The generally recognized idea behind the Sunday morning political talk shows is that they aim to be sober coverage of the week’s news from D.C. players who tend toward wonkiness instead of bomb-throwing. It’s an ideal that is rarely achieved, given how few people are really interested in detailed discussions about policy and how powerful the urge can be to pretend that politics is still mostly guided by reason.

Perhaps Fox News’s “Sunday Morning Futures” at one point in time was pointed in this direction. At the moment, it very much is not.

The show is hosted by Maria Bartiromo, whose insistence upon joining Fox seven years ago that she was “not changing” by joining the company seems to have mostly evaporated. During the Donald Trump era, Bartiromo has leaned into right-wing conspiracy theories and nonsense. “I’ve always been competitive when it comes to interviews, and I intend to remain the same person,” she said in 2014 … and then spent the tail end of Trump’s presidency nodding at and amplifying his false claims about election fraud and everything else.

Even with the adjusted baseline of what we might expect from Bartiromo, though, her show on Sunday was unexpectedly bizarre. That is in part because she was playing host to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who has only fairly recently learned the lesson that powered Trump’s ascent in the first place: Repeating false or nonsensical claims back to a base nourished on them by right-wing media gives you lots of attention and praise.

Bartiromo began by asking Johnson to weigh in on a rumor she had heard about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) retiring. (Bartiromo likes rumors.) Then came questions centered mostly on asking Johnson to riff on various issues of concern within the right-wing media bubble.

The apex of that pattern came mid-interview, when Bartiromo raised the subject of coronavirus vaccinations. She showed video from December of President-elect Joe Biden saying that he didn’t think vaccination should be mandatory and contrasted that with his recent comments about private-sector mandates.

“That, of course, was after he put that rule in that any company with 100 employees or more mandate that the employees get the vaccine,” Bartiromo said, pegging her insistence that Biden had “flip-flopped” on a misrepresentation of his rule (which would necessitate either vaccinations or weekly tests).

Johnson has for months amplified right-wing skepticism about the coronavirus vaccines and continued to do so to Bartiromo on Sunday.

“First of all, the mounting data shows that they’re not working or are as safe as we all hoped and prayed they would be,” he said of the vaccines, an assertion that depends very much on the baseline of how well one expected the vaccines to work. If you somehow expected them to be perfect, then, no, they haven’t met that standard — but the fault in that case doesn’t lie with the vaccine. Johnson went on to call the mandates “pointless” because we know “that fully vaccinated individuals are getting infected, they can transmit the disease, unfortunately, they are being hospitalized, they’re getting seriously ill, they’re dying. There’s no point to the mandate whatsoever.”

We don’t need to spend much time on this argument, one that stems from Johnson’s desire to be a contrarian on the vaccine but that collapses instantly upon consideration. The vaccine demonstrably saves lives, making those vaccinated safer but also, probably more importantly, tamping down on the spread of the virus more broadly, lowering the risk for everyone. But Johnson wants to be able to have people clap at him for his bold objections to people getting shots, so he collapses “the vaccine doesn’t keep literally everyone from dying” into “therefore we shouldn’t encourage vaccinations” and dusts off his hands.

How seriously does Johnson take his role as a political leader? He claimed to Bartiromo that there had been tens thousands of deaths “administering this vaccine” — data that comes from an unvalidated database (what he called an “early warning system”) that has been debunked as a useful indicator of danger tens of thousands of times.

Imagine if a restaurant set up a suggestion box in which it encouraged people to let it know if the food had made them sick. A bunch of people, trying to help, relayed incidents that might have been related but weren’t necessarily — upset stomachs two days later and so on. Then the restaurant’s competitors start stuffing the box with obvious nonsense to run up the number of complaints. And then a U.S. senator goes on TV to talk about how dangerous this restaurant is.

Johnson’s disinformation went further than that, as when he claimed that the fully FDA-approved vaccine from Pfizer isn’t the one being administered, though the branded iteration that is being rolled out is identical to the one millions have received. But then, on top of all of this — on top of an extended back-and-forth littered with false claims that went unchallenged by Bartiromo — came an exchange that pushed this episode of “Sunday Morning Futures” into legendary status.

“I have been asking the question, is the FDA in bed with Big Pharma?” Bartiromo said. “I mean, look, you were one of the first to say, let’s try ivermectin. This is a Merck drug. It’s been used on billions of people for other — for other disease. And Merck makes ivermectin. Now we see that’s off-patent. It’s only a couple of dollars a dose.”

“And yet they have got a new drug now, Merck does, that is $700 a dose,” she continued. “They’re going to be making big money on these vaccines and drugs, Pfizer and Moderna on the vaccines, and Merck on this drug as well. What happened to ivermectin?”

“Well,” Johnson replied, “there’s not money in it.”

Well, there’s also no robust evidence that ivermectin actually works at treating covid-19. That qualifier from Bartiromo that the anti-parisitic medication is useful for “other disease” is, in itself, the answer to the question. It’s as though people decided that Pepto-Bismol were an effective treatment for covid despite a lack of clinical trials proving that it was and then Bartiromo wondered why Big Pharma wasn’t selling people Pepto instead of medications aimed specifically at treating covid, like Merck’s molnupiravir. Are pharmaceutical companies pushing more expensive treatments that seem likely to work over cheaper ones that don’t? Sure, but it’s odd to think that it’s primarily because of cost.

And then things went downhill even faster.

JOHNSON: Here’s the stats on ivermectin. On the FDA’s early warning system, 379 deaths associated with ivermectin over 25 years...
BARTIROMO: Yes.
JOHNSON: ...379 vs. 16,766 for the COVID vaccine.
BARTIROMO: Wow.
JOHNSON: What is going on? Same thing with hydroxychloroquine.
BARTIROMO: I don't know, Senator.
JOHNSON: About 1, 600 voices — or 1,600 deaths.
BARTIROMO: Yes.
JOHNSON: So, again, there’s something going on here. I believe it’s — is sinister. I can’t explain it.
BARTIROMO: Yes.

Yes. Just typical Sunday morning political-show fare, a senator claiming that there’s something “sinister” about promoting a vaccine that’s safe and effective over drugs not proven to work in combating covid based on data from an easily manipulated data source — and the host nodding along without asking a single question.

Last week, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that 90,000 Americans died of covid this summer who might still be alive had they been vaccinated. Nonsensical claims like those offered by Bartiromo and Johnson obviously contribute to skepticism about the vaccines and, by extension, increase the odds that someone might decline to be vaccinated before contracting the disease and succumbing to it.

But instead of offering even an iota of pushback on Johnson, just one sentence contextualizing his claims, Bartiromo moved on. After all, she was running out of time and she still wanted to ask a question about Hunter Biden.