Late last month, as the Delta variant of the coronavirus filled hospitals across the under-vaccinated South, Tucker Carlson took to his usual perch as the most-watched host on the most-watched cable-news network, just asking questions about the COVID-19 vaccines. “Tonight, congressional Democrats have called for a vaccine mandate in Congress,” Carlson said, as if flabbergasted by every word. “Members and staffers would be required to get a shot that the CDC told us today doesn’t work very well and, by the way, whose long-term effects cannot be known.” (The CDC did not say this.)
Carlson’s Facebook followers commented eagerly on the video clip, spreading unfounded fears about vaccination among themselves. “Completely disappointed in our government, don’t believe a word they speak! Will not get the shot!” one person wrote. Together, Carlson and his viewers are a placenta and embryo, gestating dangerous ideas and keeping the pandemic alive.
It’s no secret that Carlson’s audience, and Fox’s, are overwhelmingly Republican and right-wing. And in poll after poll, Republicans are much less likely than Democrats to say they have been vaccinated and much more likely to say they definitely won’t be vaccinated. The partisan gap in vaccinations has only grown over time.
Some hard-core Carlson fans have been vaccinated, of course. Understanding how they made their decisions about vaccination could be the key to getting other Republicans on board—and, ultimately, to getting the country to herd immunity. In the past week, I’ve spoken with more than a dozen Trump voters, most of them regular watchers of Tucker Carlson Tonight who say they’ve been fully vaccinated. I found most of them through Twitter, which is not ideal because Twitter users are wealthier, younger, and more educated than the general population. However, this perhaps explains why their thoughts don’t resemble those on Carlson’s Facebook fan page.
Despite their love of Carlson, my interviewees had somehow heard accurate information about vaccines. They weren’t worried about being magnetized or microchipped or otherwise maimed by the federal government. Certain elements of their lives worked in favor of vaccination: Everyone I spoke with said their family members were also vaccinated, and they all read or watch other news in addition to Carlson’s show.
Most of the vaccinated Tucker viewers see the show primarily as a form of entertainment. They like that Carlson veers offbeat, like the time he claimed the National Security Agency spied on him, and that he sticks it to the libs a little. They find other media commentators condescending. Where liberals see an angry, deluded racist, conservatives see a politically incorrect Jon Stewart. These Carlson fans don’t look to him as a source of genuine vaccine information, but as a funny id who stirs things up. “A lot of modern American conservative thought tends to be a little bit contrarian,” said Carter Sibley, a 46-year-old Californian who got vaccinated in April, “and folks who are inclined to question the mainstream line.”
But one factor seemed to have played the biggest role in my interviewees’ decision to get vaccinated: a genuine fear of COVID-19. My interviewees said they got vaccinated because they knew themselves to be at risk, wanted to protect others, or simply had no problem with vaccines. “I grew up in a generation where, when the vaccination comes out, you get it,” said Tom Busyn, a 54-year-old in Minnesota. The fact that the vaccine is not yet fully FDA approved did not give him pause. “I knew that I was basically a guinea pig, and it didn’t bother me.”
Most did not agree with what Carlson has said about the COVID-19 vaccines, but they support his right to question them, to play devil’s advocate. “Let’s THINK for ourselves, and ask questions about things we don’t understand or need more information about,” a 50-something in New York named Maureen Westphal told me via email.
Despite these viewers’ assertions that they don’t take the network’s shows seriously, Fox News appears to have deepened the partisan vaccination divide. Fox hosts—especially Carlson—have repeatedly downplayed COVID-19 and raised questions about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines. A new working paper, which has not yet been peer reviewed, found that higher viewership of Fox News within a county was associated with lower COVID-19 vaccination rates. The effect could not be explained by differences in partisanship, local health policies, preexisting vaccine hesitancy, or local COVID-19 death rates. A peer-reviewed study published this past February found that Fox News viewers were less likely to say they intended to get vaccinated than CNN or MSNBC viewers were.
This is just the latest sign that news consumption is influencing Americans’ pandemic behavior. Last year, a working paper found that a 10 percent increase in Fox News viewership in an area led to a 1.3-percentage-point reduction in adherence to stay-at-home orders. (A similar paper published around the same time found roughly the same thing.) Another study found that conservative-media use, including watching Fox News, was correlated with believing conspiracy theories, such as the idea that the CDC was exaggerating the seriousness of the virus in order to undermine Trump’s presidency. Fox News viewers were more likely than those who watched CNN or MSNBC to say that the media had “greatly exaggerated” the risks of COVID-19, according to a Pew survey released last year.
