Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I pretty much never wrote about Tucker Carlson, the Fox News pundit who’s made a name for himself in the last several years promoting Donald Trump, white supremacist conspiracy theories, and fascism. Since the pandemic, he has become arguably the most watched source of COVID-19 and antivax disinformation laden with a heaping helping of fascist quackery involving testicular tanning. (No, I’m not kidding about that last bit.) Unfortunately, since COVID-19, what 15 years ago were what I considered some of the most tired (and bonkers) antivax talking points are now mainstream Republican beliefs. To demonstrate this, let me refer to Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show last night, specifically this clip from it in which he attacks the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization practices, or ACIP:
Those of us who have been keeping tabs on the antivaccine movement will immediately recognize the technique, which is, in essence, to lie (either by omission or actively) about ACIP recommendations as being a “mandate.” One also notes that Carlson, by weaponizing his huge media platform against ACIP, is inviting harassment of the scientists who are part of the committee.
Before I move on to the content and an explanation of why what Carlson and Dr. Makary are serving up is nothing more than hoary antivax disinformation that was old when I first started paying attention to the antivaccine movement, I can’t help but add an an aside and laugh at Dr. Makary’s sarcastic question, “Why even have an FDA?” Why? Simple. Right wingers have long been trying to weaken or even neutralize the FDA’s ability to regulate drugs, and public health advocates and those of us who believe in a strong FDA that approves drugs based on strong evidence of efficacy and safety were alarmed at the politicization of the FDA and CDC resulting in the emergency use approval (EUA) of at least one ineffective COVID-19 drug with no data by the Trump administration, as well as by its efforts to weaken the FDA even before the pandemic, starting with its consideration for FDA Commissioner of a man who wanted to replace all those pesky randomized clinical trials with a “Yelp for drugs.” Indeed, long before the pandemic, it was a not infrequent right wing talking point to falsely claim that the FDA kills more people than it saves because it is so slow to approve “life-saving” drugs.
Of course, attacking ACIP is, as I said, a hoary antivax strategy that in the years before the pandemic usually took the form of antivaxxers trying their damnedest to get as many of the public comment slots for every ACIP meeting considering a new vaccine to be added to the CDC schedule and then using that time to repeat antivaccine disinformation. One striking example of this tactic occurred about a year before COVID-19 hit the US, as demonstrated by a Facebook group called Inundate the CDC ACIP Meetings. I wrote about it at the time, describing how antivaxxers used the group (and other Facebook groups) to plan now to “inundate” ACIP meetings and then use the results as propaganda. Also back in the day, that wretched hive of scum and antivax quackery, Age of Autism, used to do the same thing, rallying its readers to flood ACIP meetings with comments, resulting in antivaxxers at times being able to face the committee with accusations of illegal human experimentation (which was basically the gist of Tucker Carlson’s rant and interview with Marty Makary)— a.k.a., the “Nuremberg 2.0 gambit“—and then post videos proudly bragging about having “dropped the mic at ACIP.“
Yesterday, this exhortation appeared in Inundate the CDC ACIP Meetings:
And here’s an example from 2019:
Meanwhile on antivax Substack (but I repeat myself), an antivaxxer going by the ‘nym The Vigilant Fox, uses the same language about today’s meeting urging people to Inundate the CDC, Save the Children: Here’s How You Can Be a Pest for the Pharma Criminals. Truly, everything old is new again, and there is nothing new under the antivax sun.
On another occasion in 2018, antivaxxers targeted ACIP members, specifically Dr. Paul Offit, who has long been a focus of antivaccine ire, so that its members showed up to harass him at events where he was scheduled to speak.
Since COVID-19 hit, this tactic has only escalated. For example, less than a year ago, after ACIP recommended adding COVID-19 vaccines to the CDC immunization schedule for 5-11 year old children, the attacks intensified, with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. portraying ACIP as in the thrall of big pharma. Unsurprisingly, that’s the same message that we’re getting from Tucker Carlson. Let’s take a look at the disinformation. Before I do, though, I’m going to point out that I’m not going to litigate the case for adding the updated COVID-19 for children, as this is a point that can be argued between reasonable people. Moreover, the discussion going on today will go into a lot of detail about the evidence, which makes Marty Makary’s claim that there’s “no evidence” to support adding the vaccine to the CDC schedule a bit premature. I mean, why not wait until the evidence for and against has been presented and then judge? That’s not what Carlson (or Makary) is about, though. They’re about minimizing COVID-19, demonizing public health interventions against the pandemic, and, in particular now, fear mongering about vaccines in the name of “freedom” and portraying vaccine mandates of any kind as an unacceptable assault on liberty.
