The Tallest Oddest Tales

America had its tabloids – the National Inquirer and its competitors on the “impulse rack” at the checkout line at the supermarket – but no one reads them anymore. It’s the pandemic. No one needs anything else to worry about. Everyone has their own private panic about this and that, and the Inquirer and the rest kept getting sued for libel – for lying about most everything they reported about celebrities and politicians. And no one wants to hear that stuff anyway. Not now. None of it was true, and even if true, none of it matters very much. More than half a million people have died from that damned virus. Some senator’s love child is his problem. Give it a rest.

But the Brits still have their tabloids. The Brits still have The Daily Mail – almost comically sensationalist and almost always wrong about everything, in the end, after they’ve sold out each print run. No one takes these people seriously, but what they print is a whole lot of fun. The Brits live for irony. Think of the Monty Python Show. That may be why they still have their tabloids. The absurdity is amusing.

Americans don’t get it. Americans don’t get irony. Talking Points Memo’s Kate Riga reports on that:

By Sunday afternoon, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) had dubbed President Joe Biden the “Hamburglar.” Pictures of steaks and hamburgers were rocketing around the rightwing media ecosystem, escorted by captions screaming that Biden’s climate plan would force Americans to cut 90 percent of red meat from their diets. We had entered the era of baseless meat fear-mongering.

They took seriously that which was nonsense:

It all started on Thursday, when Biden delivered remarks during the “Virtual Leaders’ Summit on Climate.” During his speech, Biden sketched out his vision that the United States will cut its greenhouse emissions in half by 2030. His comments were short on specifics as his plan has not yet been released, more of a practice in goal-setting than a detailed outline of how to get there.

Enter: The Daily Mail. The British tabloid, known to compensate for its paltry fact-checking with all-caps sensationalism, shouldered the responsibility of filling in the blanks of Biden’s plan with shoot-from-the-hip speculation.

“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 pithy headline exclaimed, published the same evening Biden made his remarks.

And yes, this was nonsense:

In the article, the Daily Mail cited a January 2020 study from the University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems that explored how various dietary changes would affect greenhouse gas emissions. The researchers ran a number of scenarios, one of which tested what would happen if beef consumption dropped by 90 percent.

“Further reducing beef by 90 percent of current levels while replacing 50 percent of other animal-based foods results in a per capita decrease in greenhouse gas emissions of 51 percent,” they wrote.

The Daily Mail calculated that deprivation to total just one “average sized” burger per month for each American.

Biden had nothing to do with any of that, but, well, maybe, perhaps, he did:

By Friday morning, Fox had sunk its teeth in. Hosts slyly painted the study and Biden’s plan as related, implying that the one-and-a-half-year-old research exercise was actually part of some analysis of requirements to satisfy Biden’s plan, which has still not been released. The topic was introduced on “Fox and Friends” early that morning and hammered by Fox News and Fox Business Network throughout the day.

That was the focus:

“President Biden has been boasting about his plan to save the planet and cut carbon emissions by 50 percent,” said Fox News host Jesse Watters. “That sounds great, but what would Americans have to give up to make that happen? Americans would have to cut red meat consumption by a whopping 90 percent. That means only one burger a month.”

Fox Business host Larry Kudlow also conflated Biden’s plan with the Green New Deal, legislation re-introduced last week by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).

“Speaking of stupid, there’s a study coming out of the University of Michigan that says that to meet the Biden Green New Deal targets, America has to – get this – America has to stop eating meat, stop eating poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, diary and animal-based fats,” Kudlow said as a meat-grilling montage flashed across the screen. “Okay, got that? No burgers on July 4th. No steaks on the barbie. I’m sure middle America is just gonna love that.”

“So get ready,” he plowed on. “You can throw back a plant-based beer with your grilled brussels sprouts and wave your American flag – call it July 4th green.”

Larry Kudlow apparently drinks only meat-based beer. No one know where he finds that. But this train could not be stopped:

By Saturday, the disinformation had permeated conservative radio as well. Todd Starnes, host of the Todd Starnes Show, painted the University of Michigan study as a concurrent analysis of Biden’s plan on his show Saturday. He also tweeted his level-headed conviction that the apparently more carnivorous southern states would “definitely secede” over the fully fabricated red meat ban.

