The relentlessly dishonest right-wing press is spending the Biden administration whipping itself into a frenzy over its own lies, fabrications, and distortions. Every day seems to bring a new hysteria: Joe Biden wants to take your hamburger! The left has canceled Dr. Seuss! The stories -- often total nonsense but touching on potent culture war fights -- burn through right-wing social and news media, turn into conservative canon, and are quickly replaced with fresh outrage.
Our late colleague Simon Maloy developed a concept during the Obama years to explain how these sorts of bogus right-wing stories kept turning into national news. He called it “the Fox Cycle”: The right-wing fever-swamps would generate a story; Fox News would give it copious, aggrieved coverage; the network would pressure mainstream news outlets to pick up the story; they would do so, even crediting Fox for being ahead of the curve; and the story would eventually be proved false or misleading -- but only long after the damage had been done. A few years ago, I pointed out that then-President Donald Trump’s habit of live-tweeting Fox supercharged that process: News outlets reporting on his angry responses to TV segments were bringing his Fox-fueled falsehoods to their own audiences.
With a new Democratic administration in office a decade after Simon’s posts, right-wing media are still furiously churning out bullshit that gets amplified by Fox. But the contours of the Fox cycle have shifted due to changes in the mainstream press, the right-wing media, and the Republican Party over the intervening years.
The Fox Cycle in the Biden years follows a pattern that is becoming increasingly familiar:
- A right-wing outlet manufactures a bogus story.
- The bogus story goes viral.
- Fox News picks up the bogus story, reports on it incessantly.
- Republican politicians promote the bogus story to attack Democrats.
- Responsible news outlets debunk the bogus story.
The distinction between right-wing media personality and Republican politician has increasingly dissolved. The right-wing press celebrated particularly simpatico GOP politicians throughout the Obama years -- none more so than Trump himself. But now, prominent GOP legislators seem driven to build their brands and their power within the party by spending their days trying to create viral content on Twitter and then going on Fox to talk about their posts. Some even have their own podcasts, or openly aspire to right-wing TV gigs. They are incentivized to comment on whatever is stirring up the right-wing press that day, which in turn gives the story more velocity.
Responsible news outlets are now more wary of falling for these bogus stories, and they produce reports debunking them far more quickly than they did a decade ago. Reporters used to interpret incessant Fox coverage as a signal that they were missing out on an important story; now, they seem more likely to correctly view that coverage as a sign to look deeper and figure out how the right-wing press is misleading its audiences.
But thanks to the increasingly impermeable bubble that the right-wing press has created for those audiences, they are unlikely to see those mainstream media debunks. Right-wing outlets may be shamed into pulling down their false stories or offering half-hearted corrections, but by then misinformation has already become conservative canon.
And as my colleague Parker Molloy pointed out yesterday, the more responsible news outlets seem unable or unwilling to impose real consequences on the perpetrators. No one is losing their seat on a Sunday show for repeatedly promoting lies or conspiracy theories. Everyone just moves on, and the cycle continues.
Here are three case studies from the last week where this pattern played out over a matter of days.
The lie about Biden banning burgers
A right-wing outlet manufactures a bogus story. The right-wing British outlet the Daily Mail reported on April 22 that “Americans may have to cut their red meat consumption by a whopping 90 percent” under “Biden's climate plan,” which “could limit you to eat just one burger a MONTH.” The story cited “a study by Michigan University's Center for Sustainable Systems.”
The bogus story goes viral. The Daily Mail story received more than 10,000 Facebook interactions, according to CrowdTangle. A host of other right-wing websites picked up the story, including Louder with Crowder, The Western Journal, The Blaze, Conservative Brief, The Gateway Pundit, and PJ Media, and each of those stories received thousands or even tens of thousands of Facebook engagements of their own, according to BuzzSumo.
Fox News picks up the bogus story, reports on it incessantly. Fox ran at least seven reports highlighting what hosts claimed the Michigan University study said about Biden’s climate plan. “Say goodbye to your burgers if you want to sign up for the climate agenda,” claimed anchor John Roberts. “Could new climate impact plans limit you to just one burger a month?” asked Shannon Bream, later claiming she would not “comply with that.” Jeanine Pirro told viewers who might enjoy a burger that “the left with their Green New Deal wants to make sure you don’t.” Larry Kudlow, Ainsley Earhardt, Jesse Watters, and Charles Payne were among the other Fox personalities to push the claim.
Republican politicians promote the bogus story to attack Democrats. Several GOP politicians picked up the claim that Biden was trying to force Americans to eat less meat. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted a screengrab of a Fox segment on the supposed burger dictate, commenting, “Not gonna happen in Texas!” Idaho Gov. Brad Little quote-tweeted him, adding, “Idahoans also have beef with this agenda and for dinner!” Reps. Madison Cawthorn (NC), Lauren Boebert (CO), and Marjorie Taylor Greene (GA) were among the members of Congress who criticized Biden’s supposed attack on meat.
Responsible news outlets debunk the bogus story. It was all a lie, several news outlets subsequently revealed. As CNN’s Daniel Dale explained: “Biden has not proposed any limit on Americans' red meat consumption. In fact, he has not proposed any limit on Americans' consumption of any food. The false claim about Biden trying to restrict people to four pounds of red meat per year appears to have originated with a deceptive Thursday article by the British tabloid The Daily Mail. The article baselessly connected Biden's climate proposals to an academic paper from 2020 that is not about Biden and says nothing about the government imposing dietary limits.” Roberts subsequently issued a short but deceptive correction.
