Matt Taibbi Media Criticism

The Cult of the Vaccine

"The jab" is just the latest story to be reported as mantra in mainstream media.

By Matt Taibbi / Substack

Yesterday, I ran a story that had nothing to do with vaccines, about the seeming delay of the development of a drug called molnupiravir (see the above segment with the gracious hosts of The Hill: Rising for more). In the time it took to report and write that piece, conventional wisdom turned against the drug, which is now suspected of ivermectinism and other deviationist, anti-vax tendencies, in the latest iteration of our most recent collective national mania — the Cult of the Vaccine.

The speed of the change was incredible. Just a week ago, on October 1st, the pharmaceutical giant Merck issued a terse announcement that quickly became big news. Molnupiravir, an experimental antiviral drug, “reduced the risk of hospitalization or death” of Covid-19 patients by as much as 50%, according to a study.

The stories that rushed out in the ensuing minutes and hours were almost uniformly positive. AP called the news a “potentially major advance in efforts to fight the pandemic,” while National Geographic quoted a Yale specialist saying, “Having a pill that would be easy for people to take at home would be terrific.” Another interesting early reaction came from Time:

Vaccines will be the way out of the pandemic, but not everyone around the world is immunized yet, and the shots aren’t 100% effective in protecting people from getting infected with the COVID-19 virus. So antiviral drug treatments will be key to making sure that people who do get infected don’t get severely ill.

This is what news looks like before propagandists get their hands on it. Time writer Alice Park’s lede was sensible and clear. If molnupiravir works — a big if, incidentally — it’s good news for everyone, since not everyone is immunized, and the vaccines aren’t 100% effective anyway. As even Vox put it initially, molnupiravir could “help compensate for persistent gaps in Covid-19 vaccination coverage.”

Within a day, though, the tone of coverage turned. Writers began stressing a Yeah, but approach, as in, “Any new treatment is of course good, but get your fucking shot.” A CNN lede read, “A pill that could potentially treat Covid-19 is a ‘game-changer,’ but experts are emphasizing that it’s not an alternative to vaccinations.” The New York Times went with, “Health officials said the drug could provide an effective way to treat Covid-19, but stressed that vaccines remained the best tool.”

If you’re thinking it was only a matter of time before the mere fact of molnupiravir’s existence would be pitched in headlines as actual bad news, you’re not wrong: Marketwatch came out with “‘It’s not a magic pill’: What Merck’s antiviral pill could mean for vaccine hesitancy” the same day Merck issued its release. The piece came out before we knew much of anything concrete about the drug’s effectiveness, let alone whether it was “magic.”

Bloomberg’s morose “No, the Merck pill won’t end the pandemic” was released on October 2nd, i.e. one whole day after the first encouraging news of a possibleauxiliary treatmentwhose most ardent supporters never claimed would end the pandemic. This article said the pill might be cause to celebrate, but warned its emergence “shouldn’t be cause for complacency when it comes to the most effective tool to end this pandemic: vaccines.” Bloomberg randomly went on to remind readers that the unrelated drug ivermectin is a “horse de-worming agent,” before adding that if molnupiravir ends up “being viewed as a solution for those who refuse to vaccinate,” the “Covid virus will continue to persist.”

In other words, it took less than 24 hours for the drug — barely tested, let alone released yet — to be accused of prolonging the pandemic. By the third day, mentions of molnupiravir in news reports nearly all came affixed to stern reminders of its place beneath vaccines in the medical hierarchy, as in the New York Times explaining that Dr. Anthony Fauci, who initially told reporters the new drug was “impressive,” now “warned that Americans should not wait to be vaccinated because they believe they can take the pill.”

Since the start of the Trump years, we’ve been introduced to a new kind of news story, which assumes adults can’t handle multiple ideas at once, and has reporters frantically wrapping facts deemed dangerous, unorthodox, or even just insufficiently obvious in layers of disclaimers. The fear of uncontrolled audience brain-drift is now so great that even offhand references must come swaddled in these journalistic Surgeon General’s warnings, which is why whenever we read anything now, we almost always end up fighting through nests of phrases like “the debunked conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was created in a lab” in order to get to whatever the author’s main point might be.