And then there was this:

It wasn’t long before Donald Trump Jr. was touting the claims, and even some members of Congress pushed the same line. “Joe Biden’s climate plan includes cutting 90% of red meat from our diets by 2030,” Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) claimed via Twitter. “They want to limit us to about four pounds a year. Why doesn’t Joe stay out of my kitchen?”

Lauren, he was never in your kitchen:

A Fox News anchor admitted on air on Monday that his show was inaccurate when it claimed on Friday that President Joe Biden is trying to require Americans to sharply reduce their consumption of red meat.

John Roberts, co-host of the afternoon show “America Reports,” made the Monday concession after CNN and other media outlets published fact check articles explaining that Biden does not have any plan to restrict red meat consumption.

Roberts acknowledged Monday that “a graphic and the script” from his Friday show “incorrectly implied” that a 2020 academic study about meat-eating and greenhouse gas emissions is “part of Biden’s plan for dealing with climate change.”

“That is not the case,” Roberts said.

Larry Kudlow then said he had been kidding around, really. No other Fox News hosts have taken anything back. They’ll just let this pass, although they will be mocked:

Some Democrats struck back at the Republicans by pointing out that their claims have no basis.

Others joined in with their own jokes – particularly mocking another part of Kudlow’s interview on Friday when he claimed the deal would force Americans to “throw back a plant-based beer with your grilled Brussels sprouts.”

“Excited to be watching the Oscars with an ice-cold plant-based beer,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) tweeted on Sunday night. “Thanks Joe Biden.”

Fox News knows better now. No, they don’t. Michael Grynbaum, the New York Times’ media correspondent, covers their second embarrassment:

The article splashed across the cover of Saturday’s New York Post seemed designed to enrage Republicans who railed against the Biden administration’s immigration policies.

Under the tabloid-ready headline “KAM ON IN,” The Post, which is controlled by the conservative media baron Rupert Murdoch, claimed that copies of a children’s book written by Vice President Kamala Harris were provided at taxpayer expense in a “welcome kit” for unaccompanied migrant children at a shelter in Long Beach, Calif.

The story whipped around conservative media and elicited denunciations from leading Republicans, including the party chairwoman. A reporter for the Murdoch-owned Fox News, which published its own online article about the claims, asked about it at a televised White House press briefing.

But the claims were untrue. And on Tuesday, the Post reporter who wrote the original article said she had resigned from the paper because of “an incorrect story I was ordered to write,” describing the episode as “my breaking point.”

The New York Post, by the way, was established in 1801 by Alexander Hamilton – yeah, that guy. Rupert Murdoch bought it in 1976 and turned it to his uses:

In fact, no books by Ms. Harris were provided by government officials at the shelter, and the sole copy seen in the photograph that The Post published on its front page had been donated through a neighborhood toy and book drive for the migrant children, local officials told The Washington Post.

Despite these facts, The New York Post initially repeated the falsehoods in a follow-up article falsely claiming that “thousands” of copies of Ms. Harris’s book had been distributed at migrant shelters.

And then that all fell apart. But the damage had been done:

The rise and collapse of the tabloid’s false accusations about the vice president illustrated the speed at which political misinformation can be weaponized in the modern media environment. The Post later issued brief corrections, but only after its falsehoods had been amplified at face value by leading Republican lawmakers and cable news stars.

“Now they’re forcing taxpayers to buy Kamala Harris’s book to give to those illegal immigrants?” Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, wrote on Twitter on Sunday, adding a link to the Post story; Mr. Cotton’s tweet was later deleted.

Oops. Rupert Murdoch has a problem:

On Tuesday, the author of the original Post article, Laura Italiano, wrote on Twitter that she had resigned from the paper, describing the Harris article as “an incorrect story I was ordered to write and which I failed to push back hard enough against.” She added, “I’m sad to leave.”

Ms. Italiano, a veteran Post journalist and longtime chronicler of the New York City courts, is a well-liked figure in the paper’s newsroom…

Her abrupt exit underscored some of the tensions currently roiling The Post, a classic pugilistic city tabloid that was often a vessel for coverage favorable to former President Donald J. Trump during his term in office.

Mr. Murdoch, who spoke frequently with Mr. Trump, installed a new editor at the tabloid last month, Keith Poole, who formerly served in a top position at Mr. Murdoch’s London paper The Sun. At least eight journalists at The Post have departed the paper recently, including a White House correspondent, Ebony Bowden.

