The ridiculous "controversy" over Fauci's Christmas comments shows how the fake outrage cycle works
This is how they keep people distracted.
As the first week of Public Notice winds down, there’s a lot of big stuff happening. A debt ceiling deal. New details about former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn his election loss. But I thought I’d use this edition of the newsletter to detail one way right-wing media keeps viewers distracted from real issues: by generating fake outrage.
Fox News and Newsmax spent Monday and Tuesday making a big fuss over comments by Dr. Anthony Fauci about the safety of gathering with family this holiday season, including children who are too young to receive the Covid vaccine. But a cursory examination of what Fauci actually said — and the context in which he said it — reveals that it was a lot of fuss about nothing.
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On Sunday’s Face the Nation, Fauci responded to a line of questioning about unvaccinated children with a completely anodyne observation — that given the rapidly changing nature of the pandemic, it’s too early to say whether it’ll be safe for people to gather indoors this Christmas.
“You know, Margaret, it's just too soon to tell,” Fauci told host Margaret Brennan. “We've just got to concentrate on continuing to get those numbers down and not try to jump ahead by weeks or months and say what we're going to do at a particular time. Let's focus like a laser on continuing to get those cases down.”
These comments weren’t meant to be a directive, and most viewers of Face the Nation probably didn’t even perk up. But the right-wing echo chamber quickly pounced and spun them into a hysterical meltdown, including calls for Fauci’s job and insinuations about the Biden administration pushing the country toward dictatorship.
“This isn’t really about public health at this point. Now we’re talking about taking total control. And that’s the scary part here,” claimed frequent Fox News guest Jason Rantz on Monday, completely mischaracterizing what Fauci said. The host, Harris Faulkner, responded with an agreeing sigh.
“After calling for the cancellation of Christmas — again — somehow Anthony Fauci still has his job,” said Fox News contributor Mollie Hemingway during another show.
The blowback to Fauci’s comments illustrates how the fake outrage machine works. In this case, it began with right-wingers essentially fabricating a quote, then getting mad about the quote they made up, then using that ginned-up outrage to call for someone’s head — all in service of trying to undermine the credibility of one of the nation’s most trusted voices on Covid to an audience that’s already skeptical about public health guidance.
What Fauci actually said vs. the absurd right-wing spin
Let’s take a closer look at the context for Fauci’s comments—and how they got so distorted by the right-wing rage machine
As has often been the case in recent months, Fauci — chief medical advisor to President Biden and the administration’s most prominent voice about the pandemic — spent Sunday morning bouncing from one nationally televised news show to the next. And as you’d expect, most of what he said was informative but quite dull, with lots of advice most of us have already internalized about the importance of vaccination and masking in crowded settings (especially indoors).
On Face the Nation, host Margaret Brennan brought up research suggesting that the coronavirus is mutating to spread more easily via aerosols. She asked Fauci: “We're going into the holidays. Do people need to start looking around and saying it's just too risky to gather with family members if there are unvaccinated children?”
Fauci didn’t directly respond, but instead discussed CDC guidance about masking and ventilation. But Brennan pressed the point, asking, “But we can gather for Christmas, or it's just too soon to tell?”
What followed were the comments that prompted days of wailing and gnashing of teeth. Before we get there, here’s a transcript of what Fauci actually said, followed by the video.
You know, Margaret, it's just too soon to tell. We've just got to concentrate on continuing to get those numbers down and not try to jump ahead by weeks or months and say what we're going to do at a particular time. Let's focus like a laser on continuing to get those cases down. And we can do it by people getting vaccinated and also in the situation where boosters are appropriate to get people boosted because we know that they can help greatly in diminishing infection and diminishing advanced disease, the kinds of data that are now accumulating in real time.
Pretty standard stuff, right? We’ve all lived through this pandemic long enough to understand the coronavirus can spread and mutate in unpredictable ways, making it hard to project what sorts of gatherings will be safe months down the line. But while we can’t predict the future, we can encourage people to do everything they can today to limit spread, including getting vaccinated and taking precautions for the vulnerable, including kids too young to be vaccinated.
But shortly after the interview aired, a Republican National Committee Twitter account trimmed the exchange of all context and posted a clip with a caption suggesting Fauci was somehow trying to prohibit Christmas gatherings.
