On 21 August 2018, President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight criminal charges, including multiple counts of tax evasion and violations of federal campaign finance laws. Cohen also appeared to implicate his former client in possible criminal wrongdoing, alleging that Trump, while a candidate, directed Cohen to pay hush money to two women who claimed to have had affairs with the future president.
Those bombshell revelations came on the same afternoon that a jury in Virginia convicted President Trump’s former 2016 presidential campaign chairman Paul Manafort on eight counts of banking fraud and filing false tax returns, while failing to agree on a verdict for ten other charges.
Both the Manafort and Cohen cases came about due to investigative work undertaken as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into potential Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and the possibility of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign.
Understandably, much of the news media in the United States gave these major developments extensive coverage that day, in print, online, and on the major television news networks.
Some observers accused the conservative-leaning Fox News of downplaying the Cohen and Manafort stories, or of deliberately focusing on other issues of lesser import. Elements of this criticism were accurate and proportionate in pointing out the striking differences between how most TV news networks reported on the developments and how Fox News covered them.
However, one viral Twitter post appeared to contain a screen shot of Fox News contributor Tomi Lahren discussing the ‘War on Christmas,’ while other networks covered Cohen’s guilty pleas. The chyron in the image read “TOMI: OBAMA CREATED FESTIVUS TO DESTROY CHRISTMAS.”
(Festivus is an unofficial holiday which acts as an alternative to Christmas, and originated in an episode of the sitcom “Seinfeld.”)
CNN: Michael Cohen to plead guilty.
ABC: Michael Cohen to plead guilty.
NBC: Michael Cohen to plead guilty.
FOX News: pic.twitter.com/JR4uAnyCQn
— Diane N. Sevenay (@Diane_7A) August 21, 2018
That tweet was then reposted on Facebook by the left-wing page “The Other 98%”:
— jordan (@JordanUhl) December 24, 2017
Lahren herself publicly dismissed the meme:
Does it not bother you to circulate a photoshopped piece of FAKE NEWS? Classy. https://t.co/hvwdgwPkd2
— Tomi Lahren (@TomiLahren) December 24, 2017
The meme does indeed consist of a screenshot of a real Fox News appearance which Lahren made in August 2017, but with the original chyron digitally edited and replaced with something different and non-relevant:
— Fox News (@FoxNews) August 31, 2017
It’s not clear whether those who posted the edited image in the context of Cohen and Manafort’s legal travails in August 2018 intended to engage in satire, or to trick other internet users into believing Lahren really discussed Festivus on that day. Diane Sevenay, whose viral tweet was re-posted by “The Other 98%”, is a comedy writer.
As reported by Mashable, a satirical Fox/Cohen news coverage meme emerged on 21 August, with Twitter users taking turns to parody Fox News’ content on the day of Cohen’s guilty pleas:
CNN – Cohen plea deal
MSNBC – Cohen plea deal
Fox News – Are cats becoming too tall?
— Fred Delicious (@Fred_Delicious) August 21, 2018
CNN: Manafort guilty on 8 counts
NYT: Manafort guilty of fraud
AP: Cohen pleads guilty
Fox News: Were the lobsters on the Titanic happy that it sank?
— #1 Rachel (@rachel) August 21, 2018
Another widely-shared screenshot purported to show Fox News reframing the conviction of Manafort by only mentioning, in a mobile news alert, the fact that a mistrial was declared on ten of the charges against him, while other news organizations reported his being found guilty on eight charges:
The image, posted to Facebook by the “Angry Americans” page, is authentic but very misleading. Another screenshot shows that Fox News first sent out an alert which read “Jury finds Manafort guilty on eight counts in fraud trial” before following up with a second one about the mistrial on the ten other charges:
— Push the Push (@pushthepush) August 21, 2018
Neumeister, Larry and Tom Hays. “Cohen Pleads Guilty, Implicates Trump in Hush-Money Scheme.”
Associated Press. 22 August 2018.
Barakat, Matthew et al. “Ex-Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort Guilty of 8 Charges.”
Associated Press. 22 August 2018.
Stanley-Becker, Isaac. “In Trump’s Right-Wing Media Universe, It Was a Day Like Any Other.”
The Washington Post. 22 August 2018.
Sung, Morgan. “What Was Fox News Covering While Manafort and Cohen Were in Court? This Hilarious Meme Has Some Answers.”
Mashable. 21 August 2018.