This lunacy started with the Great Lie Debate of 2016, when reporters and editors spent months publicly anguishing over whether to use “lie” in headlines of Donald Trump stories, then loudly congratulated themselves once they decided to do it. The most histrionic offender was the New York Times, previously famous for teaching readers to digest news in code (“he claimed” for years was Times-ese for “full of shit”) but now reasoned a “more muscular terminology,” connoting “a certain moral opprobrium,” was needed to distinguish the “dissembling” of a politician like Bill Clinton from Trump’s whoppers. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” could be mere falsehood, but “I will build a great great wall” required language that “stands apart.”

The key term was moral opprobrium. Moralizing was exactly what journalists were once trained not to do, at least outside the op-ed page, but it soon became a central part of the job. When they used they word “lie,” the Times explained, they wanted us to know that was because “from the childhood schoolyard to the grave, this is a word neither used nor taken lightly.” Put another way, the Times didn’t want people reading about something Donald Trump said, grasping that it was a lie, and, say, chuckling about how ridiculous it was. If the New York Times sent the word “lie” up the flagpole, they now expected an appropriately solemn salute.

This was the beginning of an era in which editors became convinced that all earth’s problems derived from populations failing to accept reports as Talmudic law. It couldn’t be people were just tuning out papers for a hundred different reasons, including sheer boredom. It had to be that their traditional work product was just too damned subtle. The only way to avoid the certain evil of audiences engaging in unsupervised pondering over information was to eliminate all possibility of subtext, through a new communication style that was 100% literal and didactic. Everyone would get the same news and also be instructed, often mid-sentence, on how to respond.

At first this expressed itself via regurgitation of Approved Unambiguous Phraseology™ handed down from official or law enforcement sources, like “Russia’s election interference activities,” e.g. “Page’s alleged coordination with Russia’s election interference activities.” However, it wasn’t long before the stage-direction factor in coverage went berserk, as I noted last year after this question by Anderson Cooper in a presidential debate:

COOPER: Mr. Vice President, President Trump has falsely accused your son of doing something wrong while serving on a company board in Ukraine. I want to point out there’s no evidence of wrongdoing by either one of you.

The phrase, “no evidence of wrongdoing,” was a mandatory add last year in all coverage involving Ukraine, Joe Biden, and Hunter Biden, from the Guardian (“No evidence the younger Biden did anything illegal”) to CNBC (“There is no evidence that Trump or Giuliani has produced which shows that Hunter Biden was engaged in wrongdoing”) to Newsweek (Although there is no evidence of illegal wrongdoing by the Bidens in those dealings”) to NBC (“No evidence of wrongdoing on the part of either Biden”) to AP (“There has been no evidence of wrongdoing by either the vice president or his son”) to the New York TimesLos Angeles TimesAxios, and countless others.

The language was absurd on multiple levels, beginning with its incorrectness — unless they were talking purely about a legal definition, the issue of whether or not there was “wrongdoing” in Hunter Biden accepting a no-show $50,000-a-month job from a crooked Ukrainian energy firm was a matter for readers to decide, not an issue of fact. Still, a lot of people not only swallowed it, but vomited these and other terms back up again, over and over, on social media, or to their friends and family, or to anyone at all, in what became a new way for a certain kind of person to relate to the world.

As a student in the Soviet Union I noticed subscribers to what Russians called the sovok mindset talked in interminable strings of pogovorki, i.e goofball proverbs or aphorisms you’d heard a million times before (“He who takes no risk, drinks no champagne,” or “Work isn’t a wolf, it won’t run off into the woods,” etc). This was a learned defense mechanism, adopted by a people who’d found out the hard way that anyone caught not speaking nonstop nonsense could be suspected of harboring original thoughts. Voluble stupidity is a great disguise in a society where silence is suspect.

We’re similarly becoming a nation of totalitarian nitwits, speaking in a borrowed lexicon of mandatory phrases and smelling heresy in anyone who doesn’t. This cult reflex was bad during the Russiagate years, but it’s gone into overdrive since the arrival of COVID. The CNN writer who thinks it’s necessary to put a disclaimer in the lede of a story about molnupiravir, of all things, is basically claiming he or she is afraid a theoretical unvaccinated person might otherwise read the story and be encouraged to not take the vaccine.

