Talking Points

Hannity's pro-vaccine speech is welcome. But he's not the Fox News voice that matters most.

Fox News host Sean Hannity made headlines when he urged viewers of his Monday night broadcast to get a COVID-19 vaccine. "Please take COVID seriously," Hannity said. "I can't say it enough. Enough people have died. We don't need any more deaths. Research like crazy, talk to your doctor, ... and you and your doctor make a very important decision for your own safety."

Hannity's message is welcome. Though hardly the most vaccine-skeptical of the Fox lineup, he spent weeks earlier this year publicly equivocating on whether he'd get a shot. Then, for a while, he said he wouldn't reveal his decision while urging his radio audience to read up on bad vaccine side effects. Research suggests popular cable pundits like Hannity can have a measurable influence on pandemic behavior, so kudos to Hannity for making it a positive influence, even if belatedly.

But the significance of Hannity's words shouldn't be overstated, as I think some coverage of his comments has done. For one thing, Hannity's star has fallen at Fox — he is now regularly edged out of the top ratings spot by Tucker Carlson — and, like other cable news sources, Fox has lost a lot of viewership over the last year, including to outlets (like Newsmax and One America News Network) further right and more reliably anti-vaccine. Moreover, Fox's vaccine commentary is collectively quite mixed, with Carlson and Laura Ingraham maintaining very critical positions while morning host Steve Doocy champions vaccines.

Speaking of which, while the Hannity PSA is good, Carlson would be the real get here. Unfortunately, I suspect it's a get that will only be gotten if some external pressure pushes Carlson to change his tune. Very early in the pandemic, Carlson was the COVID hawk while Hannity didn't take it seriously. After it became clear right-wing opinion didn't favor hawkishness, Carlson shifted. He could theoretically shift again, but I doubt he will.

The other external factor that could move Carlson would be legal guidance from his network, which is the explanation many have posited for Hannity's remarks. I don't think that's what happened, given the trajectory of Hannity's statements on COVID-19 and the continued anti-vaccine positions of some of his colleagues. But even if there were attorney-issued guidance, my guess is Carlson — the ratings leader and think piece driver — would be exempt absent an existential legal threat to the network.

The test of where Fox is going might have been Hannity (and then-star Bill O'Reilly) a decade ago. Now it's Tucker.