In early March, while President Donald Trump’s loudest allies at Fox News downplayed the coronavirus pandemic, with some claiming it was nothing more than an “impeachment scam” to destroy the president, Tucker Carlson received widespread—and unusual, considering his notoriously far-right rhetoric—praise for calling out his colleagues and Trump for “minimizing” the impending danger.
The Fox News primetime star continues to receive plaudits for reportedly convincing the president to take the crisis seriously. Days after that March 9 monologue, which was delivered shortly after Carlson privately spoke with Trump about the virus, the president publicly addressed the nation and his administration began pushing social-distancing guidelines.
While Carlson sounding the alarm so early on may have a had a positive impact (on his viewers, especially, as studies show his audience took protective measures before Trump confidant Sean Hannity’s), it didn’t take long for the right-wing TV host to shift gears and rage against social distancing, lockdowns, and any other measure implemented to slow the spread of the virus.
Over the past two months, Carlson has devoted much of his coronavirus coverage to discrediting public-health experts, specifically top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House coronavirus task force. On top of telling his audience to stop listening to Fauci and other health officials, the Fox News star has repeatedly boosted a fellow contrarian, former New York Times reporter-turned-spy-novelist Alex Berenson, as an expert on COVID-19.
Less than a month after his much-lauded call to action on the virus, Carlson declared the crisis to be over—a claim that received far less attention from the mainstream press than his rogue stance against the president. Despite the United States having already experienced 13,000 deaths by that point, Carlson pointed to revised models that showed fewer estimated deaths, claiming stay-at-home orders should be eased because the “short-term crisis may have passed.”
Since the Fox star’s assertion that the pandemic was over and it was time to go back to business as usual, the nation has suffered roughly 115,000 more deaths and at least two million more confirmed cases.
Carlson, in his quest to convince viewers that social distancing was futile and lockdowns were useless, began taking aim at Fauci almost immediately, framing the Medal of Freedom honoree as a power-hungry bureaucrat. Furthermore, the conservative talk-show host repeatedly portrayed the top doctor as incompetent and unknowledgeable about infectious diseases.
One way Carlson often sharply criticized the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases was by highlighting his shifting opinions on the virus as more information became known about the disease. In particular, he hit Fauci for initially saying mask-wearing was unnecessary—a position the renowned immunologist quickly reversed, as have other health officials who initially worried that masks might instill a false sense of security.
At one point in mid-May, after Sen. Rand Paul dressed down Fauci in a Senate hearing, Carlson applauded the pro-Trump Republican before delivering his own lengthy takedown of Fauci, arguing that the top doctor’s advice was “buffoon-level stuff” and later describing him as “the chief buffoon of the professional class.” Weeks earlier, Carlson called it “national suicide” for Fauci to urge aggressive social-distancing restrictions.
“We should never let someone like that run this country,” he fumed.
In addition to repeatedly dismissing social distancing, Carlson has also told his viewers that the virus is just not that deadly, even as the death toll continues to rise. In late April, for instance, Carlson pointed to some antibody studies—which have since largely been dismissed due to a large number of false-positive statistical errors—and the laughable claims made by a pair of California doctors who pushed for reopening by claiming the disease “just isn’t nearly as deadly as we thought it was.”
The segment was steeped in so much disinformation on the disease that MSNBC host Chris Hayes, Carlson’s direct 8 p.m. time slot competitor, directly called him out for peddling “coronavirus trutherism.”
“There is a reason many of the employees of Fox News, which is based in New York, are working from home right now,” Hayes pointedly stated. “At least someone there understands why it is important to continue to keep physical distance.”
Weeks later, Carlson again pointed to antibody tests and cherry-picked surveys to claim the deadly virus was relatively tame.
“We now know, thanks to widespread blood testing, that the virus isn't that deadly,” he said on May 21. “An enormous percentage of coronavirus infections produce mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, they're asymptomatic. The death toll is a tiny fraction of what we were told it would be.”
Carlson, meanwhile, has also seemed more than willing to spread the idea that the death toll—which is now approaching 130,000—is overinflated and possibly a hoax, despite overwhelming evidence showing it has likely been undercounted. Besides giving airtime to “COVID Contrarian” Berenson, who has repeatedly suggested the death toll is inflated or would remain low, he has also hosted Fox News senior political analyst Brit Hume to make those same claims.