Except, if that theoretical unvaccinated person could be convinced by anything CNN said or did, they’d have already gotten the shot, because the network runs ten million stories a day directly imploring people to get vaccinated or die. News flash: the instinct to armor-plate even unrelated news subjects with layer after layer of insistent vaccine dogma is not for the non-immunized, who mostly don’t watch outlets like CNN or read the New York Times. Outlets apply that neurotic messaging for their own target audiences, who’ve been trained to live in terror of un-contextualized content, which everyone knows leads to Trump, fascism, and death.

I’d be the last person to claim there aren’t dumb people out there in America, but at least the audiences of channels like Fox and OAN know that content has been designed for themThe people gobbling down these pieces by Bloomberg and the Times that have the journalistic equivalent of child-proof caps on every paragraph that even parenthetically mentions COVID really believe that content has been dumbed down for some other person. They think it’s someone else who can’t handle news that vaccines work and thatthere also might be a pill that treats the disease, without freaking out or coming to politically unsafe conclusions. So they put up with being talked to like children — demand it, even. Which is nuts. Right? It is nuts, isn’t it?

38 comments

  1. I am offended at Tabibi’s implication that some Americans are dumb, and I now understand that if he was once a student in the Soviet Union, he is a Commie and an enemy of the American people.

  2. There are two types of people in this world, those who are emotionally overloaded and those who are not. With that as a guideline which category do zealots fall into?

  3. Merck discontinued its two candidates for a vaccine in January. In March it got approval to produce the J&J vaccine in Europe. This pill may be Merk’s attempt to board the pandemic gravy train. The push back makes sense because the rest of the gravy train based on Emergency Use Authorization will be threatened. EUA is allowed for treatments for which there are no alternatives. This antiviral pill is an alternative and so cannot be considered effective. The propaganda avalanche will overwhelm any science. People are less likely to demand it and so it will fade into the background ala ivermectin, regardless of its effectiveness.

  4. What I find so hilarious about the cult is that they’re stupid enough to worship a piece of crap, exhibiting just how absorbed are their drone selves into the matrix of corporate Pharma. These vaccines are mediocre — at best. It’s clear from immunological dogma and from recent studies that natural immunity is far better. The implication is that the vaccines don’t evoke critical components of natural immunity that provide both more comprehensive and longer lasting immunity. Nor are the CDC et al. talking enough about better vaccines from small companies like a nasally administered one in initial trials.
    https://altimmune.com/adcovid/
    God forbid anyone should challenge the supremacy of Pfizer et al. or the ka-ching of CVS’s and Walgreens’ cash register with every administered jab.

  5. It is definitely not nuts. It is perfectly rational, paid writers trying to hoild on to their jobs.
    It’s wimpy, it’s faggy, it’s sleazy, it’s disappointing, it’s unprofessional, it’s ….well you get the point. The thing that is nots is for you to be asking for clarification at the end of the piece as if there is a single person more authoritative that you..don’t try to please the teacher Matt.

  6. In the event that my comments are not posted, it would give me another reason to post it on my substack site.
    best,

  7. The infantilization of Americans is not just evident in the “news” we ingest from an acquiescent propaganda machine, but the entire media landscape. Most Hollywood films – at least the most successful ones – are basically kids movies. What used to be marketed as kids cereals are now enthusiastically consumed by ( mostly male) adults. Literacy, as it used to be defined, is a relic in a museum. All of this aggressive dumbing down dovetails neatly with The National Security State – a system of power as anti-democratic and contemptuous of it’s citizenry as Nazi Germany or the Soviets. The fear that increasingly grips a society in an inexorable economic and cultural nosedive welcomes a reductive cliffs notes version of the world.

  8. great article. the villification of healthcare workers for choosing not to have a vaccine because they contracted covid during their hospital work and have natural immunity, because they have been taking an antiviral prophylactically or in a few rare cases, because they are Christian Science, Russian Orthodox or Seventh day Adventist has really irritated me. Fauci is not science. thank goodness for you, Chris Hedges, Dr.Malone (MRNA inventor), Dr.campbell (Scottish instructor)and others I do not feel so alone in my disdain for how our country has mishandled this entire virus.

  9. “which assumes adults can’t handle multiple ideas at once”

    Correctly assumes. This is emphatically true of literally every Trump true believer, and the vast majority of liberals.

