In the world of conservative media, author Alex Berenson is a star. Thanks in large part to his relentless Twitter criticism of how mainstream media and Democratic politicians have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, Berenson now regularly appears as an expert on Fox News and One America News Network shows. No, he’s not a scientist or a doctor (he has degrees in economics and history from Yale); he’s something even more valuable to right-wing media outlets. Berenson is a former New York Times reporter who is willing to lean hard on his résumé for credibility -- while advancing the types of arguments these conservative outlets had been making already.
To understand the specific role Berenson plays in the right-wing media ecosystem, one only has to look as far back as the January 2019 release of Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence. The book, which made the case against what Berenson has called marijuana’s “unstoppable march to legalization in the United States,” was widely criticized by researchers, doctors, and scientists. In a Times op-ed about the book, Berenson pointed to a 2017 report from the National Academy of Medicine concluding that marijuana use is “likely to increase the risk of schizophrenia and other psychoses.” This, he argued, represented a “change in the scientific consensus” that was being ignored. As it turned out, this wasn’t quite true.
Ziva Cooper, a pharmacologist on the NAM Committee on the Health Effects of Marijuana at the time of the report’s publishing, replied to Berenson’s Times op-ed in a Twitter thread. “We found 1) an #association between cannabis use and schizophrenia and 2) an #association between cannabis use and IMPROVED cognitive outcomes in individuals with psychotic disorders (not mentioned in the editorial),” she wrote. “Since the report, we now know that genetic risk for schizophrenia predicts cannabis use, shedding some light on the potential direction of the association between cannabis use and schizophrenia,” she added.
To be fair, Berenson isn’t completely out of his depth. For more than 10 years, he worked as a reporter at The New York Times, and he spent a portion of that time covering the pharmaceutical industry. Even so, a lot of experts were loudly telling him that he had misrepresented and perhaps misunderstood research on his book’s topic. Undeterred, Berenson responded by positioning himself as someone facing unfair backlash from the mainstream simply for speaking an inconvenient and unpopular truth.
Berenson has become a darling of conservative media thanks to his contrarian takes and credentials as a former New York Times reporter.
Despite heapings of criticism from experts, Berenson won praise for Tell Your Children in right-wing media. The Washington Times, The New York Post, and The American Conservative all wrote positively about the book. Conservative radio hosts Hugh Hewitt and Michael Medved interviewed him on their shows. He spoke at the Hudson Institute, Hillsdale College, the Heritage Foundation, and at the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s “Road to Majority” 2019 policy conference. To watch his speeches and interviews is to understand exactly why he appeals to these audiences. On marijuana legalization, he indulges conservative conspiracy theories about moneyed interests working to implement policy contrary to scientific consensus, sometimes embracing narratives about “elite media” and the right’s favorite boogeyman, George Soros.
“It’s a lot of the elite media that’s bought into this,” he said, referencing legalization during a January 2019 appearance on Fox & Friends. “The number one group that’s encouraged legalization over the last 20 years is the Drug Policy Alliance, which is a well-funded group -- actually, George Soros is its largest backer.”
Now more than a year after releasing Tell Your Children, Berenson is again being warmly embraced by right-wing media -- this time for his “contrarian” views on the COVID-19 pandemic. Berenson’s been a major critic of lockdown efforts, arguing that the overall threat posed by the novel coronavirus has been overblown.
“Ex-NYT reporter Alex Berenson calls on governors to reopen schools, questions coronavirus lockdowns,” reads a Fox News headline from April.
Ex-NY Times reporter blasts governors over 'infuriating' lockdowns: 'They are fools and haven't read the data,’” says another.
“Ex-NYT reporter Berenson says officials using testing concerns as 'excuse' to delay lifting lockdowns,” goes a third.
An April article at Vice mockingly referred to Berenson as “the world’s foremost former New York Times reporter” for how frequently the credential is touted by those referencing him approvingly. But it doesn’t actually say much about his level of COVID-19 expertise.
Right-wing media embrace credentialism that -- accurate or not -- gives their audience the impression of a defection from liberal groupthink.
Berenson joins the ranks of Lara Logan and Sharyl Attkisson as journalists who’ve found a friendly home in right-wing media after previously working for mainstream outlets. Both Logan and Attkisson worked at CBS before migrating to more explicitly conservative media outlets: Logan has her own show on Fox Nation called Lara Logan Has No Agenda, and Attkisson hosts Sinclair’s Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson. Prior to landing on Fox Nation, Logan appeared across various Fox News shows to decry the media’s supposed liberal bias. Attkisson has done the same, and she famously created a “media bias chart” that conservative outlet PJ Media used as the basis for a misleading clickbait article, which eventually led Trump to rage-tweet a threat to regulate Google.
