One prominent Fox News reporter even deleted a tweet suggesting that Powell’s death raised new questions about the vaccines. And Fox News media critic Howard Kurtz noted Powell’s condition and said of the vaccines, “Let’s not read anything more into it.”
Carlson did not get that memo. Despite all of it and the fact that his show aired a half-day after the corrective measures began, Carlson pressed forward Monday night by using Powell’s death to question the official case for the vaccines. And he did so while not once mentioning the crucial fact of Powell’s comorbidity.
“Like almost everyone his age, Colin Powell was fully vaccinated against covid, and yet according to his family and doctors, Colin Powell died of covid,” Carlson began.
He went on to say that Powell’s and the deaths of other vaccinated people “tells you you’ve been lied to. Vaccines may be highly useful for some people, but across a population, they do not solve covid.”
Carlson pressed forward by propping up the straw man that people were told the vaccines were a fail-safe — President Biden has sometimes exaggerated the protection the vaccines provide, but experts and studies have never said they’re 100 percent effective — and then promptly knocking it down.
But that straw man wasn’t Carlson’s worst journalistic sin Monday night; his failure to mention Powell’s cancer was. It was a textbook case of misleading with incomplete information. And given how well-publicized the debate was over Powell’s comorbidity throughout the day Monday — including among Carlson’s own colleagues — it’s difficult to believe the omission was not deliberate.
Carlson, of course, did have company in this.
Former CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson, who has often espoused vaccine skepticism, chimed in during the debate over how Powell’s death was being characterized. But her beef wasn’t with how Powell’s cancer wasn’t initially mentioned; it was with the idea that not enough media outlets had stated that he was fully vaccinated.
This was, in fact, a feature of much of the coverage and many headlines.
Despite focusing on the supposed omission, Attkisson never mentioned Powell’s cancer — including in a trio of additional tweets on the subject suggesting that the vaccines had been oversold.
One of the first Fox News hosts to have his commentary on Powell’s death blow up was Will Cain, who said shortly after the announcement Monday morning that it amounted to a “very high-profile example that’s going to require more truth.”
Cain might not have known at that point that Powell had cancer, but he returned to Fox News prime time Monday night to double down. This time he did mention Powell’s cancer, but then promptly swept it aside, going into detail on the effectiveness of vaccines without dwelling on Powell’s status as a special case.
“He may be an outlier,” Cain said. “Does this tell us anything about the effectiveness of the vaccine?”
The answer, of course, is that it might — but only in an extremely narrow way affecting very few people. As Kurtz noted, we probably shouldn’t extrapolate that on to others who haven’t had cancer.
Yet that’s what Cain proceeded to do, suggesting that we needed extensive details on when Powell was vaccinated, what kind of vaccine he got, whether he received a booster and other subjects.
“And by the way, speaking of Dr. [Anthony S.] Fauci and vaccine effectiveness, how effective overall are these vaccines?” Cain went on. “The headlines have shifted over the past 18 months. And look at these numbers. We have gone from implications that the vaccine was 100 percent effective to 90 percent, to 70 percent, to 60 percent, to 50 percent. … This does not inspire much confidence.”
Cain, like Carlson, proceeded to insist that his goal was not to be “leading you to vaccine hesitancy.” But also like Carlson’s, the thrust of his coverage was clear. It suggests we’ve been misled, while barraging us with questions that are themselves misleading and in many cases already answered.
For example, Cain holds out the declining efficacy of the vaccines as some kind of suspicious progression. But there are logical reasons for it, including that coronaviruses mutate (i.e. the delta variant), rendering the vaccines less effective, and that protection from many vaccines wanes over time.
The fact that a high-profile person died after receiving the vaccine is also hardly a shock or a repudiation of the experts, even if you set aside Powell’s cancer. We’ve had data for months showing that vaccinated people can indeed die of the coronavirus. It’s just that it’s significantly less likely — about 11 times less likely overall. This is from a government study back in August that is available for all to peruse. But suddenly the death of one person — a person who had cancer — is somehow “raising new questions” about the effectiveness of vaccines.
The game here is, indeed, to raise these questions without offering those logical and very available explanations — much like raising Powell’s death without mentioning his cancer. It’s to wink and nod at the more conspiratorial idea that headlines changing from 90 percent efficacy to 70 percent to 60 percent is some kind of unexplained phenomenon (or even evidence that the 90 percent numbers were lies), rather than real data from a well-studied and highly dynamic situation.