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Tucker Carlson will, often in tandem with Fox’s Laura Ingraham, sow doubt, John Doyle writes.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

For a guy who often bellows “Why can’t we ask these questions?” Tucker Carlson of Fox News is curiously hesitant to answer one specific question. He refuses to say whether he’s been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Carlson and other Fox News personalities are, in general, against mask wearing, dubious about vaccines, loathe the idea of lockdowns and despise vaccine passports. You’d get the impression they want the pandemic to go on and on, which may be their point. In the current version of the battle of the all-news channels in the United States, Fox News has staked a claim to supporting vaccine-hesitation. It sees this position as populist, anti-regulation and a ratings winner. As CNN, MSNBC and some individuals see it, Fox News has blood on its hands.

Carlson is at the centre of the controversy. In a rare interview with mainstream media recently, Carlson was asked by a writer for Time magazine if he’d been vaccinated. “Because I’m a polite person, I’m not going to ask you any super vulgar personal questions like that,” he replied. As he usually does, Carlson turned contrarian and said, “That’s like saying, ‘Do you have HIV?’ ” His answer to the vaccination question was an assertion that it’s nobody’s business.

What Carlson does, often in tandem with Fox’s Laura Ingraham, is sow doubt. It’s a very tricky route to take. Carlson doesn’t say outright that he’s scornful of vaccines. In fact, last December, when Donald Trump was still president and the vaccine rollout was under way (and the owner of Fox News, Rupert Murdoch, got his first vaccination shot in Britain), Carlson’s line was that there was just something dubious going on. On his show he told viewers: “So, how are the rest of us supposed to respond to a marketing campaign like this? Well, nervously. Even if you’re strongly supportive of vaccines, and we are, even if you recognize how many millions of lives have been saved over the past 50 years by vaccines, and we do, it all seems a bit much. It feels false, because it is. It’s too slick.”

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This month, he’s more direct. He has guests who assert that bad reactions to vaccines are underreported. And he said about the vaccine, directly addressing his viewers, “So maybe it doesn’t work, and they’re simply not telling you that.” This is anti-vaccination propaganda under the guise of what Carlson himself calls, “just asking questions.”

The vaccination campaign in the United States is slowing. That’s why President Joe Biden said recently, “We need to go to community-by-community, neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood and, often times, door-to-door, literally knocking on doors to get help to the remaining people protected from the virus.” To Carlson’s colleague Ingraham, this was a cue for outrage. “Going door-to-door? This is creepy stuff. Someone comes up to your door outside wearing a mask showing up at your house claiming to work for the government. Asking you personal medical questions. What could possibly go wrong there?”

From left: Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Maria Bartiromo, Stuart Varney, Neil Cavuto and Charles Payne. CNN is now busy calling out Fox News and Carlson, claiming the sowing of doubt is responsible for vaccine hesitation and, possibly, the deaths of people who watch Fox News.Erik McGregor/Sipa USA via Reuters

The couching of anti-vaccination promotion in the language of skepticism about government overreach is now a staple on Fox News. Even when Carlson is on one of his rants about “the media,” the following appears on-screen: “How much do we really know about the vaccine?”

CNN is now busy calling out Fox News and Carlson, claiming the sowing of doubt is responsible for vaccine hesitation and, possibly, the deaths of people who watch Fox News. CNN’s Jim Acosta played a clip of Carlson claiming that unless people “resist” they will be forced to get the vaccine. Then a medical doctor came on to call Carlson a “saboteur,” and called on Carlson to tell his viewers about his own vaccination status. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes is just one of the channel’s anchors who has attacked what Hayes says is “Tucker Carlson now trying to undermine the vaccines.” According to Hayes, “from the beginning, they [Fox News] have tried every single way of undermining the response to coronavirus.”

Brian Stelter of CNN, a favourite target of Fox News, has written, “Fox failed its viewers … at key moments during the pandemic. Four out of five Fox viewers were over the age of 55, in the demographic most at risk. Plus, the network was favoured by men, with 54-per-cent male viewership, and COVID-19 was much deadlier among men.” He went on to write, “As ICU admissions surged and the death toll rose, Fox’s most vociferous critics said the network had blood on its hands.”

That’s an incautious term. But it is not absurd. Of all the strange battles between the three main U.S. all-news channels, the one about vaccine misinformation might be the most serious and deadly. It’s about ratings and ego, as it always is. Fox News is back on top. That Time magazine piece called Carlson “the most powerful conservative in America.” He might well be, with Trump gone from social media and with Senator Mitch McConnell reduced to minority-leader status, Carlson has enormous power, and seems to want the want the pandemic to just keep going on.

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