Dying of COVID to Own The Libs

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S1: Can you hear that? Yes, I can hear you, OK.

S2: Listen to this for a second, will you? There’s a parody song that was played on a conservative radio show earlier this year. I wanted to run it by Brian Rosenwald, a media historian specializing in talk radio. It was over Beck’s Mary. Yeah, you got back. This song was released in June. It turns the Beatles song Tax Man about a cheery, sadistic administrator who taxes everything into vacs man about a cheery, sadistic administrator who vaccinates everyone.

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S1: This is what talk radio does. They take these songs and they repurpose them for political messages and things. And so the VACC man is just like it fits perfectly with what you’d expect.

S2: If you try to wax Man was written and recorded by Phil Valentine, a Nashville institution and beloved talk radio host since the 1990s. He was part of this post Rush Limbaugh boom in right wing radio. Bryan told me these hosts will proudly call themselves Mini.

S1: Rush’s idiots fill that one time show right here on the cusp of Independence Day weekend.

S2: Valentine didn’t deny the severity of the pandemic, really. He just didn’t think anyone should get pressured to get the vaccine. On his show, he would spotlight alternative treatments for Covid 19, even as he acknowledged it was ubiquitous.

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S1: I’ve already had two kids who have had this, and then my third son is now in quarantine because he was around somebody the other day, so he’s probably going to end up with this thing. I may end up with this thing in every local market. There’s kind of a community institution. I mean, someone like Phil Valentine, who people have been listening to for decades, who’s built a really big relationship with their audience, you know, where they’re kind of like friends with each other. They spend hours and hours together of time and they’re really, really influential. And you know, this guy was very vocally anti-vaccine in leading other people in that direction.

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S2: In July, Phil Valentine announced that he had tested positive for Covid. The virus had gotten to him just weeks after he released the Vax Man parody and a couple of days into his illness, he was still mocking the inoculations. He tweeted about a recall on Johnson and Johnson sunscreen and quipped, But I’m sure their vaccine is perfectly safe. Don’t worry about it. But Valentine’s case of Covid got more severe, and apparently he started changing his mind about vaccines. His brother, Mark Valentine, explained on CNN.

S3: But he recognizes now that his not getting the vaccination has probably caused a bunch of other people not to get vaccinated and that he regrets. He regrets not being more pro vaccination and more vehemently advocating that position as the operational.

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S2: And then on August 21st, Breaking News Tennessee radio host Phil Valentine has passed away after a battle with Covid 19. He was 61.

S1: It’s a tragedy, and it’s upsetting to people, in part because it seems so preventable.

S2: Brian Rosenwald noted Valentine’s passing because it was part of a trend. Phil Valentine was the third conservative talk show host to die from Covid 19 just in the month of August. Another conservative radio host died a week later. All of these guys had been dismissive of the coronavirus vaccines.

S1: I think this is sort of something that people who are pro vaccine are infuriated or frustrated with the fact that this vaccine could save people’s lives. And people are dying needlessly. And you know, a guy like Phil Valentine becomes kind of the poster child for that

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S2: today on the show. You’ve heard the phrase dying on the Libs. Why are conservative media personalities doing it? Brian Rosenwald says they’re in a contract with an audience that doesn’t want anything else. I’m Mary Wilson filling in for Mary Harris. This is what next? Keep listening. Last week, another contrarian voice announced that he had gotten Covid. Joe Rogan, the podcasting giant, and he had also held the vaccine at arm’s length. Why does this keep happening?

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S1: Well, I think it’s a byproduct of the culture of conservative media, and I have discussed Rogen as kind of the next frontier of conservative media, in part because conservative media is not, you know, we think about it as people, you know, screaming about Joe Biden or screaming about Barack Obama or, you know, Nancy Pelosi, national politics, DC politics. But in reality, what good conservative media is is it sounds a lot like the conversation around a dinner table in a conservative family or, you know, for 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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S2: as in its conversational. There’s no fact checker.

