To watch Fox News is to be immersed in a bizarre alternate reality ruled by tyrannical leftists who are obsessed with eliminating America’s most treasured cultural artifacts, a world in which “cancel culture” ranks as a high priority in the mind of the average voter. It’s a world of perpetual anger and grievance.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, Fox spent almost two hours bemoaning the supposed “cancellation” of beloved children’s author Dr. Seuss.
Last week, network figures mourned the loss of The Muppet Show at the hands of the “woke mob” and decried the newly ambisexual Mr. Potato Head, devoting 28 and 24 minutes to the topics, respectively.
Fox & Friends is Completely Offended about “the cancel culture canceling Dr. Seuss,” because one (1) school district isn't making Seuss the focus of its Read Across America Day activities. Kilmeade literally doesn't understand how one could even think a Seuss cartoon was racist. pic.twitter.com/94mVgW9NIl
— Bobby Lewis (@revrrlewis) March 2, 2021
But contrary to what you would hear from Fox News hosts -- “news” and opinion sides, alike -- Dr. Seuss has not been “canceled,” The Muppet Show is actually readily available to stream on demand for the first time ever, and Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head aren’t losing their honorifics.
To understand Fox News’ obsession with “cancel culture,” one must understand the sources of its misplaced Dr. Seuss-related outrage.
The supposed “cancellation” of Dr. Seuss makes for a great example of how the outrage machine works.
On February 26, Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire website criticized progressive educators group Learning for Justice for “demanding that Dr. Seuss be canceled,” and hammered Virginia’s Loudoun County Public Schools for having “taken marching orders” from the group by ordering its schools to avoid connecting the annual Read Across America Day with Dr. Seuss.
Someone less steeped in the hypocritical right-wing war against “cancel culture” might reasonably conclude that the school taking “marching orders” from a group “demanding that Dr. Seuss be canceled” means that it banned his books. This was not the case, and the district had to clarify in a press release that it had issued a “guidance to schools during the past couple of years to not connect Read Across America Day exclusively with Dr. Seuss’ birthday.”
Whatever quibbles one might have with the school district’s view of whether Dr. Seuss’ work was racist or not, there’s a pretty big difference between “canceling” the author and saying that Read Across America Day shouldn’t be exclusively tied to him. Still, the damage was done, leaving fact-checkers with the task of debunking claims that Loudoun County Public Schools had banned Dr. Seuss books.
Read Across America Day hasn’t actually been heavily linked to Dr. Seuss since 2017. In 2018, the Read Across America organizers at the National Education Association (NEA) expanded the event to celebrate a diverse set of books and readers. In 2019, NEA’s licensing agreement with Dr. Seuss Enterprises ended, leading the organization to instruct its affiliates not to use the event’s classic Cat in the Hat logo. The partnership itself may have simply run its course. As an NEA spokesperson said in 2017, “One of the reasons we partnered with Seuss 20 years ago in 1997 was to kick-start this program. … That was the strategy up front, so kids would see Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat and spark some attention.”
On Monday, President Joe Biden issued the annual Read Across America Day proclamation. The proclamation noted that the day was a celebration of parents, educators, librarians, “and other champions of reading who help launch our Nation’s children on that critical path.” It highlighted the importance of literacy, the struggles brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the administration’s push to return to in-person classroom learning. Insofar as presidential proclamations go, it was fairly boilerplate with one exception: It didn’t mention Dr. Seuss. This became another source of right-wing outrage even though during his first year in office, former President Donald Trump didn’t issue a Read Across America Day proclamation at all. (First lady Melania Trump did read a Seuss book at an event marking the day, however.)
Fox anchor Harris Faulkner went so far as to say that the omission was as though the Biden administration had erased the author from existence with a magic wand. Prime-time host Tucker Carlson accused Biden of “refusing to celebrate” Dr. Seuss’ birthday. Fox even asked White House press secretary Jen Psaki about the omission.
This segment goes from Faulkner saying Biden completely canceled Dr. Seuss with a magic wand -- to THIS. I ... have no words
Faulkner: I thought we were stronger than this, I thought we could look at that May 25th death of George Floyd and say we can talk about anything now pic.twitter.com/9ixsf9fj99
— Lis Power (@LisPower1) March 2, 2021
On Tuesday, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that it would stop publishing and licensing six of the author’s lesser-known titles: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer. According to the group’s statement, the decision to stop publishing those titles came as the result of a panel review of his work. The books include racist stereotypes. Even from a purely business point of view, it’s reasonable that Dr. Seuss Enterprises would rather people associate the Seuss brand with books like Green Eggs and Ham, The Lorax, or How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
Any one of these three events -- confusion over Loudoun County Public Schools’ policy on Dr. Seuss’ work, Biden not name-checking Seuss in his Read Across America Day proclamation, or Dr. Seuss Enterprises removing six books from its catalog -- would have been enough to set off a mini outrage cycle in right-wing media. Combined, they created a perpetual motion machine of rage built upon half-truths and outright lies. This is a common pattern in the right-wing war on “cancel culture.”
