Political news media is a lot like the game “telephone” in which people stand in a circle, whispering a word or phrase to the next person in line. One person mishearing something will throw the rest of the circle off course, and by the end, the message might seem totally foreign to the person who originated it.
After making a joke about how far Hawaii is from the U.S. mainland, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) finds herself trapped in this very same game. Except in her version, the other players are right-wing media figures, who are using her quip -- which came in response to a question about the Green New Deal -- as a serious condemnation of the proposal, which, in fact, she supports.
On February 7, Fox News congressional reporter Chad Pergram asked Hirono for her thoughts on the Green New Deal, an ambitious plan to reshape the U.S. economy, infrastructure, and health care sector, all as part of a larger effort to address climate change. Specifically, Pergram wanted to know what Hirono thought of claims that the plan would try to eliminate air travel.
Hirono jokingly responded, “That would be pretty hard for Hawaii.”
Pergram’s tweet could be easily misinterpreted as sharing a serious and overarching response from Hirono, but the video of the exchange makes it clear that she was joking -- and that she actually supports the Green New Deal. It’s also worth noting that nothing about planes is actually mentioned in the text of the nonbinding resolution proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA). That language came from an FAQ document, which was “clearly unfinished,” according to Ocasio-Cortez chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti. Chakrabarti said it was erroneously posted to the congresswoman’s website.
All of that aside, it is very clear that Hirono was joking. After all, she’s one of 11 original co-sponsors of the resolution in the Senate, so her support for it isn’t actually in question. In fact, the day after her comment to Pergram, Hirono’s office posted a press release detailing her support for the initiative:
“From committing to 100 percent renewable energy, to embracing a carbon neutral economy, Hawaii has taken aggressive action to combat climate change because of the threat it poses to our way of life,” said Senator Hirono. Confronting the challenge of climate change requires a comprehensive approach to transforming our country in a way that prioritizes environmental health and wellness, while also expanding opportunity and creating good-paying jobs as we transition to a low carbon economy. I welcome this bold national framework that tracks so closely to what Hawaii is already doing and what many of us have long advocated to enable communities, families, and individuals to thrive.”
Just as in the game of telephone, it doesn’t actually matter what Hirono said to begin the conversation, because it got distorted somewhere in the middle.
Conservative media have been leading the fight against the Green New Deal, and as usual, their primary weapons are fear and ridicule. Some right-wing personalities would have you believe that the Green New Deal would abolish everything from steaks to ice cream sundaes. It wouldn't. There are certainly substantive critiques that could be levied against the resolution, but many right-wing commentators keep making weak arguments that rely on misrepresenting Hirono’s out-of-context quote.
“Even the senator from Hawaii, who is quite left, laughed at the idea of the Green New Deal and the stance on air travel,” said Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk during the February 13 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends.
“On a serious note, getting rid of planes? Even the senator from Hawaii was questioning this," Fox News contributor Lawrence Jones said later on the same show.
On Twitter, The Daily Wire made fun of the idea of a “water train,” though, again, this isn’t something anyone has actually suggested.
“If you can’t sell Mazie Hirono..,” Fox News host Rob Schmitt wrote as he retweeted Pergram’s tweet about Hirono’s comment. National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar also retweeted Pergram’s tweet with similar commentary: “When you’ve lost Mazie Hirono…”
“Now a senator from Hawaii notes it's not gonna work,” tweeted Townhall.com, sharing an article titled “Another Democrat Just Made Fun of Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal.”
Most people misrepresenting Hirono’s joke almost certainly know better. So why do they do it? Because it’s effective.
This isn’t some new phenomenon in American politics. Opponents of any given proposal will seek out something that confirms their suspicions, especially if it’s something that comes from “the other side,” and then use it as ammunition. The idea is to get the proposal labeled as too extreme for even people you’d ordinarily expect to support it. In this case, it’s Hirono on the Green New Deal. Going back nearly a decade, it’s the approach used to strip House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) infamous “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it” line about health care from its fuller context about the effects disinformation campaigns had on the public. To this day, people regularly tweet some variation of that quote.
Disinformation is effective. Years from now, there will almost certainly be people musing about Hirono’s joke as a serious condemnation of the resolution. With a complicated undertaking like the Green New Deal, it’s a near certainty that this is just the first in what will be a long line of cherry-picked quotes and misrepresentation from right-wing media.