Some media figures insult the unvaccinated, a strategy doomed to fail

Reasons for vaccine hesitancy are varied and don't boil down to partisan politics

After months of urging, cajoling and practically begging unvaccinated Americans to get their shots, the media are suddenly shifting gears.

Now there’s a rising chorus of anger, resentment and ridicule.

And while I understand the frustrations about the holdouts, attacking them is clearly counterproductive.

For one thing, the reasons for vaccine hesitancy are rather varied and don’t just boil down to partisan politics. This is in some ways a replay of the period after 2016, when some leading liberal commentators denounced Trump voters as racist yahoos who deserved to lose their health care.

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Now the finger-pointing is more specific. Here’s what Don Lemon told his CNN viewers: "You gotta call it what it is. If behavior is idiotic and nonsensical, I think that you need to tell people that their behavior is idiotic and nonsensical."

I fail to grasp how calling them a bunch of idiots helps improve the situation. But it’s a growing strain in punditry, generally tied to a full-throated call to mandate COVID vaccinations.

In The Washington Post, columnist Max Boot says the "pretty pretty please" approach isn’t working: "This is madness. Stop making reasonable appeals to those who will not listen to reason."

Piers Morgan revealed in the Daily Mail that he got a mild case of COVID, despite being vaccinated, and ripped into "a lot of deluded, ill-informed, shamefully scare-mongered or simply complacent Americans," some of whom believe "insane" conspiracy theories.

In The Atlantic, David Frum urges compassion before unloading: "Yes, they have been deceived and manipulated by garbage TV, toxic Facebook content, and craven or crazy politicians. But these are the same people who keep talking about ‘personal responsibility.’ In the end, the unvaccinated person himself or herself has decided to inflict a preventable and unjustifiable harm upon family, friends, neighbors, community, country, and planet."

And that gets to the heart of the resentment, with COVID-19 cases doubling and tripling to more than 51,000 new daily infections, most of them involving the highly contagious delta variant. If three-quarters of the country was fully vaccinated by now, instead of just half, the pandemic in America would be all but over. So those who are refusing the shots are creating risks for society.

Some journalists are acknowledging the breadth of the resistance. CNN anchor Jake Tapper said on the air: "While it is not just a problem of MAGA resistance to the vaccine, it is also just empirically true partisan politics, specifically Republican leaders and affiliated media spewing lies, that is getting in the way of science and health." (We should have included the first part of the bite on "Media Buzz.") The attacks on the GOP and places like Fox News have drawn enormous media attention, but as I said on the show, there are many voices in both realms that are pro-vaccination.

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As some of these pieces have noted, vaccination rates are way down in minority communities for reasons rooted in history. Some people say they’re too busy with work, or live in rural areas where vaccines are less accessible. Others worry about safety because the FDA has granted only emergency approval. (Why on Earth is that taking so long, since the agency has essentially greenlighted the shots for the entire country? Shouldn’t President Biden demand a faster process since it is helping to undermine the program?)

But there is an undeniable problem that vaccination rates are significantly lower among conservatives than liberals, in red states as opposed to blue states. That may reflect their distrust of the media and of government, especially for Trump voters who don’t like the Biden administration.

There’s a glimmer of good news in that nearly 780,000 doses were administered Sunday, and the weekly average has risen 28%. This may be in part because of the heavier media focus on vaccinations, especially as Republican officials and conservative pundits speak out, as well as growing fear as the virus makes a partial comeback.

The mandate question is a difficult one, but we are clearly heading in that direction. The VA yesterday became the first federal agency to require that its front-line health care workers be vaccinated. Bill De Blasio yesterday required all New York City workers to submit proof of vaccination or a negative test. Many universities are telling students not to show up this fall unless they’re vaccinated. Some hospitals have taken the step as well. Joe Scarborough said yesterday that Biden should mandate vaccinations for all public school teachers. The NFL says it will fine unvaccinated players $14,000 for any violation of Covid protocols and that teams with an outbreak may forfeit games.

My concern is that such steps will spark a political backlash over individual freedom, making vaccinations an even more partisan issue. In France, there have been nationwide protests over a measure, adopted yesterday, to require vaccination proof to access restaurants, cafes, transit and other venues.

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But since private businesses here have the right to impose such rules, that might provide an incentive for folks who want to attend concerts, sporting events or just shop at the mall.

The one thing that makes no sense is to start beating up on unvaccinated people out of sheer frustration. That will just turn them off, an outcome that none of us should want.