The morning anchor’s plea was urgent and framed in the starkest of terms: Get the Covid-19 vaccine, or you could die. “It will save your life,” he said on Tuesday, echoing a now-common refrain in the news media as the highly contagious delta variant drives a rise in coronavirus infections.
But the messenger in this case was Steve Doocy, the conservative co-host of Fox & Friends, and the venue was Fox News, the Rupert Murdoch-owned network whose stars have often relayed the view that vaccines can be dangerous and Americans are justified in refusing them.
Doocy was not the only big Fox News personality to intensify his warnings about the coronavirus this week. Sean Hannity urged viewers on Monday to "please take Covid seriously – I can't say it enough". He added: "I believe in the science of vaccination."
With views on vaccines increasingly split along partisan lines, some leading Republicans have grown alarmed at the deadly toll of the virus in conservative states and districts
Fox News has not changed overnight. When Doocy made similar remarks on Monday, his co-host Brian Kilmeade issued a counterpoint, telling viewers to "make your own decision" and adding, "We are not doctors." Laura Ingraham, whose 10pm show follows Hannity, accused Democrats on Monday of trying to "de-platform, cancel, defame or eliminate inconvenient opinions regarding their Covid response".
Still, the comments from Hannity and Doocy turned some heads. Fox News has faced heavy criticism in recent days over its vaccine coverage, including a denunciation on the Senate floor and accusations of hypocrisy after a memo revealed that its own employees would be allowed to go maskless in the office if vaccinated. And with views on vaccines increasingly split along partisan lines, some leading Republicans have grown alarmed at the deadly toll of the virus in conservative states and districts.
The Biden administration, which has criticised the spread of Covid-related misinformation, has focused on Fox News' coverage, given the channel's influence with conservative viewers who have expressed scepticism about vaccines. The White House organised an informational briefing for Fox News producers and journalists this spring with several officials who are helping with the coronavirus response.
The administration has held similar discussions with other networks. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said on Tuesday that her team recognised "the importance of reaching Fox's audience about the Covid-19 vaccines and their benefits". She added: "We don't see vaccines as a political issue. It's an issue about keeping Americans safe."
The conversations have not included Murdoch or his elder son, Lachlan Murdoch, who runs the channel with his father. Nor did they involve senior Biden advisers such as the chief of staff, Ronald Klain. "There have been no high-level conversations between Fox News Media and the White House regarding our coverage," Fox News said in a statement. "We had one routine briefing with the White House in early May on vaccination rates, and our DC bureau personnel are regularly in touch with them on a variety of issues, as is the case with every other network."
Ring-wing media outlet Breitbart News still features articles on its website grouped under the category Mask/Vax Cult
Aides to president Joe Biden say they are wary of criticising Fox News directly, reasoning that it would be counterproductive to promoting a pro-vaccine message to Fox News viewers. "We need every media platform to step up and ensure their coverage provides accurate, objective information," a White House spokesperson, Kevin Munoz, said in a statement that avoided an aggressive attack against Fox News. "As with any misinformation, we don't shy away from calling it out."
Some right-wing media outlets have generated mixed coverage in recent days about vaccines. Breitbart News, for instance, still features articles on its website grouped under the category Mask/Vax Cult. But Newsmax, a cable network whose opinion shows run further to the right than Fox News, ran an essay on Tuesday by its chief executive, Christopher Ruddy, that praised Biden's vaccination efforts.
"I myself have gotten the Pfizer vaccine," Ruddy wrote in the piece, which was published on the Newsmax website. "There's no question in my mind, countless lives would have been saved if the vaccine was available earlier." Ruddy said the White House had not contacted Newsmax regarding its coronavirus coverage. He said he wanted to credit Biden for "doing a good job", though he also cautioned that his network would not censor alternative views. "I don't want to be the thought police," he said.
Fox News has produced its own 30-second vaccine public service announcement, featuring hosts and anchors Doocy, Harris Faulkner, Dana Perino and John Roberts. "If you can, get the vaccine," Faulkner says in the ad. Anchor Bret Baier said in April that he was "grateful" to be vaccinated. Hannity and Doocy have previously told viewers to consider whether a vaccination would be beneficial to their lives and their families.
Tucker Carlson, Fox News' highest-rated host, told viewers, We're not saying there is no benefit to the vaccine – there may well be profound benefits to the vaccine
On Monday’s Fox & Friends, Doocy echoed government officials in noting that nearly all coronavirus deaths now involve unvaccinated people. After acknowledging that some people, such as pregnant women, might be hesitant, he said: “Everybody else, if you have the chance, get the shot.” Doocy also cited examples of online disinformation claiming the vaccine is “killing lots of people” or “changes your DNA” or comes with “little microchips”.
"None of that is true," he said. In prime time, viewers heard a more sceptical message. Ingraham argued that vaccine proponents were trying to "frighten or pressure children, again, who face virtually no risk of serious illness". (More than 16,500 children have been hospitalised with Covid-19 in the United States, and more than 300 have died.) "What about the efficacy of the vaccine itself among adults?" she asked, going on to mention the several vaccinated members of the Texas Legislature who tested positive for the coronavirus over the weekend. (They are experiencing mild or no symptoms.)
“We want everyone to be healthy and safe and have their risk assessment done properly for themselves, for their doctors, all that,” Ingraham said. “But something’s going on here. Something’s going on here. And all they do is want to attack people who ask questions.”
One of Ingraham's guests was Alex Berenson, a former New York Times reporter and an author who, in the early days of the pandemic, argued that its seriousness was overblown by the media. He said characterising recent outbreaks as "the pandemic of the unvaccinated" was "simply a lie". (More than 600,000 people in the United States have died because of the virus. The five states with the worst current outbreaks have below-average vaccination rates.)
In his Monday monologue, Tucker Carlson, Fox News’ highest-rated host, told viewers, “We’re not saying there is no benefit to the vaccine – there may well be profound benefits to the vaccine.” He acknowledged that “various vaccines seem to lower the effects of the disease, make it less severe on people”, but he also brought up the Texas cases, saying, “It makes you wonder, how effective are those drugs anyway?”
Already, Fox employees are experiencing at least one benefit of vaccines. Megan Klein, a spokesperson for the Fox Corporation, said the company was allowing workers who voluntarily confirmed that they were vaccinated to skip wearing masks or social distancing, as local health guidelines permit. – New York Times