The network spent too long spraying its viewers with false information about the coronavirus pandemic.
You can relax, Sean Hannity, I’m not going to sue you.
Some people are suggesting that there might be grounds for legal action against the cable network that you pretty much rule — Fox News — because you and your colleagues dished out dangerous misinformation about the virus in the early days of the crisis in the United States. Some might allege that they have lost loved ones because of what was broadcast by your news organization.
But lawsuits are a bad idea. Here’s why: I believe in Fox News’s First Amendment right as a press organization, even if some of its on-air talent did not mind being egregiously bad at their jobs when it came to giving out accurate health data.
And, more to the point, when all is said and done, my Mom will listen to her children over Fox News. One of us — my brother — is an actual doctor and knows what he is talking about. And the other is a persistent annoyance — that would be me.
I’m a huge pest, in fact. “I’m going to block your number, if you don’t stop,” my mother said to me over the phone several weeks ago from Florida, after I had texted her the umpteenth chart about the spread of coronavirus across the country. All of these graphs had scary lines that went up and to the right. And all of them flashed big honking red lights: Go home and stay there until all clear.
She ignored my texts, so I had switched to calling her to make sure she had accurate information in those critical weeks at the end of February and the beginning of March. She is in the over-80 group that is most at risk of dying from infection. I worry a lot.
But she was not concerned — and it was clear why. Her primary source of news is Fox. In those days she was telling me that the Covid-19 threat was overblown by the mainstream news media (note, her daughter is in the media). She told me that it wasn’t going to be that big a deal. She told me that it was just like the flu.
And, she added, it was more likely that the Democrats were using the virus to score political points. And, did I know, by the way, that Joe Biden was addled?
Thankfully, Mom had not gone as far as claiming the coronavirus is a plot to hurt President Trump — a theory pushed by some at Fox News heavily at first. While she has been alternately appalled and amused by the president, and often takes his side, she is not enough of a superfan to think that he is any kind of victim here.
So, she kept going out with friends to restaurants and shopping and generally living her life as it always had been. “What’s the big deal, Kara? Stop bothering me,” she said over the phone. “You’re the one who is going to get sick, if you don’t stop working so much.”
And with that she was off to another social event, with me unable to stop her since I was hundreds of miles away. That spring break kid was bad, but this was also not good.
I could not lay the blame at the feet of social media this time. No, Facebook was not my mother’s source of misinformation (in fact, the company has been trying to improve in this area). It was not the fault of Dr. Google, which has at least pushed out more good information than bad. And my mom doesn’t use Twitter.
Instead, it was Fox, the whole Fox and nothing but the Fox.
Many children of older parents have come to know this news diet as the equivalent of extreme senior sugar addiction mixed with a series of truly unpleasant and conspiracy-laden doughnuts.
You know all those awful GIFs using a Meryl Streep line from “A Cry in the Dark”: “A dingo ate my baby!”? Well, it sometimes feels like Fox News is eating my mother’s brain.
My brother, a doctor working on the front lines of the crisis in San Francisco, called the misinformation “magical thinking and wishful ignorance” that persists because none of us ever wants to believe the worst. He finds it happens a lot when it comes to dire health information. “If Mom does not want coronavirus to be true, pablum from Fox News makes it easier,” he told me. “It’s classic propaganda.”
It turns out, executives at Fox News HQ were more reasonable behind the scenes. The offices were Lysol-ed and sanitized and employees were given instructions to be safe. All while the network was doing quite the opposite: spraying viewers with far too much fake news contagion.
As The Times media columnist Ben Smith wrote recently: “Fox failed its viewers and the broader public in ways both revealing and potentially lethal. In particular, Lachlan Murdoch failed to pry its most important voices away from their embrace of the president’s early line: that the virus was not a big threat in the United States.”
That would be the chief executive of the company that owns Fox News, who took over the job from his infamous father, Rupert Murdoch. It was the patriarch who set the table at Fox, and Lachlan is just an apparently lackadaisical butler of the family business, according to Mr. Smith.
