Former Fox News exec slams network over vaccine misinformation

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Washington: One of Rupert Murdoch’s former top executives says Fox News has cost lives by turbo-charging hesitancy about COVID-19 vaccines among conservative Americans.

Joseph Azam, a former senior vice president at News Corp in New York, said he saw a “straight line” between the vaccine-sceptical rhetoric of some of Fox’s most prominent hosts and entrenched resistance to vaccines in large swathes of the United States.

“I think Fox has been almost single-handedly responsible for the politicisation of public health in the US and the creation of vaccine hesitancy in a significant portion of the population,” Azam told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

“It’s been tremendously damaging.”

Former News Corp senior vice president Joseph Azam says he is alarmed by Fox News’s coverage of COVID-19 vaccines.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson, the most-watched cable news presenter in America, has suggested that COVID-19 vaccines may not work and claimed they had killed thousands of Americans.

In April, Carlson told his viewers: “If the vaccine is effective, there is no reason for people who’ve received a vaccine to wear masks or avoid physical contact.

“So maybe it doesn’t work, and they’re simply not telling you that. Well, you’d hate to think that, especially if you’ve gotten two shots. But what’s the other potential explanation? We can’t think of one.”

Fox News host Tucker Carlson has alarmed public health experts by questioning whether the COVID-19 vaccines work. Credit:AP

After his remarks prompted a backlash, Carlson later said he had never doubted that the vaccines work.

In May, quoting figures from an unverified federal database, Carlson said that 3362 people had “apparently” died after being vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The PolitiFact website rated Carlson’s claim as false and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that, after analysing the database, they had found no causal link between the deaths and COVID-19 vaccines.

Fellow prime-time host Laura Ingraham recently said that politicians and public health experts were pushing an “experimental drug on Americans against their will – threatening them, threatening to deprive them of basic liberties, if they don’t comply”.

Azam said that hosts such as Carlson and Ingraham had baulked at an opportunity to protect lives by championing the effectiveness of the vaccines.

“It’s like there is a burning inferno and there’s a crowd clamouring for them to call the fire department but they are wavering,” he said.

“Their tactic has been to sow doubt about the vaccine and the intentions of public health agencies.”

Dick Durbin, the second-most senior Democrat in the US Senate, this week called Carlson and Ingraham “anti-vax quacks” in a speech on the Senate floor.

“They have been spreading what I consider to be irresponsible information about vaccines across America and about the effort of this nation to deal with them,” Durbin said.

Polling suggests hosts such as Carlson and Ingraham are amplifying existing concerns about vaccines among conservatives voters rather than creating them.

A March poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found Fox News viewers were more likely to be “vaccine accepters” than conservatives who watch far-right channels such as Newsmax or who don’t watch television news.

Asked why 90-year old Rupert Murdoch, who was vaccinated in the United Kingdom in December, had allowed Fox hosts to promote doubts about the vaccines, Azam said: “I don’t think Rupert gives a damn about Americans. The calculation is a political one and a financial one.”

News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch received his first COVID-19 vaccine in the United Kingdom in December. Credit:AP

Scrutiny over the sources of coronavirus misinformation have become a political issue in Washington.

President Joe Biden said on Friday that social media networks are “killing people” by allowing the spread of misinformation about coronavirus vaccines.

“Look, the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated,” Biden said after he was asked about his message for tech companies as he departed the White House on Friday.

“And they’re killing people.”

Biden’s comments echoed those of Rochelle Walensky, the head of the CDC, who said the US is seeing a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” in parts of the country where inoculation rates are low.

The states with the lowest vaccination rates all voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 election and polls show Republicans are significantly more reluctant to getting vaccinated than Democrats or independents.

Azam said he believed the anti-vaccine messages on Fox were “all about undermining the Biden administration and denying Trump’s successor an opportunity to succeed”.

Their tactic has been to sow doubt about the vaccine and the intentions of public health agencies.

“If Trump had proposed going door to door to get people vaccinated, Fox would have said it showed how much he cares about ordinary people,” he said. “Now that Biden is doing it, it’s an attack on freedom.”

A Fox News spokeswoman pointed out that several Fox presenters appeared in a February public service announcement encouraging Americans to get vaccinated. The network also broadcast a town hall event aimed at dispelling myths about the vaccines, she said.

Prime-time host Sean Hannity has been notably positive about the vaccines, telling his viewers that he had been vaccinated and urging them to talk to their doctor about the issue.

Carlson, meanwhile, has bristled when asked if he has been vaccinated. “When was the last time you had sex with your wife and in what position?” Carlson replied when a New York Times columnist recently enquired about his vaccination status.

Azam quit his position at News Corp in late 2017 after publicly clashing with Carlson on Twitter over what he saw as the network’s demonisation of immigrants.

In June 2017 Carlson sent a tweet asking: “Why does America benefit from having tons of people from failing countries come here?”

Azam, who emigrated to the US from Afghanistan as a young child, replied: “If you come upstairs to where all the executives who run your company sit and find me I can tell you, Tucker.”

News Corp and the Fox Corporation are technically separate entities, but both are chaired by Rupert Murdoch and share the same headquarters in New York.

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