The Virginia math lie
A right-wing outlet manufactures a bogus story. FoxNews.com reported on April 23 that Virginia’s Department of Education “is moving to eliminate all accelerated math options prior to 11th grade, effectively keeping higher-achieving students from advancing as they usually would in the school system.” The story was based on a Facebook post from Loudon County school board member Ian Serotkin, included criticism of the supposed move from regular Fox guest and former Trump official Ian Prior, and described the purported changes as “the latest of many to prompt concern from parents in the state, which has seen in-fighting over controversial ideas surrounding equity and race.” The story also included quotes from a department official casting doubt on Fox’s framing.
The bogus story goes viral. The FoxNews.com story received more than 250,000 Facebook interactions, according to CrowdTangle. Other right-wing websites picked up the story, including TheBlaze, MRCTV, The Federalist, Breitbart.com, the Washington Examiner, The Daily Caller, and The National Pulse, and each of those stories received thousands or even tens of thousands of Facebook engagements of their own, according to BuzzSumo.
Fox News picks up the bogus story, reports on it incessantly. Beginning April 26, Fox ran a series of segments on the story on programs including America’s Newsroom, America Reports, The Story, and Special Report. One America Reports segment, for example, featured the chyron “Virginia’s ‘Woke’ Move To Eliminate Advanced Math.” On American’s Newsroom, Fox contributor Newt Gingrich claimed that “the disaster in Virginia where they have announced they are going to eliminate advanced math” is “madness,” adding, “If I were the Chinese communists, I would love watching American wokeness because it undermines the whole society.”
Republican politicians promote the bogus story to attack Democrats. The Republican Party of Virginia shared the FoxNews.com story on social media. So did GOP gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin, who called it “the dumbest thing I have ever heard.” National Republicans also weighed in, with Sen. Marsha Blackburn (TN) saying the story showed that “the woke liberal mob is now CANCELING MATH.”
Responsible news outlets debunk the bogus story. The Washington Post reported April 26 based on an interview with Superintendent James Lane that Virginia “is not eliminating advanced high school mathematics courses.” The department is in the early stages of a regularly scheduled revision of the state’s math standards, Lane told the Post, and one proposal involves “rejiggering eighth-, ninth- and 10th-grade math courses to place a greater emphasis on fields including data science and data analytics.” But Lane “said the initiative does not propose eliminating accelerated math classes, nor does it require all students in a grade to take the same math class no matter their level of ability,” and he also “noted that those kinds of decisions — how an advanced student should best progress through middle and high school math classes — would be made by local school officials, not the Virginia Department of Education, as has always been the case.” In a subsequent report, Fox claimed this showed Virginia “backpedaling now after rolling out plans to overhaul the state’s high school math curriculum.”
The lie about Harris’ children's book
A right-wing outlet manufactures a bogus story. The New York Post reported on April 23 for a story that ran on the cover the following day that “Unaccompanied migrant kids brought from the U.S.-Mexico border to a new shelter in Long Beach, Calif., will be given a copy of [Vice President Kamala Harris’] 2019 children’s book, ‘Superheroes are Everywhere,’ in their welcome kits.” The Post based that conclusion on a Reuters photo from the shelter which showed a single copy of the book on a table next to a child’s backpack.
The bogus story goes viral. The Post story received more than 20,000 Facebook interactions, according to CrowdTangle. Numerous other right-wing outlets picked up the story, including IJR, Louder with Crowder, Breitbart.com, TownHall.com, and PJ Media, and each of those stories received thousands or even tens of thousands of Facebook engagements of their own, according to BuzzSumo.
Fox News picks up the bogus story, reports on it incessantly. Fox’s website reported on April 24 that Harris’ book is included in welcome packs for migrant children arriving at the center, pointing to multiple photos which all showed the same copy of Harris’ book. The network also covered the story on at least six different shows on April 26. Star host Tucker Carlson repeatedly compared the situation to the treatment North Korea gives its dictators, even as he acknowledged that the Department of Health and Human Services had said it wasn’t providing the books. the story. Network White House correspondent Peter Doocy also asked press secretary Jen Psaki during a press briefing to explain why “every migrant child being brought to the shelter" was receiving the book.
Republican politicians promote the bogus story to attack Democrats. Leading Republicans pointed to the story as evidence of Democratic corruption. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (CA) demanded to know whether “taxpayers [are] paying for copies of the Vice President's book to be handed out at migrant shelters.” Linking to the Post report, Sen. Tom Cotton (AR) questioned whether the Biden administration is “forcing taxpayers to buy Kamala Harris’ book to give to those illegal immigrants.” Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel similarly questioned whether Harris was “paid for these books” and is thus “profiting from Biden’s border crisis.”
Responsible news outlets debunk the bogus story. The Washington Post reported on April 27: “Long Beach city officials told The Washington Post that Harris’s book is not being handed out in welcome kits. A single copy of the book was donated during a citywide donation drive, officials said.” The New York Post subsequently pulled down the online version of its initial report and republished it without the central charge; one of the story’s authors subsequently resigned, saying she had been “ordered” to write a story she knew was wrong. Fox & Friends acknowledged the Washington Post’s reporting even as it defended Peter Doocy’s White House briefing question and continued to push the debunked narrative. FoxNews.com and some of the other outlets that initially passed along the lie also added updates of varying quality to their pieces.