Many open questions remain about the omicron variant of COVID-19 and what it means for the future of the pandemic, but one thing is certain: Fox News will continue to hamstring efforts to combat the virus and to demonize those officials seeking to quell the crisis. The far-right network made that much clear in its response to the dustup on Tuesday between Dr. Anthony Fauci and smug provocateur Jesse Watters. This week, Watters urged conservative students—using violent language—to “ambush” the public health official to create viral content for Fox and other outlets.
Speaking at a Turning Point USA event on Monday, Watters encouraged attendees to confront Fauci, a frequent target of GOP attacks, about what Watters called “risky research at a sloppy Chinese lab” that the National Institutes of Health allegedly funded. (The NIH has indirectly provided funding for research into bat coronaviruses at a lab in Wuhan, where the virus that causes COVID-19 was first detected. But there is no indication that Fauci lied about the research or that it led to the creation of the novel coronavirus, as Republican lawmakers and their allies in right-wing media suggest.)
“Now you go in for the kill shot. The kill shot with an ambush, deadly, because he doesn’t see it coming,” the Fox host said, suggesting “brave college students” should film themselves telling Fauci, “You know why people don’t trust you, don’t you?”
“Oh, he is dead. He’s dead!” Watters continued. “He’s done.”
Watters did note that he was not literally suggesting that conservative college students assassinate America’s top infectious disease official. “Just make sure it’s legal,” he said. But, given the threats government officials have faced after reckless rhetoric from the right, the comments immediately came under fire, including from Fauci himself. “The guy should be fired on the spot,” Fauci told CNN on Wednesday, describing Watters’s remarks as “crazy.”
Fauci nonetheless predicted that Watters would go “unaccountable,” and he was right: The network stood by him. In a statement, Fox News said that Watters’s comments were “twisted completely out of context.” Then, on the Fox program “The Five,” Watters shot back at Fauci with an attack on his credibility, prompting co-host and alleged humorist Greg Gutfeld to interject: “He [Fauci] should be fired on the spot!”
“This guy’s out of his mind right now,” a laughing Watters agreed.
The episode, of course, was only the latest one in Fox’s ongoing campaign to turn a deadly pandemic into culture war fodder. The network’s coverage has helped create so much distrust of COVID-19 vaccines among some on the right that even Donald Trump, the progenitor of this particular strain of anti-science balderdash, is now getting booed for promoting shots.
Joe Biden, trying to close the gap on vaccinations and boosters as omicron surges, made a point on Tuesday to credit his predecessor. “The prior administration and our scientific community” helped to make the United States “one of the first countries to get the vaccine,” he said in his remarks. But he acknowledged that “misinformation on cable TV and social media” has marred what had been a promising vaccine rollout.
“These companies and personalities are making money by peddling lies and allowing misinformation that can kill their own customers and their own supporters,” Biden said. “It’s wrong, it’s immoral, and I call on the purveyors of these lies and misinformation to stop it now.”
Stop it now? Yeah, right. As CNN’s Oliver Darcy noted Tuesday evening, the usual suspects didn’t miss a beat. Tucker Carlson continued to sow doubts in the vaccines, and his network ran a chyron that read DEMS REFUSE TO CREDIT TRUMP FOR VACCINE EFFORT—hours after the Democratic president explicitly credited Trump for the vaccine effort.