For years now, talk radio has been the home turf of hard-right commentators in the Rush Limbaugh mold — a bombastic corner of American politics that is currently rejecting science as it relates to the coronavirus. So there’s some irony in the fact that, in the past few weeks, not one but three prominent conservative radio hosts who had used their platforms to undermine public faith in vaccination have died from the virus.
This isn’t schadenfreude. No one deserves to die for their opinions, no matter how misguided. But it should be a message for those who need to hear it most about the dangerous misinformation being spread in these anti-factual echo chambers.
Phil Valentine, 62, was a nationally syndicated radio host out of Nashville, Tennessee. Like many on the right who have helped hobble society from reaching herd immunity, he cloaked his misinformation in reasonable-sounding pontification. “What are my odds of dying from COVID if I do get it? Probably way less than one percent …,” he wrote in a blog in December. “If you have underlying health issues you probably need to get the vaccine. If you’re not at high risk of dying from COVID then you’re probably safer not getting [vaccinated].”
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That assertion is simply, dangerously untrue. The coronavirus is notoriously unpredictable — many of the dead have had no underlying health issues at all — whereas the vaccine poses virtually no health risk. These are facts that Valentine ignored to his peril. When he was hospitalized in July, his station released a statement saying Valentine “regrets not being more vehemently ‘pro-vaccine,’ and looks forward to being able to more vigorously advocate that position as soon as he is back on the air.” Instead, he died Aug. 21.
Florida radio host Marc Bernier, 65, died Saturday after what a local media report described as “a three-week battle with COVID-19.” Bernier was known for allowing alternate viewpoints on his show — a rarity in right-wing radio — but his own views were clear. He called himself “Mr. Anti-Vax” and once suggested on Twitter that “the US Government is acting like Nazi’s” for promoting vaccination.
Another Florida radio host, Dick Farrel, also 65, died of coronavirus-related complications Aug. 4. Farrel had urged listeners not to get inoculated and once referred to the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, as a “power-tripping lying freak.” Before his death, The Washington Post reported, Farrel came around on vaccinations, urging friends to get the shot and texting to one: “I wish I’d gotten it!”
To their listeners, these weren’t the voices of feared government, the distrusted scientific community or the hated left. They were key voices of the right, silenced by a virus that is real and deadly. If their final, unintended message gets conservative radio audiences to finally heed that urgent fact, that will be a positive legacy.