From Neil Cavuto to John King to Colin Powell, the personalizing of the vaccine debate

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    The vaccine debate has taken a strikingly personal turn, with public figures and high-profile journalists at the center of the national argument.

    Not surprisingly, many of those on opposite sides of the vax wars seize on each instance to pound home their points. That personalizes what otherwise can feel like an important but abstract story involving untold millions of people working for the feds, local government or private companies.

    On a single day, Tuesday, Fox host Neil Cavuto and CNN host John King both announced health updates related to COVID-19.

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    Cavuto said in a statement that he has contracted the virus — and as people who follow his career know, he has multiple sclerosis, is a cancer survivor and had open-heart surgery five years ago.

    Neil Cavuto

    While he was “somewhat stunned” by the diagnosis, Cavuto said, “doctors tell me I’m lucky as well. Had I not been vaccinated, and with all my medical issues, this would be a far more dire situation. It’s not, because I did and I’m surviving this because I did. I hope anyone and everyone gets that message loud and clear. Get vaccinated, for yourself and everyone around you.”

    On his show “Inside Politics,” King told viewers: “I’m going to share a secret I’ve never spoken before, I’m immunocompromised, I have multiple sclerosis. So I’m grateful you’re all vaccinated,” he said to his colleagues. “I’m grateful.” 

    He added that “I worry about bringing home to my 10-year-old son, who can’t get a vaccine.”  (King, the network’s chief national correspondent, added Wednesday on “New Day” that when he was first diagnosed in 2008 it was “very frightening,” and he “decided to keep it a secret,” and that was a “mistake.”)

    Both men, both with weakened immune systems, seized the moment to use their personal travails in making a pitch for vaccination. And by the way, both work extremely hard; Cavuto hosts three shows.

    No event served as more of a Rorschach test than the sad death this week of Colin Powell. When the announcement was initially made, all we knew was that the former secretary of state was fully vaccinated yet died from coronavirus complications. This enabled some skeptics to claim that vaccines must not be all that effective.

    But when his family put out the additional information — that the 84-year-old retired Army general was also battling cancer and Parkinson’s — it became clear he was severely immunocompromised. No vaccine has the magic ability to protect everyone with other severe health problems.

    Still, there were voices, on talk radio, Fox and elsewhere, insisting that Powell’s death somehow undermined the case for the vaccine. And that’s unfortunate, in my view. Even for people without other medical issues, the Pfizer, Moderna and J&J vaccines not only greatly reduce the chances of a breakthrough infection, but make it extremely unlikely that anyone who gets one will die or even be hospitalized.

    Retired Army Gen. Colin Powell is seen onstage during the Capital Concerts' "National Memorial Day Concert" in Washington, D.C., May 28, 2021.

    Retired Army Gen. Colin Powell is seen onstage during the Capital Concerts’ “National Memorial Day Concert” in Washington, D.C., May 28, 2021.
    (Getty Images )

    Other media people are using their personal stories to support their ideological arguments. Radio host Dennis Prager proudly announced this week that he has gotten the virus.

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    “I have engaged with strangers, constantly hugging them, taking photos with them knowing that I was making myself very susceptible to getting Covid,” the 73-year-old commentator said. “Which is — indeed, as bizarre as it sounded — what I wanted, in the hope I would achieve natural immunity and be taken care of by therapeutics.” Well, he got his wish. He has been off the air but says he is steadily improving.

    Westwood One radio host Dan Bongino, who is carried on 300 stations in Rush Limbaugh’s old time slot, is vaccinated because he has Hodgkin’s lymphoma. But this week he called out the company’s owner, Cumulus Media, for its vaccine mandate for all employees—saying he was acting on their behalf.

    “I’m not really happy with the company I work with right here,” Bongino, a Fox regular, told listeners. “I believe these vaccine mandates are unethical. I believe they’re immoral. I believe they don’t take into account the science of natural immunity due to prior infection. I believe they’re broad-based and don’t take into account individual circumstances of why they may or may not want to take a vaccine. And they’re antithetical to everything I believe in.”

    And he warned: “Cumulus is going to have to make a decision with me — if they want to continue this partnership or they don’t.”

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    So Bongino is risking a presumably lucrative salary, though probably not in the neighborhood of the $15 million being forfeited by Brooklyn Nets basketball player Kyrie Irving, who refuses to be vaccinated.

    Everyone’s case is different. Everyone is entitled to his or her beliefs. But so too are media companies that employ these folks and must decide what is best for their workers as well as their bottom line.

    Perhaps it was inevitable, in a media-saturated society, that the pundits would not only weigh in on the great vaccination debate but become the subjects as well.

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