Late last month, proponents of alternative-health treatments descended upon the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville for a three-day event billed as “The Truth About Cancer.” At least it looked that way. While the symposium’s title suggested a gathering of health nuts, it was more so a convention for anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, and pseudo-scientists.
“Reclaiming America, Health Freedom & Personal Liberty” proclaimed a banner on the event’s website, where packages for the Oct. 22-24 weekend were on sale for $300 for three-day attendance to $1,000 for access to a VIP “mix and mingle” and a DVD recording of each presentation. “The Truth About Cancer Live” was presented by Ty and Charlene Bollinger, a Tennessee husband and wife who rail against chemotherapy, are fond of words like “plandemic,” and post conspiracy theories on their website with titles like “The Truth About the Assassination of MLK.” Not surprisingly, they don’t believe in Covid vaccines either.
But their keynote speaker — Eric Trump — did.
“I’m actually a guy who got the vaccine, right? There’s other people who I know who are very near and dear to me that hadn’t, and that’s their choice to make,” Trump told Charlene Bollinger during a red-carpet interview, before proclaiming to take a wait-and-see approach toward the vaccine vs. anti-vax argument. “You can make that choice. And we’ll see, ultimately, who is right.”
Trump, the second son of twice-impeached president Donald Trump, reportedly commands between $50,000 and $100,000 for public speaking appearances. At “The Truth About Cancer Live,” he didn’t have to work very hard for it. Trump uttered the word “cancer” exactly zero times during his rambling 28-minute diatribe, which was basically a stump speech for his father that focused on demonizing Democrats for “weaponizing” all facets of U.S. life against populist America.
“[Democrats] weaponize the media,” Trump said. “They weaponize social media, they weaponize the military, the Department of Justice, they weaponize the FBI. They weaponize lower education, higher education. … They certainly weaponize corporate America. … This is how [the Democrats] achieve that power grab. And, guys, it’s got to scare all of us.”
To Nashvillians, however, the true fright was why this cast of shady characters was being allowed to spread misinformation and crackpot theories in one of the city’s signature tourist and convention destinations, a massive hotel and arboretum known for its lush gardens, elaborate Christmas display, and the nearby Grand Ole Opry.
While the venerable country music institution was airing its regular weekend radio broadcasts across the parking lot in the Opry House, speakers like convicted felon Roger Stone, anti-mask pastor Greg Locke, Dukes of Hazzard actor John Schneider, and Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, an Ohio anti-vaxxer who went viral this summer with her comic misunderstanding of magnetization, were spouting off in one of Opryland’s ballrooms.
According to Ryman Hospitality Properties, Inc. — which owns Opryland — the responsibility for booking and operating the Opryland convention center lies with the resort’s asset manager, Marriott International, Inc. Rolling Stone’s requests for comment from Marriott’s public relations department went unanswered at press time. But the ideas espoused by many of the Bollingers’ featured speakers likely don’t comport with the hotel chain’s values, which state, “Taking care of people and putting their well-being above all else is in our Company’s DNA.”
Right-wing figureheads like Trump and Stone aren’t chemo deniers, but they can’t resist a speaking fee, or an opportunity to rile up gullible conservatives already punch-drunk on grievance politics. As Oren Segal, Vice President of the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism and host of the podcast Extremely, tells Rolling Stone, gatherings like “The Truth About Cancer Live” are breeding grounds for bad ideas.
“This has been quote-unquote ‘mainstream’ now for a while,” Segal says. “These narratives [have brought] what some would consider legitimate voices together with more fringe [figures] throughout the country for some time, and so obviously the big concern is the more that you have people who have a significant reach or a voice, who are giving voice to conspiracies that seek to undermine democratic institutions, the more that disinformation gets normalized and the more potential for polarization there is.”
When it comes to vaccines, Dr. Alex Jahangir, chair of Nashville’s Covid-19 Task force, says there’s nothing wrong with having questions. But the danger lies in where people find their answers.
“I’m worried that some of these folks try to get their answers by going to politically charged, anti-vax events, which will deceive them about what’s true and what isn’t,” he tells Rolling Stone. “That can end up really hurting them and their loved ones. We need empathy for our neighbors who still have vaccine hesitancy and we need to help them get the facts, or else they’ll only feel welcome at the kinds of events where conspiracies abound, and we’ll keep struggling to raise vaccination rates in our state and elsewhere.”
Tennessee still hasn’t vaccinated 50 percent of its population. In September, it led the nation in Covid cases per capita.
Despite that, or perhaps because of it, another anti-vax confab was slated to hit the state this past weekend. “Whistleblowers: On the Deceptive Agenda Behind the COVID-19 Pandemic,” hosted by two self-proclaimed “mask experts,” set up shop at the Embassy Suites by Hilton in the Nashville suburb of Cool Springs. Members of the Tennessee Eagle Forum Foundation, the conservative lobbying organization putting on the Nov. 13 event, threw a fit online when Eventbrite, the San Francisco-based listings and ticketing platform, got wise to the event and pulled its listing from their site.
“We prohibit any events, content, or creators that share or promote potentially harmful misinformation,” an Eventbrite representative told Rolling Stone via email. “We notified the [Whistleblowers event] creators that we removed the event from our platform and are refunding ticket holders.” (The Whistleblowers event ended up selling tickets via the Tennessee Eagle Forum Foundation’s website.)
“I think a lot of the discussions that are being had about amplification of disinformation on social media are actually similar conversations that some people [are having] about classic brick-and-mortar venues, and their social or corporate responsibility to not allow their venues to be exploited by misinformation,” Segal tells Rolling Stone. “Private companies, whether online or on the ground, make decisions all the time about what they will and will not allow. I think it’s not unreasonable for people in communities where these events are happening, to ask these venues whether or not this meets the values of those corporations [and] the values of the community, but more importantly, whether it poses some sort of public safety risk.”
Some of those bad-faith ideas even came to Nashville’s most sacred theater, the Ryman Auditorium. During a sold-out Oct. 12 live panel hosted by newly Nashville-based conservative media company the Daily Wire, the audience booed at the mention of Dr. Anthony Fauci. But when panelist Candace Owens proclaimed that she was “proudly unvaccinated,” the crowd roared with applause, like a potential fountainhead of Covid droplets.
In a statement to Rolling Stone, a representative for Ryman Hospitality Properties, moved to distance the company from the views shared during the Daily Wire Backstage: Live at the Ryman taping and said such events are essentially third-party bookings. “These groups are solely responsible for the content presented by the people appearing on the stage,” the representative said. “Ryman Hospitality Properties does not endorse this content.”
Nonetheless, Nashvillians were up in arms. “Were the people who book the Ryman unaware of what The Daily Wire stands for?” begged a prompt to the sardonic weekly column Advice King in Nashville’s alt-weekly the Nashville Scene. It’s a good question, and one that some at Ryman Hospitality were asking behind closed doors in the wake of outraged citizens responding to reports of the show on Twitter.
According to a source privy to such discussions, the folks at Ryman Hospitality heard those voices of dissent, and they resonated. The source tells Rolling Stone the company is having ongoing internal discussions on how to better vet potentially controversial bookings.
Care has to be taken, according to the Anti-Defamation League Center’s Segal. “Providing a vehicle to promote ideas that people’s freedoms are being trampled on by government, or that vaccine mandates are akin to efforts to put microchips in your body,” he says, “those have legit public safety concerns.”