President Biden says social media are killing people. But Fox News may be killing more.

Tucker Carlson. Photo (cc) 2018 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at GBH News.

With the delta variant spreading and COVID-19 rates climbing in all 50 states, President Joe Biden last Friday offered some tough words for Facebook and other social media companies that are enabling lies and misinformation.

“They’re killing people,” he said. “I mean, look, the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated. And they’re killing people.”

Biden was not wrong. But despite the enormous reach of Facebook, only one media outlet has devoted itself to injecting falsehoods about the pandemic into the nervous systems of its audience on a 24/7 basis. That, of course, would be Fox News, the right-wing cable station that tells its viewers, over and over, that vaccines are dangerous and that wearing a mask to prevent COVID-19 is ineffective — and, in any case, is not worth the price we’d pay in giving up our freedom.

Anne Applebaum, a staff writer for The Atlantic, put it well in a tweet reacting to Biden’s warning to Facebook and its ilk: “Surely Fox poses as big or even bigger problem?”

Consider a recent exchange between Fox’s biggest star, Tucker Carlson, and Alex Berenson, a former New York Times reporter and frequent Fox guest who’s become a notorious purveyor of pandemic falsehoods. “Masks are useless,” Berenson said, although he added that an N-95 medical-grade mask might be of “some minor benefit.” Mainly, he said, mask directives are “symbolic,” explaining, “If I don’t see people wearing masks I forget to be scared, and that’s why they want people wearing masks.”

Berenson wasn’t done. In response to gentle prodding by Carlson, he said, “The vaccines unfortunately appear to be declining in effectiveness very quickly.” He complained that he’d been suspended by Twitter for saying just that, and he urged Carlson’s viewers to subscribe to his Substack “before I get kicked off Twitter.”

Carlson responded by appearing to agree with Berenson. “The big media outlets are committed to lying and censorship,” he said sympathetically. “It’s terrifying.”

Carlson’s show is the top-rated program on cable news, drawing some 3 million viewers every weeknight. That may pale in comparison to the reach of social media. But unlike Facebook, where you’re going to encounter news about your family and friends, cat photos and the like along with the occasional falsehood, Fox is pushing this stuff at all hours of the day and night.

As CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy put it: “Rupert Murdoch, who was among the first in the world to receive a coronavirus vaccine, but who pays people who intentionally fear-monger to millions of people about them, must be smiling about all the attention Facebook is getting. Facebook is allowing for the spread of misinfo, but at least, unlike Fox News, has made some effort to reduce it.”

From “Fox & Friends” in the morning to Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham at night, Fox in recent years has morphed from a somewhat normal conservative news and opinion outlet into pure propaganda.

Last week, Media Matters for America released a study that showed the extent of Fox’s disinformation campaign about COVID and vaccines. Media Matters is liberal and partisan, but it also has a reputation for getting its facts right. The findings were sobering.

“From June 28 through July 11, 57% of segments about coronavirus vaccines on the network included claims that undermined vaccination efforts,” according to the report. The biggest offender was the “Fox & Friends” morning show, followed by Ingraham, though Carlson wasn’t far behind.

During the two-week period, the report said, “Fox personalities and guests made 216 claims undermining or downplaying vaccines or immunization drives. Out of those, 151 claims came from pundits on the network, which represented 70% of the total. Fox pundits described vaccine efforts as coercive or government overreach 103 times and described vaccines as unnecessary or dangerous 75 times.”

This is pure poison, and it goes a long way toward explaining why Trump supporters are lagging on vaccinations, and why we’re all wondering how soon we’ll be under a mask mandate once again.

The Washington Post and Time magazine weighed in earlier this month with in-depth profiles of Carlson, who has become perhaps the most influential force in right-wing politics since the semi-departure of Trump and the death of Rush Limbaugh. Both profiles focused on his racism — a worthy subject, for sure, but no doubt a sign that the stories were assigned before the recent resurgence of the pandemic.

