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Tucker Carlson airs his most dishonest and dangerous pandemic segment yet

Fox News host Tucker Carlson. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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Tucker Carlson and Alex Berenson approach the coronavirus pandemic from similar, though slightly different, angles. The Fox News host’s default position is that the government is wrong and untrustworthy, up to something, although it’s not always clear exactly what that’s supposed to be. Berenson, whose robust track record of misinformation has contributed to his being relegated to self-publishing his opinions at Substack, comes from the position that he alone is right, the sole bright light wending through a dark time. Together, they have formed a Jack-Spratian marriage of leading Fox News viewers astray.

In the past, this has meant Carlson doing his nodding-while-stunned routine while Berenson makes claims such as this: that face masks don’t slow the spread of the virus (they do). On Tuesday night, though, Berenson’s predilection for apocalyptic proclamations led to one of the most dishonest and dangerous segments in the history of Carlson’s show — which is a high, high bar to clear.

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The subject was vaccines, a response to the coronavirus pandemic that Berenson has for months sought to undercut. He was on Carlson’s program in November, in fact, claiming that evidence was waning that the vaccines prevented serious injury or death but, you know, even if they did, it’s still “your own personal choice” whether you want to die, struggling to breathe in a crowded intensive care unit, intubated, your family sobbing as they watch through a nearby window. Up to you.

Now, though, Berenson has taken it further.

“I have not said this to you before, because I’m pretty careful, and I’m pretty careful with the data,” Berenson claimed, falsely. “The mRNA covid vaccines need to be withdrawn from the market now. No one should get them. No one should get boosted. No one should get double-boosted. They are a dangerous and ineffective product at this point against omicron,” the most prevalent variant in the United States.

Myocarditis can be a side effect of coronavirus vaccines. But experts agree that the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the rare and often mild risks. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post, Photo: Jackie Lay/The Washington Post)

I want to be careful here not to overstate the case. But Berenson’s career is now largely predicated on precisely this sort of denialism. It’s what powers his Substack subscriptions; it’s what gets him on Carlson’s show; it’s what landed him an interview with Joe Rogan. And when your profile and income are predicated on claiming that you alone are standing athwart a global conspiracy, there is a tendency to continue to amplify your assertions to keep the audience on the hook.

For the audience, the thrill is being part of the elite few who see behind the curtain. In an insightful Twitter thread, writer Julian Sanchez labeled this “cinematic epistemology,” a belief system rooted in the assumption that the world works the way action movies do. That, in other words, Berenson is the protagonist who will soon reveal that the heavy machinery of government has long been up to no good, deceiving the public. In reality, of course, Berenson and those like him are simply leveraging this impulse for attention and money.

Like, why is the government engaged in this conspiracy? What’s the value? The incentive system for Berenson and for Carlson is obvious and immediate. The putative incentive system for the government is murky to the point of pitch-blackness. It’s entirely “Bourne Identity”-level theorizing without the benefit of any actual exposition proving that some nefarious official at the CDC is watching his plan come to fruition.

I’ve probably gone further than I should have in not rebutting Berenson’s actual claims. So let’s.

First, he asserts that because of the structure of the omicron variant, the mRNA vaccines don’t work against it. This is untrue. Here, for example, is Pfizer’s analysis of the efficacy of its vaccine. If your response is well, of course they’d say that, I would ask you to consider the long-term implications for a corporation that lied about the utility of its medical product in so transparent a way that a guy with a blog could prove them wrong.

At another point, Berenson claimed that evidence from other countries showed that broad vaccination didn’t keep people out of the hospital.

“Just look at the chart of what’s happened in Israel in the last couple of weeks,” Berenson said. “This is a country that’s 90-percent-plus adult vaccinated, more than half adult boosted. These are the levels that the Democrats would love to achieve in the United States. It’s not just that it doesn’t make any difference. It seems to be making the situation worse.”

So what’s happened in Israel in the last couple of weeks? Well, here’s an article from Haaretz less than two weeks ago. In short, “only 14 percent of Israelis over 20 are unvaccinated, yet they account for 45 percent of serious COVID cases,” it reads. Also: “81 percent of patients in the hospital on ventilators are either not vaccinated at all or only partially vaccinated.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention releases data on the comparable infection and death rates for those who are and are not vaccinated in the United States. Data on deaths lag significantly and so far don’t include the omicron surge. For the week ending Dec. 25, though, the rate of infection among the unvaccinated was more than twice the rate of infection among the vaccinated. Separate CDC analysis published last week found that “a third dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna shots reduces the chance of hospitalization by 90 percent compared to unvaccinated people, and reduces the chance of a trip to the emergency room by 82 percent,” as The Post reported.

Carlson asked Berenson the obvious follow-up question to his claims (though, of course, he didn’t challenge the claims themselves): What’s the danger of the vaccine? Berenson’s breathless insistence that the vaccines were not effective and were harmful demands an explanation of why they do harm even if they don’t do good.

Berenson’s response? Because of well-established instances of heart inflammation following vaccine doses. He framed this in the most alarmist way possible, in keeping with his general tenor: A new report just out found that myocarditis increased 50 to 100 times over normal!!!!!!!!!!!! And then we look at the report, which is here, and we learn that there were about 1,626 incidents reported among 192,405,448 vaccine recipients. The highest rate was among those ages 16 and 17, where myocarditis emerged about 106 times for every million vaccine doses. There were no confirmed deaths.

You might remember this issue from a viral snippet of Joe Rogan’s podcast in which a guest informs Rogan of research indicating that covid-19 infections led to more myocarditis cases than did vaccinations.

It’s really important here to remember the broader context. This is not simply Berenson off writing newsletters to people who pay him money to immerse them in a through-the-looking-glass fantasy of the world. This is the most popular show on the most-watched cable news network, a show that on Jan. 18 pulled in nearly 3.5 million viewers.

This is a show that has consistently amplified misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic and vaccinations, in particular. It is a show hosted by a man who keeps inviting Berenson on, despite his proven track record of misinformation and cherry-picking. It’s a show in which Berenson’s claims went unchallenged.

The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that 163,000 deaths in the United States could have been prevented had the decedents simply chosen to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Those are figures centered on the delta variant and not omicron, certainly, and it’s not yet clear how many lives omicron is likely to take.

But it is safe to say that someone watching Carlson’s show on Tuesday is going to be less likely to get vaccinated, not more. That someone who might have been thinking about getting vaccinated now may not. That someone at risk may go unprotected. That someone unprotected might die.

This has happened with Carlson’s rhetoric before.

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