The Media Today

How the culture war is impeding necessary scrutiny of ‘vaccine passports’

April 6, 2021

On Saturday, the US administered more than four million coronavirus vaccine doses, a new one-day record. Last week, Washington, DC, opened vaccination to journalists who can’t work from home; according to occupational data that city officials accidentally posted online, nearly fifteen hundred DC media workers had already been vaccinated by March 23. Despite a push from some officials, New York declined to provide journalists, as a group, with early vaccine access, but starting today, every adult in the state is eligible for their doses anyway. (One hospital system in New York City has reportedly reserved shots for employees at Bloomberg.) Yesterday, ESPN opened a drive-thru vaccine site on its campus in Bristol, Connecticut, in partnership with local health providers. With vaccinations accelerating, many people—and the press in general—have started paying more attention to exactly when, and how, life will return to something approaching normality. One idea we’re starting to hear more about is that of the “vaccine passport” (or “certificate” or “credential”)—a broad term for various plans that would require vaccinated people to show proof of protection in various settings. These are mostly hypothetical, but New York has already launched a digital “Excelsior Pass” for entry to some businesses.

In recent days, right-wingers—in politics and the media—have slammed vaccine passports as a new form of liberal tyranny. Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, signed an executive order banning their use in the state; other Republicans have accused Democrats of a “double standard,” since they oppose voter-ID laws. On Fox News, Tucker Carlson called the idea “Orwellian”; on a different show, his colleague Steve Hilton echoed that sentiment, wagged his finger three times (“No. No. No.”), then invited on the writer Naomi Wolf, who called vaccine passport plans “literally the end of human liberty in the West.” Rep. Madison Cawthorn, a North Carolina Congressman, told Fox that “proposals like these smack of 1940s Nazi Germany”; in an op-ed for The Hill, Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, called them “vaccine fascism.” Not to be outdone, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, of Georgia (and QAnon infamy), took to Facebook and asked whether vaccine passports are “something like Biden’s mark of the Beast?”

ICYMI: Conversations with Friends

As Hilton might put it, “No. No. No.” The Biden administration is coordinating various vaccine passport initiatives, but officials have said repeatedly that the private sector is in the driving seat, and that there will be no federal mandate ordering the use of  a uniform credential. Various liberal commentators have pointed this out, and otherwise moved to smack down the right-wing hysteria; as Matt Gertz, of the watchdog group Media Matters for America, put it last week, “with vaccine passport discussions at an early stage, Republicans and GOP propagandists at Fox and elsewhere in the right-wing media have simply made up the most repressive viewpoint possible and attributed it to the Democratic Party at large.” Other commentators have pointed to (in their view) successful precedent for vaccine passports, noting that similar documentation is already required, in many places, of young children and international travelers. Jordan A. Taylor, a historian at Smith College, in Massachusetts, wrote for Time that US border officials once demanded smallpox vaccine certification, or, failing that, “a properly scarred arm, or a pitted face.” On MSNBC, Joe Scarborough slammed the “anti-science idiocy” of vaccine—and passport—skeptics. “The government, our sports teams, our concert promoters,” he said, “damn well better put together something where you can show your vaccine receipt.”

Much coverage of these arguments has cast vaccine passports as the hot new trend in the wider COVID “culture war.” (The mask wars are so 2020.) As I’ve written before, such framing, while fundamentally accurate, has routinely and frustratingly impeded proper coverage of the pandemic—obliterating nuance, and calcifying the inherent messiness of scientific discovery into patterns of false certainty and entrenched partisan bipolarity, in which conservatives typically attack “the science” and liberals typically defend it. One of these stances, clearly, is better than the other. But there has never been such a thing as “the science,” singular. Vaccine passports, too, pose a web of epidemiological and technological questions that, as yet, lack clear answers.

