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Fox News' Covid vaccine denials can't go unpunished

I filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday. Here's hoping it moves forward.

Typically, when Fox News spews lies or misinformation on political issues, my response is a mix of fact-checking and eye rolls. But the current misinformation campaign about the Covid-19 vaccine from some of Fox News’ most popular hosts demands more than a typical response given lives are on the line.

That’s why I filed a complaint this week with the Federal Trade Commission against Fox News for possible violations of the Covid-19 Consumer Protection Act. That law, enacted in December 2020, makes it “unlawful” for a corporation or individual “to engage in a deceptive act or practice in or affecting commerce associated with the treatment, cure, prevention, mitigation, or diagnosis of COVID–19.” My goal in filing this case is to prompt the agency to investigate and bring an end to the apparently deceptive information Fox News has been selling to the consumers of its channel.

The current misinformation campaign about the Covid-19 vaccine from some of Fox News’ most popular hosts demands more than a typical response given lives are on the line.

As a lawyer, I understand that my complaint versus Fox News may seem beyond the traditional scope of the FTC’s work. However, given the FTC’s expanded powers under the new Covid-19 Consumer Protection Act to protect the public from deceptive information related to the treatment or prevention of Covid-19, I believe this complaint fits squarely within the spirit of its new mandate.

In addition, Fox News is a for-profit business that is selling its product — information — to the public in exchange for cable subscription fees. The FTC is the perfect agency to protect the public from any person or entity peddling false information about Covid-19 vaccines in pursuit of pecuniary gain. (If the commission decides it doesn’t have jurisdiction, then it’s imperative that Congress expand the Covid-19 Consumer Protection Act to explicitly empower the FTC to investigate media outlets misleading consumers on Covid-related issues.)

This is especially true now given that the health risk Covid-19 poses is again growing. Last Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that new cases of the virus — fueled by the delta variant — are up in the United States roughly 70 percent from the prior week's seven-day average. Worse, after weeks of decline, the seven-day average of daily deaths increased by 26 percent.

People receiving accurate information about the Covid vaccines is literally a matter of life and death.

But as Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC's director, laid out, the recent outbreaks of cases are not random. Instead, Walensky said we’re seeing these spikes “in parts of the country that have low vaccination coverage because unvaccinated people are at risk.” She summed up pointedly that this new dangerous spike in Covid-19 cases is a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

That’s why people receiving accurate information about the Covid-19 vaccines is literally a matter of life and death. But look at what is undeniably deceptive information coming from Fox News about the vaccine.

For example, Tucker Carlson in April made comments on his top-rated Fox News show about the vaccine that were deemed a “pants on fire” lie by nonpartisan fact-checkers.

"If the vaccine is effective, there is no reason for people who've received a vaccine to wear masks or avoid physical contact," Carlson told his millions of viewers. "Maybe it doesn't work, and they're simply not telling you that," he added irresponsibly.

Carlson continued on with more baseless info: "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."

But it’s not just Carlson. A report by media watchdog organization Media Matters for America released Friday examined comments made on Fox News between June 28 and July 11. It found that “57 percent of segments about coronavirus vaccines on the network included claims that undermined or downplayed vaccination efforts.” As Media Matters documented, these segments — which aired across the network, from the morning show through prime time — ranged from claims that the Biden administration’s vaccination outreach was about taking your “freedom” to, worse, “claims suggesting that vaccines are unnecessary or dangerous.”

Just one example of potentially dangerous misinformation about the vaccine that Media Matters flagged outside of its report occurred on the July 13 episode of Fox News’ “The Ingraham Angle,” where the host, Laura Ingraham, touted “natural immunity” over the Covid-19 vaccine. Overall, Media Matters concluded in its report that Fox News is "leading the charge to discredit accepted science with misinformation and fearmongering."

Tragically it appears Fox News has misled its consumers about the vaccine. Dr. Rob Davidson, an emergency room physician in western Michigan, in his recent op-ed for NBC News THINK wrote that he doesn’t blame his patients who refuse to get vaccinated because they have been fed baseless info. Instead, he noted, “I do blame Fox News and other right-wing media outlets for poisoning the minds of millions of Americans with the deceptive propaganda they spray into living rooms 24/7.”

On Saturday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden's chief medical adviser, when asked by CNN specifically about the misinformation being spewed on Fox News airwaves, responded: "If we had the kind of false information that's being spread now, if we had that back decades ago, I would be certain that we'd still have polio in this country."

Given the Covid-19 Consumer Protection Act’s mandate, the deceptive information being shared by Fox News demands at least an investigation. In fact, the FTC said in a statement that it brought its first action under the act this past April against a company and a chiropractor for “deceptively marketing products containing vitamin D and zinc as scientifically proven to treat or prevent COVID-19.”

The FTC's complaint alleged that the defendants were “disseminating misinformation, exploiting fears in the midst of a pandemic, and posing a significant risk to public health and safety.” (Sounds a lot like Fox News.) Consequently, the FTC sought an injunction to prevent the defendants from spreading further deceptive misinformation as well as seeking monetary damages. A federal judge imposed said injunction on May 5, which will keep the defendants from making any misleading or false claims about their product’s effect on Covid-19 while the case is still pending resolution.

To be clear, I didn’t file my complaint because I disagree with Fox News politically and want to silence them. In reality, there are some Fox News hosts who have shared accurate information about the vaccine, especially in recent days as criticism has ramped up. My complaint is solely about ending the deceptive info from others on the network.

Fox News’ viewers, who I’m sure I disagree with on several fronts, are still my fellow Americans who are entitled to accurate information about Covid-19 so they can protect themselves and their families. My hope is that the FTC takes the steps needed to protect the public from deceptive information about the Covid-19 vaccine — after all, lives depend on it.

CORRECTION (July 21, 2021, 10:09 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated when the Covid-19 Consumer Protection Act was enacted. It was December 2020, not March 2020.