Good Morning America’s shoddy editing manufactured a scandal tailor-made for the right-wing echo chamber

An interview with CDC Director Rochelle Walensky was used to undermine public health measures, thanks to an inexplicable editing choice from ABC News

Good Morning America’s decision last week to remove crucial context from the broadcast version of an interview with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky played into the hands of right-wing activists scouring the news for any morsel of information that could undermine public health measures aimed at combating the COVID-19 pandemic.

ABC News aired a roughly three-minute interview between Walensky and Good Morning America co-host Cecilia Vega covering a range of topics related to COVID-19. Unfortunately, viewers were not treated to an informative discussion explaining the CDC’s recent decision to update quarantine and isolation protocols or its findings showing the safety and effectiveness of vaccines and boosters. Instead, thanks to ABC’s decision to remove important context from one of Walensky’s responses, the interview generated a multiday scandal for Walensky and the CDC.

The supposedly scandalous portion of the interview pertained to this question and response. First, what ABC News aired nationwide on the January 7, 2022, edition of Good Morning America:

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Citation From the January 7, 2022 edition of ABC News' Good Morning America.

CECILIA VEGA (CO-HOST): I want to ask you about those encouraging headlines that we're talking about this morning. This new study showing just how well vaccines are working to prevent severe illness. Given that, is it time to start rethinking how we're living with this virus, that it's potentially here to stay?

DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY (DIRECTOR, CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION): The overwhelming number of deaths, over 75 percent, occured in people who had at least four comorbidities. So really, these are people who were unwell to begin with. And yes, really encouraging news in the context of Omicron. This means not only just to get your primary series, but to get your booster series. And yes, we're really encouraged by these results.

Next, a longer version of the same interview, posted on YouTube by ABC News on January 10 (emphasis added):

DR. ROCHELLE WALENSKY: You know, really important study, if I may just summarize it. A study of 1.2 million people who were vaccinated between December and October and demonstrated that severe disease occurred in about 0.015% of the people who received their primary series, and death in 0.003% of those people. The overwhelming number of deaths, over 75%, occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities. So really, these are people who were unwell to begin with. And yes, really encouraging news in the context of omicron. This means not only just to get your primary series, but to get your booster series. And yes, we're really encouraged by these results.

Vega asked Walensky to comment on a study published that day by the CDC, which Good Morning America had covered earlier that morning, demonstrating with clinical accuracy just how protective vaccinations can be against COVID-19. As Walensky correctly noted, the study demonstrated that “severe COVID-19-associated outcomes (0.015%) or death (0.0033%) were rare” among the 1,228,664 participants who had completed their primary round of vaccination between December 2020 and October 2021. According to the data, every person who suffered a severe outcome from a COVID infection after their vaccination already had “at least one” preexisting health condition, and 78% “had at least four.” 

What the CDC’s data show is that fully vaccinated individuals are protected against death from COVID-19 unless they have underlying health conditions. The study stands as undeniable proof that every American should get vaccinated.

Unfortunately, for the sake of saving approximately 24 seconds of air-time, ABC News removed Walenksy’s precise contextualization from the broadcast version of their interview. That decision created a confusing sound bite that was seized upon by right-wing political opportunists intent on undermining public health protocols. According to a Media Matters analysis, Walensky’s brief appearance on Good Morning America was subject to at least six segments on Fox News, as hosts and guests promoted the network’s general skepticism toward ongoing COVID-19 safety precautions.

In the right-wing media echo chamber, Walensky’s answer proved that COVID-19 is an illness killing only people who are already sick with something else, and the pandemic was exaggerated by public health professionals to justify control over the American people. Anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists have promoted the clip to falsely claim that otherwise “healthy people” have literally zero risk of dying from COVID-19.

Some complaints were also directed at Walensky from progressives, who saw her comments as tone-deaf and potentially offensive. Twitter is replete with examples of people who viewed only the original, misleading segment from Good Morning America as proof that Walensky is herself a eugenicist. (Walenksy took to Twitter to address these complaints, arguing that she, as a doctor, is of course concerned with ensuring good health outcomes for patients.)

None of this had to happen!

The right-wing backlash, the left-wing backlash, the social media in-fighting, the meticulous fact-check from Snopes, the criticism of Walensky’s professionalism; all of this was the result of ABC News and Good Morning America deciding to cut a segment for time rather than include important context about life saving vaccines.

If the purpose of a program like Good Morning America is to inform viewers about important news of the day, segment producers at ABC News need to do a much better job of presenting vital information about public health without contributing to misleading narratives and anti-vaccine talking points.