Gillian Laub of Time, though, did manage to work in some key COVID-19 material into her piece, eliciting a ludicrously offensive answer from Carlson when she asked if he’d been vaccinated. He called the anodyne question “super-vulgar” and parried with “What’s your favorite sexual position and when did you last engage in it?”

Laub also noted that, early in the pandemic, Carlson took COVID-19 more seriously than his fellow Fox hosts and even urged then-President Trump to change course. As a result, researchers found that Carlson’s viewers modified their behavior in practices such as hand-washing sooner than did Hannity’s fans.

There are some recent signs that Fox is hedging its bets. Steve Doocy of “Fox & Friends” has been praised for pushing back against his anti-vaxxer co-host Brian Kilmeade. (Both sides!) Even Hannity has been edging toward encouraging his viewers to get vaccinated. But it’s Carlson with the most viewers and influence, and there’s little evidence that his bosses are going to intervene.

Is there anything that can be done about the toxic influence of Fox News? It would be exceedingly difficult. Occasionally you hear some talk about reviving the FCC’s fairness doctrine, which required broadcasters to air opposing views and offer equal time to those who had been attacked. But even if that were politically possible, it would be unlikely to pass constitutional muster. The fairness doctrine applied only to over-the-air television and radio, not cable TV, since the airwaves were regarded as a finite, publicly owned resource.

In any case, such a heavy-handed approach might not be necessary. Congress could require cable providers to offer à la carte service so that no one would have to pay for Fox News or any other cable channel unless they wanted to. No more bundling. Personally, I’d probably keep Fox so I could check in on what they were saying from time to time. But I’d happily give up the 57 flavors of ESPN I’m forced to pay for and rarely watch.

For now, though, we’re stuck with Fox and the baleful influence it exercises over our entire culture. People are literally dying because of the false beliefs they harbor about COVID-19, and Fox is one of the principal vectors for spreading those beliefs.

Donald Trump himself has urged people to get vaccinated. But that’s not the message being delivered to the Trump supporters who tune in to Fox News every day. As a result, some 47% of Republicans say they are unlikely to get the shots, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, compared to just 6% of Democrats.

Over the course of the next few weeks, more people will get sick and more people will die. We may be told to wear masks in public once again. New restrictions may be put in place. We were so close to beating COVID-19, and now we’re moving backwards. For that you can thank Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and the rest of their ilk at Fox.

Most of all you can thank Rupert Murdoch, for whom misery and disease is just another profitable day at the office.

How the right-wing media weaponize unvetted science

Santa Clara, circa 1910. Photo via Wikipedia.

My Northeastern colleagues Aleszu Bajak and Jeff Howe have written a commentary for The New York Times about how the right-wing media weaponized a Stanford study that suggested COVID-19 infections in Santa Clara, California, might be far more widespread than had been previously thought.

The study showed the infection rate might be 85 times higher than the official estimate. What excited the right about this was that it would mean a much lower death rate — possibly as low as 0.12%. So, gee, let’s open up, shall we?

The larger point Bajak and Howe make in their commentary, complete with data visualizations, is the danger of unvetted science ripping through the media so that it can be exploited for partisan purposes. The Stanford study, a so-called preprint that had not yet been peer-reviewed, turned out to be flawed. That’s not to say there isn’t some valuable data in it. But, as Bajak and Howe write:

The instant sharing of valuable data has accelerated our race for vaccines, antivirals and better tests. But this welter of information, much of it conflicting, has sown confusion and discord with a general public not accustomed to the high level of uncertainty inherent in science.

As it turns out, I spent three hours watching Fox News’ prime-time lineup on April 20, a day when yet another not-ready-for-prime-time study was making the rounds. This one was from the University of Southern California, which suggested — according to a press release (!) — that “infections from the new coronavirus are far more widespread — and the fatality rate much lower — in L.A. County than previously thought.” The release went on to note that the data showed the infection rate might be 28 to 55 times higher than experts had estimated several weeks earlier.

