The Media

The Radio Hosts Taking COVID Denial to Its Grimmest Endpoint

Dick Farrel
Dick Farrel, a right-wing, anti-vax radio host who died of COVID on Aug. 6. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Reuters/TNS/Abaca Press.

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Phil Valentine had been a Nashville institution and beloved talk radio host since the 1990s, an era that saw a boom in right-wing radio following Rush Limbaugh’s national ascent and new local hosts who were branded “mini Rushes.” Though he was conservative, Valentine didn’t deny the severity of the pandemic—he just didn’t think anyone should be pressured to get the vaccine, and he would spotlight alternative “treatments” for COVID-19. In July, Valentine announced that he had tested positive for COVID, but still initially mocked those who’d been vaccinated. Later in the month, his case got more severe—and apparently he started changing his mind about vaccines, as his brother explained on CNN. Yet on Aug. 21, Valentine died of COVID, at the age of 61.

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According to Brian Rosenwald, a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Talk Radio’s America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States, Valentine’s death was part of a trend: He was the third conservative talk show host to die from COVID-19 just in the month of August. Dick Farrel, an anti-vax Florida radio host pictured above, had died of COVID just weeks before Valentine did. All these guys had been dismissive of the coronavirus vaccines—and they were projecting to an audience that didn’t want anything else. On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Rosenwald about this grim trend in right-wing talk radio, and how the conservative media ecosystem has engaged with COVID and vaccines throughout the pandemic. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Wilson: Last week, Joe Rogan also announced that he’d gotten COVID. He had likewise held the vaccine at arm’s length. Why does this keep happening?

Brian Rosenwald: I think it’s a byproduct of the culture of conservative media. Rogan is kind of the next frontier of conservative media, in part because good conservative media sounds a lot like the conversation around a dinner table in a conservative family. Or, from the more energetic hosts, it might sound like the conversation in a neighborhood bar in a conservative neighborhood after there’s been some consumption.

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As in, it’s conversational—there’s no fact-checker.

Oftentimes when guys get called out for spreading misinformation, they’ll say, Well, I’m an entertainer. Or: I’m a talk show host. I’m not a journalist. The job is to hold an audience, have an interesting conversation, share information that one might not get otherwise.

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I like to portray conservative media as a soap opera geared toward men, which means there have to be heroes and villains. The No. 1 hero in conservative media is the host: the guy who’s going to defend your values, who’s going to fight for you against people who you think are scorning you. Who are the villains? In a lot of cases, they come from what talk radio has long called the “liberal establishment,” and that is the Democratic Party. It’s the mainstream media. It is universities and bastions of intellectualism. It is Hollywood. In short, it’s what they view as like cultural elites, people from the two coasts who sneer at the heartland and look down on it. That matters for COVID-19, because who is telling people to get vaccinated? It’s the government, it is medical authorities, it’s people at the CDC, it’s highly educated elites. So it’s kind of natural that hosts would be asking questions or raising doubts about COVID-19 and what the authorities are saying, because it fits so seamlessly with what this medium has done for 30 years. It’s a natural extension of things.

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Last fall, researchers at Pew asked Republicans if they thought the U.S. had controlled the pandemic as much as possible, and whether the whole thing had been overblown. The survey showed that Republicans who rely on Fox News or talk radio for their information were much more likely to say yes to both questions.

What you’re seeing is the people who consume this conservative media, who’ve been listening to talk radio from the beginning of the pandemic, have been skeptical, have been thinking that people are making this into too big of a deal and are alarmist about it. It’s a natural extension of that, now that we have vaccines, for them to say, “The people telling us that you must get this vaccine are trying to force this on us.”

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Why don’t these conservative hosts have more room to say something like, “This experiment with not getting vaccinated does not seem to be working for us”?

