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 The Stanford study, a so-called preprint that had not yet been peer-reviewed, turned out to be flawed.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.
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.
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.
A 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.
The devolution of Tucker Carlson. The MIT Media Lab’s entanglement with career sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein. The ever-present threat to free speech. And, above all, the ongoing corporate-fueled crisis afflicting local news.
These are the themes that emerged in my most-read commentaries for WGBH News from the past year. We live in difficult times, and my list might provoke pessimism. But given that four of my top 10 are about the meltdown of local news, I’m at least somewhat optimistic. People really care about this stuff. And that’s the first step toward coming up with possible solutions. So let’s get to it.
10. Whatever happened to Tucker Carlson?(March 12). When Fox News talking head Tucker Carlson began his journalistic career in the mid-1990s, he built a reputation as a smart, unconventional conservative, a stylish writer and (as I can attest) a charming lunch companion. Today he is a racist, sexist hate-monger and a full-throated apologist for President Trump. What happened? Although I can’t read Carlson’s mind, it would appear that he values fame and fortune over principle. In that sense, Carlson is a metaphor for nearly the entire conservative movement, with the few conservatives of conscience having been exiled to #NeverTrump irrelevance.
9. Corporate newspaper chains’ race to the bottom (Jan. 16). One year ago, the cost-slashing newspaper chain Gannett was fighting off a possible takeover by Digital First Media (now MediaNews Group), owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital and generally regarded as the worst of the worst. Gannett avoided that grim fate. But by the end of the year, Gannett had merged with another bottom-feeder, GateHouse Media. The first order of business: Cutting another $400 million or so from papers that had already been hollowed out, including titles that serve more than 100 cities and towns in Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
8. The move from no-profit to nonprofit journalism (May 15). A brief period of hope greeted Paul Huntsman after he bought The Salt Lake Tribune in 2016. Instead, the cutting continued, as Huntsman discovered that 21st-century newspaper economics were more of a challenge than he’d imagined. Then, last spring, he announced that he would seek to reorganize the Tribune as a nonprofit entity. Several months later, the IRS approved his application. Nonprofit ownership is not a panacea — the Tribune still must take in more money than it spends. But by removing the pressure for quarterly profits and keeping the chains at bay, Huntsman might point the way for other beleaguered newspaper owners.
7. Fact-checking and the dangers of false equivalence (Sept. 18). We have never had a president who spews falsehoods like President Trump. Much of what he says can be chalked up to old-fashioned lying; some of it consists of conspiracy theories from the fever swamps of the far right that he might actually believe. Fact-checkers at The Washington Post, CNN, PolitiFact and other news organizations have diligently kept track, with the Post reporting several weeks ago that Trump had made more than 15,000 “false or misleading claims” during his presidency. Yet the media all too often remain obsessed with balance in this most unbalanced of times. And thus Democratic presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, are inevitably held to a higher standard, being branded as liars for what are merely rhetorical excesses or even disputed facts.
6. Yes, millennials are paying attention to the news (July 24). Millennials are often, and wrongly, caricatured as self-absorbed and caring about little other than where their next slice of avocado toast is coming from. It’s not true. A study by the Knight Foundation, which surveyed 1,600 young adults, “shows that 88 percent of people ages 18-34 access news at least weekly, including 53 percent who do so every day.” The findings matched what I’ve seen in many years of teaching journalism students: they’re dubious about the news as a curated package, but they’re well-informed, highly quality-conscious and not wedded to the notion of loyalty to specific news brands. Can we put them in charge now, please?
5. Stop letting Trump take up residence inside your head(Jan. 2). I kicked off 2019 with a list of five ideas for de-Trumpifying your life. Unfortunately, the president’s bizarre, hateful rants and policies can’t be ignored completely — but surely we can save our outrage for his truly important outbursts. Looking back, I think my best piece of advice was to pay more attention to non-Trump news, especially at the local level. We live in communities, and making them work better is a great antidote to our dysfunctional president.
4. Post-Jeffrey Epstein, some questions for the MIT Media Lab (Sept. 11). Joi Ito, a celebrated star in the media world, was forced to resign as director of the MIT Media Lab after his modified limited hangout about his financial entanglements with serial rapist Jeffrey Epstein, who committed suicide while in jail, turned out to be far more extensive than he had originally admitted. That, in turn, brought the Media Lab itself under scrutiny. In the post-Ito, post-Epstein era, questions remained about exactly how dependent the lab had become on Epstein’s money — and whether it was really producing valuable work or if some of it was smoke and mirrors aimed at impressing its mega-wealthy funders.