Tucker Carlson touted it. So did Laura Ingraham. “They were predicting doom and gloom,” she asserted, claiming that the response to COVID-19 would have been completely different if officials knew the fatality rate was so low.

Healthline, a respected source of health-related information, analyzed both studies in some depth and took a measured approach in assessing their importance: “There are disagreements about one study’s validity, and experts point out the statistical models and manner that participants were chosen might have biased the results. Although there’s agreement that the findings are plausible.”

What isn’t changed by any of this is that more than 80,000 people in the U.S. have died of COVID-19 in just a few months. And that toll would have been much higher if not for the extraordinary actions taken by state and local governments.

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In the age of pandemic, Fox News is threatening our safety, our health and our lives

Photo (cc) 2015 by Johnny Silvercloud

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Tucker Carlson knows what’s good for you. Have you heard that the coronavirus disperses more readily when you’re outdoors? It’s right here in the Journal of the American Medical Association. And did you know the Chinese have discovered that most people contracted COVID-19 when they were inside? So why does the liberal media and political elite want you to stay cooped up in your home?

“Being outside is far safer. It’s also good for you,” the Fox News host told his viewers. “The question is why are our leaders hurting us on purpose. And the answer is: Because they can.” He added: “You may be suffering intensely, but they’re enjoying it.” In case you didn’t quite get the message, a graphic off to the side read: “Shut Up & Obey.”

For three hours on Monday, from 8 to 11 p.m., I sat and watched as Fox News’ three prime-time hosts — Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham — spewed distorted facts and vitriol at their viewers like some dubious-looking guy without a mask who sneezes in your direction at the supermarket.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but I suppose it could have been worse. Like their lodestar, President Donald Trump, Fox is no longer calling COVID-19 a Democratic “hoax.” The threat of a lawsuit may have something to do with that. But now that it appears the pandemic’s toll may not be quite as horrifying as some had predicted (mainly because people are taking social-distancing seriously), Fox’s Big Three are serving up a toxic brew of disdain for elites, doubts about science and disgust with foreigners and poor people.

Maybe it was because Carlson’s show was the first stop in my ordeal, but I thought his hour was the most coherent — and, thus, the most corrosive.

During the course of his show, we were told that criticism of the gun-wielding protesters calling for an end to the lockdown was an affront to the First Amendment; that a study by the University of Southern California shows COVID-19 may be far more widespread, and therefore less dangerous, than previously thought; that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and others are presiding over a “police state” by encouraging people to snitch on those ignoring social-distancing rules; and that those dastardly Chinese not only let COVID-19 escape from a lab in Wuhan, but they’re selling drones to U.S. police departments that are probably spying on Americans and sending data back to Beijing.

We were even treated to a return visit by Texas Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick, who achieved instant notoriety a few weeks ago when he said he was ready to die in order to save the economy. “The abuse you took was so disconnected from what you actually said,” Carlson told Patrick — before Patrick, you know, said it again: “There are more important things than living, and that’s saving this country for our children and our grandchildren.”

Carlson offered up a weird and disturbing amalgam of exaggerations, unproven assertions and paranoia. There may be something to the USC study, but that’s of little comfort to the families of the more than 43,000 people who have died so far in the United States, or to the medical workers who are risking their lives every day. We do need to know more about the lab in Wuhan, as Josh Rogin wrote in The Washington Post recently. But using it to whip up hatred and xenophobia is loathsome.

I can’t even describe how Carlson closed without first assuring you that I’m not making this up. He showed a sculpture of two Greek goddesses shaking hands, and then of Dr. Anthony Fauci saying he’d just as soon see that particular custom faded into history. That was followed by a recent quote from Fauci telling a Snapchat audience that he wouldn’t condemn Tinder hookups as long as the participants understood the risks they were taking. Well, there you go. Case closed.

