Mainstream and beltway media coverage of Biden vaccine mandate turn a public health story into a political one

Following President Joe Biden’s announcement on Thursday of new federal vaccine and testing requirements for a sizable portion of the American workforce, mainstream media had an opportunity to address how these new orders could affect the state of public health. With right-wing media busy trying to push partisan talking points, there was a dire need for reporting that did not depict the effort to save thousands of lives as a political tit for tat. 

Unfortunately, mainstream media and political-insider outlets fell into a familiar trap. Their coverage turned a formative step in addressing the ongoing pandemic into an opportunity to once again elevate conservative grievances and ruminate on the potential implications for next year’s midterm elections. 

While it is expected that this story will at least in part be covered through a political lens, this constant horse-race coverage from traditional print media and beltway publications does little to provide useful context or perspective for their audience amid conservative media’s attempts to propagandize the vaccine mandate.

The vaccine mandates will require federal employees and contractors to be vaccinated, and companies with 100 or more employees will either have to implement vaccine requirements or regular testing. The mandates will cover roughly 100 million American workers, and they come at a point when more Americans are returning to work and analysts fear a fifth and likely more severe wave of COVID-19 infections. 

Her are some examples of politicization of the story by mainstream media sources: 

  • Following Biden’s announcement on Thursday, analysis from NBC News set the tone for coverage to come with a headline that read “Biden vaccination mandates are an attack on both Covid and the GOP.” The article said “Republican critics” had spotted an “overreach they can exploit,” and that Democrats counter that the mandates are “sound politically.” When it comes to a vaccine mandate, the article surmised that “there isn't much of a choice” for Democrats because Biden "and his fellow Democrats will be judged on his campaign-trail vow to subdue the coronavirus.”
  • A September 9 article from Reuters sandwiched a brief mention of rising COVID-19 numbers between comments attacking Biden's plan from Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA). Reuters followed with more coverage of the Republican response the following day.
  • An article from The Guardian likewise framed the new mandates as a decision that represents Biden “striving to restore public confidence in his handling of the pandemic.” It went on to say that “the move provoked instant criticism from conservatives sceptical of government overreach” and suggested that the latest wave of COVID-19 cases “threatens to inflict lasting political damage on Biden and derail his ambitious legislative agenda.” 
  • Axios covered reactions from conservatives the following morning in a news roundup titled “America's civil war of 2021.” 
  • Two articles from The Hill focused their attention on Republicans’ response to the mandates, saying that “the moves escalated Biden's battle with GOP governors” and discussing former Vice President Mike Pence’s reaction to the mandates.
  • Analysis from The Associated Press claimed the mandates were “also driven by self-interest, as Biden tries to defend his own job performance on the issue most important to voters,” before dissecting Biden’s approval rating and later quoting “Biden’s opponents,” including Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel. 

Cable news coverage followed suit, with a slew of CNN’s prime-time shows on Friday focusing their coverage on the Republican response. 

  • On The Situation Room With Wolf Blitzer, CNN political director David Chalian ironically noted the politicization of the virus before discussing how “this political battle with the Republicans, it may give Republicans an opportunity to fundraise, to fortify their base.” 
  • At the start of the following hour, Erin Burnett OutFront ran a lengthy segment that focused on Republican opposition and reaction to the mandate.
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Citation From the September 10, 2021, edition of CNN's Erin Burnett OutFront

  • In the next hour, Anderson Cooper 360 guest anchor John Berman stated that the show had extended invitations to 15 Republican governors who objected to the mandates to “come on the show tonight to explain their legal reasoning” behind challenges to the mandate, but none accepted the offer to further their platform.