It seems no one wants to lie for Rupert Murdoch, and things got uncomfortable on Fox News:

Fox News hosts including Tucker Carlson, Greg Gutfeld and Martha MacCallum discussed the Post article on their programs on Monday. Peter Doocy, Fox News’s White House correspondent, cited “a report in the last couple days in The New York Post” before asking Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, on Monday if Ms. Harris “is making any money” from her books supposedly being distributed in the shelters. Ms. Psaki said she would “have to certainly check on that,” which The Post described in a follow-up story as Ms. Psaki’s having offered “no answers.”

On Tuesday’s “Fox & Friends,” the co-host Ainsley Earhardt told viewers that the claims about the Harris book were “not accurate,” citing that morning’s fact-checking column in The Washington Post. Also on Tuesday, Fox News updated its article about the Harris book to note that only a single copy had been seen at the shelter and that it had been delivered as “part of a citywide book and toy drive.”

That’s as far as Fox News would go, except for this:

On Tuesday, during an episode of “The Five,” the moderate Fox News co-host Juan Williams appeared to acknowledge the recent erroneous reports on his network.

“Last week we had the hamburger story: ‘Oh, Biden is going to take your hamburger!’” Mr. Williams said. “Or, you know, it’s always – Kamala Harris’s book is being given to immigrants. These stories are false, but the right-wing echo chamber starts going crazy because you can go after a Democrat.”

Juan Williams is their court jester. They let him say such things. They smile. They know those who watch Fox News will assume both stories are true as first reported. The retractions were for show. They planted their seeds. These two seeds will grow.

And they have Tucker Carlson. He’s the master at this. Justin Baragona covers that:

Raging against face masks on Monday night, Fox News host Tucker Carlson told his viewers they should openly harass anyone they see wearing masks outside and go so far as to call the police or social services on the parents of any children with masks on.

And he was serious:

Carlson, who was a proponent of mask-wearing to help stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic as recently as last March, has since become a fierce critic of face masks and other COVID-19 restrictions, guidelines, and mitigation efforts.

In this vein, and with the Biden administration set to further relax guidance on mask-wearing as coronavirus cases and deaths decrease nationwide as more Americans get vaccinated, Carlson opened up his top-rated Fox News primetime show on Monday night by blasting “neurotic” liberals who have been faithfully wearing face masks amid a deadly pandemic.

“Masks have always been incompatible with a free society,” he fumed. “We used to know that. Masks strip people of their identity as individuals, transform people from citizens into drones. They isolate us and alienate us to shut us off from one another, they prevent intimacy and human contact. If I can’t see your face, I can’t know you.”

Masks also keep people alive, but he doesn’t believe that at all. Masks are evil:

Stating that a large portion of liberals suffer from an “actual mental health condition” because a recent Pew survey shows they are critical of others who don’t mask up near them, Carlson called on his audience to instead openly mock mask-wearers in public.

“The rest of us should be snorting at them first. They’re the aggressors. It’s our job to brush them back and restore the society we were born in,” he said. “So the next time you see someone in a mask on the sidewalk or on the bike path, do not hesitate. Ask politely but firmly, ‘Would you please take off your mask? Science shows there is no reason for you to be wearing it. Your mask is making me uncomfortable.’”

He added: “We should do that and we should keep doing it until wearing a mask outside is roughly as socially accepted as lighting a Marlboro on an elevator. It’s repulsive. Don’t do it around other people. That’s the message we should send because it’s true.”

But wait, there’s more:

Carlson then took it several steps further by urging his viewers to take far more drastic measures if they see children wearing masks.

“As for forcing children to wear masks outside, that should be illegal,” the Fox News star huffed. “Your response when you see children wearing masks as they play should be no different from your response to seeing someone beat a kid in Walmart. Call the police immediately. Contact Child Protective Services. Keep calling until someone arrives. What you’re looking at is abuse; it’s child abuse, and you are morally obligated to attempt to prevent it.”

Further claiming that “fighting back is the only option,” the primetime host told his audience that if “we don’t resist, there is no escape.”

No red meat! The Kamala Harris book! Now this!