“They’re children playing dress-up,” Carlson said of Fauci and others in authority. “It’s scary. These are the people in charge of the country.”

***

At least Carlson offered a narrative thread I could more or less follow. Hannity, Fox News’ top-rated host, was strictly random-access. He began with a rapid-fire, non-linear rant about a New York Times story reporting that a Fox News fan named Joe Joyce had gone on a cruise and died of COVID-19, in part because Hannity had called concerns about the virus a “hoax.”

Trouble was (and Hannity appears to have a legitimate complaint), Hannity had made that comment only after the fan had taken his cruise. The Times then edited the story to reflect that fact without appending a correction, according to a report in Breitbart News. “This woman exploited a man’s tragic death,” Hannity said of the Times reporter, Ginia Bellafante. “She’s a hack. She works for a disgraceful organization.”

This went on interminably, with Hannity offering timelines that he did, too, take COVID-19 seriously, and so did President Trump, and Nancy Pelosi eats ice cream (I never did quite get that, but he mentioned it multiple times), and on and on and on.

Later, we were treated to some more China-bashing, repeated praise for Trump’s ban on travel from China, and an interview with South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem — a Republican who, according to Hannity, has been able to contain the spread of the virus without trampling on people’s liberties. If I’m not mistaken, though, Noem was reluctant to buy into Hannity’s narrative.

“I want to see New York City open,” Hannity said.

“Well, Sean,” Noem replied cautiously, “New York City is definitely not South Dakota.”

Believe it or not, Hannity closed with that unrepentant reprobate Roger Stone, who’s heading off to prison in about a week after having been convicted of lying under oath, among other things, in connection with the Russia investigations. “What happened to you,” Hannity told Stone, “should never happen to any American.”

***

Carlson offered indignation, Hannity rage. Ingraham invited her viewers to relax with an hour’s worth of sneering contempt.

She derided Democrats for “taking the viral path to socialism.” She showed Trump praising the protesters as “a very orderly group of people,” a sentiment she agreed with — hailing them as salt-of-the-earth small-business owners and students who are afraid for their futures. “Of course they want to see the vulnerable and the elderly safe and secure,” she said, but added they’re upset that bike shops remain open while churches are closed. Bike shops, I tell you!

I could go on. There were the Chinese drones again, an attack on the World Health Organization, the ritual mockery of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (not her only appearance of the night, I should note), a swipe at California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s choice of Tom Steyer to co-chair his state’s economic-recovery effort (Ingraham wanted us to be sure we knew that Steyer favors slavery reparations), more reports from random doctors that COVID-19 isn’t as deadly as it’s been portrayed, and even criticism of the One World concert for inviting Michelle Obama and Laura Bush to deliver messages but not Melania Trump. One of her guests, Raymond Arroyo, went so far as to deride that decision as “partisanship,” notwithstanding Bush’s status as a member in good standing of the Republican Party.

But rather than dwell on any of that, I’ll close with something that struck me as quintessentially Ingraham — her scorn for poor and working-class people who might make a bit more money than they are accustomed to for a few months as a result of the government’s $1.1 trillion bailout.

You may recall that this was Sen. Lindsey Graham’s excuse for holding up the legislation as well as the subject of a righteous rant for the ages by Sen. Bernie Sanders: “Oh my God. The universe is collapsing. Imagine that.”

Well, Ingraham, whose net worth has been estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars, is still steaming over the very thought of those unemployed service workers living large at taxpayers’ expense. She began by warning of “the unintended consequences” of the bailout, asking: Is there a chance that a big chunk of the workforce won’t go back to work because they’re making more by staying home?

When she took up the topic again, in the closing minutes of her show, she was joined by two guests — former restaurant-chain magnate and presidential candidate Herman Cain and a restaurateur from West Palm Beach, Florida, named Rodney Mayo. And, at least from where I was sitting, it seemed that neither of them was able to process and respond to the cruelty she was spouting.

