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.

Don’t censor right-wing disinformation. Just stop making us pay for it.

Photo (cc) 2007 by Jason Eppink

Two Democratic members of Congress are asking giant cable providers like Verizon and Comcast some uncomfortable questions about their business dealings with three right-wing purveyors of toxic misinformation and disinformation — Fox News, Newsmax and OANN.

Among other things, according to Erik Wemple of The Washington Post, Reps. Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney want to know what “moral and ethical principles” are involved in carrying the channels and whether they intend to keep carrying them after their current contracts expire. This is not a good road to take. As Wemple writes:

The insertion of Congress into the contractual relationships of video providers with particular news/propaganda outlets, however, is frightening. Asking questions is a protected activity, of course — one that lawmakers use all the time. Yet these questions feel a lot like coercion by government officials, an incursion into the cultural promise of the First Amendment. Eshoo and McNerney’s letter hints that, unless the carriers proactively justify keeping OAN, Newsmax, Fox News and the like, the signatories would like to see them de-platformed right away.

The very real problem is that Fox News and its smaller competitors are unique in the extent to which they spout falsehoods and outright lies about everything from the COVID-19 pandemic to the outcome of the 2020 election. But what can we do about it without posing a threat to the First Amendment?

Liberal activists have pressured advertisers from time to time, which is well within their own free-speech rights. But Fox, in particular, is all but immune from such pressure because most of its money comes from cable carriage fees. As Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of the liberal media-watch organization Media Matters for America, recently told the public radio program “On the Media”:

They can have zero commercials and still have a 90% profit margin because they are the second most expensive channel on everybody’s cable box, and Fox is in the process right now of renegotiating 40 to 50% of all of their contracts.

A far more promising avenue is one suggested by the media-reform organization Free Press. Contained within its daily missives demanding that Congress take action against Fox, Newsmax and OANN for spewing “hate and disinformation into homes and businesses across the country” is a proposed solution that we all ought to support: mandating  à la carte cable so that consumers would only have to pay for the channels they want. (Bye bye, ESPN!)

The problem with these right-wing purveyors of lies isn’t that they exist. It’s that, unless we’re willing to cut the cable cord, we’re forced to pay for them whether we watch them or not, whether we’re appalled by them or not. It’s time to bring that to an end.

So yes, there’s a way to do something about cable hate without raising constitutional issues. Reps. Eshoo and McNerney should take note.

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From principled conservative to Bubba the Love Sponge: The devolution of Tucker Carlson

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

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Tucker Carlson may have finally hit bottom. Then again, maybe not. If Fox News fails to act after Carlson was exposed over the weekend for making insanely misogynist comments on a low-rent radio show between 2006 and 2011, then he will probably continue on his merry way, indulging in sexism and racism on what might be the worst prime-time program on cable news.

A brief synopsis. During the period in question, Carlson made weekly on-air calls to a show hosted by Bubba the Love Sponge, whose name you may vaguely recall from Hulk Hogan’s successful lawsuit against Gawker Media. Mrs. Sponge, as we shall call Bubba’s ex-wife, was videotaped having sex with Hogan, and Gawker published it. That, in turn, led to the demise of Gawker at the hands of Hogan’s lawyer and his secret financier, the tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who had his own axe to grind against the company.

Anyway, Carlson’s appearances on Bubba’s show were sort of like his Fox News program, only cruder and much more disturbing. Madeline Peltz of Media Matters for America, a liberal media-watch organization, has gone through many hours of audio in which Carlson defended statutory rape, used the C-word, and, as Peltz put it, “called journalist Arianna Huffington a ‘pig,’ and labeled Britney Spears and Paris Hilton ‘the biggest white whores in America.’ He also said that women enjoy being told to ‘be quiet and kind of do what you’re told’ and that they are ‘extremely primitive.’” The story includes audio clips and extensive transcripts. Carlson doesn’t deny it. More was posted Monday night, with the new cache consisting of what Media Matters calls “white nationalist rhetoric” and “racist remarks.”

The revelations about Carlson were the worst news for Fox News in, oh, about a week. Last week brought us Jane Mayer’s New Yorker story detailing the multifarious ways in which Fox now functions as President Trump’s chief propaganda arm, as well as weekend host Jeanine Pirro’s assertion that U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s hijab is somehow a violation of the Constitution. (Fox condemned those remarks.)

