Vaccines, war, and the death of Colin Powell

Yesterday, Colin Powell, who served as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under the first President Bush and secretary of state under the second, died of complications from COVID-19, at the age of eighty-four. He had received two doses of a COVID vaccine but also was receiving treatment for multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer that weakens the immune system (as does the treatment). Predictably, various right-wing pundits decoupled the latter fact from Powell’s vaccination status and used it to grease anti-vax and anti-mandate talking points. On Fox & Friends, Will Cain referred to “data from Europe” showing deaths among vaccinated people, and called Powell’s passing a “very high-profile example that is going to require more truth from our government, from our health leaders.” On Twitter, Sharyl Attkisson, of Sinclair, suggested that “shots only work for a few mo.s” and that “pple have a right to factor that into risk v. benefit calculations”; on Newsmax, Jennifer Kerns said that Powell’s story will “scare off” elderly and Black Americans who are “already hesitant to take the vaccine.” Back on Fox, Tucker Carlson told viewers of his nightly show that “you’ve been lied to. Vaccines may be highly useful for some people, but across a population, they do not solve COVID.”

It wasn’t just flamethrowers who skipped the crucial context of Powell’s comorbidities: in a particularly bad tweet, John Roberts, a Fox daytime anchor who is often held up as a face of straight news on the network, said that Powell’s death “raises new concerns about how effective vaccines are long-term.” (After the tweet was roundly criticized, Roberts deleted it, saying that “many people interpreted it as anti-vax” when “it was not”; he added that he was “excited” to get vaccinated himself and plans to get a booster shot as soon as he can.) Many mainstream news organizations, including the New York Times and the Associated Press, made a similar omission in early topline coverage and tweets about Powell’s death and drew similarly sharp criticism online, including from my CJR colleague Mathew Ingram. Sarah Karlin-Smith, a journalist who covers the pharmaceutical world, noted government data showing lower vaccine efficacy in immunocompromised blood-cancer patients. Nina Jankowicz, a journalist who covers disinformation and lost her father to complications from multiple myeloma, called the incomplete coverage of Powell’s health “appalling, fear-mongering, and endemic of the poor reporting and shallow discourse that has in part contributed to vaccine hesitancy in the US.”

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Some journalists pushed back on the criticism: Kate Nocera, an editor at Axios, said, in response to Ingram, that Powell’s cancer “was not announced until today and not confirmed until after the initial announcement of his death.” As the day went on, the picture got better—many of the same outlets that erred in their initial coverage updated their stories with clarifications, and in some cases pushed those out to their readers; by the evening, cable-news shows were inviting on public-health experts to debunk anti-vaxxers’ Powell talking points. (“Anyone who is using this tragedy to point to ineffectiveness in the vaccines has absolutely no understanding of the science,” Dr. Chris Pernell told Joy Reid on MSNBC, “or no understanding of the sense of loss that this nation has already endured.”) This was welcome. But the anti-vax horse had already bolted, along with its ivermectin. And, even if Powell’s cancer wasn’t common knowledge, his vaccination status should never have been central to reporting on his death. Even if he had been in otherwise perfect health when he caught COVID, his death would have demonstrated nothing useful about vaccine efficacy in the conspicuous absence of much broader data. One case does not a trend make—even if the case involves a famous person.

Major outlets falling short of the desired clarity in their coverage of vaccine efficacy is hardly a new phenomenon. Neither is major outlets airbrushing the flaws of dead politicians, and we saw plenty of that yesterday, too. Progressive outlets and journalists, in particular, did grapple centrally with Powell’s complicity in the Iraq war, the deceitful case for which he questioned internally then endorsed publicly, including in a hugely consequential speech at the United Nations. In his newsletter, Forever Wars, Spencer Ackerman made the case that if anyone could have stopped the war (and that’s a big if), it was Powell, and yet he chose not to; writing for The Intercept, Peter Maass made a similar point in an article that referred to Powell as “a nice man who helped destroy Iraq,” and led in with a quote from Muntadher Alzaidi, the Iraqi journalist who once threw his shoes at George W. Bush and tweeted yesterday that he was “saddened by the death of Colin Powell without being tried for his crimes.” Numerous journalists from outlets across the board attempted, with nuance, to weigh Powell’s war legacy against his achievements, including his status as the first Black person to serve as secretary of state. “For me as a teenager, Colin Powell represented black excellence in public service,” Karen Attiah, a Washington Post columnist, wrote. “But his selling of ‘evidence’ of WMDs in Iraq and the decisions to invade was my first awakening to American imperialism and my introduction to the word ‘hegemony.’”