S1: That’s right. Oftentimes, when guys get called out for, you know, spreading misinformation, they’ll say, Well, no, I’m an entertainer, I’m not journalists or I’m a talk show host. I’m not journalists like my that my job is to, you know, be entertaining. It’s to hold an audience, you know, have an interesting conversation. So that’s sort of how they go about it. But you know, they talk about things from this kind of cultural perspective and realistically, the enemy. I like to portray conservative media as a soap opera. It’s a soap opera geared towards men, and that means there have to be heroes and villains, right? And the number one hero in conservative media is the host. The host is is the guy who’s going to defend your values, who’s going to fight for you against people who scorn you, who look, they’re, you know, they’re sneering at you, they’re looking down on you. And they’re they’re deriding you and your values. They think you’re a rube. That’s kind of the setup. And who are those villains? Well, 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 intellectual ism. It is Hollywood. In short, it’s what they view as like cultural elites, people from the two coasts who kind of sneer at the heartland and look down on it. And that matters for the case of Covid 19, because who is telling people to get vaccinated, right? It’s the government. It is medical authorities, its people, you know, in Bethesda, its people at the CDC, it’s people, you know, they’re highly educated, you know, elites. And so it kind of is natural that they would be asking questions or raising doubts about COVID 19, you know, and what the authorities are saying because it fits so seamlessly with what this medium has done for 30 years. It’s just kind of a natural extension of things.

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S2: 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. The pandemic was controlled as much as could be. And yes, the whole thing was overblown.

S1: So what you’re seeing is that people who consume this conservative media who are listening to talk radio from the beginning of the pandemic have been kind of skeptical that people are making this into too big of a deal and are alarmist about it. So it’s a natural extension of that now that we have vaccines for them to say, Well, you know, the people telling us that you must get this vaccine or trying to force this on us, like it makes sense that they’re bristling at that.

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S2: Why don’t these conservative hosts have more room to say something like, Hey, this experiment with not getting vaccinated, it does not seem to be working for us.

S1: It’s a good question, and I’m not sure that there’s an easy answer. I think so much of it is this robust relationship, this friendship between host and listener and for people who don’t listen. It’s kind of odd to think about it that way. But you’ve got people who are out there, you know, driving a truck or in a shop or, you know, doing farm work. You name the task where they’re listening for three hours a day to the same person for years on end. You know, when Rush Limbaugh died, his wife took some calls a few times and people were calling him crying. They were saying, You know, it feels like I lost a member of my family, too. I’m mourning with you because they had formed such a deep bond with him and because that bond is the key to people tuning in, but also realistically to the advertising that’s at the base of talk radio, right? You know, the one thing the host don’t want to do is damage that relationship because of course, if they do and there are fewer people tuned in or there’s less trust there, then they lose advertisers, they lose revenue. At the end of the day, this is all business. And their audience is deeply skeptical of the vaccine, and they know that if you’re if you’re one host and you say, well, you know, this isn’t working for us that your audience is probably getting other conservative media in their media diets, whether it’s Fox News, whether it’s Breitbart, where you name the sites,

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S2: they’re going to change the dial, they’re going to leave.

S1: Right, right. I mean, we saw this in 2016 with Donald Trump Mary, where you know, you had hosts who they were anti-Trump. They were rock ribbed conservatives who some of them were institutions that their markets and they were saying, You know this, this guy is not one of us. He’s not a conservative and by the way, he’s morally bankrupt and all this other stuff, and they get callers who said, You know what happened to you? When did you sell out? And this house ended up getting threatened. Some of them lost their jobs. And what it comes down to is that they realize after a while that, you know, they the audience drives this as much as the hopes for as much as I think those on the left kind of see conservative media as hosts who are kind of puppeteers dragging their audience around, it’s kind of the other way around. Of Hoser are afraid to lose the audience. They subscribe, you know, 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 time of 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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S2: Right. The really skilled guys do it in a in what feels like just a straight up way. I remember watching Sean Hannity go, Hey, without you guys, I don’t have a job. You make this possible. So I’m not trying to talk down to you or, you know, he he he said it that way. While he was talking about whether he thought people should get the vaccine

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S4: for over a year now, I have been warning my viewers, you make my career possible. I want every American, liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat. I want you to be healthy. I said to take it seriously, to do your own research. There’s a ton of it right on, you know, at the tip of your fingers on your own phone.