    1. Hmmn. Could it be that we have to hand-moderate comments because we don’t want people who are more interested in expressing their fury that having a conversation to dominate this nascent space? Could it be that we are not funded and staffed in the way YOU, Sir Teasdale, want us to be? Maybe look around to see how man sites don’t even bother with comments…and maybe see this as a glass half-full situation?

      1. Teasdale is belligerent and thinks using the word “faggy” is somehow going to make his argument sound more forceful. I personally wouldn’t mind if it took you three weeks to moderate his spammy comments.
        But that’s all I’m going to say about that.

  10. It would be easy to think this entire black farce was intentionally planned, organized and executed, such is the damage it has caused and dystopian controls that are being enacted without regard to human rights, the constitution and bill of rights, or basic moral or ethical behavior.

    In the end, whether this entire nightmare was intentional or just the result of an experiment gone wrong combined with the unlimited greed and desire for more power and control by those who rule becomes a mute point, given the damage done and the ultimate road all of this inevitably leads to.

    As the people bury their heads and plug their ears and hum very loudly in order to ignore that which is happening right before them, their hopes and dreams evaporate in a black cloud of greed, arrogance, incompetence, brainwashing and ignorance.

    1. You make a strong argument. Could it be that we are the ones who publish Hedges with our limited means but are not so staffed as to rush your precious comment onto the page with the alacrity you so desire?

  11. fuck you are so ann0ying. why don’t you just say this is a site for boring old men who get off listening to each other’s broken record players! read all about it on PIECE off the press.
    If you dare!!!

  12. I am not the kind of guy you want to piss off!
    I will absolutely destroy you! Taibbi AND _ _ _ _ _ _
    I am serious
    READ ALL ABOUT IT on Friday
    PS It will look very bad if my comment to Matt about him being a FUCKING WIMP sellout is still not posted

  13. Yes, it is nuts. Unquestionably nuts.

    What I find sickening is that people who claim to have doctorates in hard sciences related to medicine don’t realize it’s nuts. Their training is doing them no good at all now except as a way to sound authoritative when they uncritically parrot the media’s nonsense.

  14. Always enjoyable to read a moderator that can handle someone obviously off their meds….or they were released too soon. Same result either way.

    Cheers

  15. Reply to you reader’s ‘comment’.
    Please publish this:
    IF you DARE!!!!!
    [link moderated]

    1. We let you publish your links several times, but at this point it is just spamming and the links will be removed automatically. Find another way to build your audience.

  16. Not a Taibi substack subscriber, and certainly not planning on it based on his coverage of this story on Useful Idiots and the Hill. I found the Hill’s headline “MIRACLE DRUG” the most disturbing part of the sensationalist reporting surrounding this story. That doctor who told Congress that Ivermectin is a miracle drug was also irresponsible for his sensationalism and lack of data/hard evidence to back his claims.

    Matt Taibi has repeatedly stated: you cannot trust media who take talking points from paid actors. Yet, this time, he repeats the press release of Merck as if it were fact, like a useful idiot. They have not released any other data to the public, whatsoever. If you’re not going to do any research: reporting on this story in any way, other than, “Company selling drug says it works. Will follow up when they provide evidence,” is irresponsible.

    Overselling it is just as misguided and dishonest as underselling it.

    So far, the only positive result data I’ve found from Molnupiravir (EIDD 2801) is the studies from Emory university, who also developed Remdesivir (EIDD 1931). They showed both drugs inhibited viral replication in vitro in mice and human lung cells. The only publicized data from Remdesivir in living humans was Remdesivir’s absolute failure at preventing Ebola in South Africa. After providing the drug en masse (as they have done with other drugs: ex. Ivermectin to eradicate river blindness), they found it INCREASED mortality, while failing to prevent Ebola, and so they stopped giving it to people. The only data from Molnupiravir showed it was ineffective in severe covid-19 cases, which is why this new, unreleased study is only for mild cases.

