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Conservative radio talk show hosts are killing themselves
Two anti-vax hosts died from Covid in the past three weeks. Another is hospitalized. They've also killed many others.
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As a radio host, I know very well the intimacy and trust that the medium of radio fosters. That’s something conservatives realized decades ago, dominating talk radio to organize millions of people for the conservative movement and the Republican Party.
TV and print media can be cold, flat or fleeting, but radio, operating under the radar, feels like it spans time and space, with a connection that lasts sometimes for decades. That can be a force for good. But in the middle of a pandemic, with conspiracies and lies promoted, it can also be deadly — for listeners and even for the host.
On July 30th, right-wing talk radio host Marc Bernier, who for the past 30 years has broadcast from Daytona Beach, Florida on WNDB — host station of the Daytona 500 and flagship station to NASCAR’s Motor Racing Network — tweeted out that the government is “acting like Nazis” in trying to get people vaccinated against Covid-19.
That is the last tweet in his Twitter feed.
And that day was the last time he was on the air. On his program that Friday, Bernier interviewed GOP Congressman Mike Walz, who represents Bernier’s district in Florida and is an Afghanistan War hawk — pummeling President Biden for withdrawing troops while not discussing the fact that he made $25 million as a defense contractor before being elected to Congress. Walz is a regular Friday afternoon guest on Bernier’s show. But that was the last Friday he or anyone appeared.
Bernier was off the air as of Monday, August 2, stricken with Covid-19 at home. Sean Hannity’s syndicated show was airing in his place. On Saturday, August 8th, Bernier was hospitalized, according to the WNDB station manager, who described Bernier as “anti-vaccine.” And that appears to be the last word on his status:
"I don't have an update on him at this point, other than he has been hospitalized," said Mark McKinney, the station's operations director.
My own radio program on SiriusXM happens to air nationally in the same time-slot as Bernier’s, 3-6 pm Eastern Time each weekday. I couldn’t help but think that while I’ve been on the air engaging with people across the country on why getting vaccinated is vital — not just for yourself but for your fellow Americans — this guy was simultaneously spouting lies and misinformation to Floridians.
Bernier was picking up familiar themes promoted by the likes of Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene and other QAnon cultists and Trump loyalists about Covid being a hoax and vaccines being part of a government plot to take away Americans’ “freedom.” And his lies have been killing people in a state exploding with coronavirus as the delta variant dangerously surges. Children five to 14 now make up the largest group of Covid cases in some Florida counties. Anyone with a megaphone promoting misinformation about vaccines has blood on their hands.
And they sometimes are literally killing themselves too.
In the same three-week period, two other radio talk show hosts — Dick Farrel, another Florida radio host and a Newsmax anchor, and Nashville-based host Phil Valentine — have died due to Covid after having spent months promoting conspiracies and anti-vax propaganda.
Valentine, a conservative talk radio icon in Tennessee, died this past weekend after his battle with Covid-19. His story received considerable attention after his brother went on CNN two weeks ago to say Valentine had changed his mind — after being hospitalized and seeing his health deteriorate — and believed people should get vaccinated.
Before that, however, Valentine dismissed Covid-19, saying his chances of getting it were 1%. Regarding getting vaccinated, Valentine stated, “I have a very low risk of getting COVID and dying of it if I do. Why would I risk getting a heart attack or paralysis by getting the vaccine?”
That of course promoted dangerous myths about the vaccines, rebutted by the American Heart Association and the CDC. Mindbogglingly, Valentine said he’d been taking ivermectin, a powerful anti-parasite medication for animals that has been pushed by right-wing media, recklessly claiming it could ward off Covid, though its shown no evidence of being a Covid-19 preventative or treatment and the FDA warns it’s dangerous for humans. In Mississippi, state officials issued an alert against taking it after the poison control center was swamped with calls from people who’d harmed themselves.
After Valentine became infected with Covid he posted on his Facebook page:
Unfortunately for the haters out there, it looks like I’m going to make it. Interesting experience. I’ll have to fill you in when I come back on the air. I’m hoping that will be tomorrow.
But he never came back on the air — and instead went to the hospital, where he spent his last days on a ventilator.
Two and half weeks before Valentine’s death, Farrel, a host on Florida’s WPTV, died from Covid-19. He was also an anchor at the Trump-loving, far-right TV channel Newsmax. He’d called Dr. Anthony Fauci, “a power tripping lying freak” and in July wrote on Facebook that the Covid vaccines were “promoted by people who lied [to you] all along about masks, where the virus came from and the death toll.”
Farrel, too, reportedly had a change of heart on his deathbed, urging a friend to get vaccinated.
But while it’s good that Valentine and Farrel can be used now to perhaps change the minds of some people who see their fates and their reversals, the damage they and a great many other right-wing broadcasters have done is incalculable.
Even Donald Trump himself can’t undo it: At his rally in Alabama last weekend, Trump was booed by the crowd when he urged people to get vaccinated. He even tried to qualify his remarks, saying, “I believe totally in your freedoms. I do. You’ve got to do what you have to do.” But that didn’t prevent the boos from continuing.
No matter that Trump has been vaccinated, he’s promoted the Covid “hoax” lies and the anti-science movements and conspiracies that have fed the right-wing ant-vaxxers. He, the GOP, Fox News and conservative talk radio created a monster. It won’t be brushed away by bland reversals.
And that underscores the fact that we must crush these movements and conspiracies themselves — which feed the domestic terror threat from the Trumpists that we now face — before they do even more damage.
UPDATE: It was brought to my attention that yet another conservative radio host who promoted conspiracies died in the past three weeks. I have a feeling he won’t be the last:
Jimmy DeYoung, a Christian radio broadcaster who questioned the COVID-19 vaccines, died Sunday following a short battle with the virus.
He was hospitalized with COVID-19 on Aug. 7, according to The Chattanoogan, and died from the virus eight days later. DeYoung operated Prophecy Today and his radio program was heard on more than 1,500 stations worldwide, according to his website.
UPDATE 2: Marc Bernier has died, it was reported on Sunday, August 29th. Another senseless, unnecessary death of someone who also cost others their lives by promoting lies:
Longtime WNDB radio host Marc Bernier, an outspoken critic of COVID-19 vaccinations, has died from COVID-19 after a three-week hospital stay, the Daytona Beach News Journal reported.
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