A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
When President Joe Biden stood in the State Dining Room on Tuesday to deliver a nationally televised address on the Omicron variant, he spoke to two groups of Americans: the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. But Biden also delivered a brief (and blunt) message to a third group of Americans: those who are profiting by promoting lies about the pandemic and vaccines.
“Look, the unvaccinated are responsible for their own choices,” Biden said. “But those choices have been fueled by dangerous misinformation on cable TV and social media. You know, these companies and personalities are making money by peddling lies and allowing misinformation that can kill their own customers and their own supporters.”
“It’s wrong, it’s immoral, and I call on the purveyors of these lies and misinformation to stop it,” Biden added. “Stop it now.”
While Biden didn’t name a person or media organization in particular, it was quite clear who he was talking about. As Fox News host Dagen McDowell remarked, “We know who he’s trying to cast aspersions at.” Indeed, we certainly do.
It’s not Biden’s first time calling out misinfo. In his inaugural address, he famously vowed to work to “defend the truth and defeat the lies.” And his administration has repeatedly warned about the dangers of misinfo since. But ID’ing a problem is one thing, solving for it is another. And Biden’s pleas for dishonest people to act in good faith have not yielded any meaningful results…
The needle doesn’t move
As the hours of programming on Fox that followed the speech proved, Biden’s words had no effect. Tucker Carlson opened up his show trafficking in more anti-vaccine rhetoric and mocking the threat posed by the Omicron variant. And elsewhere in right-wing media, Biden’s demand that outlets stop pushing anti-vax rhetoric was ridiculed and used to generate more eyeballs and, thus, more profit. I noticed that stories about Biden calling out right-wing media were at the top of right-wing media sites like The Gateway Pundit.
>> Of note: Even Biden’s gesture of good will toward Trump supporters was largely ignored by MAGA media. Despite crediting the Trump admin for helping to develop the vaccines, a move that resulted in breakout stories from many news orgs, the chyron on “Fox News Primetime” Tuesday night said, “DEMS REFUSE TO CREDIT TRUMP FOR VACCINE EFFORT.”
Fox laughs at Fauci
Dr. Anthony Fauci on Tuesday morning made news on “New Day” by saying that he believed Jesse Watters should be “fired on the spot” for using a “kill shot” metaphor as he encouraged attendees to conduct ambush interviews targeting him. When doing so, Fauci predicted it was “very likely” Watters would go “unaccountable” at Fox News for the “awful comments.”
Fauci was right. Fox put out a statement soon after claiming that Watters words had been “twisted completely out of context.” And on “The Five,” Watters was back to criticizing Fauci. Greg Gutfeld even mocked Fauci, saying that he is the one who should be “fired on the spot.” That prompted laughter from the co-hosts…
A failure of imagination?
Outgoing NIH leader Dr. Francis Collins, when asked by PBS “NewsHour” anchor Judy Woodruff if there was anything the NIH could have done differently re: pandemic response, said, “Maybe we under-invested in research on human behavior.” Collins explained, “I never imagined a year ago, when those vaccines were just proving to be fantastically safe and effective, that we would still have 60 million people who have not taken advantage of them because of misinformation and disinformation” that “somehow dominated” the info-space. Many social scientist types responded on Twitter with exasperation, since they did imagine this problem…
The marketing campaign isn’t great
Speaking about a failure of imagination: One thing that has struck me is how bad the marketing of the vaccines has been. Most of the messaging seems geared toward people who already pay attention to the news and have made up their mind one way or another. Whether it is Biden giving a White House address or Fauci doing the rounds on cable news, it’s difficult to see how these efforts are reaching non-news, persuadable audiences.
Perhaps I am unreasonable, but it is baffling to me that I can log on an app like Instagram and not be immediately bombarded with athletes, musicians, actors, and other influencers encouraging their followers to get vaccinated and boosted. And it is baffling to me why the public PSAs for the vaccines are boring and lack even a drop of creativity. These ads could be powerful and invoke all sorts of emotion, but – at least here in NYC – they simply feature the health commissioner dryly reading a script to encourage people to get a vaccine.
The pro-vaccine messaging, for lack of better words, is boring! That’s not to say that there haven’t been some exceptions to this rule. But in general, the marketing hasn’t been impressive. And I can’t imagine these local PSAs, another Biden speech, or having Fauci appear on a Sunday show for the umpteenth time is effective in convincing anyone to get a shot. It’s really time for government officials to think outside the box on how to reach new audiences…