The Media

Why Are Right-Wing Radio Hosts Still Being Such Jerks About COVID?

It’s about more than partisan warfare.

A white man with white hair and glasses holds up one hand while holding a microphone to his mouth with the other hand.
Dennis Prager in 2017. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for Politicon.

On Monday, Nov. 1, Dennis Prager began his popular radio show with a very strange boast. “I rarely say, ‘I did the following.’ It’s not my style,” the 73-year-old conservative host and YouTube culture war impresario said. “But I believe I am responsible for the CDC announcing the following: that if you have natural immunity you are less immune than if you have the vaccine.”

Prager was referring to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, released on Friday, Oct. 29, which found, basically, that the immunity conferred by full vaccination with an mRNA COVID vaccine is more effective than the “natural immunity” gained by having had and recovered from COVID-19. Good news, right? Ha! If you welcomed the CDC’s findings, you are almost certainly not in Dennis Prager’s target demographic.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The CDC’s conclusions are broadly in line with the scientific consensus on the efficacy of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. And they directly contradict Prager’s contention, voiced over and again on his long-running, nationally syndicated show, that natural immunity to COVID-19 is superior to vaccinated immunity. To Prager, the CDC’s latest findings did not mean that he, Prager, was wrong—they meant that the liberal, corrupt health agency had ginned up a bogus study in order to cloud the debate and specifically silence his voice.

“All I did was open up to you, my audience,” Prager said, referring to his advocacy for natural immunity. “I had no idea that I would shake up the nest to the extent that I did.” Assuring his audience that he had done “a lot of homework on COVID,” and highlighting an Israeli study from August (even though it has not yet been peer reviewed and had certain limitations that ought to make any prudent person think twice before citing it as definitive), Prager weaved a fantastical counternarrative as a way of underscoring his central point: that the CDC study in question was a dirty, rotten lie. “To some of you, it is stunning to say the CDC is lying,” said Prager. “To me, it is like saying the sun shines brightly when there are no clouds.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Huh? Why would the CDC rush out a false study—co-authored by more than 50 people—just to neutralize a random right-wing radio host? Why would Prager presume calumny and conspiracy in the agency’s motives? These fair questions naturally beget another fair question: Why are so many right-wing talk show hosts still being such dicks about COVID measures?

If the stated goal of the Trump presidency was to make America great again, then the swift development and rollout of the COVID vaccines was a real “mission accomplished” moment. So while it may no longer be very surprising, it remains exasperating that so many right-wing yakkers, like their counterparts on television and in politics, have passed up the chance to crow about the vaccines in order to pander to anti-vax audiences. This resistance is partially attributable to the right’s reflexive opposition to any initiatives promoted by the left. But the pathology of this ongoing skepticism feels like it runs deeper than mere tribalism. Many in right-wing media have chosen to diminish the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic and disparage the vaccines; several of these anti-vax radio hosts have since made headlines for subsequently contracting COVID-19 and dying, often recanting on their deathbeds and wishing that they had gotten the vaccine after all.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

That example has not persuaded very many of their remaining peers to stop spouting antivax-adjacent nonsense. Radio host Dan Bongino, who is vaccinated, has been off the air for much of the past two weeks after loudly resisting the vaccine mandates imposed by Cumulus Media for its in-office employees. Prager himself, after contracting COVID-19 in October, promptly announced that he had done so on purpose, as a sort of dumbass science experiment in which he hoped to obtain natural immunity to the virus—he is apparently unvaccinated—while demonstrating the merits of his homemade anti-COVID prophylactic regimen.

“I took ivermectin for the last year and a half as a prophylactic, believing, and I put my actions where my mouth was, believing that ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine and zinc, et cetera, over the course of time, that it would prevent COVID from being seriously injurious to me,” Prager said on that Nov. 1 show, railing against those fools in the media who dared to characterize ivermectin as a mere “horse dewormer.” As per the irrationalist imperative to willfully confuse correlation with causation, the host presented his victorious bout with COVID as clear evidence both of the merits of Dr. Prager’s Curative Elixirs and of the superfluity of the various vaccines. By ostensibly proving that his ivermectin use was what prevented him from dying from COVID, Prager hoped to demonstrate that he was once again privy to the “real truth” that the liberal establishment is determined to suppress.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

For decades now, the most successful conservative broadcast media sources have sought to isolate their audiences by constantly sowing distrust of any news outlet or official entity that exists outside of the hard right. The unifying theme is the notion that there are no depths to which the deep state, liberal media, and elitist professoriate will not stoop in order to advance their godless, anti-American, and culturally transgressive agendas.

Advertisement
Advertisement

So for committed Pragerheads, it is perfectly rational to believe—even as 750,000 Americans have died due to COVID-19—that the media is still suppressing the real truth about ivermectin and that the CDC is basically SPECTRE, because right-wing media has literally spent decades convincing its audience that politics is as conspiratorial and simplistic as a James Bond movie. “It’s impossible, virtually impossible, to live in a right-wing bubble,” Prager said on his program on Wednesday, in a statement that is so un-self-aware as to be almost entirely self-aware. Prager surely understands how right-wing media works, even as he also surely understands that he can never, ever publicly admit it.