The RNC clip has been viewed more than 2.4 million times as of this writing. By Monday morning, Fox & Friends hosts not only discussed Fauci’s remarks in a similarly misleading manner, but went further by situating their fake outrage within another fake conspiracy theory that conservatives have been pushing for years — that Democrats are trying to “cancel Christmas.”
Before Monday was through, Fauci’s comments about Christmas were mentioned on Fox News programming a total of 43 times, according to a transcript search. (Newsmax spent even more time on the fake controversy than Fox News did, mentioning Fauci’s comments 65 times between Monday and Wednesday.) Tucker Carlson’s treatment may have been the most ridiculous. The host of the top-rated cable news show led his Monday program by accusing Fauci of telling people “do not travel for Christmas” and added, “it means no Christmas at all.”
“What a thrill it must have been for him to say something like that,” Carlson said. “Here’s a guy who fully expected to spend his life giving prostate exams, and there he was declaring the ancient Christian calendar null and void.”
It wasn’t just right-wing media — elected officials got into the act as well. Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-NY) tweeted, “I would like to inform Biden and Fauci that regardless of what they say, Americans are celebrating Christmas,” and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) tweeted a call to “Fire Fauci” and “Save Christmas.”
Fauci, meanwhile, felt compelled to go on CNN on Monday to try to clarify what he said, even though there was nothing wrong with it in the first place.
"The best way to assure that we'll be in good shape as we get into the winter would be to get more and more people vaccinated," Fauci said. "That was misinterpreted as my saying we can't spend Christmas with our families, which was absolutely not the case. I will be spending Christmas with my family, I encourage people, particularly the vaccinated people who are protected, to have a good, normal Christmas with your family."
But those comments just produced more misleading headlines like the one that appeared in the Washington Examiner — “Fauci walks back comments about canceling Christmas after backlash” — and graphics like one on Fox News saying “Fauci un-cancels Christmas.”
Fauci isn’t perfect — but that’s not really what this is about
Fauci is not infallible, and he has made comments about the coronavirus that haven’t aged well, such as his remark on March 8, 2020 that “there’s no reason to be walking around with a mask.” But the public health community knew very little about the novel coronavirus in those early days of the pandemic, and Fauci’s guidance about best practices has evolved as experts have learned more.
"When it became clear that the infection could be spread by asymptomatic carriers who don't know they're infected, that made it very clear that we had to strongly recommend masks,” he said this summer, addressing his March 2020 comments.
Of course, the fake outrage over Fauci’s Christmas remarks isn’t really about legitimate concerns that government officials are getting it wrong. It’s about something more insidious.
It’s not a coincidence that some of the people who appeared on Fox News this week to attack Fauci have histories of agitating against basic public health guidance. Outkick founder and frequent Fox News guest Clay Travis, for instance, spoke out against mask mandates at an explosive August school board meeting in Franklin, Tennessee, then went on Fox News this week and said, “How many people are listening to Fauci for any element of their life advice at this point who still have a functional brain?”
“He’s an embarrassment and his advice has become all a bunch of crap,” Travis added, in comments encapsulating how Trumpers have politicized basic public health advice.
So while it might be tempting to laugh at the unintentional comedy of segments featuring pro wrestlers trashing on the nation’s top infectious disease expert — something that actually happened on Fox News this week — the deeper thing that’s going on here, the effort to delegitimize public health guidance if that person is perceived to be a political foe, is no joking matter.
For people who watch this stuff earnestly, it’s brain poison. And just as quickly as Fox News makes a big deal out of one bit of fake outrage, they move on to the next thing.
I have 2 thoughts: 1) it's clear that the outrage serves as a dopamine hit to the viewers, most of whom do not care a bit about whether the quotes have been manipulated and many who view Fox both as pure entertainment and an excuse for increasingly dangerous thoughts and actions, and 2) what's the endgame? If Fox can destroy families, directly result in thousands of Covid deaths, threaten the halls of democracy, and activate white supremacists...where does it end? The thing about drugs is that the user needs ever-escalating amounts to achieve the same high. If mass violence ensues in the US, does the Fox BoD truly believe that it will help their bottom line? People are being radicalized to distrust and to hate all authority figures on both sides of the aisle...this is anarchy, not just anti-democracy. Where does it end when the dopamine fix requires that everthing be burned to the ground?
The mask comment was made back when experts were worried about a shortage of masks for health workers. And it wasn’t clear back then that the virus was spread through the air, not primarily by touching.