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When reality conflicts with culture wars, Fox News can struggle to pick a side

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What happened next was that the New York Post somehow decided that this meant the book was a standard part of “welcome kits” given to migrant children. (How that decision emerged from this one photograph isn’t clear; the New York Post reporter didn’t respond to our questions about how that connection was made.) What happened after that is that Fox News picked up the story and ran with it, claiming that “photographs” showed its inclusion, although only one such photo existed. What happened after that was that Fox News White House correspondent Peter Doocy asked White House press secretary Jen Psaki about it.

She was, predictably, baffled.

“There was a report in the last couple of days in the New York Post that every migrant child being brought to a shelter is being given a copy of her children’s book, ‘Superheroes are Everywhere,’ ” Doocy said at Monday’s briefing. “Do you know why that is and if she is making any money off of that?”

Psaki — after clarifying what book Doocy was referring to — said she’d check on it. Then Doocy asked why President Biden was wearing a mask during his climate summit.

Early Tuesday morning, The Washington Post’s thorough debunking of the story was published. Yet, not long afterward, the hosts of “Fox & Friends” (including Doocy’s father, Steve Doocy) were talking about how all these books got into all these welcome kits.

After showing Peter Doocy asking Psaki the question, host Brian Kilmeade huffed about the situation.

“Is there a children’s version of Donald Trump’s books? Because he’s written quite a few of them,” he said. “Imagine if they appeared at the border in a bag of goodies as you arrive here illegally.”

“Well, according to The Washington Post this morning, they’re saying that it’s not accurate,” Ainsley Earhardt replied. “I mean, Peter asked an excellent question because we had heard that. But they’re just saying that a book had been donated to a citywide drive. It’s not placed in these welcome bags.”

“Well, I think the question was if the government was paying for the book,” Steve Doocy added, “and whether or not she was making money on it. It sounds like a third party, probably an NGO is buying them, perhaps, unless they were donated and putting them in.”

Of the three hosts, in other words, only Earhardt acknowledged that the story lacked any predication. It doesn’t “sound like an NGO is buying the books” because there’s no evidence that more than one book was given out. It sounds like Fox News ginned up a controversy combining lots of its favorite elements — the vice president, migrants, hypocrisy, corruption — and, when the controversy was revealed to be baseless, had a hard time peeling itself away.

If this pattern sounds familiar, it should. After all, it also happened Monday.

On that occasion, the network’s John Roberts — part of its news side, not its expansive and gauzily bounded opinion side — offered a sheepish clarification about a rumor that had been a constant on the network in preceding days.

“On Friday, we told you about a study from the University of Michigan to give some perspective on President Biden’s ambitious climate change goals,” Roberts said. “That research from 2020 found that cutting back how much red meat people eat would have a drastic impact on harmful greenhouse gas emissions. The data was accurate, but a graphic and the script incorrectly implied it was part of Biden’s plan for dealing with climate change. That is not the case.”

This is a generous depiction of the network’s coverage. In multiple segments across multiple properties, it had elevated this study about red meat consumption as far more than simply “implying” that it was part of an as-yet-nonexistent climate plan from Biden. Lifting up a Daily Mail story that inexplicably linked that study to Biden, it presented the idea that Americans would have to cut meat consumption by 90 percent specifically as “Biden’s climate requirements.” Over and over, hosts trumpeted and debated this purported requirement from Biden with the ecosystem of right-wing social-media outrage lifting up and respinning the claim. Fox News is the misinformation superspreading event; the social-media world creates viral mutations.

Probably in part because Biden’s presidency has been fairly low-profile, his policy proposals relatively well-received and his approval ratings fairly decent, Fox has focused on similar culture war fights that it ties loosely back to Biden, Democrats and the left. The red-meat kerfuffle followed segments about a parent’s complaint about what his children were being taught in a New York City private school, an example, when viewed through the Fox lens, of left-wing orthodoxy run amok. Before that, of course, the granddaddy of anti-left deflection: the Great Dr. Seuss Controversy of 2021.

For days and days, Fox News elevated the idea that the left had declared war on the beloved children’s book author, forcing the cancellation of several of his books. The reality was that the Seuss estate had pulled the plug on a few books that are not ones most people have heard of, concerned that the images and text depicted outdated or racist stereotypes of Asian and African people. Fox News guests repeatedly insisted that this was all the left’s fault or even Biden’s, all while assiduously avoiding the problematic images themselves. It, too, was a perfect controversy: predicated on the idea of “cancellation,” allowing the network to portray the left as race-obsessed and mostly divorced from the reality of the situation. The network did at times mention that the books were being halted by the publisher, but that was generally subsumed into the other noise being made.

The network’s interest in amplifying these compact grievances is in part a function of the appetite for them. Fox News has become adept at both elevating and driving the discourse on the right and, in an era of slumping cable news ratings, there’s a lot more energy to be wrung from fights over children’s books than in dissections of complex policy proposals.

There’s also a lot of energy of be drawn from amplifying vaccine skepticism and parroting white-nationalist talking points, too, as host Tucker Carlson has made clear. His is a different strain of Foxism, one that Monday night included active encouragement for his viewers to hassle parents whose children are wearing face masks. In some sense, the anodyne misinformation about meat and welcome kits is a welcome change from what Carlson injects into the conversation.

It is nonetheless remarkable that, in less than 24 hours, the network was twice presented with clear evidence that its narratives were completely baseless and that, in each case, its response was either squishy or tepid. Ideally one verifies claims before making them, particularly claims that center on one photo or one report released before Biden was even the Democratic nominee. By its very nature, cable news conveys less information in a 24-hour period than does a newspaper or a magazine; you can say fewer words in a minute than you can read. For the network then to run with easily debunked claims — repeatedly — because it hasn’t bothered to thoroughly vet them before televising them is noteworthy.

It might be worth remembering this when considering other stories that emerge on the network.

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