Let’s get one thing out of the way: President Joe Biden is not placing a limit on the amount of meat Americans can legally consume, and anyone saying otherwise is a fool, a liar, or an enabler of fools and liars.
Conservative politicians and commentators have worked themselves into a frothy rage over an imaginary government-imposed cap on the amount of meat Americans are allowed to eat in a given year. “Not gonna happen in Texas!” tweeted Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) demanded that Biden stay out of her kitchen, and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) called him “the Hamburglar.” Donald Trump Jr. wrote, “I’m pretty sure I ate 4 pounds of red meat yesterday. That’s going to be a hard NO from me.”
It all began, as so many paranoid right-wing lies do, with a single erroneous article, this one from the Daily Mail: “How Biden’s climate plan could limit you to eat just one burger a MONTH, cost $3.5k a year per person in taxes, force you to spend $55k on an electric car and ‘crush’ American jobs.”
The article took a grain of truth (Biden did announce a goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030), and then filled in the blanks with far-right fearmongering about tax hikes and meat rationing based on a study that predated the Biden presidency by more than a year. CNN’s Daniel Dale contacted one of the study’s authors, who said, “I, admittedly, have no idea what Biden’s plan has to say about our diets.” Dale appeared in a CNN segment debunking the claim, as well.
This stuff is completely imaginary. Biden has not proposed any limit on Americans’ meat consumption.
What happened: 1) The Daily Mail ran an article that dishonestly connected Biden’s climate plan with a not-at-all-about-Biden study. 2) Others on the right just ran with this. pic.twitter.com/VRB52TPmUj
— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) April 25, 2021
By this point, the disinformation train had long left the station.
Over on Fox News, the America Reports with John Roberts & Sandra Smith co-anchors rattled off a list of possibilities that were supposedly part of Biden’s climate plan, but which were actually just hypotheticals from the Daily Mail’s piece of rage bait. According to Roberts and Smith, who is considered part of Fox’s “news” side, along with cutting down to one burger a month, Americans will be forced to pay $3,500 in taxes a year and required to purchase electric vehicles. These are lies. Plain and simple. Lies.
On Monday, Smith’s co-anchor John Roberts sheepishly walked back the claims made on Friday’s show.
Fox gently acknowledges that its coverage about Biden supposedly trying to force Americans to eat less red meat wasn't accurate: “A graphic and a script incorrectly implied that it was part of Biden's plan for dealing with climate change. That is not the case.” pic.twitter.com/iClZSk8P4M
— Oliver Darcy (@oliverdarcy) April 26, 2021
While right-wing media outlets regularly run with outlandish lies without bothering to check for accuracy, it’s mainstream buy-in that causes the real harm.
The White House responded to the false claims with a photo of Biden grilling at a campaign event two years earlier. And Bloomberg senior White House reporter Jennifer Jacobs demonstrated just how casually mainstream media outlets help launder right-wing lies through the public discourse by framing the lie as though it was based in reality, tweeting, “White House pushes back on claims Biden wants to steer Americans off meat,” and lending credibility to the lie.
White House pushes back on claims Biden wants to steer Americans off meat with a pic of Biden in 2019 trying to win votes in 1st-in-the-nation Iowa, where various forms of steak frying and pork chop flipping are a longtime rite of passage in presidential politics. https://t.co/6yGWbcWbbX
— Jennifer Jacobs (@JenniferJJacobs) April 26, 2021
Jacobs could have more honestly framed her reaction to the White House’s cheeky response to a lie by describing it as exactly that: a response to an obvious lie. Yes, others like Dale at CNN and Katie Shepherd at The Washington Post were forceful in their rebuttals, but Jacobs’ tweet is an example of how lies can create cracks in reality with help from mainstream journalists.
What makes this especially frustrating is the fact that these lies aren’t even new. The claim that Democrats are coming for your hamburgers has been an odd staple of right-wing rage bait for years.
After Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced the Green New Deal in the House and Senate back in February 2019, Fox News and others on the right churned out an extensive list of outlandish lies about the resolution. According to Fox, the Green New Deal would ban meat and cost “$25 bazillion” to implement, and mandate that a train be built to Hawaii (on account of air travel being outlawed). This is all just a rehash of those same nonsense narratives.
After Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) talked about being a vegan but not imposing his approach on others, Fox News claimed he was doing the exact opposite, saying Booker “wants to impose his meat rationing on the rest of us.”
“They want to take your pick-up truck, they want to rebuild your home, they want to take away your hamburgers,” right-wing radio host Sebastian Gorka said during the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference. “This is what Stalin dreamt about but never achieved.”
It’s all bullshit. There’s not a nicer way to put it. It’s bullshit, and it’s exactly what you get when there are zero consequences for telling outlandish lies. In just the past week, Fox News and others on the right have not only pushed the fake story about meat rationing, but also promoted false narratives about schools supposedly ending accelerated math courses and the outright lie that children being held in immigrant detention facilities were each being provided with a copy of Vice President Kamala Harris’ 2019 children’s book. Thankfully, there were some mainstream media outlets on the case to debunk the lies.
But making things up to smear Democrats has long been a successful right-wing approach to the media. And perhaps the more damaging aspect of this is the lack of accountability in mainstream media for people who spread lies in the first place.
For instance, in 2011 and beyond, CNN repeatedly gave reality TV host Donald Trump a platform to speculate about whether then-President Barack Obama was actually born in the United States. Trump then took his racist conspiracy-mongering and turned it into a successful political platform.
Another example of lies not having any actual consequences can be seen in the way mainstream media outlets seem to have just shrugged and pretended that it wasn’t less than four months ago that 147 Republicans voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election. These people still get invited on TV and treated like legitimate members of the legislative branch rather than as people who went on record trying to end American democracy to install an illegitimate fascist dictatorship. Mainstream media outlets are unwilling to implement even the barest of accountability standards for fear that these bad actors will call them biased (which, of course, they’ll do anyway).
Yes, the problem is partly that right-wing media will invent nonsense to be angry about, whether it’s some new moral panic about Dr. Seuss or Lil Nas X or the existence of trans people or hamburgers. There’s no doubt about that. But the problem is also that mainstream outlets and the journalists who work for them help launder the bullshit through their more respectable outlets.
Where would we be right now had CNN taken a stand in 2011 against a racist grifter spreading nonsense lies about the first Black president in our country’s history? Where would we be if people were deterred from inventing lies like the idea that the Affordable Care Act created “death panels” — as right-wing commentator Betsy McCaughey did in 2009 — by turning such false claims into an instant career-killer rather than continuing to book them years later? Where would we be if truth meant more than ratings and the false appearance of balance?