It’s not clear whether Fox News makes people believe conspiracies or whether the type of people who believe conspiracies are likelier to watch Fox News. In response to a request for comment, a Fox spokesperson pointed to past comments by Carlson in which he says he is in favor of vaccines, in general, and acknowledges that the COVID-19 vaccine may have some benefits. The spokesperson also sent me surveys showing that people who get their news from Fox were more likely to get vaccinated than those who watched far-right news sources such as One America News Network, watched no TV news, or got their news from Facebook. But the network’s critics aren’t persuaded. Most of the examples that Fox likes to cite to argue that its personalities are pro-vaccination are “either taken out of context or sandwiched in between coverage attacking vaccines or undermining public health,” Angelo Carusone, the president of the progressive media watchdog Media Matters for America, told me. And even the valid examples, he said, “are a drop in a bucket compared to Fox News personalities’ efforts undermining the vaccine.”
The power of shows like Carlson’s is less in the information they offer than in the assumptions they perpetuate, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “If you hear the word lie tied to Anthony Fauci, and Anthony Fauci now comes on in a completely different venue, the assumption is, you can’t trust Anthony Fauci,” she says.
As Jamieson suspected, the Fox News viewers I spoke with deem most politicians hypocritical and mendacious. Several mentioned, unprompted, the time Vice President Kamala Harris said during a debate last October that she wouldn’t take a vaccine just because Trump told her to. They hate the back-and-forth on masks, the liberal officials who closed beaches without evidence, and, yes, the constant media appearances of Fauci, whom they see more as an emblem of the Democrats than as a renowned scientist. They brought up the times that liberals bent COVID-19 rules in their favor while bashing conservatives who did the same. “BLM protests don’t spread the virus, or they do but it’s worth it because that Target ain’t gonna burn itself, or something,” said Tom Paynter, a 50-year-old in Washington State.
This distrust is why, perhaps, my interviewees overwhelmingly oppose government vaccine mandates. In fact, they said they wished government officials would stop encouraging, coercing, or otherwise telling people to get vaccinated—even if that means more people die. Freebies don’t appeal to them, either. “Is the Biden administration saying that Republicans and other demographic groups are too stupid to get the life-saving message but greedy enough to want $100?” Michael J. Rosen, a 60-year-old in Philadelphia, wrote via email. Give it some time, they said. Let people make their own choices.
Republicans aren’t the only group who are vaccine hesitant, of course. As many white Republicans have pointed out, Black Americans, who disproportionately vote Democrat, are less likely than Hispanic, white, or Asian Americans to have been vaccinated. Medicine’s long history of racism helps explain, if not justify, why many African Americans are now wary of a government-run program to inject something into them. “There’s a fear that they’re in some kind of project, some kind of test,” says Jodi Faustlin, the CEO of the Center for Primary Care in Evans, Georgia, where the vaccination rate is 39 percent. “That’s particularly among our African American population.”
Republican vaccine hesitancy is more confounding, though, because the COVID-19 vaccines were developed under a Republican president, and conservatives have no obvious reason to be vaccine-averse. In fact, during the presidency of George W. Bush, Republicans were more likely to believe in the safety of certain vaccines, such as for smallpox, than Democrats were.
Some experts tacitly agree with my vaccinated Tucker fans that it’s too late for the media or the government to try to persuade people who don’t like the media or the government. Some suggested moving vaccination out of large pharmacies and into the offices of private doctors, who might be more trusted among conservatives. But even this move is unlikely to reach everyone: A quarter of Americans don’t have a primary-care doctor.
A strategy based on fear might be more likely to succeed. Older Republicans seem, rationally, more afraid of COVID-19 than younger Republicans are. The partisan difference in vaccination status is not as large among older Americans: More than 63 percent of senior citizens in Trump-voting counties have been vaccinated, compared with about 71 percent of those in counties that went for Biden, according to a May poll. The paper on Fox News’s vaccination impact also shows the effect was strongest among people under 65.
Some experts, despairing at the huge numbers of people who haven’t gotten their shots, now recommend essentially scaring the young and unvaccinated into vaccinating, perhaps by hammering home the threat of long COVID. Older Republicans remember children paralyzed by polio; maybe younger Republicans could be introduced to 40-year-old long-COVID patients who haven’t breathed properly in a year. “If you’ve lost taste and smell, that’s some sort of neurological involvement,” says Brian Castrucci, the president of the de Beaumont Foundation, which has polled Republicans about their views on vaccination. “Does that just go away?” COVID-19 needs a “Magic Johnson moment” for younger adults, he told me, referring to the basketball star who, by revealing his HIV diagnosis, convinced young men of the seriousness of the virus in the early ’90s.
For some Americans, the recent rise of the Delta variant appears to be one such moment. In Enterprise, Alabama, where only 36 percent of people are vaccinated and where 73 percent of people voted for Trump in 2020, a family doctor named Beverly Jordan had a day recently in which every patient had either already been vaccinated or received a shot that day. “That was just a wonderful day,” she told me. “I went home so excited because I felt like we’d really turned a corner.” As Tucker Carlson knows well, fear can be persuasive.