“Provisions that Democrats forced into the legislation have made it more lucrative for people to be unemployed,” Ingraham said, adding that she’s heard from two — two! — restaurant owners that they don’t expect their employees to return to lower-paying jobs.

Cain did not respond directly, saying instead that people who are unemployed should start looking for jobs now, before the money runs out. “Those employees who you’re talking about are not thinking outside the box,” he said. Now, you might ask, “What jobs?” But at least he didn’t follow Ingraham’s lead. Mayo didn’t answer her at all, focusing instead on his own restaurant’s challenges.

To channel Bernie Sanders: The notion that we should get worked up because low-paid workers might get a few extra dollars for four months is shameful. But Ingraham is apparently beyond shame.

***

recent survey by the Pew Research Center showed that 65% of those polled thought President Trump was too slow to address the pandemic; 66% were more concerned that state governments would lift restrictions too quickly than too slowly; and 73% believed the worst was still to come.

This suggests that those who are devoted to fact-based messaging — governors from both political parties, the scientific establishment and the mainstream media — are being heard and believed. This wrenchingly painful lockdown, social-distancing and other measures are slowing the rate of increase. In some places, we may have even started on the downward side of the curve. Most Americans understand that’s proof these drastic steps are working, not that they were unnecessary in the first place.

Unfortunately, a significant minority believes otherwise. Fed on a media diet of Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones and Fox News, many of them see these tragic developments as a conspiracy cooked up by elites who hate them. The late statesman Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said that we are all entitled to our own opinion, but not to our own facts. But that was then. This is now.

Fox promotes its own facts, scaring its viewers about things they shouldn’t be afraid of while making them complacent about things they ought to be worried about. More than anything, Fox acts as a perpetual feedback loop with Trump, giving him his talking points and then amplifying those talking points when he makes them part of his own fractured, hateful discourse.

Several years ago, the legendary television journalist Ted Koppel confronted Sean Hannity on the set of “CBS Sunday Morning,” answering “yes” when Hannity asked if Koppel thought he was “bad for America.” Koppel then said to him: “You have attracted people who are determined that ideology is more important than facts.”

That’s dangerous even in the best of times. In the midst of a crisis like the current pandemic, the propaganda offered up during prime time by Hannity and his fellow hosts is a threat to our health, our safety and our lives.

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How Fox News is helping to destroy the planet

Photo (cc) 2015 by Johnny Silvercloud

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Want to fight climate change? Tell your elderly relatives to turn off Fox News.

new survey about global warming by the Pew Research Center provides reasons for optimism. A majority of Americans favors more federal action on environmental issues, including climate change. Most respondents said we should put more emphasis on developing alternative energy sources than on expanding our use of fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas.

But there is one huge caveat: older, conservative respondents aren’t inclined to do much of anything — and many of them continue to believe the fiction that climate change has more to do with natural causes than with human activities.

“A strong majority of liberal Democrats (84%) say human activity contributes a great deal to climate change, with near consensus among them that human activity contributes at least some amount to climate change (96%),” according to the survey report. “In contrast, about half of conservative Republicans (53%) say human activity contributes a great deal (14%) or some (39%) to climate change. Another 45% of this group says humans play not too much or no role in climate change.”

Indifference to doing something about climate change, the survey adds, increases with age — the older the respondents, the less likely they are to want the government to take action.

Although Pew doesn’t say it, these findings coincide perfectly with the demographics of Fox News, which caters to older, conservative viewers. Cable news viewers in general are old — MSNBC, which appeals to liberals, has an even older audience than Fox. But it’s Fox, not MSNBC, that pumps out a steady stream of climate-change denialism and skepticism.

Earlier this year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reported on findings that showed rejection of climate science among ordinary people is uniquely American — and that Fox News was the likely reason.