Advertisement

This cynical strategy, enervating enough in normal times, is especially frustrating in the midst of an ongoing public health crisis in which lots and lots of people are still dying in part thanks to the endemic misinformation being spread by dummies on the radio. Actually, dummies might not be the right word here. No matter what you might think of their politics, Prager and his nationally prominent peers are not stupid. You can tell this is true because they are so adept at dancing right up to the lies-and-lunacy line while almost never crossing it. The evening opinion hosts on Fox News, for example, rarely tell outright lies; instead, they draw false equivalencies, or cherry-pick outlying details and use them to inaccurately characterize the whole, or offer misleading narratives that can be explained away as matters of opinion. These hosts rarely put themselves or their livelihoods at risk, which is why it was legitimately surprising to see Bongino aggressively challenge Cumulus over its vaccine mandate, saying that “you can have me or you can have the mandate but you can’t have both of us.” (Self-interest might also be at play in Bongino’s case, though: According to Mediaite, some at Cumulus believe that “Bongino’s stand against mandates is actually a naked attempt to break a contract he does not like.”)

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Even Prager is not explicitly anti-vaccine. He does not say that the vaccines don’t work, or that they are actively harmful to those who take them. Instead, he disparages them via a boatload of logical fallacies that he presents as plain common sense. “I have never once told any of you or anyone not to take the vaccine; it is not my province to tell you what to do. But it is my province to tell you the truth, and the truth is that natural immunity is stronger,” said Prager on Nov. 1. “Alex Berenson wrote about this. He’s the guy who was with the New York Times until he started telling the truth.”

As always with right-wing anti–virtue signaling, deflection is the point here. Prager and his peers’ goal writ large is to get their audiences so hot and bothered about federal government overreach and the scurrilous rascals in the elitist media that those audiences do not stop to think critically about what these hosts are actually selling. When Prager threw his show to commercial break, his announcer reported that The Dennis Prager Show was broadcasting “live from the Relief Factor Pain-Free Studio.” The ad gave away the game.

Advertisement
Advertisement

As historian Rick Perlstein observed in his seminal Baffler essay “The Long Con,” and as anyone can observe by watching or listening to more than 20 minutes of conservative broadcast content, right-wing media is and has long been underwritten by billions of dollars of advertising for dubious curatives. While lots of reputable news sources also have some questionable advertisers, the practice is particularly pervasive on the right.

Some examples: Former Trump aide and current radio host Sebastian Gorka has also endorsed Relief Factor. In 2019, the Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission over an ad that billed Gorka, who holds a Ph.D., as “Dr. Sebastian Gorka”; CSPI suggested that this was an attempt to mislead viewers into thinking that the endorsement was given by a medical doctor. In 2020, the top advertiser on The Rush Limbaugh Show was a supplement called Balance of Nature; while Balance of Nature ran 82,775 spots on Limbaugh’s show last year, it nevertheless was “not among the top 100 advertisers across radio,” according to Inside Radio. The Joe Rogan Experience podcast—which, as I’ve repeatedly written, is a haven for right-leaning “Intellectual Dark Web” personalities—has also historically been a haven for various supplement companies looking to peddle their wares. Rogan, too, came down with COVID this year; Rogan, too, took ivermectin in response; Rogan, too, has speculated that public health measures such as vaccine passports might be bringing America “one step closer to dictatorship.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

“The strategic alliance of snake-oil vendors and conservative true believers points up evidence of another successful long march, of tactics designed to corral fleeceable multitudes all in one place,” wrote Perlstein. “One weird trick”–style remedies, in a very real sense, pay the salaries of hosts such as Prager; these hosts are incentivized to tout them just as their audiences are conditioned to trust them. The vaccines threaten the framework of burnished shit that supports and sustains these sorts of programs.

On Monday, Prager led off his show by blasting the city of Los Angeles for a new ordinance that would require patrons to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test in order to dine inside a restaurant, get a haircut, or engage in certain other indoor activities. Prager warned of “the communist hell that all communists create, and will in the United States if allowed,” and bemoaned “the love of power and the hypochondriacal fear, the maniacal fear that pervades the left about [COVID] and global warming.” Then, he threw the show to a commercial for Relief Factor, in which he spoke glowingly about the supplement’s “100 percent drug free ingredients, each helping your body deal with inflammation.”

When Prager came back, he was at it again about natural immunity and the CDC—“who I believe are professional liars,” he clarified. By sowing doubt over the vaccines and crying foul over mandates, Prager and his peers are running through the tribal script of right-wing infotainment, otherizing every idea and institution that could plausibly be considered “liberal.” But in a very real sense, they just don’t want the liberals’ miracle drugs, because they already have plenty of their own.

Advertisement