S1: Yeah, I mean, that’s definitely a way to do it. But Hannity is a guy who I think he’s done. He’s kind of inched up towards the line of, like saying, get vaccinated. And then there’s usually some blowback and he kind of pulls back as as well. I never said that, you know that that’s just the media, you know, liberal media. I actually just said, you know, get information about it or something like, you know, he pulls away. So they’re very sensitive to crossing the audience because if you’re somebody who listens to a lot of conservative talk radio or consumes a lot of conservative media, you think Colbert’s been overblown? You think that the vaccine, you’re very skeptical of the vaccine. You think mask requirements are totalitarian and there’s a lot of doubt about it and anger about it. And you even see it down to the way these hosts are sort of applying it to their own lives in different ways.

S2: Yeah, I wanted to talk about that. You know, who helped me understand the way the vaccine issue in particular is framed in conservative media was listening to Erick Erickson. He has, I think, ranted about anti-vaxxers.

S1: This is the most infuriating part of the conversation about Covid is you have the people who are willfully dis spreading disinformation about the vaccine. Trying to undermine the vaccine,

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S2: but on a recent show I listen to, he also insisted that getting a vaccine is a personal decision,

S1: but it’s your choice and you don’t need to be belittled for your medical

S2: choice. And he said it kind of solemnly. And it was this ginger handling of the listener as if he was, you know, worried about angering someone, you know, as if he were trying to telegraph. No one’s threatening your agency or your power here.

S1: Yeah. I mean, this is also the other kind of part of the two step here, which is, yes, Erickson has been overwhelmingly, you know, pro vaccine. But what does he not say in there? He does not say, go out and get the vaccine or they, you know, 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 this is good and that this is something that could save their lives that they don’t want to encroach upon, you know, the audience and they don’t want to say, you have to do this. They want to say it. You should think about doing this. This is a wise decision because there is that kind of anti-authoritarian streak.

S2: It’s not even anti-authoritarian, it’s anti of authority.

S1: Yes, that is a better way of putting it. But I like that wording better. It’s A. Authority. It’s A. Somebody telling you that you have to do something. It’s A.. This being a requirement to be a part of life. So it’s they’re very, very cautious and careful because they know where their audiences. And they know where the culture of what they’re doing is and they know that kind of it’s part of their brand that their brand is that they’re going to fight back against exactly this, which is liberal elites trying to force things and force their way of life and their way of thinking down your throat. That is the ethos of talk radio is when those people say, you have to do this. The host says, Oh no, we don’t.

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S2: We’re going to take a quick break here. More with Brian Rosenwald

S5: in a minute.

S2: Here’s something that stands out to me when I consider the 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.

S1: Fox has gone through so many chapters on Covid. Sometimes they seem to back off of the anti-vaxxer stuff or the the downplaying of it kind of thing. Sometimes they go much more in that direction. You know, early in the pandemic, they parted ways with Trish Regan from Fox Business because she was kind of casting doubt on this. And of course, early in the pandemic, I think it was reported that Tucker Carlson, you know, went to like Mar a Lago. I think it was an urge Donald Trump will take it seriously and to urge people to take it seriously. And of course, you know, most of these hosts have been broadcasting remotely, and Fox has all kinds of requirements for their own offices. So there’s also this kind of layer of of hypocrisy there of, you know, it’s not what they’re saying, but if you watch what they’re doing, it tells you that they’re taking it more seriously on a personal level than what they’re urging people to.

S2: But of course, we don’t know if any of their big hosts are like, you know, Tucker Carlson has been skeptical of the Covid vaccine and certainly the government message on the Covid vaccine, you know, the widespread encouragement for people to get the vaccine. But we don’t know if he’s vaccinated or not. And he said that’s a personal question.