Citing survey data, the author, Dana Nuccitelli, wrote that “Republicans who watch Fox News are more than twice as likely to deny human-caused climate change than Republican non-viewers, and 62 percent of Republicans watch Fox News.” Nuccitelli added that the data “suggests that the presence of Fox News and other conservative media outlets may be the primary explanation for why climate denial is more prevalent in the United States than in other developed countries.”

And it’s further proof that Rupert Murdoch, whose family runs Fox News, is one of the most dangerous people on the planet.

Looking for some specifics? In just the past few months, Fox prime-time host Sean Hannity has mocked U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., for linking the severity of Hurricane Dorion to climate change. Another host, Tucker Carlson, referred to the September climate strike as “adults hoping to exploit children for political purposes.” And Laura Ingraham called climate activism by Greta Thunberg and others “globalist” and “socialism in a new mask.”

It sounds ludicrous. But when your Uncle Bert and Aunt Gertrude watch hours upon hours of this stuff, the effect is to produce a combination of anger, cynicism and inertia that makes it nearly impossible to break through with serious ideas about how to save the planet. And let’s not forget that Fox functions as state television for a president who declared on Twitter in 2012 that global warming was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.

Nor is there anything new about Fox News viewers believing things that just aren’t true. Last spring, a poll by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal found that solid majorities of respondents who get most of their news from Fox believed that President Trump was telling the truth about the Russia investigation. They also said they weren’t worried about future Russian interference in U.S. elections. Half of Fox News viewers believed that the Mueller report had cleared Trump of wrongdoing — even though Mueller drew a virtual road map for the House to impeach Trump on charges that he obstructed the investigation.

Then again, you could go back to the early days of the war in Iraq, when 67% of Fox News viewers believed the falsehood promoted by the Bush-Cheney administration that Saddam Hussein had worked closely with Al Qaeda.

Despite overwhelming scientific consensus that time is running out to avoid the worst effects of climate change, the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continues to rise. As one of the two worst polluters (China is the other), the United States has to lead if anything is going to be accomplished. Unfortunately, Trump’s response has been to pull out of the Paris climate-change accords and to torment California for taking action at the state level.

The role of Fox News in preventing serious action on climate change shouldn’t be underestimated. From propping up the Trump presidency to mocking science as a bastion of liberal elitism, Fox is hastening the day when parts of the planet will become uninhabitable.

The Pew survey shows that a majority of Americans wants to do something serious about climate change. It also shows that the same Foxified minority keeping Trump in office is blocking the wishes of the majority. It’s further proof that our media system, like our electoral system, is undermining our democracy.

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One from the heart

I’m not an Ed Schultz fan. And of course MSNBC did the right thing by suspending Schultz for a week for calling Laura Ingraham a “right-wing slut” and a “talk slut” on his radio show. But give him this: I can’t remember the last time I saw an apology as abject and sincere as Schultz’s. I hope we see a better Ed when he returns.

Ingraham accepts Schultz’s apology.

Even George Will is appalled by Cheney

Thought you might enjoy George Will’s response on “This Week” when George Stephanopoulos asked him about Dick Cheney’s accusation that President Obama, by taking his time before deciding on a strategy in Afghanistan, is “dithering while America’s armed forces are in danger.” Here’s how Will began:

A bit of dithering might have been in order before we went into Iraq in pursuit of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. For a representative of the Bush administration to accuse someone of taking too much time is missing the point. We have much more to fear in this town from hasty than from slow government action.

Good stuff, although a few caveats are in order. First, though Will is a conservative, he’s not a neoconservative, and he’s been notably less enthusiastic about foreign adverturism over the years than his neobrethren. Second, he came out against the war in Afghanistan weeks ago. Third, Will has never been much taken with the Bush clan or its minions.

But still. With the war-mongering Laura Ingraham fulminating on the same set today (and when is she going to enlist?), it was heartening to hear a sane conservative call out Cheney’s posturing for what it is.