“Dr. Birx said tonight during the briefing at the White House that all deaths from anyone who died with coronavirus is counted as if the person died from coronavirus. Now, we all know that isn’t true,” Hume said on April 7 before relaying anecdotal evidence: “I remember my own doctor telling me at one point when I was discussing prostate issues, he said about prostate cancer—I didn't have it, as it happened, but he said, ‘You know, a lot more people die with it than die from it.’”
Amid nationwide unrest in recent weeks following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, Carlson has spent far more time demonizing the Black Lives Matter movement than covering the outbreak of new coronavirus cases, many of which are occurring in the states that rushed to reopen.
When the Fox host did shift from fear-mongering about a race war to cover the virus, however, he actively minimized the damage of the pandemic while once again claiming lockdowns do not work.
Just as multiple states began seeing a massive uptick in confirmed cases after restrictions were eased and celebrations were held for Memorial Day weekend, Carlson definitively declared social-distancing rules to be useless.
“We do think it’s worth, for a minute, taking a pause to assess whether or not they were in fact lying to us about the coronavirus and our response to it,” he said on June 10, complaining of a double standard in how lockdown protests and police brutality demonstrations were portrayed in the media. “And the short answer to this is: Yes, they were definitely lying.”
“As a matter of public health, we can say conclusively the lockdowns were not necessary. In fact, we can prove that and here’s the most powerful evidence: states that never locked down at all, states where people were allowed to live like Americans and not cower indoors alone, in the end turned out no worse than states that had mandatory quarantines, the state you probably live in,” Carlson continued. “The states that did lock down at first but were quick to reopen have not seen explosions of coronavirus cases.”
Since making that proclamation, Florida, Texas, and Arizona have all set single-day records for confirmed cases, and have reported newly overwhelmed hospitals and ICU capacity.
Presented with Carlson’s repeated claims that social distancing and stay-at-home orders were unnecessary, Dr. Irwin Redlener, a Daily Beast contributor and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, outright dismissed the TV host’s analysis.
“Tucker Carson is one of the most fervent anti-science commentators on the airway,” the public-health activist told The Daily Beast. “He, like Sean Hannity, seems to relish in unwavering support for Donald Trump, no matter how outlandish, dishonest or ignorant the president’s statements or policies might be. I assume that Tucker is probably a bright guy, but his uncritical support of Trump is a dangerous disservice to his audience.”
While Carlson has privately advised the president on several issues and is regularly cited on the president's Twitter account, he has also stood out among his Fox primetime peers in offering up criticism of Trump. Besides subtly calling the president out over his COVID-19 response, Carlson has also knocked the president for not being tough enough in dealing with the protests, arguing that his weak response is placing him on a trajectory to lose.
An analysis from Columbia University, meanwhile, has found that if the United States had implemented physical-distancing guidelines just one week earlier in March, as many as 36,000 American lives could have been saved.
As Carlson has dismissed the expertise of epidemiologists and scientists, while boosting spy novelists and talking heads, he has occasionally sought the advice of actual medical professionals to provide pandemic analysis. One of the most frequent voices on his show in this respect has been Fox News medical contributor Dr. Marc Siegel.
The Fox News primetime star has blasted Fauci and others for their inaccurate predictions and so-called buffoonery, but he apparently doesn’t have an issue with Siegel’s history of comically over-the-top projections and medical punditry that seems to bend over backwards to please the Fox audience.
For example, Siegel, who infamously said in March that the “worst-case” for coronavirus is that it “will be the flu,” told Carlson last month that “we're not going to have a big second wave,” citing the low number of cases in Australia. “That’s the southern hemisphere,” he said. “That’s essentially our November right now.”
He would eventually walk back that claim on Carlson’s show days later, noting that Brazil—which is also in the southern hemisphere—was experiencing a huge surge in cases.
And last week, Siegel lashed out at the European Union for moving to ban American visitors due to the latest rise in cases. “Could this be retaliatory? Possibly,” he huffed. “Could it be public health? Whatever it is, it is not the tone they sounded back in March, when they were horrified at our travel ban, at a time when thousands and thousands of cases were coming here.”
And then the unmistakably Carlson-esque reactionary barb. “So I have a message for the European Union tonight: How about remembering what we did for you in the middle of the 20th century?”