Trump may be gone, but right-wing fake news still swirls

False stories involving Kamala Harris, and Biden’s climate plan, travelled far and wide

US vice-president Kamala Harris reads to her audience at a signing event for her children’s book Superheroes Are Everywhere. Photograph: Michael Tullberg/Getty

US vice-president Kamala Harris reads to her audience at a signing event for her children’s book Superheroes Are Everywhere. Photograph: Michael Tullberg/Getty

 

It might be more than three months since Donald Trump left the White House, but the legacy of fake news and alternative facts he left behind continues to thrive in some parts of the media in the United States.

In recent days conservative outlets have been consumed by reports that a children’s book written by vice-president Kamala Harris in 2019 was distributed in welcome packs to unaccompanied children who had arrived at the US-Mexico border.

The New York Post, a Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid, splashed the story on the front page of its Saturday print edition, and it quickly went viral and was covered extensively on Fox News, which is also controlled by Murdoch. On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked about the controversy in her daily briefing. She said she would have to check on it with the relevant department.

Senior Republicans weighed in on what they claimed was a deepening scandal. Arkansas senator Tom Cotton tweeted a link to the New York Post article and said the book was included in welcome packs for migrant children arriving at the California facility.

Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, tweeted: “After learning officials are handing out Kamala Harris’s book to migrants in facilities at the border, it’s worth asking ... Was Harris paid for these books? Is she profiting from Biden’s border crisis?”  

She omitted to mention that the RNC itself paid more than $300,000 for autographed copies of Donald Trump jnr’s self-published book last year.

False story

The real problem for Republicans was that by Tuesday it had emerged that the story itself was erroneous. Fact-checking by the Washington Post revealed that only one book by Harris had been pictured at the facility and had been donated by local residents – not distributed by the centre.

The source for the original New York Post reporting appears to have been a photograph shared by Reuters that shows a copy of the book on an empty bed in the centre. Within hours the New York Post removed the article from its website, without publishing a clarification.

A separate article by a different reporter then appeared online, with an “editor’s note” at the end: “The original version of this article said migrant kids were getting Harris’s book in a welcome kit, but has been updated to note that only one known copy of the book was given to a child.”

The original article then reappeared, with the correction – even though it is unclear if the book was ever given to a child.

On Tuesday afternoon the reporter who had written the original story resigned. “The Kamala Harris story – an incorrect story I was ordered to write and which I failed to push back hard enough against – was my breaking point,” Laura Italiano wrote on Twitter. She has worked for the newspaper since the 1990s and said she was sad to leave, thanking her colleagues. “It’s been a privilege to cover the city of New York for its liveliest, wittiest tabloid,” she said.

On Wednesday, Fox News still had a version of the story on its website, noting in an “editor’s note” that a previous article had implied there were “multiple copies of Harris’s book available for children in welcome packs”.

Red meat

The errors over the Harris story come just days after Fox News issued a rare clarification on air over another false report. The news channel ran several reports claiming that President Joe Biden’s climate plan would force Americans to cut their red meat consumption by 90 per cent by 2030 and limit their consumption of hamburgers to one a month.

US president Joe Biden during a virtual climate summit intended to underline the urgency of stronger climate action. Photograph: Anna Moneymaker/Pool/EPA
US president Joe Biden during a virtual climate summit intended to underline the urgency of stronger climate action. Photograph: Anna Moneymaker/Pool/EPA

“Not going to happen in Texas!” declared Texas governor Greg Abbott on Twitter. On his Fox News show, former Trump adviser Larry Kudlow predicted that Americans would be grilling Brussels sprouts and not burgers on July 4th.

The claim was false. The source for the story was a Daily Mail article citing a University of Michigan study that had no relation to the Biden climate plan. Fox News aired a clarification on Monday, with the presenter noting that a graphic and a script “incorrectly implied” that the 2020 study was part of Biden’s plan.

The rare mea culpa of sorts by Fox News comes as the network faces defamation lawsuits by voting machine companies over its false claims about voter fraud during the presidential election. On Monday it filed documents asking a New York court to dismiss the case taken against it by one of the companies, Smartmatic.

Whether the latest fake news controversies will lead to a change in behaviour at conservative news channels remains to be seen.

What the latest episodes show, however, is the speed at which misinformation can spread on right-wing networks and social media in this hyper-politicised age in the US.  

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