Well, not completely. Lachlan Murdoch did dump a B-team player, the Fox Business host Trish Regan, after she called the media attention given to coronavirus “another attempt to impeach the president.”
In Mr. Smith’s column, Fox’s longtime public relations honcho Irena Briganti said that the virus situation “has evolved considerably over the last few weeks.” Presumably that’s an attempt to use a get-out-of-lawsuit-free card by trying to establish that the story has shifted and so has the news organization.
Mistakes were made, pandemic version.
Given the growing number of cases and deaths in the United States, Fox stopped playing down the crisis, a move that closely tracks the rocky evolution in thinking by Mr. Trump. Fox may also seek cover from some early pronouncements from another powerful Fox host, Tucker Carlson. While Mr. Hannity spun the hoax line, Mr. Carlson was quite firmly in the taking-it-seriously camp, urging Mr. Trump to act.
But back then, Mr. Carlson was a lone prominent voice on Fox, and his more grounded views did not break through to my mother in the early days. In this, Fox failed my mother and countless others of its fans. While we can joke all we want about the “Fair and Balanced” motto, it’s a very low bar to simply give your audience decent health information.
Fox News finally got much more serious in its reporting on the coronavirus, as has Mr. Trump (the My Pillow guy aside). Convinced by experts’ new estimates that millions of Americans would be at risk for infection and hundreds of thousands at risk for dying if he prematurely reopened the country, Mr. Trump and Fox have gone into reverse.
And, to my surprise, as the pandemic has worsened, my mother started to listen to other sources of information, like her children and other news outlets. She’s been sheltering in place at home for at least two weeks and not going out — except to get food and perhaps an ice cream sundae. (“It’s my daily joy,” she said to me, and so I do not argue.)
It was when Mr. Trump and Fox News initially shifted to a story line about getting back to work — even though it was too early — that the problems with Fox really sank in for her. She now seems to realize that she bears some of the burden as a news consumer, though she remains a Fox News acolyte.
So by the time the lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, was on Fox on March 23 declaring that the elderly might take a virus bullet for the young people to bolster the country’s economic future — a line that was then echoed through the network — she was having none of it.
She read up. She looked at my charts. She stopped thinking so magically. And, most of all, she decided she wanted a lot more ice cream sundaes.
“Are they crazy? That’s crazy,” she said. “I am not dying for anyone.”
She was talking to me, for sure — but she’s also talking to you, Sean.
Suddenly you’re digging him. At least a little bit. I know, I’ve seen the tweets, read the commentary, heard the chatter, detected the barely suppressed cheer: Hurrah for Tucker Carlson. If only we had more brave, principled Republicans like him.
Right out of the gate, he protested President Trump’s decision to kill Qassim Suleimani, the Iranian military commander, noting that it didn’t square with the president’s determination not to get bogged down in the Middle East and warning of the possibility and horror of full-blown war. Your pulse quickened. You perked up.
He sounded that same alarm on his next show and the show after that. Every night at 8 p.m., he worried about the bellicose itch of our leaders. When all around him on Fox News were playing their usual roles (indeed, his usual role) as masseurs for the president’s tender ego, he administered slaps, hard ones, the kind that leave angry red handprints. Ouch — and don’t stop.
You rejoiced. It’s one thing when Democrats challenge what looks like a rush to war by a Republican president. It’s another when typically fawning members of his own party do.
And while Carlson was hardly alone in his rebellion — three House Republicans voted with Democrats to check the president’s war-waging authority and, over in the Senate, Mike Lee and Rand Paul raised a dissident ruckus — no one else had his ardor, his articulateness, his megaphone.
Carlson to the rescue!
The fascination with him is itself fascinating, for many reasons. Can you recall a modern president before Trump whose moods and movements could be reflected and predicted simply by watching one news organization and, for that matter, just a few of its offerings? In lieu of a normally functioning White House communications department or a press secretary who holds actual press briefings (what a thought!), we have “Fox & Friends” in the morning and Carlson’s and Sean Hannity’s shows in the evening.