    The reason Molnupiravir was halted was publicized at the time. It had little to do with the cultural war, despite whatever Matt saw on FOX, CNN, and Twitter. Ridgeback, the company which licensed the drugs from Emory to pharmaceutical companies, was caught bribing government officials from the Trump administration, and only faced consequences after Trump left office. Ridgeback was claiming it was a miracle drug with no evidence, while outside scientists were concerned that the way the drug works, by inducing RNA mutagenesis to prevent replication of viruses, may do more harm than good. Now that they are bribing the blue team, these concerns have all apparently been resolved.
    https://www.science.org/content/article/emails-offer-look-whistleblower-charges-cronyism-behind-potential-covid-19-drug

    It’s important to connect these 2 drugs specifically, because EIDD 2801 converts to EIDD 1931 in plasma, which then converts to EIDD-1931 5′-triphosphate, the active antiviral effect. Emory developed both drugs and they were both shown to be effective antivirals in vitro using the exact same mechanism. The fact that Molnupiravir is being lauded as a miracle drug, while in the same news cycle, Remdesivir is being trashed for its uselessness, is dumbfounding to me.

    The other missing reporting from Taibi and other journalists in the story of Merck’s new drug is the shuffle in their management. Their CEO and lead scientist for drug development were both critical of “miracle cure” claims of the vaccines and other new drugs touted by the FDA and other pharma companies. Both have since been quietly ousted from the company, through unexpected early retirement announcements. I believe the past CEO is now working with a new company to develop drugs and the scientist is with some fluffy, do-good organization, but I might have them mixed up. Either way, the Merck that sold Ivermectin is NOT the Merck that now sells Molnupiravir.

    People rely on media for information and Taibi regularly, actively criticizes the mainstream media for failing at their core role of accurately reporting a story to the best of their knowledge. I understand when “most people” don’t read the studies. I also understand when journalists don’t read the studies. What troubles me is that Matt didn’t read the studies, is clearly not informed, and is either pretending that his is (which I doubt) or that others aren’t – which he can’t possibly know without actually doing his own research. I’m losing so much respect for him with his framing of this story.

    (P.S. Vaccinated – 2x Modern, never taken Ivermectin, voted for Obama twice, and Trump never. Check your facts and keep your labels to yourself.)

    1. Thanks, Michael, for the details about Molnupiravir. I thought Matt’s article used the drug as a starting point to talk about the culture wars, which though irrational at times on the surface, reflects a power struggle between different groups, whether Dem vs Rep supporters, corporate interest vs public interest. You show examples of why drug companies often cannot be trusted, as their profit motive overrides their duty to (long-term) public health and safety. Science has proven its effectiveness, but due to complexity, can be used to divide us into believers and non-believers, and also used as a weapon (both ideological and literal) in any societal contest for power and dominance.

  17. This comment is late, but I wanted to clarify my thoughts and try to add to the discussion.

    Matt:

    The trends of anti-science and anti-tolerance for differences (especially lack of empathy and willingness to communicate), seem completely illogical and dangerous. I agree that they are in the long-term, but prejudice for any reason can serve an important purpose in the short-term. I suspect the answer lies in our tribal nature and our instinct for dominance. If you are part of the Christian Right, and/or a Trump supporter, being part of an in-group can give a feeling of purpose and power. If you feel threatened by change, are being marginalized economically, turning your anger to an out-group, whether based on skin color, class or even intellectual superiority, which science can appear at times, can feel powerful.

    Scientists and scientific belief (which can be argued is a belief until proven) are easy targets for groups that feel threatened. The wealthy individuals and major corporations have PR firms to cover for them, and direct public anger elsewhere, but many scientists and technocrats do not have this advantage. It may be that Big Pharma uses its resources to help reverse this trend against science, as they are being impacted now, but the Right has assaulted peoples’ faith in government for decades, and as they are the source of vaccines, this is one of the consequences.

    Chris Hedges has something when he states that marginalized or threatened groups, such as many on the Christian Right, need to be included and have their wellbeing looked after by society. I’ve been told by other commenters that some on the Right do not deserve our understanding, that they are doing well and seeking dominance. Fair enough, our competitive, win or lose society is helping to bring out this tribalism and aggression. In the short-term, eliminating the “competition” or out-groups, means more resources for you and yours, but in the long-term it can lead to civil war and collapse of nations.

    1. To Scheerpost: I know this is not necessary, but for my post above, I could just as easily have used the example of members of the educated, liberal class being the in-group and less educated, “deplorables” being the out-group to be used or eliminated. The culture wars Matt described in part are a reflection of this power struggle, and a lack of trust that hinders our ability to cooperate with each other.

      I would much rather have a society where there was widespread, high education and understanding, a willingness to debate yet still listen, rather than one where different groups compete for power, and the strong, whether corporations, interest groups or individuals take advantage of the weak.

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