ABC News and CNN Manage to Demonstrate Exactly What Not To Do with Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

A disastrous series of choices when interviewing the anti-vaccine activist and presidential candidate. 
Kennedy and Davis
Kennedy and Davis in conversation. Screenshot via ABC News.

If there’s one thing to know about prominent anti-vaccine activist and current presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., it’s that he makes false claims about vaccines. Although he went out of his way to avoid mentioning his anti-vaccine activism during his candidacy announcement, it was supremely obvious that he would begin seeding his campaign with his usual talking points as soon as possible. Media outlets, then, would need to be prepared to respond to lies, misinformation, and half-truths about this topic in real time in order to competently interview him or report on his run. In the first major fuck-up covering his campaign, ABC News instead elected to simply cut false claims it says Kennedy made about COVID-19 vaccines out of a recent interview with him. That editing has, predictably, given Kennedy a plausible cause to claim he’s being censored, created a nice, convenient news cycle for places like Fox News, and, in general, provided a crystalline example of exactly what not to do here. CNN’s Michael Smerconish, meanwhile, gave Kennedy a largely friendly interview that somehow managed to skirt his anti-vaccine activism almost entirely. 


In the ABC interview, conducted by anchor Linsey Davis, Kennedy went out of his way to depict himself as an underdog, someone going up against “large forces,” as he put it, “who are very

very powerful and are able to silence me.”

This is absurd on its face; Kennedy comes from a political dynasty, and has been a major and very well-funded anti-vaccine figure for decades. He is married to an actor, Cheryl Hines, and friends with countless celebrities and people in positions of power, and he got his start in anti-vaccine activism by publishing a now-infamous story simultaneously in Salon and Rolling Stone, not an opportunity open to most people. At one point, Children’s Health Defense, his anti-vaccine organization, was one of the top buyers of anti-vaccine ads on Facebook. He has traveled far and wide spreading his message, being welcomed by the masses at a right-wing rally in Germany and by an influential Australian-Samoan anti-vaccine activist and a person from the U.S. embassy on a tour of American Samoa. (The embassy claimed the employee was there “on his own time in his capacity as a private citizen and do[es] not in any way reflect the position of the embassy nor the U.S. government.” This trip was especially noteworthy because the island suffered a serious measles outbreak months later, raising fears that parents had been induced not to vaccinate their kids against measles due to the disinformation campaign by Kennedy and others.)  For someone promoting polarizing and largely unpopular views, he could not possibly be less silenced.


Kennedy’s claims of being “silenced,” though, were given a truly ironic little helping hand by ABC News’ decision, which Davis explained in a brief address after the interview aired, to completely cut his comments on COVID vaccines. 

“We should note that during our conversation Kennedy made false claims about the COVID-19 vaccines,” Davis said in comments after the interview aired, as well as “making misleading claims about the relationship between vaccines and autism.” Davis added basic, and accurate, boilerplate language about the falsity of both claims before adding, “We’ve used our editorial judgement in not including extended portions of that exchange in our interview. We thank Mr. Kennedy for the conversation.” (It should be noted that Davis did press Kennedy on his record during the interview, noting, for instance, that prominent members of his own family have declared him to be “tragically wrong” on vaccines.)

Predictably, Kennedy immediately made absolute hay out of the situation, falsely claiming in a tweet that ABC had broken the law. (Kennedy was referring to 47 U.S. Code § 315, which allows “equal opportunities” among candidates to use a broadcasting station; news interviews are exempt from that, for extremely obvious reasons.) 


Kennedy added, “Instead of journalism, the public saw a hatchet job. Instead of information, they got defamation and unsheathed Pharma propaganda. Americans deserve to hear the full interview so they can make up their own minds. How can democracy function without a free and unbiased press?” (Kennedy is a Twitter Blue subscriber, and thus can write tweets spanning many thousands of words.) Outlets like Fox News and the New York Post immediately jumped on the story; in classic form, the Post characterized Davis as “the latest legacy media journalist to admit to editing interviews to flatter liberal viewers.”  

Standard journalistic practice in dealing with a prominent person making false claims is to contextualize them. (There’s even an unfortunate name for this technique, the “truth sandwich,” in which the journalist presents accurate information before and after the inaccurate information.) The main reason for this is that it’s important for the public to know what the prominent person is actually claiming, but a subsidiary one is that suppressing inaccurate information makes it more appealing by presenting it as esoteric and forbidden. By positioning what Kennedy had to say as too dangerous for its audience, ABC managed both to leave viewers uninformed about what he actually has to say and to make it seem alluring. If he had paid the network, it couldn’t have done more to serve his interests.


ABC wasn’t alone in making strange choices here. In an interview with Kennedy two days later, CNN’s Michael Smerconish managed to use the word “vaccines” exactly once, in his introduction, in quote from someone else, with the preface that Kennedy recently “hit 19 percent support among Democratic voters.”

Quoting Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal, Smerconish added: “Especially for a guy who's been labeled a nut. He's been a leader of the idea that childhood vaccines are connected to autism.”

This framing was a truly strange decision; among other things, without a real introduction to the candidate, it would have been very difficult to parse some of the claims he made on-air. For instance, Smerconish gave Kennedy space to go on at length to claim he was “censored” by the White House, major news networks, and Democratic attorneys general, but a viewer unfamiliar with his activism wouldn’t have been clear on precisely which views of his would have been deemed worthy of censorship in the first place. Instead, Smerconish pressed Kennedy on an offensive comment he made at an anti-vaccine rally, where he implied that unvaccinated people had fewer rights than Jews during the Holocaust. “Even in Hitler’s Germany, you could cross the Alps to Switzerland,” he said at the time. “You could hide in an attic like Anne Frank did.” (Kennedy semi-apologized for the comments later). 

Even then, though, Smerconish managed not to convey that Kennedy made those comments at an anti-vaccine rally and was talking about mandates. Instead, he pressed Kennedy to say that Holocaust comparisons “are never appropriate,” something to which Kennedy responded, “I agree that we have to be careful in how we invoke the Holocaust.” He also claimed he “never compared the COVID mandates … to the Holocaust,” that he was making a different point about “the emerging rise of AI and surveillance technologies,” and that “the media” had misunderstood his point and fabricated a controversy. At the interview’s close, Kennedy also suggested a “chronic disease epidemic” among American youths was due to “chemical exposures and pharmaceutical drug exposures,” a weird and euphemistic claim that Smerconish did not ask him to clarify. 

Taken together, both of these interviews suggest that major news networks are badly underprepared to interview Kennedy, to point out that his claims about vaccines and 5G technology are simply untrue in real time, or even to situate his anti-vaccine activism where it belongs—not as a side-note in a long career but as the centerpiece of his later adult life and work. Kennedy is a sophisticated political figure, skilled at debate, highly media-trained, and clearly poised to use his presidential run to raise his profile and situate himself as a serious statesman, rather than the health crank he has shown himself to be for so many years. News networks that can’t figure out how to interview someone like Kennedy—which is a matter of asking him about his actions and expressed beliefs and properly contextualizing them, the same as for any other subject—run the risk of doing his advertising for him instead.  

“His larger general message would appeal to the edges of the left and right and blends into the general populace mood,” Smerconish read at one point, quoting Peggy Noonan again, in a set of talking points Kennedy surely appreciated. “Corporations and the government are lying to you, playing you for a fool. I say watch him. He's going to be a force this year.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this story failed to note that Michael Smerconish was quoting Peggy Noonan in some of his remarks on CNN this week. We regret the error.