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Tucker Carlson spreads an already debunked claim about covid-19 deaths

Tucker Carlson, in an image from his Jan. 10 show. (Fox News)
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Monday evening brought something special to Fox News’s prime-time lineup. Tucker Carlson’s program was a “special edition,” as text displayed at one point on the show’s lower-third suggested, on “the left’s politicization of the coronavirus.” In reality, however, the show was a very good example of its usual focus: Carlson’s politicizing the coronavirus in service of the political right.

There’s a very concrete example of that effort from Monday’s show. It’s an example that makes obvious how concerned Carlson and his team are about accuracy (not terribly) but also how difficult it can be to uproot misinformation.

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You may have seen a snippet of an interview from ABC’s “Good Morning America” in which Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, described the role of comorbidities — other illnesses — in coronavirus deaths. If you didn’t see it, here’s the Republican National Committee sharing it on social media.

It’s worth stopping for a minute and considering why the RNC determined this was worth sharing. Why does a political party view it as useful to elevate an assertion that covid-19 deaths are mainly linked to already sick people? The answer, of course, is that the Republican Party is fully invested in downplaying the danger of the virus to cast President Biden as overreaching. If only the very sick are dying, then efforts to contain the virus broadly are less urgent.

Except, as HotAir’s pseudonymous writer Allahpundit pointed out Monday afternoon, this isn’t what Walensky was saying. She was referring to a study that evaluated 1.2 million adults who had been vaccinated, only 36 of whom died of covid-19. It was among those 36 vaccinated individuals that three-quarters (28 in total) had four or more comorbidities.

Part of the problem lies with how “Good Morning America” edited the clip. The RNC’s clip is what aired Friday morning, without the context that Walensky was referring solely to deaths among the vaccinated. The show subsequently released a full version of the interview that made that clear.

Allahpundit’s article was published about 4 p.m. Monday and began making the rounds on social media. The full interview was published by ABC on YouTube about 6 p.m. And then, at 8 p.m., Carlson aired the original excerpt from Friday morning to the same end as that tweet from the RNC.

Carlson claimed to have emails sent during the Trump administration that showed an official questioning the CDC’s inclusion of certain deaths as being a function of covid-19. This has been a long-standing line of rhetoric among those looking to downplay the effects of the virus, one that is easily debunked. He then pivoted to the Walensky video.

“Now, over a year later, with Trump safely out of office,” Carlson said in introducing the segment, “the CDC is publicly acknowledging: Yeah, they lied.”

Of course, even if Walensky had been talking broadly about the role of comorbidities, that’s not a “lie.” The CDC has tracked data on the extent of confounding illnesses since at least May 2020, as you can see in this archived version of their website. From the earliest days of the pandemic, it was understood that older, less healthy people faced a higher risk from the virus.

Here, for example, was President Donald Trump, speaking on Feb. 29, 2020, shortly after the first recorded covid-19 death in the United States.

“Unfortunately, one person passed away overnight. She was a wonderful woman — a medically high-risk patient in her late fifties,” Trump said. (The decedent was actually a man; the CDC took the blame for the mistake.)

“Additional cases in the United States are likely, but healthy individuals should be able to fully recover,” he continued. “… Healthy people, if you’re healthy, you will probably go through a process and you’ll be fine.”

Over and over, it was recognized that covid-19 was more dangerous for those who were sick and, over and over, that those who were sick or otherwise unhealthy were dying at higher rates. That’s the data the CDC has been collecting. (You can see the current numbers here.)

At the National Review, Philip Klein points out that Carlson wasn’t alone. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) shared the same clip shortly before 9 p.m. Monday, adding a bit of feisty commentary.

“Some of us have been saying this” for two years, Cruz wrote on Twitter. “Dems & corporate media said we [were] nuts. Now, without the slightest hint of shame, they admit it.”

Cruz, without the slightest hint of shame, later deleted his tweet.

The challenge here is not that misinformation spreads readily on social media. That’s known. The challenge is similarly not that “Good Morning America’s” original edit was misleading, contributing to the problem. The challenge is that institutions that Americans should be able to rely on as purveyors of accurate information are, instead, serving the opposite role. The problem is that the RNC’s misleading tweet is still up. The problem is that Carlson’s producers pulled the clip from ABC News — but somehow missed that ABC News had already released a fuller version of the interview specifically because it was being misrepresented.

You know who recognized that the clip was misleading? Fox News, which ran an article Monday afternoon in which the context for Walensky’s comments was made clear. Granted, even that article tried to play up some uncertainty in what Walensky had said; her comments, the article’s headline states, “spark[ed] confusion.” But the article included an on-record response from the CDC making clear the context — well before Carlson’s show aired.

Perhaps Carlson will issue a correction in his program Tuesday. Or, perhaps, the network will simply rely on its past defense of Carlson: that viewers should know better than to assume that he’s presenting factual information.