The Media Is Reckoning With How to Cover RFK Jr.’s Presidential Run

From a Vanity Fair story by Charlotte Klein headlined “The Media Is Reckoning With How to Cover RFK Jr.’s Presidential Run”:

On Wednesday evening, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the long shot Democratic presidential candidate, will participate in his first town hall with a national news network. Small cable news channel NewsNation is hosting the event in Chicago, which will be moderated by veteran anchor Elizabeth Vargas. I

Aside from being part of America’s most famous political dynasty, Kennedy is best known for amplifying baseless and often dangerous claims, particularly about vaccines—conspiratorial messaging he’s only doubled down on since entering the 2024 race. “We’re not agenda-driven here. It’s our job to follow the news and cover the news wherever that may take us,” says NewsNation’s vice president of news and managing editor Cherie Grzech of the network’s decision to host the candidate. “The responsibility that we have to our audience,” says Grzech, is “to know more about someone who’s polling nearly double digits.”

Kennedy has shown unexpected strength in the polls—as high as 20% in some (though still unmatched by President Joe Biden’s numbers). But so far, with the notable exception of Fox News, Kennedy’s own media strategy has not involved much mainstream press. He’s spent recent weeks giving interviews to podcasters and media commentators, like Joe Rogan, Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe, and Jordan Peterson (the latter video was removed from YouTube for spreading what the company said was vaccine misinformation).

He’s also made media bashing a core tenet of his campaign—which is partly why CNN’s Jake Tapper said last week he would not host a town hall with Kennedy. On Pod Save America, Tapper recalled interviewing Kennedy in 2005 about an anti-vaccine article that he had written for Salon and Rolling Stone (and that both publications have since retracted due to its inaccuracy). “He was so dishonest in that experience,” Tapper said on the podcast, “and since then, he lies about the experience frequently as an example of how the media is co-opted by Big Pharma.” And, Tapper said, Kennedy “spreads dangerous misinformation about childhood vaccines.”

It’s clear that the NewsNation town hall comes as mainstream outlets are still trying to figure out how to cover RFK Jr.’s candidacy in a way that doesn’t amplify his conspiracies in the process. That challenge was on full display in April, when, prior to airing a taped interview with Kennedy, ABC News anchor Linsey Davis said that the network had edited out false claims about the COVID-19 vaccines that Kennedy made during the conversation. “We’ve used our editorial judgment in not including portions of that exchange in our interview,” she said.

Mainstream coverage of Kennedy’s campaign has focused on the conspiracies. NBC News’ profile was written by Brandy Zadrozny, a reporter who, notably, specializes in misinformation. Her piece, “The conspiracy candidate: What RFK Jr.’s anti-vaccine crusade could look like in the White House,” explored, among other things, how Kennedy’s views, if put into practice, could hamper the production and distribution of childhood vaccines. Given many of his vocal supporters—“anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, internet contrarians, billionaire tech bros, Camelot nostalgists and right-wing provocateurs”—Zadrozny asked Kennedy why he was running as a Democrat at all.

Mainstream news outlets are taking Kennedy’s bid seriously, but cautiously. “Our strategy has been to consider him a real candidate because he is a real candidate for president. He’s running a campaign, he’s engaging with voters, he’s doing reasonably well in some of the early polls,” a senior editor at a major news organization tells me. “We never let polling dictate our coverage but it is a factor, and the fact that he’s drawing some support from a segment of the Democratic electorate is a good reason to pay attention to what he’s saying as a candidate, and how he’s positioning himself vis-à-vis Biden and other candidates in the field.”

With pretaped interviews and profiles, news outlets have been able to debunk and contextualize Kennedy’s claims (and choose which to include at all). They face a different challenge—one reminiscent of CNN’s disastrous town hall with Donald Trump—when it comes to live forums like the town hall NewsNation is holding.

“I think there’s a difference between giving him a town hall and just covering his candidacy,” as one longtime network executive puts it. “You cover his candidacy when it matters. But a town hall is a manufactured news event. As a news division you’re just as responsible for what’s being aired as the candidate, because you invited them on.” They add, “If he wins a primary, then I think we have to have a different conversation. But I think you draw a line until the voters make you draw it differently.” CNN, NBC, MSNBC, and CBS News declined to comment on future editorial plans with regard to Kennedy. ABC and Fox News did not respond to a request for comment.

NewsNation, for its part, doesn’t seem too concerned. “We’re in a great position. Elizabeth Vargas is a veteran journalist” who “is going to follow up and make sure that the questions are answered for our audience,” Grzech tells me. The network’s plan is to “address his full record, his stance on the issues, and offer our audience a chance to ask their questions.”

Of course, a live primary debate would pose similar obstacles. However, for now, the Democratic National Committee is not treating Kennedy (or Marianne Williamson, another Democratic candidate) as a serious threat. “The national Democratic Party has said it will support Biden’s reelection, and it has no plans to sponsor primary debates,” The Washington Post reported in April.

Charlotte Klein is a staff writer at Vanity Fair’s Hive, where she writes about media and politics.

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