Right-wing media politicized COVID. We'll all pay the price.
At the end of the day, cynicism and political opportunism will have condemned us to an extended pandemic.
In a September 2020 interview with CNN’s Dana Bash, Kamala Harris was asked about the potential for a COVID-19 vaccine prior to Election Day. I’ve been thinking about that interview a lot lately.
DANA BASH: Do you trust that in the situation where we’re in now that the public health experts and the scientists will get the last word on the efficacy of a vaccine?"
KAMALA HARRIS: If past is prologue that they will not, they'll be muzzled, they'll be suppressed, they will be sidelined. Because [Trump]'s looking at an election coming up in less than 60 days and he's grasping for whatever he can get to pretend he has been a leader on this issue when he is not.
BASH: So let’s just say there’s a vaccine that is approved and even distributed before the election. Would you get it?
HARRIS: I think that’s going to be an issue for all of us. I will say that I would not trust Donald Trump. It would have to be a credible source of information that talks about the efficacy and the reliability of whatever he’s talking about. I will not take his word for it. He wants us to inject bleach. I -- no, I will not take his word.
BASH: Dr. Fauci said a vaccine wouldn't be approved unless the American people had, really, assurances that it was safe and that he feels that it was safe, and that, if that happens, he would take it. Do you feel more comfortable hearing someone like Dr. Fauci say that?
HARRIS: I think Dr. Fauci has proven, for anyone who's been watching him for years and years, to put the public health of the American people as the highest priority in terms of his work and his reputation and his priority. Yes, I trust Dr. Fauci.
It seems pretty clear what she was saying.
Days earlier, it was reported that Trump was pushing the FDA to rush vaccine approvals before the election, something that shouldn’t have come to anybody’s surprise. Trump wanted one thing: to win reelection. He didn’t actually care about people dying. He knew that getting a vaccine was his ticket to victory, and did everything he could to get one out there for his own gain.
Harris’ answer that she wouldn’t just take Trump’s word for it made perfect sense. She said she’d listen to experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci. It was the sensible thing to say.
Right-wing media turned it into something else entirely. In their world, Harris was engaged in, as The Washington Examiner wrote, “anti-vaccine flirtation.”
“Democrats present themselves with tiresome repetitiveness as the party of science. It's a false claim,” read the September 9 Examiner editorial. “And vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris seems determined to prove it by veering into anti-vaccine conspiracy theory territory and raising questions about the safety of any coronavirus vaccine approved while President Trump is in office.”
At The Federalist, Jonathan Tobin wrote that Democrats were laying “further groundwork for a movement that may have already grown strong enough to destroy any hope that a vaccine will end the COVID nightmare.” The Federalist, it should be noted, is the same outlet that published pieces earlier in the pandemic urging people to intentionally infect themselves with COVID-19, to refuse to wear masks, pushing fake "cures” like hydroxychloroquine, and more.
From there, it took a jump to mainstream outlets like The Washington Post, which published an opinion piece by Marc Thiessen calling Harris’ interview with Bash “shameful.” Days later, the narrative completed its journey when The Associated Press accepted the right-wing framing. “Democrats face quandary on vaccine support as election nears,” read the headline. The AP story may as well have been written by the Republican Party itself.
The narrative that Democrats were fueling distrust in vaccines was taken at face value but was never backed up by data.
I wrote about this over at Media Matters at the time:
Though Democrats are more concerned than Republicans that Trump will rush a vaccine through the approval process for political gain -- 82% Democrats compared to 72% Republicans agree that politics is taking precedence over science according to a recent STAT/Harris Poll survey -- they are more trusting that the Food and Drug Administration will only approve a vaccine if it is safe (73% compared to 68%).
The most recent Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll found that in the event that the FDA approved a vaccine and it was hypothetically made available for free to everyone who wanted it before the November election, 50% of Democrats and just 36% of Republicans would get vaccinated. According to a recent Morning Consult survey, 61% of Democrats say they will get a coronavirus vaccine when one becomes available; just 47% of Republicans say the same.
Right-wing media outlets have tried to paint Democrats as “anti-vaccine” to cover for Trump’s failure to manage the virus and retain the trust of the American public.
It is frankly astonishing that pro-Trump media have been able to somewhat successfully spin sensible comments from Democrats about not taking Trump at his word and instead trusting what scientists have to say about the safety and efficacy of any COVID-19 vaccine.
During the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, right-wing commentators like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh repeatedly scaremongered about the safety of the vaccines approved by the FDA. Unlike the Trump administration in 2020, the Obama administration did not spend the 2009 pandemic altering data, silencing scientists, or framing the creation of a vaccine as proof of the president’s success. Even so, Beck suggested in 2009 that the H1N1 vaccine could be “deadly” and that he’d “do the exact opposite of what the Homeland Security says” about vaccination, baselessly warning that it was possible the vaccine would cause neurological damage. Limbaugh told his audience that they’ll be “healthier” if they don’t listen to what the government has to say about vaccines and that he would defy any efforts to mandate vaccination out of principle. Limbaugh went so far as to say that it “seems perfectly within the realm of reality” that the government specifically developed the H1N1 vaccine to kill people.
And the president himself has a well-documented history of pushing conspiracy theories about vaccines.
As happens so very often, conservative media outlets are presently accusing Democrats of doing the same exact thing some right-wing pundits did when the roles of power were reversed. Sometimes such projection is irresponsible; on this topic, it’s deadly.
As we all know, Joe Biden won the election, the FDA approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for emergency use in December, and vaccines began being distributed during the final months of Trump’s presidency.
With Biden in the White House, right-wing media went back to the 2009 H1N1 vaccine playbook. My former colleagues at Media Matters have extensively documented this. (Here’s a piece I wrote for them back in March.)
The right-wing anti-vaccination campaign is dangerous, and sadly, seems to be effective. Just as they seem content to try to sabotage the U.S. economy in hopes of driving down Biden’s poll numbers, it’s hard to see the continued coverage as anything more than them rooting for the virus. As COVID variants spread, as they mutate, cities and states may feel the need to reimplement some of the safety measures they have just recently eased back on. Conservative media will jump at the chance to label these efforts as assaults on freedom.
Mark my words, in the coming days, following Los Angeles County’s decision to reimplement indoor mask mandates, right-wing media will use it as an opportunity to score cheap political points. That they will be the same people who acted shocked and appalled over Harris saying that she wouldn’t simply take Trump at his word will only add insult to injury — or in this case, illness.
If you haven’t yet gotten vaccinated, please do. For the sake of all of us.