Is he kidding? The Atlantic’s David Graham considers that:

Having spent the early part of the month espousing the white-supremacist “great replacement theory,” Carlson is now seeking to use the power of the state to harass and immiserate his political opponents…

Carlson delivered his rant with the combination of astonished indignation, obvious bad faith, and smug sarcasm with which he delivers everything these days, a volatile mix that makes it impossible to know when and to what extent he’s trolling. Like his fellow traveler Donald Trump, Carlson delights in making appalling statements with a straight face and then insisting he was just joking; unlike Trump, Carlson has in the past shown enough of a sense of humor that you can’t discount that possibility.

But don’t worry about that:

Trying to figure out Carlson’s “real” feelings is not only impossible but beside the point. Whether he’s disingenuous or delusional, many people will hear what he says and take it seriously and literally. We have several recent examples of the Fox audience being misled into believing falsehoods, including denying the reality of COVID-19 and subscribing to bogus claims about fraud in the 2020 election.

Carlson’s diatribe is a useful data point for how American conservatism has transformed, especially in the Trump era, from a movement that (at least putatively) believes in limited government to one that primarily prizes marshaling the power of the state to punish those who disagree with it. With Trump in eclipse, Carlson is the most visible face of the new conservative movement.

In short, this is about urging others (and the government) to hurt people who deserve to be hurt:

One doesn’t need a lot of imagination to game out where this is going. Some viewers will take Carlson’s possibly arch exhortations to heart. They’ll call the police and child protective services. In most cases, authorities will ignore those calls. In some cases, especially if the callers repeatedly summon police as Carlson demands, they could be charged with filing false claims; it’s a good bet that neither he nor Fox News will be there to help them if they are. In other cases, encounters will end poorly for the innocent parents involved. The news is full of examples of how police called to respond to petty or wholly imagined offenses end up gravely injuring or even killing people. (Carlson believes Derek Chauvin was wrongly convicted.)

But when government authorities fail to intervene – because, of course, no laws are being broken – Carlson’s fans may feel the moral obligation to take matters into their own hands, just like Edgar Maddison Welch, who stormed into a Washington, D.C., pizzeria heavily armed in 2016, because he wanted to prevent child abuse that he wrongly believed was occurring there. No one was hurt in that incident, though someone easily could have been. Welch spent about three years in prison.

And this issue is moot anyway:

Carlson’s argument isn’t really about masks. As he grudgingly admitted, the Biden administration had already signaled that new guidance would soon make clear that mask wearing outside is not necessary for fully vaccinated people. The CDC released that guidance this afternoon.

But that’s not the point:

Even after new guidance, some people will decide to continue wearing masks outside. Perhaps they feel more comfortable that way. People exercising sometimes extreme caution about their health is neither new or a nuisance. Perhaps they are immunocompromised, or have immunocompromised family members or friends. Ultimately, it’s none of my business or Tucker Carlson’s business why they are doing so, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone, which neither he nor anyone else has established they are.

That’s the sort of personal choice that conservatives have also traditionally defended. Though Carlson masquerades as a defender of free speech he must know that the government has no business telling citizens what they cannot wear… Unlike mandates to wear masks, which stem from a public-health interest, a government rule punishing people for wearing masks during a pandemic serves no compelling interest. As for children, conservatives have long argued that families should enjoy autonomy about their parenting decisions, without undue interference from the state.

But Carlson doesn’t object to the state harassing people or exercising undue power. He delights in it, as long as the state is harassing the people he hates.

That’s the whole point of this:

This is the lodestar of the Trump and post-Trump GOP, which values owning the libs above all – not merely rhetorically, but with the fist of government. Thus Trump asserted that he had the authority to override state and local coronavirus shutdowns (before hastily backtracking when it became clear that he had no such power). He sought to involve the federal government in decisions of colleges and universities in order to muzzle speech. And he celebrated police violence, even as he moaned that he was the victim of overzealous law enforcement.

It is tempting to read incoherence in Trump’s arguments, or in Carlson’s: How can they both be against government mandating masks, on the basis of personal liberty, and also demand that the government prevent people from wearing them?

That’s easy. As long as the state is harassing the people that the base hates, the state is doing what it should. And it doesn’t really have to make sense.

None of this makes sense. But the tallest tales work best. Their people will be angry, and ready to hurt others. And that’s power.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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