Many other journalists and outlets, however, eschewed nuance in favor of hagiography, pushing Iraqi voices to the margins, at best, and centering themes of bipartisanship, patriotism, civility, and meritocracy that are catnip to the American media establishment. Much topline framing prominently noted Powell’s role in Iraq, only to put a passive gloss on it: the first paragraph of Powell’s AP obituary said that his “sterling reputation of service” was “stained by his faulty claims” about Iraq, conjuring images of wine on the couch and a broken TV remote more than a murderous war; the Post’s topline framing said that Powell “struggled” over the invasion as a “beleaguered secretary of state.” Speaking on MSNBC, Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent at the New York Times, called it a “great tragedy” and a “bitter pill” for Powell that he became “what he saw as the frontman for what turned out to be false intelligence.” Much of the coverage emphasized Powell’s regret for his Iraq advocacy; a Time headline spoke of the “transformative power of owning your mistakes.” (Powell also once said that he “didn’t have any choice” but to support the war, since the president wanted him to.) Even Carlson gushed that “when the supposedly brilliant Harvard neocons in the Bush administration assured us that the occupation of Iraq would be quick and simple, Colin Powell knew better.”

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Thanks to his vaccination status—and much of the media’s initial misunderstanding of it—the circumstances of Powell’s death overshadowed the many complexities of his life in yesterday’s coverage. They also overshadowed both the lives and deaths of the thousands of Iraqis who died as a result of policies that Powell pushed—though if the past deaths of Bush-era officials are any guide, that would likely have happened even without the vaccine mess. Writing for Discourse Blog yesterday, Jack Mirkinson argued that “there is a bitter irony in the fact that Colin Powell died at the hands of a virus that has been perpetuated by leaders who decided that their own political power was more important than the preservation of human life, because that is exactly the fateful decision he himself made in 2003. If he is to be mourned today, then the people whose deaths he helped cause in service of a lie should be mourned as well.”

Below, more on Colin Powell and vaccines:

  • The last interview: In July, Powell gave what is believed to have been his final interview to Bob Woodward, who was then reporting Peril, his most recent book (with Robert Costa) about the Trump White House. Powell revealed to Woodward that he had multiple myeloma and Parkinson’s disease, before saying, “Don’t feel sorry for me, for God’s sakes! I’m [84] years old. I haven’t lost a day of life fighting these two diseases. I’m in good shape.” Powell said that he was receiving regular treatment at Walter Reed Medical Center, adding that while he hadn’t “advertised” his conditions, most of his friends knew about them. Woodward also asked Powell about the (then impending) US withdrawal from the war in Afghanistan, which also began during his tenure at the State Department. “I thought we had to get out of there eventually,” he said. “We can’t go from 100,000 [US troops] down to a few hundred and think that’ll prevail.”
  • Hagiography: For our latest magazine, on political journalism after Trump, we came up with a “kill list” of reporting conventions that we’d like to do away with, including “hagiographic obituaries of defective leaders.” Following the death of Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s defense secretary, in June, “some journalists depicted his legacy in a false glow,” we wrote. “A few deployed the vague word ‘controversial.’ The AP went so far as to suggest, in an early headline, that Rumsfeld was a victim of the Iraq War—even though he’d orchestrated it—calling him ‘a cunning leader undermined by Iraq war.’ (George Packer got it right in The Atlantic: ‘Rumsfeld was the worst secretary of defense in American history,’ he wrote. “Being newly dead shouldn’t spare him this distinction.’)”
  • Vaccines, I: Last week, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, went on Joe Rogan’s wildly popular podcast and spent more than three hours gently pushing back on anti-vax talking points. The discussion, Charlie Warzel writes in his newsletter, was “anodyne,” and yet it quickly and predictably became furious culture-war fodder online. “The conversation this whole thing devolved into is so far afield of the kind of important conversations we could/should be having about vaccination and the pandemic as to be a massive waste of nearly everyone’s time,” Warzel argues. “Ironically enough, the online media aggregations of the exchange very easily could have undermined the original point of Gupta’s decision to sit down with Rogan.”
  • Vaccines, II: Yesterday, Dan Bongino, a right-wing media personality, threatened to quit the radio network where he has a show because its owner, Cumulus Media, has imposed a vaccination mandate for staff. Bongino, who is himself vaccinated, said on air that he’s taking a stand for staffers with “a lower profile than me” who “have been summarily either shown the door or been put in really untenable circumstances because they simply want to make a medical decision by themselves.” Meanwhile, Dennis Prager, another right-wing radio host, told listeners that he has COVID—and claimed that he caught it on purpose, calling natural immunity “infinitely preferable” to vaccine immunity.


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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Colin Powell in 2011. AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais