In this Wednesday, April 15, 2009, file photo, Phil Valentine takes the stage as Tea Partiers show up in mass on the War Memorial Plaza in Nashville, Tenn. Valentine, a conservative talk radio host from Tennessee who had been a vaccine skeptic until he was hospitalized from COVID-19 has died, Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021. He was 61. Credit: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean via AP, File

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I’ve seen the headline a thousand times in the last few months. It has been written in countless states, countless times, about countless people. While the language employed in the headlines varies a bit, it always boils down to some version of the same theme: “Idiot dies from COVID because he is stupid and didn’t listen to us.”

Each of these stories is the same. I believe the media will pick out a person who recently died of COVID-19, and it will connect this person to one of three things the media seems to think makes their death noteworthy. It is either about a person who was a Trump supporter, a person who doubted and downplayed the danger of COVID-19 or a person who refused to get a vaccine. 

I see no real news value to any of these stories. The media doesn’t choose to report on other individual deaths in other circumstances, simply because they wanted to engage in a game of “I told you so.” Where, for instance, are the stories about the local man who died of diabetes, who shared memes on social media celebrating and joking about his obesity? How about people who recently died of influenza after telling their friends they “never get their flu shot” and that they “aren’t worried about it?” Do reporters report about horrific car accidents through the lens of the victim’s stupidity, saying “Area man who never wears his seatbelt dies because he didn’t wear his seat belt?”

No, we don’t see that. Oh, you certainly see reports of car crashes and the like, but in those cases, the story is about the incident, and facts like that are ancillary details meant to describe what happened. The point is not to try to humiliate and ridicule an individual who died.

And yet in this case, these stories sure seem to be.

The latest example of this is an article in the Bangor Daily News, titled “QAnon conspiracy theorist who organized far-right Belfast event dies of COVID-19.” In the story, we learn that Robert David Steele, a conspiracy theorist who was behind a now notorious event in Belfast last month, has recently died from COVID-19.

What news value does this kind of story bring to me, or anyone else, outside of some kind of perverse, activist-minded message delivery system meant to metaphorically rub the dog’s nose in the mess they made for themselves?

This disturbing trend is an almost daily occurrence, as media outlets all over the country search for examples to highlight what I see as a never-ending game of “you should’ve listened.” Here in Maine again, Steve Mistler of Maine Public recently wrote about the death of state Rep. Chris Johansen’s wife, replete with detailed breakdowns of what vaccine skeptical information was on her Facebook page, including her avatar saying “I don’t care if you’ve had your vaccine.”

Elsewhere, it seems national outlets can barely contain their glee whether their targets are prominent people or not. “Conservative radio host and vaccine critic dies of Covid-19 complications,” read the Washington Post earlier this month. “Trump Supporter Who Protested Against Vaccinations Dies of COVID-19,” declared Newsweek in July. The BBC even chose to highlight a random man in Los Angeles, saying “LA man who mocked Covid-19 vaccines dies of virus.”

If those who write these stories believe that this kind of reporting is going to result in vaccine skeptics “seeing the light” and choosing to “do the right thing” and get the vaccine, they are very wrong. If anything, the smug, self-satisfied triumphalism, lording the “I told you so” over the heads of skeptics is only likely to increase resistance.

As I have repeatedly said in my columns, the vaccines are a miracle of modern science, and their rapid development and successful usage is astounding and amazing. I want you to get a shot, if you haven’t, and I hope you do. I think skeptics are wrong, though I have never been (and will never be) supportive of any mandate that forces citizens to inject a medicine — even a good one — into their body against their will.

But if you really want people to change their mind and get their shot, the grotesque, finger pointing “I told you so” mentality is not the way to do it. Stop demonizing people, stop ridiculing them, and engage them in productive conversations. It will be far more effective, trust me.


Matthew Gagnon, Opinion columnist

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...