There’s a much deeper messiness here as well: unlike, say, uncertainty around mechanisms of viral transmission (where the truth exists, even if we haven’t fully found it yet), vaccine passports engage crucial questions of social science that are fundamentally subjective, and highly political. It’s ridiculous to cite Orwell and Nazi Germany, but vaccine passports do indeed pose a privacy risk. An even bigger risk, perhaps, is equity—regulating access to previously routine social settings based on vaccinations poses inherent ethical questions, and that’s before we even consider how vaccine access and takeup tracks with broader societal patterns of racism and marginalization. (Not everyone who refuses—or can’t get—a vaccine is an “anti-science idiot.”) Some sharp coverage and scholarship—from as far back as a year ago and as recently as last week—has started to grapple with these concerns, but other coverage has referred only in passing to legitimate concerns while ridiculing the hyperbole of the Greenes and Cawthorns of the world. In doing so, it has glossed over key problems—the questionable assumption that restrictions on liberty begin and end with federal mandates; the fact that vaccine passports for mass events are not the same as passports for grocery stores are not the same as passports for international travel, and so on—and, in some cases, even slipped into uncritical support. Many outlets haven’t prominently interrogated vaccine passports much at all.

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The debate about vaccine passports, of course, is not limited to the US. Israel has them already; the European Union has outlined tentative plans, as has the UK, where the idea is currently at the heart of a contentious national debate. (Ministers previously said they wouldn’t be introducing vaccine passports; they will now test them at mass events.) As in the US, hardcore conservatives and lockdown skeptics have vocally opposed the introduction of vaccine passports, but so, too, have politicians and commentators on the left and in the liberal center. Yesterday, Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, convened a press conference to discuss a range of COVID updates but faced a barrage of questions about vaccine passports, including from Beth Rigby, of Sky News, who asked (as a journalist, not a rabid right-wing opinionator), whether long-term certification is “your vision now for what freedom looks like for all of us.”

Britain is hardly an exemplar of healthy public discourse—but, despite some recent claims to the contrary, its every debate of consequence is not forced through a single limiting cultural prism. Whatever your view on vaccine passports, they will have profound consequences for everyday life; these might well be short-term, but the end of the pandemic is impossible to foresee with any certainty, and restrictions on civil liberties that have followed past crises have often proven hard to roll back. There’s a risk, at the moment, of missing the forest for the right-wing trees. Sometimes, the best way to reclaim power from bad-faith trolls is to ignore them, and resist their efforts to short-circuit good-faith debate. The media can play a central role in that. As more and more people get vaccinated, we should start by remembering the rights of those who haven’t been.

Below, more on vaccines:

  • A critical perspective: Last week, Jay Stanley, of the American Civil Liberties Union, warned that “there’s a lot that can go wrong with vaccine passports.” Stanley argues that any system should not be exclusively digital, given that many people, especially in vulnerable groups, lack smartphone access; should be “decentralized and open source,” giving individuals “control of their credentials and identity data”; and should not allow for data tracking. “We don’t oppose in principle the idea of requiring proof of vaccination in certain contexts,” he concludes. “But given the enormous difficulty of creating a digital passport system, and the compromises and failures that are likely to happen along the way, we are wary about the side effects and long-term consequences it could have.”
  • Vaccine hesitancy: According to Allan Smith, of NBC News, some public-health and communications experts fear that the “politicization” of vaccine passports by prominent figures on the right could exacerbate vaccine hesitancy among conservatives. “The idea of a vaccine passport has become politicized quickly,” Brian Castrucci, an epidemiologist, told Smith, “making it a wedge separating people rather than a bridge to our goal of increasing vaccination.” Some Trump voters in a focus group that the pollster Frank Luntz convened recently expressed such concerns, though the feeling was not universal.
  • Meanwhile, at Fox: Last week, CNN’s Oliver Darcy pointed out that while Fox personalities have decried vaccine passports on air, the network is requiring audience members for a new show hosted by Greg Gutfeld to take a COVID test, pass an online health screening, and bring documentation to the door. “Hypocritical much?” Darcy asked. Gertz, of Media Matters, wrote late last week that Fox “routinely attacks pandemic health measures while implementing them for its own staff.”
  • Publix interest: On Sunday, 60 Minutes pointed to a recent donation that Publix, a supermarket chain, made to DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, and suggested a possible link with Florida’s decision to partner with Publix on vaccine distribution. Two senior Democrats in the state have since pushed back on the show’s characterization: Jared Moskowitz, the director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, called the suggestion of a conflict of interest “absolute malarkey,” and Dave Kerner, the mayor of Palm Beach County, accused 60 Minutes of “intentionally false” reporting. DeSantis and Publix have pushed back, too; CNN’s Darcy has more.

