Fox News primetime star Tucker Carlson has been credited with pushing President Donald Trump to take the coronavirus pandemic seriously and has received mainstream media plaudits for seemingly calling out his own colleagues for actively downplaying the outbreak.
Yet, while Carlson has been applauded for preaching concern about the viral outbreak while his fellow pro-Trump hosts on the network attempted to dismiss the COVID-19 fears as a partisan ploy, he has actually played both sides for his audience, giving voice to reckless conspiracies, unserious characters with no expertise, and wholly dangerous rhetoric.
Earlier this month, as confirmed cases and deaths began surging across the country, Carlson gained widespread acclaim when he called out those “minimizing” COVID-19, calling the pandemic a “very serious problem.” It was seen at the time that Carlson was calling out both Trump and many of his Fox News colleagues—without naming them, of course—for reacting inappropriately to the impending crisis.
That March 9 monologue apparently helped prompt the president to finally take action on the pandemic after waving it away for weeks, with White House sources saying Carlson’s segment was a “turning point” for Trump. The Fox News host, who has informally advised the president on other matters in the past, also traveled down to Mar-a-Lago the previous weekend to convince the president about the gravity of the situation, later saying he felt it was his “moral obligation” to do so.
As a result, Carlson has been the focus of several largely sympathetic portraits and interviews in the mainstream press. Various outlets remarked positively on Carlson’s “moral obligation” to convince Trump to take the crisis seriously, with some noting that the Fox host “admirably focused” on pandemic from the beginning.
The Fox host’s portrayal in the media as courageously standing alone among his overtly pro-Trump primetime brethren has rankled network brass. According to The New York Times, the network’s PR chief Irena Briganti has complained about Carlson “casting himself to reporters as a heroic truth-teller in contrast with other hosts.”
While it is true that Carlson was essentially alone among the network’s key stars in sounding the alarm on coronavirus—for instance, now-former Fox Business host Trish Regan labeled it an “impeachment scam” the same time Carlson was declaring the pandemic was “real”—his early warnings also revolved around peddling baseless conspiracies and blaming “woke” politics for the spread of the virus.
Throughout February, Carlson floated the debunked theory that the virus was created by the Chinese government in a research laboratory, potentially as a bioweapon against the United States. The theory began making rounds in the right-wing media ecosystem after former Trump adviser Steve Bannon began pushing it on his radio show.
Despite a medical expert shooting down the now-debunked theory earlier in the month, Carlson continued to peddle it on subsequent broadcasts. On Feb. 18, Carlson hosted The Washington Times’ Bill Gertz, whose specious reporting was the basis of Bannon’s theory, to discuss his speculation. During the interview, the Fox host claimed unnamed “experts” were considering the possibility the virus was created in a Chinese lab while adding it is “worth getting to the bottom of.”
When he wasn’t wildly speculating that the virus was a Chinese bioweapon, Carlson also spent weeks blaming “diversity” for the virus. Taking aim at progressive writers who warned against racist attacks in the wake of the pandemic—hate crimes against Asian-Americans have been on the rise—Carlson groused that “identity politics trumped public health and not for the first time.”
“Wokeness is a cult,” he added. “They would let you die before they admitted that diversity is not our strength.”
He would continue to blame “identity politics” for the spread of the virus, resulting in him at one point turning to conservative columnist Eddie Scarry—best-known as the “AOC creepshot guy”—for coronavirus expertise in late February. As financial markets started to experience record drops over COVID-19 fears, Carlson gave primetime airspace to the Examiner writer, who called the disease the “Commie cough” while claiming it originated from Chinese people eating skunks. Carlson, meanwhile, applauded Scarry, claiming “everything” he said “is true” as the trollish columnist railed against political correctness and its supposed impact on the health crisis.
In the wake of his call for conservatives to take coronavirus seriously, Carlson kept blasting “wokeness” as one of the central causes of the disease’s spread, at one point insisting that not calling it the “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” could literally kill people. “In times of crisis euphemisms kill,” he said. “You need accuracy and clear language in the way you talk about the threat. It’s essential.” He later applauded Trump for publicly using the term “Chinese virus.”
Moreover, and more recently, Carlson seemed to backpedal on his “serious” concerns over the pandemic this week.
With the president’s declared desire for an early end to social distancing restrictions, many conservatives backed Trump’s push despite the warning of public health experts.
During last Monday’s broadcast of his show, Carlson brought on Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to defend the president’s suggestion, who subsequently said that elderly people such as himself would be willing to die from coronavirus to save America’s economy for their grandkids.
“No one reached out to me and said as a senior citizen, ‘Are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’” Patrick said. “And if that is the exchange, I’m all in.”
At the end of the segment, Carlson nodded along with Patrick and added: “We really needed to hear that perspective.”
The following night, Carlson hosted Fox News analyst Brit Hume to defend Patrick’s comments after they sparked controversy. In Hume’s opinion, Patrick saying grandparents were willing to sacrifice themselves to reopen the economy was an “extremely reasonable viewpoint.” Carlson, for his part, seemed confused why the lieutenant governor’s remarks “enrages so many people,” prompting Hume to say it was due to anti-Trump sentiment.
Other guests that appeared this past week to share their coronavirus wisdom included comedian Adam Carrola, goofy podcaster Dave Rubin, and talk-radio blowhard Buck Sexton.
But Carlson’s newfound reputation as a sober and earnest broker on the crisis perhaps looked the silliest on Wednesday when he brought on a self-proclaimed “corona truther” to wax poetic on self-isolation.
Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy, a notorious troll and semi-regular guest of Carlson’s, showed up to talk about how he has taken a “financial beating” because the casino business is currently down—before discussing his choice of sweatpants and his TV-viewing habits.
Prior to his Carlson appearance, Portnoy had spent weeks mocking concerns about the pandemic, comparing the virus to “the common cold” and saying he didn’t “care about the people dying... I just care about my wallet.”
In fact, just two weeks before appearing on Tucker’s primetime show, Portnoy griped about the NBA suspending its season amid the outbreak, calling himself a “corona truther” and insisting that concern over the virus—which has now killed over 25,000 people worldwide—is either a “fraud, overreaction, or media concoction.”
Carlson may have won media plaudits for his early concerns about the pandemic, but a closer look at his overall coverage proves we shouldn’t be so easily fooled.