Now, forgive me for taking a detour, because I want to talk about an earlier, better version of Tucker Carlson. To my mind, one of the stranger and more disheartening developments in conservative media in recent years has been Carlson’s devolution from a stylish writer of smart magazine pieces to a ranting racist and misogynist.

My first exposure to Carlson came in September 1995, when The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine founded by Bill Kristol and funded by Rupert Murdoch, made its debut. Back then I was the media columnist for The Boston Phoenix. I took a look at the Standard’s first issue and pronounced most of it to be a snooze. The exception was an amusing piece by Carlson, who contacted various celebrities about a petition they’d signed calling for a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal, then facing the death penalty after he was convicted of murdering a police officer. Carlson innocently asked his targets what they actually knew about the case, which turned out to be not much.

After that, Carlson was someone I checked in with from time to time. I admired a long profile he wrote for Tina Brown’s Talk magazine of then-presidential candidate George W. Bush, whom he depicted as cruelly mocking Karla Faye Tucker, a murderer and born-again Christian he’d sent to her death when he was governor of Texas. On one of my visits to Washington around the same time, Carlson took me to lunch at The Palm. He was utterly charming. The only disconcerting note was when he genially berated me for not keeping a gun at home in order to protect my family.

I should add that many people have had similar experiences with Carlson. Last fall Lyz Lenz wrote a long profile of Carlson for the Columbia Journalism Review in which she quoted a number of editors and others who worked with Carlson back in the day and who can’t believe how far he’s fallen — fallen being a term of art, of course, given that he’s never been more prominent or highly compensated than he is right now.

“What happened to Tucker Carlson?,” Lenz wrote. “People in media ask themselves this question with the same pearl-clutching, righteous tone they use when discussing their aunt in Connecticut who voted for Trump.”

Sadly, the answer to Lenz’s question is obvious enough. Late last year The Weekly Standard died — or, rather, was killed by its last owner, Philip Anschutz. In its final incarnation the Standard had established itself as an outlet for principled conservatism that was usually (though not always) harshly critical of Trump and Trumpism. Kristol, a leading voice of the #NeverTrump right, as well as several like-minded conservatives, have gone off to found projects such as The Bulwark (which preceded the Standard’s closing) and a yet-to-be-named venture announced by Jonah Goldberg and Stephen Hayes. Anschutz is now lavishing attention and money on another property he owns, the pro-Trump Washington Examiner.

Meanwhile Carlson, whose intellectual traveling companions were once thinking conservatives like Kristol and John Podhoretz, is now mentioned in the same breath as Trump toadies such as Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. It’s a matter of prosperity over principle. Too bad one of the most gifted journalists of his generation turned out to be nothing but a cheap hustler.

Research assistance was provided by Northeastern University student Caroline Hanlon.

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Globe to address columnist Sununu’s outside interests

Last week the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America published its latest post on the many conflicts of Boston Globe columnist John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator and the son of former New Hampshire governor John Sununu.

Now the Globe’s editorial-page editor, Ellen Clegg, says she’s dealing with Sununu in several ways:

  • By posting in the near future biographies of Sununu and other freelance columnists that disclose their outside interests.
  • By reaching an understanding with Sununu that he will not write about cable and Internet access.
  • By requiring a specific disclosure within his column whenever he writes about the presidential campaign. (Sununu is a prominent supporter of Ohio Gov. John Kasich.)

“It’s safe to say that few freelance columnists make their living solely from writing for newspapers these days, so most have other jobs or consultancies,” Clegg told me by email. “We want to be more transparent with our readers about the nature of columnists’ work and affiliations.”

Sununu’s outside interests, which I have written about previously, was the subject of an Aug. 17 analysis by Eric Hananoki of Media Matters. Hananoki observed that Sununu’s column of that same date criticized President Obama’s environmental policies as well as his regulatory decisions regarding cable and the Internet without mentioning his ties to businesses that oppose administration policies.

In particular, Hanonoki wrote, Sununu was paid more than $750,000 by the industry-funded lobbying organization Broadband for America and by Time Warner Cable, on whose board he sits.

