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Don’t be fooled by that viral Hannity clip. Fox News’s Covid-19 coverage is a mess.

It’s good Hannity spoke out for vaccines. But Fox continues to be wildly irresponsible.

Hannity in 2020.
Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Fox News host Sean Hannity received a round of applause on Tuesday for comments he made Monday night urging his viewers to “please take Covid seriously” and telling them, “I believe in the science of vaccination” — remarks seemingly standing in contrast to the kind of vaccine skepticism Fox has been trafficking in for months now.

A clip of Hannity’s comments has been viewed more than 5.4 million times on Twitter as this is written, and was described as the “monologue of the night” by Politico.

Some observers interpreted that clip and others from Monday of Fox News personalities endorsing Covid-19 vaccines as evidence a change of tone is afoot at America’s most-watched cable news network. But don’t be fooled — Fox’s Covid-19 coverage is still a mess.

Consider, for instance, that the viral clip of Hannity talking about vaccines came immediately before he pivoted to a story about a college athlete who was temporarily paralyzed after she took a different sort of vaccine in 2019 — the subtext being that inoculations are more dangerous than the experts would have you believe and that mandates are ill-advised. (Hannity has previously tried to discredit Covid-19 vaccines by saying stuff like, “the great Dr. Fauci has been wrong so often” and proclaiming he was “beginning to have doubts” about getting the shot.)

Or consider, as Matt Gertz detailed for Media Matters, that Hannity’s comments were sandwiched between shows anchored by Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham that both pushed vaccine misinformation:

On Monday, Carlson revived his lie about a government database purportedly showing thousands of deaths from the vaccines and urged viewers to ignore journalists who are encouraging vaccination because they want to “make you comply,” over on-screen graphics reading “MANY VACCINATED PEOPLE ARE HOSPITALIZED” and “OUR LEADERS WANT US TO SHUT UP & NOT ASK QUESTIONS.” Ingraham’s broadcast likewise stressed reasons to question “the efficacy of the vaccine itself among adults.”

It’s true that Hannity was not the only Fox News personality to speak out on behalf of vaccines on Monday. While Hannity stopped sort of explicitly asking his viewers to get vaccinated, Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy went further and said, “If you have the chance, get the shot. It will save your life.”

But Doocy was undermined by Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade, who claimed in response that it’s not the government’s job “to protect anybody” and said of those who choose not to get vaccinated, “if you feel as though this is not something for you, don’t do it, but don’t affect my life.” (A person’s choice to not get vaccinated does in fact affect other people by making it more possible for deadlier mutations of the virus to develop.)

Later Monday, Kilmeade hosted an hour-long show in which he said things like, “Why does it matter how many Covid cases we have in this country?” and, “Since when do we count on the president of the United States for health care advice? Let me answer that, we do not.”

So while Doocy was praised by the Washington Post for his comments encouraging people to get vaccinated, Kilmeade’s vaccine skepticism was actually a more prominent theme of the network’s programming on Monday.

This sort of incoherency is a feature of Fox News, not a bug

Fox News didn’t immediately respond to a Vox request for comment about what guidelines, if any, hosts are provided about how to talk about Covid-19 and Covid-19 vaccines on their shows. (The disease continues to kill an average 268 Americans per day this week, and if trends from May hold, over 99 percent of those individuals are likely unvaccinated.)

But incoherency has been the hallmark of the network’s coverage since the beginning.

For instance, in March of last year, I wrote about how Hannity insisted he had “never called the virus a hoax” just nine days after he decried it as “this new hoax” that Democrats were using to “bludgeon Trump.”

Carlson, meanwhile, flip-flopped from saying “of course” masks work in March 2020 to proclaiming they “have no basis in science” just four months later. Though he reportedly directly urged then-President Donald Trump to take the coronavirus seriously in the early days of the pandemic, in recent weeks Carlson has repeatedly hyped unconfirmed and dubious self-reported accounts of vaccine side-effects to insist that getting inoculated is riskier than experts lead people to believe.

And as I detailed last December, a major theme of Fox’s Covid-19 coverage in the winter months was trying to reframe the pandemic not as a humanitarian disaster that at the time was killing more than 2,000 Americans daily, but as an economic problem created by Democrats that predominately hurt business owners and workers.

More recently, Fox’s approach has been to highlight rare negative reactions to the Covid-19 vaccine, ignoring the broader context that getting vaccinated is far safer than actually contracting the disease. The Food and Drug Administration, for example, recently reiterated that even after a new rare side effect of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was found, “the known and potential benefits clearly outweigh the known and potential risks.” Fox has also misleadingly suggested those who have had Covid-19 don’t need to get vaccinated.

Sprinkled amid all this vaccine skepticism and hostility have been out-of-context soundbites here and there from hosts (even including Carlson) that can be interpreted as endorsements of vaccines. These bites aren’t reflective of the network’s broader coverage of the pandemic but at least provide a pretext for Fox spokespeople to try and push back on claims its coverage has been irresponsible, and are good enough to convince casual observers of Fox that the network is pivoting.

Cues from elites — including Fox — matter

Carlson’s top-rated show is viewed by nearly 3 million viewers each night, and Hannity draws over 2.6 million. Furthermore, in 2019, the average age of a Fox News viewer was 65 — an age at which people are particularly at risk from the coronavirus, especially if unvaccinated.

Questioning the vaccine has consequences. As Philip Bump recently detailed for the Washington Post, there’s a correlation between Fox News viewership and vaccine hesitancy. So not only are the Carlsons and Kilmeades of the world putting the lives of their own viewers at risk by discouraging them from getting vaccinated, they’re jeopardizing everyone’s health and well-being by making it more difficult to reach herd immunity.

As my colleague German Lopez explained, cues like this from elites (like former President Donald Trump or cable news hosts) have had real consequences in polarizing how Americans responded to the pandemic — including, now, vaccines:

[T]he share of Republicans who reject the vaccine hasn’t significantly budged all year, remaining in the range of 41 to 46 percent.

Measuring the correlation between a state’s vaccination rate and 2020 election results, Masket found a coefficient of 0.85, with 1 meaning a one-to-one correlation and 0 representing no correlation. As Masket noted, “We almost never see this high a correlation between variables in the social sciences.” In fact, he added, “vaccination rates are a better predictor of the 2020 election than the 2000 election is. That is, if you want to know how a state voted in 2020, you can get more information from knowing its current vaccination rate than from knowing how it voted 20 years ago.”

Meanwhile, Ryan Grim of the Intercept reported on Monday that Fox News has implemented a Covid-19 vaccination passport program for its own workforce, suggesting it recognizes the value of vaccinations internally even while it pushes skepticism publicly.

Unsurprisingly, even as Hannity’s Monday comments were being applauded, Kilmeade on Tuesday’s edition of Fox & Friends continued to push vaccine skepticism.

“The vaccine is not nearly as effective against this delta variant as they say,” Kilmeade falsely claimed.

In reality, the CDC says the Covid-19 vaccines approved for emergency use in the US protect against severe hospitalization and death caused by all known variants. As is the case with much of the discussion of vaccines on Fox News, Kilmeade’s comments on Tuesday misleadingly conflated a positive Covid-19 case with a severe Covid-19 case, ignoring that while it’s still possible to get Covid-19 after being vaccinated, it’s much less likely that a case will result in hospitalization or death.