It’s a good question, and I’m not sure there’s an easy answer. I think so much of it is this robust relationship, this friendship between host and listener. That bond is the key to people tuning in, but it’s also, realistically, key to the advertising that’s at the base of talk radio. The one thing the host doesn’t want to do is damage that listener relationship because if they do and there are fewer people tuned in or there’s less trust, then the hosts lose advertisers and revenue. At the end of the day, this is all business, and hosts know that their audience is probably getting other conservative media in there, whether it’s Fox News, Breitbart—

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The audiences are going to change the dial. They’re going to leave.

Right. We saw this in Donald Trump in 2016, when you had hosts who said they were anti-Trump. They were rock-ribbed conservatives, some of them institutions of their markets, and they were saying this guy is not one of us, that he’s not a conservative, that he’s morally bankrupt. Then they’d get callers who’s say, “What happened to you? When did you sell out?” Some of the hosts then lost their jobs. What it comes down to is that they realize after a while that the audience drives this as much as the host does. As much as many see conservative media as hosts who are puppeteers dragging their audience around, it’s kind of the other way around—hosts are afraid to lose the audience. They say to the audience, “We share a set of values, we share a set of principles, and I’m going to apply those principles to issues you may not have heard about. I’m going to bring things to your attention.” But at the end of the day, they don’t want to go where the audience doesn’t want to go.

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I remember watching Sean Hannity tell his audience that they make his job possible. And he said it that way while he was talking about whether he thought people should get the vaccine.

He’s kind of inched up toward the line of saying, “Get vaccinated,” and then there’s usually some blowback and he pulls back: I never said that. That’s just the liberal media. I actually just said that you should go get information about it. Hosts are very sensitive to crossing the audience.

One person who helped me understand the way the vaccine issue in particular is framed in conservative media is Erick Erickson. He has ranted about vaccines, but on a recent show I listened to, he also insisted that getting a vaccine is a personal decision, and he said that kind of solemnly, as if he were worried about angering someone.

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There’s this two-step. What does he not say in there? He does not say, go out and get the vaccine, and he does not say we should have vaccine mandates. So there’s a very careful line even for people who are trying to encourage their audience that vaccination is good and that it’s something that could save their lives. They don’t want to say, “You have to do this.” They want to say, “You should think about doing this.”

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Here is something that stands out to me when I consider conservative media types and the way they regard COVID-19: It’s just small- and medium-market hosts who are dying from COVID. Not the big shots. Not the ones with shows on Fox News.

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Fox has gone through so many chapters on COVID. Sometimes it seems to back off of the anti-vaxxer stuff. and sometimes it goes more in that direction. Early in the pandemic, Fox parted ways with Trish Regan from Fox Business because she was casting doubt on the topic. And around that time, I think it was reported that Tucker Carlson went to Mar-a-Lago to urge Donald Trump to take it seriously, to urge him to get people to take it seriously. And most of the viewers have been broadcasting remotely, but Fox has all kinds of requirements for its own offices, and has been operating remotely. If you watch what Fox is doing, that tells you it’s taking the pandemic more seriously on a personal level than what it’s telling people.

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Carlson has been vocally skeptical of the vaccine and of widespread government encouragement for people to get the vaccine. But we don’t know if he’s vaccinated or not. When asked, he said that’s a personal question.

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The most ridiculous interview answer I think I’ve heard. But yes, we don’t know if any of these people are vaccinated. We don’t know what they’re doing to take precautions. We know none of that kind of stuff. None of them have been open about it in a lot of ways. That’s a big difference with others: The people who are most opposed to vaccination have been very boldly saying, “I’m not doing this.” It’s been a badge of honor. But most of these leading conservative media practitioners have been fairly quiet on this.

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I imagine that if somebody sat down and actually surveyed all these hosts, you’d find that the percentages are about the same between national hosts who are clearly anti-vax and local hosts who are clearly anti-vax. We’re hearing more about the local hosts because there are many, many more of them. There’s another factor that has been brought up about Joe Rogan, which is that he’s had monoclonal antibodies as a treatment. Rogan has a massively lucrative deal with Spotify, and studies have shown us that the wealthier you are, the better the treatment you’re getting for COVID. The wealthy and the powerful are having access to treatments that the average Joe doesn’t get.

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