Indeed, the graphic behind Carlson as he starts his segment—”Your kids, our rules”— gives the game away. Carlson’s intent is not to tell the truth, but rather to portray any recommendation from ACIP that any COVID-19 vaccine be added to the CDC recommended immunization schedule as incipient tyranny in which the federal government will send jackbooted thugs to forcibly vaccinate your children with horrific “gene therapy” that will “permanently alter their DNA.” (I exaggerate, but not by much.)
He lies right from the start, too, while adding conspiracism about this story being “buried”:
So here’s an amazing story that’s been effectively buried. This week the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is expected to add the COVID-19 vax to the list of required childhood vaccines. If this happens, your children will not be able to attend school without taking the COVID shot.
I’m going to stop right here and point out the lies. First, ACIP does not “mandate” anything, and the placement of a given vaccine on the CDC schedule does not mean that it will be mandated for school. ACIP only advises—it’s right there in the name of the committee, “advisory”!—and cannot mandate anything. It is the individual states that determine which vaccines will be mandated for school attendance, not the CDC. While it is true that many states basically use the CDC immunization schedule as the blueprint for determining which vaccines are required for children to be allowed to attend school, again, it is not the CDC that “mandates” anything. No doubt Carlson knows that. (He’s not stupid, just a malignantly clever propagandist, after all.) However, Carlson also knows that his viewers hate and fear the federal government and federal mandates far more than anything individual states might do; so he plays up that angle, intentionally misrepresenting what ACIP does as a “mandate.” He also lies when he says there is “no medical basis for this decision whatsoever.” Again, we can argue if the evidence is sufficiently compelling to justify adding COVID-19 vaccines to the immunization schedule for children, but to say there is “no medical basis whatsoever” is incorrect and, coming from Carlson, likely an outright lie.
During the interview, Carlson gets Dr. Makary to attack big pharma for supposedly foisting this horrific turn of events on the country by claiming that ACIP will just buy whatever big pharma tells it to. That is, of course, a talking point that antivaxxers have rallied against ACIP for as long as I can remember. Basically, Dr. Makary claims that pharma called the White House and that the White House called the CDC and told ACIP to get on board with adding this vaccine to the schedule. Dr. Makary even characterized ACIP as a “kangaroo court,” claiming that you have to be an “official card-carrying vaccine fanatic” to be on the committee and that the committee will never allow anyone on it who thinks that “some vaccines are important and others lack the evidence to support broad distribution.” So apparently to be on ACIP, you not only have to be in the pocket of big pharma but also have to pass an ideological test.
As is typical, the whole “pharma capture” attack on ACIP ignores certain inconvenient facts, such as the very stringent conflict of interest reporting rules governing committee members and how ACIP pharma representatives are non-voting members of the committee.
To be sure, near the end of his disinformation- and antivax talking point-filled tirade, Dr. Makary does contradict Carlson’s initial framing by saying (correctly) that if the ACIP votes to add the COVID-19 vaccine to its routine schedule, then it will be up to the states to decide whether to mandate the vaccine or not for school. Of course, the contradiction will not register among Carlson’s audience, nor does it really matter. The message is all, and contradictions ignored.
Watching Carlson, I started to wonder what year this is, as attacks on ACIP like his date back to the very earliest days of this blog (and beyond), as was pointed out on Twitter:
I remember when ACIP was considering whether to add Gardasil to the CDC immunization schedule well over a decade ago antivaxxers were making the very same claims about the committee. The difference between then and now, however, is that then these claims were correctly viewed as fringe and came from antivaccine groups like the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) and the like. Today they come from an entire right-wing ecosystem, including a major political party. They are repeated day after day on social media and night after night on shows put on by right wing pundits, the most popular of which is Tucker Carlson’s show.