For days, the American right has been on high alert: Joe Biden is coming for their meat.
After the English tabloid The Daily Mail cited “recent studies” to claim that the Biden administration would limit red meat consumption to one hamburger a month, conservatives went wild. Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that he had probably eaten four pounds of meat—the yearly allowed figure, per The Daily Mail—just the day before. (If half a pound usually constitutes a single serving of meat, that translates to about eight meals’ worth of meat.)
Fox News anchor John Roberts, ostensibly a part of the network’s “news” side, told viewers, “Say goodbye to your burgers if you want to sign up for the climate agenda. That’s the finding of one study.” Fox Business host Charles Payne compared the plan to Soylent Green, in which the titular food is made of human flesh. And countless right-wingers took to Twitter to post giant, overcooked slabs of meat that would soon be giving them indigestion—all to own the libs.
There was one problem: There is no plan to limit meat consumption. In fact, as CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale wrote, Biden had “not proposed any limit on Americans’ red meat consumption,” and had “not proposed any limit on Americans’ consumption of food” at all. On Monday, Roberts issued a sheepish correction.
By that point, it didn’t really matter. The narrative had been set, and it was time to move on to other bogus culture-war issues.
The story had been concocted by The Daily Mail practically out of thin air. Without “any firm details” about Biden’s climate plan, the newspaper went hunting for figurative red meat to supply its ravenous readers. It turned up an academic paper published over a year before Biden took office that makes no mention of government-imposed dietary limits. Instead, the paper found that America would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 51 percent between 2016 and 2030 if Americans drastically cut their consumption of beef. Biden’s name appears nowhere in the study—indeed, when it was published, he looked to be losing the race for the Democratic nomination.
The Daily Mail was aware of all this when it published its story—which also suggested Americans could be forced to spend $55,000 on an electric car and pay an additional $3,500 in taxes. So was Fox News when it endlessly circulated its flimsy findings throughout the weekend. Though it was quite literally fake news, neither Fox nor The Daily Mail, nor any of the Republican politicians who spread the story, will face any penalty. The outcry over Biden’s red meat ban will hardly be the last example of a tabloid-to-cable news cycle that has long driven culture-war narratives on the right.
The Daily Mail is a particularly egregious offender. Known for its tacky celebrity scoops and novel-length headlines, the tabloid has rapidly gained footing in the U.S. Its sites publish “roughly 1,700 stories, tens of thousands of photos, and 900-some-odd videos each day,” according to a 2020 report from Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo. While competitors have floundered, it has made significant investments in its gaudy reporting. It has, to be fair, also broken a number of newsworthy stories, including the seizure of Anthony Weiner’s laptop, in the fall of 2016, and the hidden location of Jeffrey Epstein madam Ghislaine Maxwell in Massachusetts. But in terms of politics, its bread and butter is driving the kind of outrage stories that the right has seized on during Biden’s first 100 days.
In recent weeks, it has pushed a story about Kamala Harris getting “her own Resolute Desk,” which many Trump supporters have used as proof that she is the real power behind Biden’s throne—even though the Navy program to build the desk from reclaimed pieces of the USS Constitution was created during the Trump administration. When Hunter Biden’s memoir was released earlier this month, The Daily Mail published a trove of photos and texts obtained from his laptop, which it claimed had been “verified” by a computer forensics firm. The photos included several of Hunter cavorting with prostitutes—these were, in turn, aired on Fox News, which (very lightly) edited them. It also published a series of texts between Hunter and his father, in which the two discussed his struggles with addiction.
These reports were designed to disseminate the idea that Hunter Biden is some sort of corrupt degenerate and “crackhead.” If many would look at Hunter’s story and see a familiar struggle with addiction and loss, The Daily Mail was there to assure you it was definitive proof that his father operates a multinational crime syndicate.
The Daily Mail isn’t the only tabloid serving chum to the larger right-wing ecosystem. On Monday, The New York Post reported that child migrants being detained at the southern border were being given a children’s book written by Harris—at taxpayers’ expense! “Unaccompanied migrant kids brought from the U.S.-Mexico border to a new shelter in Long Beach, Calif., will be given a copy of her 2019 children’s book, Superheroes are Everywhere, in their welcome kits,” the Post reported, leading to a predictable wave of outrage from the right. But that story, like the meat-banning story, was fake news. Instead, a single copy of the book, which had been donated during a drive, was at the shelter.
The success of these outlets in driving news on the right underlines their continued importance. But it also points to a larger desperation. One hundred days in, things are going pretty well for the Biden administration: Covid-19 cases are way down, vaccinations are way up, the country is reopening. Despite his reputation for gaffes, Biden himself has been astonishingly disciplined; the administration has largely ignored right-wing attempts to bog him down in culture-war nonsense. With the absence of real scandals, and with a conservative base eager for evidence that we are being ruled by a new Stalin, the right needs to generate its own controversies. That’s how you get a panic over a burger ban.