Getting the ‘vaccine mandates’ story right

On Tuesday, Fred Ryan, the publisher of the Washington Post, laid down the law: staffers will have to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by mid-September, when the paper plans to reopen its offices. If employees don’t comply, they risk losing their jobs. Contractors and guests will also have to show proof of vaccination; the paper will make “accommodations” for people with documented medical conditions and religious objections. “In the many conversations I have had with Post employees across all departments, I have heard the genuine concerns they have for themselves and their families with new COVID variants emerging,” Ryan wrote in a memo to staff. “Even though the overwhelming majority of Post employees have already provided proof of vaccination, I do not take this decision lightly.” To my knowledge, the Post was the first major media company to take such a drastic step, though others have instituted vaccine policies: Fox, for instance, uses a voluntary reporting system that allows vaccinated employees to skip medical screenings. In the wider corporate world, the Post is not alone: this week, major companies including Google and Facebook spelled out vaccination requirements for staff. As CNN’s Brianna Keilar said on air: “Get vaccinated or get out.”

State officials have also set vaccination rules, as confirmed COVID case numbers, driven by the highly contagious Delta variant, have risen nationally and vaccine rollout has stalled. On Monday, California announced that bureaucrats and healthcare workers will have to get vaccinated or submit to regular testing; New York City laid out similar requirements for municipal workers. On Wednesday, Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York State, put forth a vaccination policy for state employees. The federal government got involved, too; the Department of Veterans Affairs told more than a hundred thousand frontline healthcare workers to get vaccinated or face termination. Yesterday, President Biden broadened the scope further: federal workers who aren’t vaccinated will soon have to undergo mandatory testing. The Pentagon quickly applied the same standard to members of the military, who may soon have a vaccination requirement. Biden also called on states and localities to pay people a hundred dollars to get the vaccine. “This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Biden said. “If you’re out there unvaccinated, you don’t have to die. Read the news.”

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Well, read some of the news. In recent weeks, commentators have argued that the US is in trouble because right-wing outlets have spread misinformation about vaccines and Biden’s efforts to distribute them. Fox has come in for the most criticism, but some polling shows that viewers of Newsmax and One America News are even more likely to be vaccine-hesitant. Many right-wing pundits have long expressed hysterical opposition to policies that make vaccination a condition of entry to social settings—vaccine passports, for example, which Tucker Carlson, of Fox, has likened to “medical Jim Crow”—and lately have doubled down against vaccination rules in the workplace. On his show Tuesday, Carlson said that “governments should never require people to submit to any medical procedure, whether that procedure is sterilization or frontal lobotomies or COVID vaccinations.” On Wednesday, Jonathan Turley, a law professor and Fox guest, said that businesses are starting to act as “a shadow state” when it comes to vaccines, to which Charles Payne, a Fox host, replied that “‘coerced consent’ sounds almost as oxymoronic as ‘jumbo shrimp.’” (Several observers have noted the dissonance between Fox’s corporate vaccine policies and its commentary. Karine Jean-Pierre, a deputy White House press secretary, yesterday compared Biden’s stance to Fox’s.)

Away from right-wing media, the tone of coverage has been different. A narrative has taken hold—in parts of the mainstream press and even among some Republican politicians—that vaccinated America’s patience with unvaccinated people has finally snapped, and that it’s time to replace carrots with sticks. “We’ve had enough coaxing, we’ve had enough empathy, we’ve had enough understanding, we’ve had enough putting the medicine in the teaspoon and saying ‘choo, choo, choo, please swallow the choo choo train,’” David Frum, of The Atlantic, said on CNN. Yesterday, some cable-news talking heads suggested that Biden hasn’t gone far enough: CNN’s Erin Burnett called his announcement “a big step in the right direction” but added that “extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.” Politico canvassed the opinions of experts who agreed that testing is not an adequate substitute for vaccination, from a public health standpoint. From an ethical standpoint, others have stressed that refusing vaccination is not, as right-wing media claims, a personal choice with no consequences for others. As MSNBC’s Ali Velshi put it, vaccine requirements are consistent with “American law and our general sense of what we owe to each other as members of a shared society.”

As long as a significant proportion of the population remains unvaccinated, everyone is likely to face restrictions and risk. It’s encouraging to see so many news outlets state that explicitly, in a country whose individualist myths have often been amplified by its media. Still, there is a risk, too, of oversimplifying the vaccine-rules story: It’s not just right-wingers who have expressed skepticism about Biden’s approach; some traditionally left-leaning unions have, too. Vaccine holdouts are not all white people inhaling right-wing talking points; rates are lagging among Black, Hispanic, and low-income Americans with different reasons for waiting. The most successful coverage seeks not to admonish, but to explain, teasing out the differences among types of vaccine rules, and considering their equity implications. (Biden has not, exactly, imposed a “mandate,” though numerous journalists have framed it that way.)

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This week, as Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, announced his state’s new vaccine rules, he railed against right-wing media. Erika D. Smith, a columnist at the LA Times, who watched his press conference, wrote afterward that she wished she could get as angry as he did, but could not. “Things are more complicated when you’re Black,” Smith wrote. “When talking to my unvaccinated relatives about COVID-19, I have no choice but to consider the systemic racism that has long pervaded this country, and how it has resulted in deep distrust of the healthcare system, government agencies and most institutions, including legit media organizations.” In other words, “there’s an inherent white privilege in white rage at the unvaccinated.”