They don’t chronicle this presidency. They shape it, not just in terms of the volume of their applause for Trump, who craves the loudest possible clapping, but in terms of actual interactions. Carlson — like Hannity and another Fox fixture, Lou Dobbs — has in fact advised him behind the scenes.
Hence the rapt reaction to Carlson’s antiwar jeremiads. They may well matter.
Also, those of us who regard Trump as a menace can be so eager — too eager — to welcome newcomers to our shores that we overlook the polluted seas they sailed to get there. In a recent moment on the ABC talk show “The View” that was awkward at best, Joy Behar announced excitedly that the prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer had just disavowed Trump because of Iran.
Carlson, mind you, has not disavowed Trump. In fact he performed semantic acrobatics to denounce America’s military maneuvers against Iran without precisely blaming Trump. Those slaps I mentioned landed more forcefully on the administration in general than on the man-child at its apex, who is, in Carlson’s tortured rendition, a gullible marionette, his strings pulled by inveterate, habitual warmongers. If these profiteering elites would just let Trump be Trump and train his wrath on Mexicans instead of Iranians, a great presidency would get its groove back.
During his Tuesday show, Carlson performed political jujitsu and held two of the president’s principal Democratic adversaries responsible for exacerbated tensions with Iran. Referring to the Washington establishment and singling out Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, he said, “These are people who have been basically advocating for a kind of war against Iran for an awfully long time.”
“It’s infuriating,” he added. “It’s because of Schumer and Pelosi and people like them that we got into Iraq in the first place.”
Come again? A Republican president, George W. Bush, urged and oversaw the invasion of Iraq, and while Schumer authorized it, Pelosi voted against it, as did many more Democrats than Republicans.
And Carlson’s portrait of Trump as puppet contradicts reporting from The Times and other news organizations that some Pentagon officials were stunned when the president ordered the strike against Suleimani, a measure more extreme than other options presented to him.
Carlson remains true to Carlson: selective with facts, slanted with truths and — this is the most important part — committed to his vision of America as a land imperiled by nefarious Democrats and the dark-skinned invaders they would open the gates to if not for sentries like him and Trump.
As Matt Gertz of Media Matters perceptively noted, Carlson’s antiwar stance “is not a break from his past support for Trump or his channeling of white nationalist tropes, but a direct a result of both.” Gertz explained that in the mind-set of Carlson and many of his fans on the far right, energy spent on missions in another hemisphere is energy not spent on our southern border. It’s no accident that, in regard to the Middle East, he and Spencer are on the same page.
Following Suleimani’s death, Carlson asked his audience, “Why are we continuing to ignore the decline of our own country in favor of jumping into another quagmire?”
Carlson is defined not by a bold willingness to check Trump’s excesses or ugliest impulses but by his indulgence — no, his fervent encouragement — of those impulses as they pertain to racism and immigration. On those fronts, Carlson himself grows ever uglier, as my colleague Farhad Manjoo and others have noted. It’s why many sponsors have defected from Carlson’s show.
Carlson repeatedly uses variations of the word “invasion” to characterize migrants from Central America. He insists that “white supremacy” is a fiction, a hoax. He has used language that buys into and promotes “replacement theory” — a far-right fixation on the idea that declining birthrates among whites will cause a nonwhite takeover — and recently castigated immigrants for litter along the Potomac River.
Just last month he gave precious time on his show to an obscure Republican congressional candidate in North Carolina, Pete D’Abrosca, who has warned white Americans that they’re “being replaced by third world peasants.” D’Abrosca has also bragged of his support from the “groyper army,” a far-right group with more than a whiff of anti-Semitism.