Sununu’s ties to the energy industry stem from his status as a policy adviser to the Washington lobbying firm Akin Gump.

The online disclosures Clegg envisions for freelance columnists seem like a reasonable solution in most cases, although, as she notes, there are times when the disclosure should be included in the column — or when the conflict of interest is so blatant that the columnist should simply choose another topic.

The online disclosures are also of no help to those who only read the print edition. Clegg told Joe Strupp of Media Matters that she’d “take a look at” what to do about print and added that “we do require that [disclosure] when we think it’s warranted.”

What follows is the full text of Clegg’s email to Media Nation.

In the interest of more transparency, we’re posting bios for our regular freelance op-ed columnists online and linking those bios to their bylines. John Sununu has told me he will avoid writing about issues pertaining to cable and internet access because of his seat on the Time Warner Cable board. He has also assured me that he will disclose his support of GOP presidential candidate John Kasich in the text of any columns he writes about presidential politics (he is chair of his campaign in New Hampshire.)

It’s safe to say that few freelance columnists make their living solely from writing for newspapers these days, so most have other jobs or consultancies. We want to be more transparent with our readers about the nature of columnists’ work and affiliations. When appropriate, we’ll include relevant details in the text of the print edition of the column, as well as the link for our digital readers.

Also published at WGBHNews.org.

Media Matters whacks Sununu over Keystone column

John Sununu
John Sununu

The liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America has resurrected an old charge: that former Republican senator John Sununu Jr. is using his Boston Globe column to advance the interests of a lobbying firm he advises.

In this case, writes Eric Hananoki, the Washington firm of Akin Gump, with which Sununu has a relationship, has received at least $90,000 from a company that would be involved in building the Keystone pipeline — and on Thursday the Globe posted a full-throated defense of Keystone by Sununu, complete with crocodile tears for Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu. The Akin Gump connection is not disclosed.

When I looked into Sununu’s relationship with Akin Gump in 2012, then-editorial page editor Peter Canellos assured me that the former senator’s ties to the lobbying group were tangential enough that they did not rise to the level of a conflict. And Media Matters’ own report at the time made it clear that the situation was ambiguous. (On Akin Gump’s website Sununu is listed as an “Adjunct Senior Policy Advisor.”) Still, on a certain level what’s good for Akin Gump is good for John Sununu.

But as I wrote at the time, the larger question is why the Globe would hand over precious op-ed space to a partisan hack like Sununu. It’s still a good question. I hope it’s something Canellos’ interim successor, Ellen Clegg, is giving some thought to.

John Sununu’s complicated alliances

John Sununu

Boston Globe editorial-page editor Peter Canellos and I recently exchanged some emails over Globe op-ed columnist John Sununu’s lobbying work on behalf of Akin Gump. I ended up choosing not to write about Sununu because I was satisfied that Sununu’s non-disclosure in his columns, though potentially problematic, did not rise to the level of unethical behavior. It was also clear that I’d need to do a lot more research than I had time for in order to put some flesh on the bones.

Today Media Matters, a prominent liberal media-watch organization, weighs in. And I don’t regret my decision. Oliver Willis and Joe Strupp have really done their homework, only to find that the whole situation is fairly ambiguous. It looks like they got excited about the chance to write that the former New Hampshire senator was using the Globe to further his interests in such controversial practices as hydrofracking only to find that Sununu’s ties to Akin Gump are rather tangential.

One thing Willis and Strupp don’t mention is that Sununu has used his column to carry water for Mitt Romney on several occasions, including the run-up to the New Hampshire primary. This one, for instance, couldn’t be any more favorable if one of Romney’s kids had written it. Sununu did not endorse anyone, but his column dutifully noted that his father, former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, had endorsed Romney.

There is a larger question here. Why do news organizations use political partisans and lobbyists — and people who are both — to write opinion pieces for them? That, to me, is the real issue. I find nothing in Sununu’s columns that are insightful or fresh enough to make me think he earned a piece of the valuable real estate he commands. He’s there because of who he is, not because of what he has to say.

I don’t mind strong opinions. Frankly, I’d like to see more of them in the Globe. But if I want those opinions from a politician-turned-lobbyist, I can always turn on cable TV.