Fox News treats its viewers as fools with latest vaccine disinformation campaign

No one has more contempt for everyday GOP voters than the smirking conservative elites at Fox News

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published July 20, 2021 1:00PM (EDT)

Brian Kilmeade, Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Brian Kilmeade, Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

On air, the Fox News attitude about COVID-19 vaccines is one of pure loathing. Popular prime time hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham routinely suggest that the vaccines don't work, which is flatly false. In almost 60% of their segments about the vaccine, a recent analysis found, the network has pushed an anti-vaccination message, falsely implying the shots are dangerous or unnecessary.

Fox News has framed the vaccine in highly emotional culture war terms, with the shot presented to viewers like other made-up panics, such as "cancel culture" or "critical race theory." They are all a direct threat to the precious but poorly defined "freedom" that liberals supposedly want to snatch away. Viewers are made to feel that, by rejecting the vaccine, they are proving their conservative bona fides, sticking it to the liberals, and being the best MAGAs helping to make America great again. 

But when the cameras are off at Fox News, suddenly everything changes. The vaccine is no longer regarded as a dangerous threat to Mom and apple pie, but a common-sense health intervention backed up by medical science. As CNN reported on Monday, Fox News — while decrying "vaccine passports" on-air — has been using a vaccine passport among their own staff since early June. Vaccinated employees who get what is called the FOX Clear Pass "are allowed to bypass the otherwise required daily health screening" and basically return to normal life inside the Fox offices. 

This reporting caused rounds of completely justified outrage among liberals online, with "hypocrites" being the preferred term thrown around. But really, what the folks at Fox News are up to is much worse than garden variety hypocrisy. The whole thing is a dark reminder that the well-heeled pundits and corporate executives at Fox News have almost bottomless contempt for their own viewers, who they see as a bunch of gullible rubes to be exploited and discarded as needed for profit and political gain. Indeed, they hold their viewers in such low regard that they will happily talk their viewers into contracting a highly contagious, extremely dangerous, and easily prevented disease — for no other purpose than creating headaches for a Democratic president and, quite likely, the cheap thrill of having so much power over other people. 

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The worst part is that the numbers are only giving the Fox News elites more justification for the derision they have for their viewers. Polling shows over 86% of Democrats have gotten at least one vaccine, while only 45% of Republicans have. To make it worse, only 6% of Democrats reject the vaccine outright, whereas 47% of Republicans say they are unlikely to get vaccinated. 

We all have heard over and over about the grave dangers of "liberal condescension," which is commonly blamed for Republican misbehavior as if Republicans weren't full adults responsible for their own decisions. In a recent piece for National Review Online, Michael Brendan Dougherty laid the blame for vaccine rejection at the feet of those promoting vaccines, writing that "attempts to answer skepticism or understand it end up poisoned by condescension" and that outreach to anti-vaxxers "feels like lowering themselves to answer people they believe to be less intelligent."

Dougherty, in a feat of truly spectacular bad faith, failed to acknowledge the two-ton elephant in the room, even as its manure is filling up the joint and getting people killed: That the main reason Republicans aren't getting vaccinated is that both Republican politicians and right-wing media are basically telling them not to. Oh, sure, they rarely come right out and say, "Don't get the shot." But Fox News is very good at getting that message across all the same, with segments that frame the shots as ineffective, dangerous, and a threat to "freedom". 

"These segments amount to permission slips for unvaccinated viewers, telling them that they have good reasons not to get their shots and that the people trying to convince them otherwise are just trying to control them," Matt Gertz at Media Matters writes, citing recent segments on Fox News in which talking heads lied and told viewers the shots don't work very well and COVID-19 isn't that dangerous anyway. 

Liberal condescension may be a factor, but the ugly truth is that it's utterly dwarfed by the condescension — indeed, outright contempt — that conservative elites have for consumers of right-wing media. On Monday, morning host Brian Kilmeade came right out and said that if unvaccinated people are dying of COVID-19, then that's "their choice." Laura Ingraham gleefully distorts statistics to argue that there are doubts about "the efficacy of the vaccine itself among adults." There are not — over 99% of people hospitalized or dying are unvaccinated — but Ingraham, full of contempt for her audience's intelligence, assumes they can't or won't engage the actual statistical evidence. 

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And Tucker Carlson, the biggest anti-vaccine voice on Fox News, clearly thinks this is all a fun game he's playing with people's lives.

To be certain, the viewers of Fox News are not blameless ciphers, innocently doing what they're told out of an abundance of trust for their beloved TV personalities. Like all good con artists, the pundits at Fox News know to target the worst instincts in their marks — venality, egotism, and sadism. The anti-vaccine propaganda on Fox News works so well because it lures their viewers into believing they're in on the con. Viewers are led to believe that, by refusing to get the shot, they're getting one over on those namby-pamby Democrats. They're so caught up in the liberal-triggering that they fail to notice that the people being fed to the virus are themselves. 

That's why this dynamic is so toxic.

It's hard to feel sorry for the rubes that make up the Fox News audience, because their mean-spirited nature is what makes them such easy marks. No doubt that's also how the Fox News elites sleep at night, by convincing themselves that the people they're bamboozling have it coming. Hard to argue against the contempt they have for their audience, when their audience is driven by such contemptible impulses. 

Liberals often talk down to conservatives like they're stupid, no doubt. But liberal condescension towards conservatives cannot hold a candle to the contempt that conservatives have for each other, especially when we're talking about the contempt that Republican elites have for their everyday voters. They see each other as soulless assholes driven by pettiness and greed — and they often have a point. But the problem here is that it's causing a rat's nest of bad people talking other bad people into making bad choices, all feeding on each other's ugliest instincts. And now it's spiraled so out of control it's turned into a death cult. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Brian Kilmeade Commentary Covid-19 Fox News Laura Ingraham Tucker Carlson Vaccines