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The one simple tell that reveals Fox News’s Seuss obsession for what it is

If the images at issue are so innocuous, why not show them?

The News Corp. building on 6th Avenue in New York City is home to Fox News. (Kevin Hagen/Getty Images)
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There’s a great bit from comedian John Mulaney in which he talks about a time when he was writing jokes for an award show. His initial script included a term in reference to people with dwarfism that is seen as derogatory. This word, Mulaney says he was told, is “as bad as the n-word.”

Mulaney rejects that comparison. After all, they weren’t even using the n-word — instead just referring to it as “the n-word.”

“If you’re comparing the badness of two words and you won’t even say one of them?” Mulaney continues. “That’s the worse word.”

It’s a fair point. A good tell for the extent to which someone views something as problematic or insensitive is whether they will actually use it.

And that brings us to Fox News.

The network has for days been railing against what it depicts as the latest example of “cancel culture,” a condition in which oversensitive people, generally liberals, take great offense at something innocuous and cause that thing to be censored. Fox News and its allies on the political right have focused on this purported scourge for months, encapsulating, as it does, both the opportunity to present the left as thin-skinned and to stoke the “what is America coming to” sensibilities of its core audience.

That example? A decision by the estate of children’s book author Dr. Seuss to cease publication of six books that contain racist depictions of African and Asian people.

“These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” a statement from Dr. Seuss Enterprises reads. The offending books include “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” and “If I Ran the Zoo,” among other fairly obscure titles.

The Washington Post isn’t showing the images for obvious reasons, but they can be seen elsewhere. But you know who else has avoided showing the images? Fox News.

Instead, the network’s coverage is heavy on B-roll footage in which cameras pan across Seuss titles seen on bookstore shelves. Here, for example, is how the books were depicted in a segment that aired on “America’s Newsroom” on Tuesday.

None of the books shown there are among the ones the Seuss estate has pulled from publication.

In fact, neither the hosts of the show nor the guest — Fox Nation personality Tyrus — appear to be familiar with the images themselves.

“The problem is, apparently, the illustrations,” host Dana Perino said. “So why don’t they just redraw?”

That is apparently the problem! But Tyrus responds with an incredulity suggesting that he hasn’t seen the illustrations — which makes sense, given that Fox News didn’t show them.

The pattern was similar on other shows. Frequent use of old photographs such as one of Seuss reading “Horton Hears a Who” to a child — another book not among those that will no longer be produced. Juxtapositions of Seuss with his most famous book, “The Cat in the Hat,” such as this one, which appeared on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”

Carlson did then show images from inside a noncontroversial Seuss book — “The Sneetches and Other Stories,” the titular story of which is focused on undercutting discrimination.

For another network, this juxtaposition between the lessons Seuss hoped children would learn about viewing other people with empathy and his own use of racist caricatures in his drawings could be a subject of thoughtful discussion. That was not, however, the direction Carlson took things.

“They’re banning Dr. Seuss not because he’s a racist but precisely because he wasn’t,” Carlson said. It was meant to be a condemnation of the left predicated on the assumption that the left was somehow responsible for the books being pulled from circulation. Instead, Carlson is inadvertently accusing the Seuss estate of targeting the author for his anti-racism stance.

That the issue is being used as a cudgel targeting Democrats isn’t subtle. In one segment, a reporter noted that President Barack Obama had at one point read “Green Eggs and Ham” (which isn’t among those pulled) to some children, and that Michelle Obama had similarly read “The Cat in the Hat.” This purported hypocrisy of the Obamas celebrating the author’s non-questionable works warranted its own story on Fox News’s website — as did a 2017 tweet from Vice President Harris in which she praised Seuss.

When discussing the books, the network generally only shows their covers, as below.

The images did appear on air once, as far as we can determine. For about a minute of Martha MacCallum’s show on Tuesday, the images were shown to the audience. MacCallum asked Fox News contributor Leo Terrell, who is Black, to offer his thoughts on them, noting that “some people find them offensive, stereotypical.”

“Those images reflect the time in which the books were written, in the 20s and the 30s,” Terrell replied. “I am not offended by those pictures because it talks about the evolution of this country and how we are now. What those books reflected was a sign of the times.”

He then pivoted to a broader argument about “cancel culture.”

“Taken in context, those who want to cancel these books, those that think those books are racist, show me the immediate harm to what victims today, Martha,” Terrell said, perhaps not aware that the “those” to whom he was referring were the people who manage Seuss’s brand. “They can’t. They use this argument of racist as a gimmick, a talking point to basically cancel people out.”

It does not appear that the images were shown on the network at any other point besides 3:41 p.m. Tuesday, despite Seuss being raised in more than 150 of the 15-second segments Fox News has aired in the past week, according to closed-captioning analysis from GDELT. The rest of MacCallum’s segment with Terrell used the books’ covers as B-roll.

Terrell’s argument that the books should be preserved and used as a jumping-off point for discussions of ingrained racism in mid-century America is a common one — however complex a subject that might be for the 4-year-olds who are the ones reading the books. But with very rare exception, that isn’t what Fox News is doing in its programming aimed at adults.

If you’re discussing whether something is toxic and you won’t even show it to your audience? As Mulaney might point out, that strongly suggests that it’s toxic.