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S1: The most ridiculous interview answer, I think I’ve heard, is as a reporter asked him there and he was like, Well, that would be like me asking you about your sex life or something like, you know, it was some ridiculous comparison about whether you know that this was personal and he wasn’t going to say it. And so 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, and that’s a big difference between other walks of life. The people who are, you know, a pollster. People have been very boldly, you know, saying, I’m not doing this. It’s been a badge of honor. You know, you mentioned Joe Rogan as someone who has sort of said, Well, if you’re young, you don’t need this and those kinds of things who I think view it as an admirable practicing. What they preach kind of stands. But the most of these leading conservative media practitioners have been fairly quiet on this,

S2: which is not. Which is not to say that we’re here to be like the hypocrisy police, but I think you are making the point that it’s possibly more of a performance than a principle.

S1: Well, I mean, there are two elements to this. The key one key thing about conservative media has always been that there’s an importance of authenticity. There is an importance of the audience feeling like this is a no peace zone. This is where we come for honest information. And this has gone back to when Rush Limbaugh goes national in 1988 and the rise of modern broadcast conservative media, modern broadcast talk radio where these hosts have derided the mainstream media. These hosts have gone after mainstream journalists. They’ve used derisive nicknames for them. They, you know, you name it, they’ve done it, but they’ve always painted themselves these hosts as you come to me and you’re going to get honest information, I’m where you come to hear the stories that the media is ignoring that the media won’t tell you about. And you know, they are quick to jump on anything that is a whiff of hypocrisy. So I think it is relevant to say, you know, if you’re advocating that that people should be skeptical of this or that the vaccine is overhyped, you know, if you’re pushing that, then I think it is a legitimate question and say, OK, if you’re pushing these doubts, if you’re pushing these skepticism, if you’re giving people the ammunition to doubt the vaccine, then tell people, Have you gotten vaccinated? It seems like a pretty simple question, especially because like, OK, say you have or say you haven’t. Just explain to people why you have or have it right. You know, what’s your reasoning? Because that would be useful to them if they trust you, if they built this bond up with you.

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S2: But you know it also to compare the way some of the national conservative media personalities are treating this issue and to compare the way some of the local, you know, many Russians are treating it. It does kind of make it look like the local radio guys just aren’t in on the grift.

S1: You know, I imagine that if somebody undertook a study, if somebody sat down and actually surveyed all these hoser that you find that the percentages are about the same of like national hosts who are clearly anti-vax and local hosts who are clearly anti-vax. We’re seeing and hearing about more of the local hosts because there are obviously many, many more of them. Mm-Hmm. And there’s another factor that you know has been brought up about Joe. Rogan, which is the he’s had monoclonal antibodies as a treatment, and the reason that’s important is that Joe Rogan has a massively lucrative deal with Spotify. These national hosts make tens of millions of dollars in some cases. They are very wealthy and that has, as we’ve seen, we’ve seen studies that have nothing to do with conservative media that have shown us that the wealthy, wealthier you are the better. The treatment you’re getting for Covid is the wealthy and the powerful are having access to treatments that the average Joe doesn’t get right.

S2: There’s a pretty big difference between ivermectin and monoclonal antibody treatment.

S1: That’s exactly right. And the great irony of this that I don’t think you could explain Mary, I don’t think I could explain it is why we have a vaccine that’s been through clinical trials that’s proven to be safe and people are skeptical of this. But they’re like, Yeah, let’s use this thing that someone on the internet said, Well, we’ll cure Covid, even as the manufacturers like guys don’t do this.

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S2: Brian Rosenwald, thank you so much.

S1: My pleasure. Always happy to talk about this stuff.

S2: Brian Rosenwald is a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book Talk Radio’s America How an Industry Took Over a Political Party that took over the United States. And that’s the show. What next is produced by the producers to end all producers Davis Land, Elena Schwarze, Danielle Hewitt and Carmel Delshad. Alicia Montgomery and Alison Benedict are the big rushes to our mini rushes. I’m Mary Wilson in for Mary Harris. Thanks for listening. We’ll catch you back here tomorrow.