Other notable stories:

  • For CJR, Taylor Moore profiles the Empowerment Avenue Writer’s Cohort, a program in which journalists help incarcerated writers with ideas, drafts, placing stories in publications, and logistical issues including payment. And Kevin D. Sawyer, who pitched CJR via the program from San Quentin State Prison, in California, writes about his experience and perspective as an incarcerated writer. “Unlike freelance journalists and those who work for mainstream and corporate publications, we who are imprisoned get to bite the hand that feeds us,” Sawyer writes. “And we never miss a meal.”
  • NBC’s Brandy Zadrozny profiles The News Alerts of Beaver County, a Facebook group that plays a crucial—yet fraught—informational role in a Pennsylvania news desert. The group “isn’t home base for a gun-wielding militia, and it isn’t a QAnon fever swamp,” she writes, but the junk that’s often found there is “in some ways more insidious, because it’s more likely to be trusted. The misinformation—shared in good faith by neighbors, sandwiched between legitimate local happenings and overseen by a community member with no training but good intentions—is still capable of tearing a community apart.”
  • For FiveThirtyEight, Meredith Conroy explores how distrust of the media among Republican voters went from being “an attitude about the institution itself to a credential of conservatism.” Such distrust “is more central to conservatives’ group identity than it was before Trump,” Conroy writes. Taeku Lee, a political scientist at UC Berkeley, told Conroy that signaling mistrust is now “much the same as wearing a red MAGA cap.”
  • HuffPost’s Kevin Robillard, Amanda Terkel, and Dave Jamieson profile Jay Carney, a former journalist, Biden spokesperson, and White House press secretary who now runs comms for Amazon and has recently led the company’s “increasingly defensive” pushback against its critics, amid a union drive by Amazon employees in Bessemer, Alabama. Biden and other senior Democrats have supported the unionizing workers.
  • Frank Bruni is stepping down as an opinion columnist at the Times to take a position at Duke University. He will continue to write a newsletter and contribute opinion pieces to the paper. In other Times news, the paper named Jim Dao as its new metro editor, replacing Cliff Levy, who was promoted in January. Dao served as op-ed editor until last year, when he was reassigned to the newsroom amid the Tom Cotton op-ed controversy.
  • Politico’s Tina Nguyen interviewed Andrew Yang, who is running for mayor of New York, about his experience as an Asian American man. He reflected, at one point, on coverage of his presidential bid, in 2019. “I thought that there would be some media organizations that were at least somewhat excited at the prospect of there being an Asian American presidential candidate in the modern era,” Yang said. “And that almost never occurred.”
  • CJR’s Camille Bromley profiles Diversity Hire, a podcast founded last year by Kevin Lozano, who works at The Nation, and Arjun Ram Srivatsa, who works at Condé Nast, that dissects racism in the media industry. “Lozano and Srivatsa resist formalities and buzzwords in favor of meandering conversations,” Bromley writes, “capturing what it’s like to work in journalism far more truthfully than any demographic review.”
  • Tauhid Chappell, a former Philadelphia Inquirer staffer who now works for the media-policy group Free Press, will write an occasional column for Generocity, a “social impact” news group in Philadelphia. Chappell will use the column to “revitalize the role and mission of the public editor” by examining how “media organizations in Philadelphia transform themselves into entities that address their internal and external racism.”
  • And editors at New York magazine, in partnership with New York Forever, are selling collections of cookies from across the city to raise money for restaurant workers. “Gathering together the city’s best cookies is something New York’s food editors do rather frequently,” Alexis Swerdloff, the magazine’s deputy editor, said. “But literally gathering them together is a new and exciting proposition for us.”

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Correction: The name of Jared Moskowitz has been corrected.

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.