The war on “cancel culture” usually has only a few actual examples that live up to the hype. It can still make for effective propaganda.
If the premise of “cancel culture” is supposed to be the idea that a mob of joyless ideologues are demanding the total eradication of people and media they don’t like for past flaws that have since been atoned for, there are very few situations where the term would be applicable. Even in those cases, it’s not coming strictly from one political side.
In the case of Dr. Seuss, Fox News’ meltdown didn’t fit its own “cancel culture” narrative, forcing the media giant to wildly exaggerate and mislead its audience about the basic facts of the story. The network was also forced to cover the controversy using an unnamed “they,” as this clip from Tuesday’s episode of Fox & Friends illustrates:
AINSLEY EARHARDT: There's this cancel culture trying to cancel Dr. Seuss now. How far are they going to take this?
DON JR: This week alone, they canceled Mr. Potato Head. This week alone, they canceled the Muppets ... you have Oreo cookie chiming in on trans rights pic.twitter.com/4fqUaBUmik
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) March 2, 2021
Who is “they” in this case? This is the type of unspecified claim that invites viewers to insert their own boogeyman into the situation. This is by design, playing into the classic “us versus them” narrative found so often in propaganda as part of a technique called “othering.” This is how Fox News tricks its viewers into caring about things like a handful of Dr. Seuss books they may not have known existed before that very moment.
“They” also exists as a way to tie two unrelated stories together. On Tuesday, Fox News contributor Jason Chaffetz lamented “the assassination of Mr. Potato Head” -- in reality, the entire Potato Head fiasco was the result of miscommunication over a press release -- before saying that the same people, “they,” were “trying to take out Dr. Seuss.”
Fox News has a clear political goal in promoting culture war issues, but its anti-“cancel culture” content reeks of desperation.
None of this is to say that there aren’t (rare) real examples of “cancel culture” that fit the Fox News framing, just that framing the issue as a national scourge is startlingly dishonest and transparently political.
During Tuesday’s episode of Fox News’ The Five, while discussing Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH)’s call to hold a hearing on “cancel culture,” co-host Dana Perino said, “But the Democrats should have a hearing on this and here’s why. They are losing elections because of this very issue. If you go back to even just 2020, but I would even go back to 2016, the issues of this cancel culture mentality -- ‘defund the police,’ for example, things like that -- they really had an impact on hurting Democrats and those down ballot races in the state legislatures, in Congress.”
Perino went on to argue, “If Democrats were smart they would realize they are actually going to start losing even more elections because of this.”
It’s unclear what effect concerns about “cancel culture” have actually had in recent elections, but according to a recent YouGov survey, the Fox News world view of the issue is vastly different from reality. Not only is “cancel culture” not a top priority for voters; it doesn’t even crack the top 10 issues. The top issues for Republicans, who are presumably Fox’s core audience, are jobs and the economy, immigration and border security, and issues related to the budget, taxes, and the deficit. “Cancel culture” was listed as the 11th most important topic, nestled in between the opioid crisis and transportation. You wouldn’t know it from watching Fox News.
If Fox News can convince viewers that the Affordable Care Act included “death panels,” or that anyone in the Democratic Party supports infanticide, then perhaps it can convince audiences that Biden is dead-set on taking every last bit of pop culture they hold dear from them.
Obsessing over lies and non-issues is a way to distract audiences from news that doesn’t fit their political agenda. COVID-19 cases are rapidly declining, Biden announced that the U.S. was on track to have enough vaccines for every adult in the country by the end of May, and the Democrats’ COVID-19 stimulus package is “one of the most popular bills in decades” and enjoys support from Democrats and Republicans alike.
These may all be good things for the country, but they're bad for Fox News’ politically motivated goals, which rely on an outraged public. Were cases on the rise and vaccines behind schedule, and if Democrats were trying to jam through historically unpopular legislation, Fox News might actually devote more time to news.
Instead, network figures are stuck throwing tantrums about Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss.
Video by John Kerr.