3. Don’t blame the internet for the decline of local journalism(Nov. 27). Following yet another round on academic Twitter arguing that we need new forms of journalism in response to the damage that the internet had done to local news, I was mad as hell and couldn’t take it anymore. Yes, technology has done tremendous harm to the business model that traditionally paid for the news. But equally to blame is the rise of chain ownership intent on bleeding newspapers dry before discarding them and moving on. From Woburn, Massachusetts, to New Haven, Connecticut, independent local news organizations are thriving despite the very real economic pressures created by the rise of Craigslist, Google and Facebook. Local news isn’t dying — it’s being murdered by corporate greed.
2. Calling out New England’s enemies of free expression (July 2). Since 1998, I’ve been writing an annual Fourth of July round-up of outrages against the First Amendment called the New England Muzzle Awards. For many years, the Muzzles were hosted by the late, great Boston Phoenix. Since 2013, they’ve made their home at WGBH News. The 2019 list included school officials in Vermont who tried to silence the high school newspaper (and lost) and a police chief in Connecticut whose officers arrested a journalist during a Black Lives Matter protest to prevent her from doing her job. And don’t miss the 2019 Campus Muzzles, by Harvey Silverglate, Monika Greco and Nathan McGuire, which focus on free-speech issues on college campuses.
1. GateHouse decimates its already-decimated newspapers (June 5). As I noted above, the Gannett newspaper chain managed to fend off the depredations of Alden Global Capital. But Alden, Gannett and GateHouse Media danced around each other all year. In the spring, GateHouse, already known for taking a bonesaw to its newspapers, eliminated about 170 positions at its papers nationwide and merged 50 of its smaller weeklies in Greater Boston into 18, a surefire way to undermine customer loyalty to the local paper. “We remain positive about the future for local media but certainly acknowledge that the business model for community news is under pressure,” GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis told me. But by year’s end, GateHouse had merged with Gannett, Davis was gone — and the cutting continued.
So what will 2020 bring? Call me crazy, but I think we’re going to see some good news on the local-journalism front. As for what will happen nationally, I think I can safely predict that the political press will continue to focus on polls and campaign-trail controversies at the expense of substance, continuing a trend documented recently by my colleagues Aleszu Bajak, John Wihbey and me at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.
Finally, my thanks to WGBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2020.
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.
The first results were coming in from Georgia’s special congressional election. And Tucker Carlson of the Fox News Channel had a theory to explain why Jon Ossoff, the Democrat, wasn’t heading toward a huge victory over his Republican opponent, Karen Handel: Ossoff was (gasp) a liberal elitist.
“Ossoff ought to be running away with it, but he’s not,” Carlson said. He sneered at Ossoff’s prodigious fundraising, saying that “all that money has come from angry liberals who live out of state.” As for whether Ossoff was capable of relating to voters in Georgia’s Sixth District, Carlson smirked, “He’s super-fit and way smarter than you are.”
Three quick thoughts about the departure of Bill O’Reilly from Fox News thanks to his long, sordid history of sexual harassment finally catching up with him.
1. Although the Murdochs had apparently already decided that Bill-O had to go, a story in Wednesday’s New York Times about yet another accuser was a clear sign that if O’Reilly had stayed, it was never going to end. If you missed it, here is the most humiliating passage:
Ms. Bloom [Lisa Bloom, the accuser’s lawyer] said the woman, who is African-American, worked in a clerical position at the network but did not work directly for Mr. O’Reilly. The woman reported that in 2008, Mr. O’Reilly would stop by her desk and grunt like a “wild boar”; he would also stand back to allow her to exit the elevator first and then say, “Looking good, girl,” Ms. Bloom said. Mr. O’Reilly leered at the woman’s cleavage and legs and called her “hot chocolate,” Ms. Bloom said.
2. We are awash in accusations of fake news and conspiracy theories. O’Reilly himself continues to deny that he did anything wrong. For the sake of the public discourse (as if), the Murdochs should tell O’Reilly that there will be no pile of cash as he walks out the door unless he issues at least a vague statement taking responsibility for his loathsome actions.
3. The future of the Fox News Channel is very much in doubt. Though numerous observers have pointed out that Tucker Carlson — who’s been awarded O’Reilly’s coveted 8 p.m. time slot — has done better in the ratings than Megyn Kelly did previously, he has a long track record as a ratings loser. O’Reilly was the straw that stirred the drink. Roger Ailes, another lech now gone, was the genius who figured it all out. What are the odds on James and Lachlan Murdoch getting it right?