Do you remember a time when you had a conversation that lingered in your mind, not because it was inspiring, but because it left you perplexed? This is exactly the sentiment expressed by Margaret Sullivan, a former public editor for the New York Times, who shared her reflection on an unsettling conversation with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the conspiracy theorist and Democratic 2024 hopeful. This comes to light in an op-ed she wrote that was published in The Guardian on July 18th.
It was about ten years ago when Sullivan received an unexpected call from RFK Jr., who was then known as an environmental attorney in his late 50s and the son of the former New York senator. She recounts her encounter with him, where he embarked on a tirade about his anti-vaccine views, particularly focusing on the baseless claims about the link between childhood vaccines and autism.
Despite overwhelming evidence refuting these assertions, Kennedy was insistent about having the New York Times lend credibility to his claims. This revelation coincides with the day more than 100 House Democrats called on House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to retract Kennedy’s invitation to testify before Congress. The request came after the New York Post released a video of Kennedy promoting a conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was bioengineered to specifically target certain races. The concern lies not just in the falsehood of this claim, but also in its dangerous implications that mirror historical instances of scapegoating and harmful stereotypes.
In retrospect, Sullivan regrets giving Kennedy’s unfounded theories an audience. She reflects on the power dynamics at play, acknowledging that she was swayed by Kennedy’s prominent name, which held weight, especially considering her upbringing in a devoutly Catholic environment where the Kennedys were revered. Yet, over the past decade, it has become clear that Kennedy’s conspiracy theories have marred the family legacy.
In the world of media and clicks, Sullivan acknowledges that Kennedy’s baseless assertions, much like Trump’s, are irresistible to the public. This troubling popularity can be seen in the way social media platforms and their users amplify their voices, making misinformation a widespread concern. A former editor from the Chicago Tribune, Mark Jacob, rightly captures the essence of this issue, stating that “The bots and trolls love RFK Jr. Because the bots and trolls hate a fact-based humanitarian society.”
Sullivan points out that RFK Jr. didn’t just stop at COVID-19 and vaccines. He has been propagating a multitude of conspiracy theories throughout his political career. From supposed links between 5G cellular technology and mass surveillance to ill effects of wifi, and claims of a ‘stolen’ 2004 election that supposedly reinstated George W Bush, Kennedy has been continually playing fast and loose with the truth. As we navigate the onslaught of misinformation, Sullivan’s reflection serves as a crucial reminder of the need for critical thinking and scrutiny, irrespective of the source.