Credentialed journalists like Logan and Attkisson are particularly useful to conservative media outlets in that they present themselves as mainstream media turncoats willing to risk their careers in the name of truth -- at least the right-wing version of truth. They present their stories as similar to those of principled whistleblowers -- insiders who’ve seen how the proverbial sausage is made but couldn’t stomach it. It’s a form of martyrdom, but it comes with a built-in right-wing fan base. Berenson recently and perhaps inadvertently touched on this in a Twitter thread later posted as an opinion piece to FoxNews.com:
I’m a class traitor. Not just because I worked for The New York Times for 10 years and wrote lots of hardball pieces about companies (not to mention our failures in Iraq) that make me tough to dismiss as a right-wing nutter, much as they’d like to try.
No, I’m a class traitor in another, arguably more important way, too; the media/academic left tries to cudgel its opponents with an attitude of mocking scorn and intellectual superiority. The president has been a useful foil for them in this (as they have been for him).
But that game doesn’t work with me; I’m as credentialed as the people shouting at me, only I follow the facts where they go.
Berenson revels in the fact that “the media blue-checks hate me so”; an editor’s note acknowledges that he also has a “blue check” verified Twitter account but quotes him explaining, “I am no longer part of the media establishment.” He’s been a regular guest on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight, appeared on Fox News’ Hannity, called in to Steve Deace’s show at TheBlaze and Buck Sexton’s show The First, and he even hosted two episodes of Fox Nation’s Fox Nation 101 as the “COVID Contrarian.” For someone who now seems to pride himself on not being a part of the “media establishment,” Berenson makes a lot of media appearances, and without fail, it’s his past work in the “media establishment” that gets brought up in introductions.
Credentialism is how people working inside the mainstream media establishment muster up unearned and undeserved status as experts on a topic just because they’ve read or written about it. Can a beneficiary of this process ever truly be the type of outsider Berenson presents himself as?
Even after watching every COVID-19 interview of his, I still don’t know that I understand exactly what he believes. Maybe that’s the point.
In her Vice profile of Berenson, Laura Wagner sums up this problem perfectly, writing, “The problem with citing Berenson's ‘reporting’ is that what he has actually reported is unclear, since during the crisis he has produced nothing beyond hundreds of often-confusing tweets.” I’ve gathered that he’s not a fan of lockdowns, that he believes schools should be open right now, and that he thinks mainstream media and elected officials overplayed the risk of the virus for younger people.
I'm not an actual expert on pandemics -- though as Justin Baragona explained at Daily Beast, “Berenson’s contrarianism on the virus and its deadly impact has received intense pushback from public-health experts.” The difference between us seems to be that if I were asked to discuss the underlying science of a pandemic on cable TV, I would assume that it was a mistake; he seems to be working at this from the other end, treating invitations to every show as something he’s entitled to by his contrarian credentials. In a recent tweet about his frequent appearances on Fox News and OAN, he offered a bit of insight into his experience. After listing CNN, MSNBC, and NPR as outlets he would be happy to appear on, he wrote, “THEY WILL NOT HAVE ME. Why? Ask them.”
A quick glance through the replies shows a conspiratorial undercurrent among his followers, with many people baselessly claiming that those outlets are trying to hide the truth or need to protect a specific narrative about the coronavirus pandemic. Another explanation seems much more logical: They don’t invite him on because he’s not an expert on this topic.
The accuracy of his claims aside, it seems that being told that he’s wrong only reinforces his belief that he’s right. In a recent Vanity Fair profile, a former colleague offered one theory for why Berenson and right-wing media have developed such a symbiotic relationship:
“He always seemed to me like the kind of a guy who is a legend in his own mind,” said one former fellow business reporter, who wrote in a text that after the marijuana book came out, Berenson “got all defensive and convinced himself that The Politically Correct were trying to Silence him for having Different Opinions. And the next thing you know all these people with Deplorable in their bio are like ‘Yeah! You are a Truth Teller!’ And that becomes your new identity, you become the Rebel leader in this gang of dipshits.”
Berenson relies on his mainstream media background to legitimize his criticisms, and Fox News is all too happy to help. As a professionally contrarian credentialist, and as much as he may deny it, that makes him part of the same media establishment he now claims to oppose.