Below, more on vaccines and the pandemic:

  • “The war has changed”: When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tightened mask guidance this week, officials referred to new data showing that vaccinated people who get “breakthrough” COVID infections can spread the Delta variant in a similar way to unvaccinated people. The officials did not, however, release this data, and may not know how widespread breakthrough infections are. Yesterday, reporters at the Post obtained an internal CDC presentation warning that Delta is “so contagious that it acts almost like a different novel virus, leaping from target to target more swiftly than Ebola or the common cold.” The story drove the news cycle last night. An official told the Post that the data will be made public in full today.
  • Fox v. Facebook: As I wrote last week, commentators have recently debated whether Facebook or Fox deserves more blame for allowing vaccine misinformation to circulate. A new survey conducted by university researchers suggests that the answer might be Facebook: twenty-five percent of respondents who got their news only from Facebook over a period of twenty-four hours said they wouldn’t get vaccinated, compared to twenty-three percent of respondents who just watched Fox. The figure for Newsmax was even higher, at forty-one percent. Gizmodo’s Whitney Kimball has more.
  • Tracking: In March, the COVID Tracking Project—an initiative started last year by journalists at The Atlantic to plug holes in official COVID information—shut down, citing the Biden administration’s efforts to produce better public data. Now the project has donated its records to the University of California, San Francisco. “The archives of the COVID Tracking Project include all of the data generated in its fifteen months of existence, and first-of-its-kind software tool to explore the conversations and context that went into creating the data set,” The Atlantic reports. They also preserve “the process of the project’s most unusual inception and operation, which will enable researchers to review the grassroots collaboration as it was happening in real time.”
  • The COVID canon: For Book Riot, Caitlin Hobbs asks what the “COVID canon” might look like fifty to a hundred years from now. “We’ll likely create a nice story, one that makes us feel better about ourselves, one that tells us we all did our best when most of us know that’s not true,” Hobbs predicts. “I hope my gut feeling is wrong, that we’ll belittle and blame and skate over what really happened. I hope we remember the ones we lost.”

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, the Writers Guild of America, East, said in a statement, attributed to its council, that the union’s executive director “put a pause” on organizing new digital media units, in part because recent digital organizing “has resulted in such rapid growth that it has significantly changed the news-to-freelance ratio among the membership” and “taken up a substantial portion of the annual budget.” Afterward, eight council members—including Kelly Stout, Hamilton Nolan, and Josh Gondelman—refuted the statement as inaccurate. “This issue is not a budgetary one,” they wrote, “but a conflict between Council members over who belongs in the WGAE and who does not.”
  • NPR has revised its ethics policy. Previously, journalists were banned from participating in protests and other advocacy around “controversial” topics; they are now permitted to “express support for democratic, civic values that are core to NPR’s work,” including “the freedom and dignity of human beings, the rights of a free and independent press, [and] the right to thrive in society without facing discrimination.” Kelly McBride, NPR’s public editor, writes that staffers will have to work out what the new rules mean in practice with their bosses, “who in turn will have to ask a lot of questions.”
  • In local-news news, the Kansas City Beacon, a nonprofit outlet, launched a new edition in Wichita—part of a plan to create a network of newsrooms in Kansas and Missouri. In less happy news, Tribune Publishing, which was recently acquired by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund, shuttered the Bowie Blade-News, a newspaper in Maryland; the Capital Gazette, another local Tribune title, will cover Bowie news online. (Rick Hutzell, the Capital Gazette’s former editor, wrote about the 2018 newsroom shooting for Time.)
  • Recently, Isis Romero, an anchor at KSAT 12, in San Antonio, led a study on behalf of the city’s Association of Hispanic Journalists about the underrepresentation of Latinx journalists at local stations. Weeks later, Romero learned that KSAT would not renew her contract. In a statement to the San Antonio Current, KSAT stressed its commitment to diversity, but Joaquin Castro, a local Congressman, said the decision “looks retaliatory.”
  • Ariana Pekary, CJR’s public editor for CNN, took issue with light-touch coverage of Biden’s infrastructure spending plans. “There’s a maxim in cable news: producers believe the audience will drop off if you get ‘too in the weeds’ on policy,” Pekary writes. “And policy, in this context, means minimum wage, IRS enforcement, a threat to the US credit rating—all topics that would inform the overall debate.”
  • A data-protection agency in France fined Monsanto, the agrochemical firm now owned by Bayer, nearly five hundred thousand dollars. For lobbying purposes, Monsanto  surreptitiously compiled dossiers on journalists and other public figures involved in a debate over pesticides; Monsanto gave each of its targets a rating based on her influence, “credibility,” and support for the company.
  • Kais Saied—the president of Tunisia, who recently fired the prime minister and suspended parliament, in what critics have called a coup—removed Lassaad Dahech from his post as CEO of Wataniya, a national TV network. Also this week, police shuttered Al Jazeera’s offices in Tunis.
  • The Guardian’s Cath Clarke spoke with the makers of a new documentary on Khabar Lahariya, a news organization in Uttar Pradesh, India, that covers rural stories through a feminist lens. Khabar Lahariya is the only outlet in India to be run entirely by women and, Clarke writes, “most of its journalists—like many of the ordinary people whose stories they report—are Dalits, the lowest status in India’s caste hierarchy.”
  • And a court sentenced Philip Cooke, a former security manager at eBay, to eighteen months in prison. Cooke admitted to having helped orchestrate a harassment campaign that targeted two bloggers who criticized eBay. According to prosecutors, eBay staffers sent the bloggers cockroaches, a funeral wreath, and a preserved fetal pig. Four other people have pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and are awaiting sentencing.

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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.