They’re being replaced by third world peasants who share neither their ethnicity nor their culture. https://twitter.com/amsoufi_/status/1186398407507750912 …Angelina Newsom@amsoufi_Replying to @pdabrosca
What’s happening to white people in AmericaSee Pete D’Abrosca’s other Tweets
Is Carlson himself abetting hatred of Jews? In a rare point of agreement, some Jews and white nationalists believe so, pointing to an on-air rant last month in which he bashed a Jewish billionaire, Paul Singer, by comparing him unfavorably with Henry Ford, who owned a newspaper that ran a lengthy series alleging a Jewish plot to dominate the world.
“The Fox News host goes full anti-Semite,” wrote Tablet, a Jewish publication, while Mike Enoch, who rallied with the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Va., said on his podcast, “If you didn’t catch the German shepherd whistles where he praised Henry Ford and then went into a diatribe of a Jewish financier, you know, I don’t know what universe you’re existing in.”
So that’s some of what Carlson was up to just before he turned his attention to Iran.
How warm and fuzzy are you feeling toward him now?
By family history and his own early bona fides, Derek Black was slated to have a successful career in white nationalism, as far as those things go. Black’s father, Don, is the founder of the oldest neo-Nazi website, the now-shuttered Stormfront; and was a grand wizard in the KKK; a member of the American Nazi Party; and was convicted in 1981 for attempting to overthrow the government of the Caribbean island of Dominica, part of a long dream for white nationalists to establish their own government. Derek Black’s mother, Chloe, was once married to David Duke.
As a child, Black, gifted as a coder, created a version of Stormfront for kids, and as a young man, hosted a talk show on the website. In 2008, as a 19-year-old, Black won a seat on the Palm Beach County Republican Executive Committee, although he was ultimately denied the position after the party learned of his background. According to reporter Eli Saslow, who wrote the book Rising Out of Hatred about Black, the young white nationalist had a serious influence on his father:
“One of Derek’s most lasting and damaging impacts on this white nationalist movement is that he convinced his father to scrub Stormfront of all racial slurs, all Nazi insignia … Derek thought the way [they were] going to reach more people is, instead of of using this kind of language, [they] need to play to this false, but unfortunately, very widely spread sense of white grievance that still exists in big parts of this country.”
But at the age of 24, Black disavowed white nationalism, writing in a letter to the Southern Poverty Law Center that he had abandoned the movement, citing experiences in college and extended conversations with Jewish friends as factors that led him from his former beliefs: “I acknowledge that things I have said as well as my actions have been harmful to people of color, people of Jewish descent, activists striving for opportunity and fairness for all, and others affected.”
All this to say, Black knows a thing or two about the rhetoric and long-term planning of the white-nationalist movement in America. And in a segment on The Van Jones Show this weekend, Black claimed that Fox News host Tucker Carlson is doing a better job at promoting whitenationalist rhetoric than SPLC–bona fide white nationalists are:
“It’s really, really alarming that my family watches Tucker Carlson show once and then watches it on the replay because they feel that he is making the white nationalist talking points better than they have and they’re trying to get some tips on how to advance it.”
Carlson has been accused of forwarding the agenda of white nationalists before: In August 2018, the Fox News host ran an erroneous segment about white farmers in South Africa pushed off their land, a conspiracy theory widely circulated in far-right circles. Carlson has objected to the removal of Confederate statues; defended the social network Gab, which has been described as “Twitter for Racists;” and in December 2018, he claimed that immigrants are making America “dirtier.” In February, the white nationalist site VDARE thanked Carlson for name-checking them in a segment about deplatforming — the Fox News host simply referred to the site as a “publication” — and in March, leaked chat messages of the white-nationalist group Identity Evropa showed that members believe “Tuck” is “our guy” and has “done more for our people than most of us could ever hope to.”
Whether or not it’s intentional, Carlson’s status as a megaphone for white-nationalist ideas comes in tandem with a rise in far-right violence in the United States: According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s most recent accounting, there are now 112 neo-Nazi groups, 148 white-nationalist groups, 63 racist skinhead groups, and 36 neo-Confederate organizations active in America. Nor is the phenomenon limited to the U.S.: The New Zealand mosque shooter that killed 50 consumed a media diet loaded with white-nationalist rhetoric.
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