Fox News’ anti-vaccine coverage looks like it’s getting worse

Throughout the pandemic, a number of Fox News hosts have sowed doubt about Covid-19 vaccines and railed against vaccine mandates as a sign of looming totalitarianism. But there are signals that the network’s openness to anti-vaccine sentiment is intensifying, despite the fact that most Republicans have already received vaccinations. It raises the head-spinning possibility that our best defense against Covid is becoming more politicized even after it’s been widely adopted and proven to be safe and successful.

Most of Fox News’ vaccine fear-mongering and suspicion-sowing has long existed among its popular opinion shows like “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” But a Washington Post analysis reported that something “notable” is happening: an increasing tendency for anti-vaccine sentiment to “bleed into” stories tied to its hard-news coverage and the social media posts promoting them.

Since most Republicans are vaccinated, it would seem like the issue could’ve been primed for becoming less controversial over time.

Some may be surprised to hear about this distinction or acknowledge its legitimacy. But Fox News’ hard-news reporting online really does look different than the commentary you see on its major talk shows. The headlines, framing and focus of its stories are filtered through a hard-line right-wing lens, but the substance is more grounded in facts and not always baldly propagandistic in the same way its television punditry is. There may be an argument to be made that the hard-news operation is in fact more insidious for this very reason. But the point is the less bombastic hard-news division appears to be tilting more openly anti-vaccine.

As the Post analysis pointed out, for example, the Fox News Twitter account recently seemed to imply that comedian Heather McDonald’s fainting during a performance might be tied to her vaccination status (the news story it linked to supported no such claim). Another tweet and article described the story of a woman who got vaccinated in order to attend her daughter’s wedding dress fitting, only to experience substantial side effects (headaches and a spike in blood pressure, which her doctors reportedly attributed to the vaccine). The article was framed in an alarmist tone and lacked context about the rarity of severe side effects.

This development was not necessarily foreseeable. Fox is a company where over 90 percent of employees are vaccinated, and even some of its most abrasive contrarian hosts like Sean Hannity have announced that they believe in the efficacy of vaccines. The focus for some of its pundits has been on opposing mandates rather than explicitly objecting to the vaccine itself as a source of harm. And since most Republicans are at least partially vaccinated, it would seem like the issue could’ve been primed for becoming less controversial over time. So what’s happening?

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One possibility is that right-wing media is responding to perceived Covid policy fatigue — among its audience and the country more generally — and is more inclined to cast aspersions on anything related to changing American life in response to the pandemic. Vaccines are perhaps the most potent symbol of that, particularly as variants and boosters have raised questions of how often people will need to interface with and heed the guidance of a medical establishment that commands low levels of trust among the public. While most Republicans have received at least one vaccine dose, the overwhelming majority of them have not gotten boosters yet. The partisan gulf on vaccines has expanded over boosters.

Many right-wing pundits have taken pleasure in drawing attention to the limitations of the vaccines as a way to dunk on liberals.

Fox’s attitude toward vaccines might also be influenced by the early stirrings of the Republican 2024 presidential primary. In recent months, former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have taken different approaches to the vaccines, with Trump initially trying to argue that the vaccines worked and were an achievement he should be given credit for and DeSantis remaining conspicuously quiet on the matter. But more recently it looks like Trump may have caved, sensing that championing the vaccines could be a political liability, and has become quieter on the issue. The emerging analysis on the right could be that embracing vaccines could turn away some of the base.

Lastly, many right-wing pundits have taken pleasure in drawing attention to the limitations of the vaccines as a way to dunk on liberals and their allegiance to vaccines. While scientists have never claimed that vaccines were guaranteed to prevent infections altogether, or would render one immune to future variants, or could completely eliminate the chance of serious illness from Covid, right-wing pundits like Carlson have delighted in using those realities as a way to try to depict liberals as mendacious. Ultimately, they can use it to fuel mobilization against Democrats. The cost of this culture war is of course that conservatives will likely cool further on vaccines.

Vaccines are a potential source of polarization within the right, and some conservative institutions are making the calculation that it’s politically safer — and more profitable — to lean in to criticizing them than to appear to be supportive of them. Let’s hope the trend doesn’t hold.