Fox News is ramping up a campaign against the return of congressional earmarks after a decade-long ban, seeking to demonize current funding proposals in Congress on a wide range of issues — by going back to the well on a fake story that the network had promoted years ago.
Just to be clear, these spending items have been requested by lawmakers from both parties, but they each must still make it through the legislative process. Among the highlighted requests in Fox’s “investigation” are the sort of local projects that a person might typically think of — museums and arts programs, for example, which Fox has attacked before — but also other issues such as anti-racism programs or LGBTQ-affirming medical care, all of which the network is tagging with the same brush as mere “pork.”
And in mounting this push against discretionary spending, Fox is returning to a very old story that it amplified in the past under false pretenses: A supposedly wasteful government project, which the network said cost lots of money, to make shrimp run on a treadmill.
This story began as something of a scientific novelty over a decade ago as part of a study that allowed researchers in a laboratory setting to simulate the crustaceans’ physical responses under various conditions of sickness, health, or carrying physical loads. But in the years afterward it became an anti-scientific research talking point from Fox News, to which the network would often return.
One problem, though, was that Fox could never quite get its story straight on the cost. For example, Fox & Friends claimed in 2011 that the treadmill had cost $500,000, but this grew some years later to $3 million according to Fox “straight news” anchor Eric Shawn in 2016.
The actual cost, as lead researcher David Scholnick explained in 2014: $47 — which he in fact paid out of his own pocket, constructing the miniature treadmill from various spare parts. Scholnick also explained the wider point of the laboratory research: “The health of the organisms that inhabit the largest ecosystem on the planet and the potential bacterial contamination of the food we eat are serious and important questions.”
But on Thursday, Fox Business host Stuart Varney relaunched Fox’s obsession with the story — and the varying cost estimates: “Do you remember this — who could forget? The shrimp on a treadmill. Now that was an earmark. Do you know that it cost taxpayers close to $700,000? Shrimp on a treadmill. Earmarks is the news — they’re back.”
And on that day’s Outnumbered, a segment opened with the shrimp video again, as Fox News anchor Harris Faulkner said: “It’s back. Remember the infamous video of a shrimp running on a tiny treadmill — go, crustacean, go! — with Congress spending millions of your taxpayer dollars on that research gym meant to measure the impact of sickness on crustaceans? Well, that’s nothing in comparison to this Fox News exclusive on lawmakers’ new $6 billion wishlist.”
So between that morning on Fox Business, and the afternoon on Fox News, the purported cost had grown from $700,000 back into the “millions” — though just to explain this again, the actual cost of the treadmill shown in the video was $47, none of which came from taxpayers.
And on Your World with Neil Cavuto, the anchor opened up a segment: “Not since the days of the shrimp on a treadmill — I miss that shrimp — have we seen pork barrel spending this out of control. The big question is can we afford it?”
Fox “straight news” anchors Bill Hemmer and Bret Baier also mentioned the shrimp story that day in the course of discussions on earmarks, though they did not include the archival video clip — something that also occurred again Friday morning, on Fox & Friends — showing the extent to which this was a widespread talking point used to falsely attack government spending in Fox’s programming.
Keeping up with Fox’s repetitive spin can feel less like being a shrimp on a treadmill, and more like a hamster running on a wheel.