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Fox News’s latest straw man is made of red meat

Wendell Allsbrook, owner of Georgetown Butcher in the District, wraps steak for a customer on March 7. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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Newsmax contributor Hannah Cox went up for the dunk. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) tweeted a photo of himself watching the Oscars while enjoying “an ice cold plant-based beer,” prompting Cox to tweet: “What....what’s in our other beer?”

This is a time-honored practice on social media, if time-honored can extend to things that have been around about a decade. A public figure says something odd and people line up to mock it. This is called “dunking,” and it’s a large part of the entertainment (and toxicity) of social media platforms. Schumer makes a weird comment about beer — which, of course, is made of plants — and Cox goes in for the kill.

The problem, though, was that Schumer (or, at least, his social media team) was dunking on someone else. Specifically on Fox Business host and Trump administration official Larry Kudlow. On Friday, Kudlow had disparaged President Biden’s climate proposals by claiming that the president had demanded that “America has to stop eating meat.”

“Get ready!” he said. “You can throw back a plant-based beer with your grilled Brussels sprouts and wave your American flag.” He added that he was making fun of it because “this kind of thinking is stupid” and “comes from a bunch of ideological zealots who don’t care one whit about America’s well-being.”

That last part held a kernel of truth, although only when applied to a different target.

Kudlow was picking up on a repeated theme of Fox News’s coverage that day. “The Five” host Jesse Watters introduced a segment about the climate with a claim about what Biden’s pledge to reduce greenhouse gases would entail.

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

Earlier that morning, “Fox & Friends” introduced this claim about Biden’s purported climate plan.

“Listen,” the network’s Pete Hegseth said from a remote interview at the Talladega Motor Speedway. “All of these are based on studies that show what average people will bear the brunt of if these elites get their climate change goals. Guess who is not paying attention to any of this? The Communist Chinese, who laugh at these plans.”

This is the Fox News pattern. Identify a culturally potent issue — reducing meat consumption, “canceling” Dr. Seuss — and hammer on it over and over regardless of the accuracy of the report. And just like the repeated claims that it was somehow liberals or Biden that were cracking down on a handful of Seuss’s books (and not, as was actually the case, the author’s estate), the claims about hamburger consumption bear no connection to reality.

The idea appears to have originated with a Daily Mail article claiming to articulate how Biden’s climate plan would “affect the daily lives of ordinary Americans.” The centerpiece of that article? This claim that “Americans may have to cut their red meat consumption by a whopping 90 percent and cut their consumption of other animal based foods in half.”

Every single argument made by every single person above hinges on that “may,” that Americans “may” have to make such a reduction. But that “may” is completely unfounded.

It’s not really clear how the Daily Mail hit upon the University of Michigan study that articulated the greenhouse gas reductions that would accompany such a decrease in meat consumption, but it is clear that the article misrepresents the study. This is not a study looking at what “average people will bear the brunt of,” as Hegseth put it. It was, instead, an evaluation of how dietary changes — including both increases and reductions in meat consumption — would affect emissions.

Here is the table at the center of the claim. It presents four scenarios, listed at the bottom.

You can see that under Scenario 4, the 90 percent-reduction scenario, emissions drop from 1,819.4 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents per capita per year now to 890.5 kilograms per capita. That’s a big drop — but it is not a required one, and it is not part of Biden’s proposal.

How can we say that with confidence? Because Biden hasn’t made any concrete proposal. This appears to be nothing more than someone stumbling onto the University of Michigan study, recognizing that red meat serves as, well, political red meat, and rolling it into the Daily Mail article. There have been other recent meat-based kerfuffles, as when Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) proposed a meat-free day in his state. The result was an overload of chest pounding about how important real meat is to real Americans and so on. So why not make similar claims about Biden?

On its surface, the idea that a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions requires a massive cutback in meat consumption is senseless. The parts of the economy that produce the most greenhouse gases are transportation (cars and trucks burning gasoline) and electricity generation (burning coal for power). The vast majority of emissions are carbon dioxide. (We dove into all of this last week.)

Agriculture makes up only a relatively small percentage of emissions, and most of the emissions from agriculture are nitrous oxide and methane. This is not the center of the problem, and there’s no reason to think that Biden would suggest that Americans need to slash their meat consumption instead of figuring out how to encourage electric vehicle adoption and cut power-plant emissions. (That cars might be increasingly electric did slip into the Fox News coverage, but it was by no means the centerpiece.)

All of this is what another president might have referred to as “fake news.” It is not the case that cutting emissions demands cutting meat consumption by 90 percent, and it is not the case that Biden has proposed such a change. But this one article leveraging the demonstrated utility of meat as a trigger radiated out into the broader cultural conversation, where various other people tried to score their own imaginary Internet points by amplifying the claim.

It is certainly the case that Donald Trump was also criticized unfairly at times during his administration. His opponents, like Biden’s, often assumed the worst about his activities or associations. It’s safe to say, however, that Trump’s willingness to leap into contentious issues seemingly without having considered the downsides led to a lot of the friction he faced.

How does a president deal with the emergence of artificial cultural fights that place him at the center? How does Biden specifically counteract a phenomenon articulated by conservative commentator Erick Erickson at the height of the Seuss brouhaha?

If voters go to the polls in 2022 believing that Biden banned “The Cat in the Hat” or wants to have government oversight of how much steak they eat, how does he combat that? This, of course, is the way right-wing media elevate these issues: They cast a useful pall over the opposition using believable yet untrue claims.

NBC News released new polling over the weekend showing that Biden has the approval of a majority of Americans. Most Republicans disapprove of Biden, presumably including the Texas woman who claimed that he had “opened floodgates for illegal immigration.” This, too, was a centerpiece of right-wing media, one that ascribed the surge in migrants at the border to Biden’s acquiescence and that then conflated migration in general with illegal immigration more broadly.

This is a more nuanced argument than the red-meat thing, but it has a similar root: Biden is intentionally associated with negative triggers that reinforce skepticism about his presidency. This was always going to be the primary challenge he faced, a right-wing media only loosely interested in its assessments of his efforts.

An uncharitable assumption one might make about these associations is that they are often a function of some sort of ideological zealotry.

Update: Oops.