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Can a Televised Vaccination Undo Months of Skepticism?

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It was the kind of live television event that the reality show star president has often staged himself. Vice President Mike Pence stepped in front of a bank of cameras on the White House campus on Friday to receive the new coronavirus vaccine, hailing it as “safe and effective” no fewer than eight times. He urged people to wear masks, wash their hands and do whatever they can to help defeat a disease that has killed more than 300,000 Americans.

Intended as a public service announcement as the country reaches a milestone in fighting the pandemic, these 10 minutes of morning television also distilled the various ways that President Trump and his political allies have repeatedly undermined confidence in the science about the virus and fed suspicion and misinformation.

No sooner had the vice president congratulated a health care worker who stuck him in the arm — “Great job, great job. I didn’t feel a thing,” Mr. Pence said, his voice muffled by the mask covering his face — than Mr. Trump logged into Twitter and undercut him. Mr. Trump posted a message from a right-wing radio host who questioned the effectiveness of masks, writing: “‘Masks work’ is the mantra. Not allowed to say anything else.”

On Fox News, which carried the vice president’s vaccination live and aired his plea urging “every American to continue to do your part,” a spat erupted among the hosts of “Fox & Friends” over whether the public health orders that have shuttered businesses in some states were doing more harm than good.

Geraldo Rivera, a Fox News correspondent, gently questioned whether his own network had spent too much time focusing on the plight of business owners suffering from the economic pain rather than highlighting the loss of life when Brian Kilmeade, a co-host, tersely dismissed the suggestion. “You can have a balance,” Mr. Kilmeade said, describing long lines of people waiting at food banks.

This seemed to go too far for one of the other hosts, Steve Doocy, who interjected, “But 3,700 people died yesterday.”

Inconsistent and contradictory messages like these have stymied the nation’s response to the coronavirus for the nine months that it has been spreading. Often the confusion is compounded by the most visible allies of the president — including Mr. Pence, the leader of the task force overseeing the government’s coronavirus effort, and the president’s defenders in the media.

Reluctant to get on the wrong side of the president or Americans who believe concern about the virus is overblown, they have toggled back and forth from denial to cautiousness to defiance.

For months, Mr. Pence was seen in public flouting the guidance from public health officials to wear a mask when in proximity to others. He refused to put one on when he visited the Mayo Clinic at the height of the first wave of infections in April, even as other members of the administration traveling with him did.

A few weeks later he wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal titled “There Isn’t a Coronavirus ‘Second Wave.’” Even after members of his own staff caught the virus, including his chief of staff, Mr. Pence continued to attend and host official social gatherings, including a holiday party at the vice president’s residence recently where guests mingled in an outdoor tent and posed for pictures without masks, according to attendees.

Like most other Republicans, Mr. Pence has never second-guessed Mr. Trump’s leadership during the pandemic. He insisted in August in an interview with “Good Morning America” that he “couldn’t be more proud of the leadership President Trump has provided from the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.”

In the conservative media, there has rarely been daylight between the president and his most supportive hosts, who echoed his insistence at first that the virus was not what the media was making of it, then later shifted course and defended his response while denying that he — and they — had ever minimized the risks.

Throughout February, Fox personalities like Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity helped amplify the president’s claims that his critics were exaggerating the possible dangers of the virus to harm him politically.

Ms. Ingraham called it “a new pathway for hitting President Trump.” Mr. Hannity mocked the “media mob” for running stories that said Mr. Trump wasn’t taking it seriously enough. “The apocalypse is imminent and you’re going to all die, all of you in the next 48 hours. And it’s all President Trump’s fault,” he seethed on Feb. 27.

Later, as Mr. Trump started to acknowledge the severity and congratulate himself for leading a historic and effective response, his media allies also pivoted to praising the president for putting the “greatest” and “best” health officials the government has to offer on the case, as Mr. Hannity put it. He also compared Mr. Trump’s stewardship of the country during the pandemic to F.D.R. and Churchill.

Mr. Trump, who caught the coronavirus in October and required hospitalization after falling seriously ill, has not committed to taking the vaccine — a step that could put at ease those who are skeptical and reassure them of its safety. Other high-profile public figures and political leaders like President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Surgeon General Jerome Adams either have taken it or said they soon would.

And there were signs that some in the media were providing Mr. Trump cover. Tucker Carlson of Fox News spent his opening monologue on Thursday night questioning whether the vaccine could be trusted and suggested that a “slick” government marketing campaign to promote its safety was a reason to be suspicious. “It all seems a bit much, it feels false because it is, it’s too slick,” he said.

Twelve hours later, Fox viewers saw Mr. Pence and his wife, Karen Pence, inoculated by a team from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the facility where Mr. Trump was treated for complications from the virus. In a short speech afterward, the vice president mentioned the president by name several times and credited his leadership with helping produce a vaccine in just a few months.

Mr. Pence did not dwell too long on the virus’s death toll or on his admonition that Americans should do more to protect themselves and others before returning to the kind of optimistic message that Mr. Trump prefers. “As President Trump often says, we are rounding the corner. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Mr. Pence said.

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