from the Wall Street Journal elevating a murky allegation about sick workers from that Wuhan lab and certainly thanks in part to the receding threat of the virus in the United States, giving more space to a wider range of discussions about it.

It’s also a central topic at the moment because it serves the eternally useful role of media criticism. Early in the pandemic, arguments that the virus was engineered were at times conflated with arguments that the virus might have escaped from the lab, and that blended position was dismissed as conspiratorial. This has since been efficiently unpacked, with writers across the political spectrum offering pointed criticism of how the lab-leak theory was handled for different reasons. For mainstream journalists, for example, it offers a moment of self-correction. For writers on the left and particularly on the right, it offers a chance to disparage the mainstream.

Remarkably, the pendulum on the lab-leak theory — which is still viable, although the consensus seems to still be that a natural origin was more likely — has swung to the opposite pole. For former president Donald Trump, for example, criticism alleging that the media was wrong allows him to claim that he was right, even though, as The Post’s Aaron Blake wrote, Trump didn’t actually talk much about the virus’s origin in the first place.

For Carlson’s claim that the virus was engineered to be true, it’s necessary that the lab-leak theory be true. But even if that theory is being given more oxygen at the moment, it’s not the case that there’s robust new evidence in favor of the virus being engineered. To some extent, Carlson (and, apparently, Jon Stewart) are doing what the media is accused of doing, but in reverse: conflating lab-leak with the idea that the virus was engineered, hoping that the renewed speculation about the former amplifies the odds of the latter.

This new focus on the virus leaking from a lab also coincides with the expanded criticism of Fauci following that public release of his emails. There’s nothing definitive in them one way or the other, but the existence of any sort of surface to which claims of dishonesty can be attached has allowed Fauci’s critics (long encouraged by Trump) to run wild.

There will be no moment of self-correction from Carlson following his obviously exaggerated if not demonstrably false and dangerous assertions about Fauci. There is no real effort by Carlson to ensure that his rhetoric is accurate, something that even Fox News’s lawyers admitted in court.

Two weeks ago, when Carlson called Fauci a liar and a fraud, the Fox News host was a loud voice in a clamor focused on wild misinterpretations of a few emails. Millions of people watched him make his sloppy case. And then Carlson moved on, leaving everyone else to deal with the aftermath.