Is The Tide Turning?

I’ve just finished a really good book by Dan Pfeiffer, “Battling the Big Lie.” Pfeiffer handled communications in the Obama White House and is currently the host of the podcast “Pod Save America.”

One of the many, many important points he makes in that book is that Democrats have a “message over megaphone” problem–“Democrats spend 99 percent of their time worrying about what they should say, and only one percent figuring out how to get people to hear what they are saying.”

Pfeiffer spends a significant amount of time describing the outsized effect of the Right’s media ecosystem, including two chapters on Fox. I’ll undoubtedly have more to say about the book  (okay, I probably loved it so much because his analyses mostly mirror mine…), but today I want to focus on an article about Fox I came across just after finishing it.

The American Prospect’s Kuttner on Tap reports that Fox’s troubles didn’t end when it paid Dominion zillions of dollars for lying about that company.

Fox is both a network and the owner of 29 individual lucrative TV station franchises, including in 14 of the 15 largest markets. Their licenses require renewal by the FCC every eight years.

Fox’s license for its Philadelphia station is currently up for renewal, and several public-interest groups are opposing that renewal.

The FCC’s criteria for renewal include “character,” defined in great detail, a test that Fox flagrantly flunks, especially given its admissions in the Dominion case. On August 23, the Commission agreed to take public comment on this question.

Opponents of renewal include Jamie Kellner, the founding president of Fox News. Kellner’s  letter to the FCC included the following:

Unlike the news feeds provided today by Fox News Channel, our news feeds did not prominently feature advocates like Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell spouting nonsensical lies about a Presidential election … If the character requirement for broadcast licensees is to have any meaning, the FCC must designate the application for a hearing to evaluate the Murdochs’/Fox’s character qualifications…

Others who have filed objections include Alfred Sikes, a former Republican FCC chairman,  Ervin Duggan, a former Democratic FCC Commissioner, and ex–Fox News Channel commentator Bill Kristol.

In yet another filing, the Media and Democracy Project pointed out that:

FOX knew—from the Murdochs on down—that Fox News was reporting false and dangerous misinformation about the 2020 Presidential election, but FOX was more concerned about short-term ratings and market share than the long-term damage caused by its spreading disinformation.

FOX’s lies concerning the outcome of the 2020 election caused a great injury to the American people and the institutions of our democracy. FOX’s willingness to lie demonstrates a fatal character flaw.

It’s hard to see how Fox can get its license renewed if there is a hearing on the merits. There are just too many examples of Fox’s deliberate disinformation. Kuttner predicts that the Philadelphia challenge will be followed by 28 more, as Fox’s other licenses come up for rolling review.

If Fox does get its license, we might as well scrap the FCC as meaningless. As the Media and Democracy petition puts it:

This is not a First Amendment case. Rather the issue here concerns a corporation that, with the full knowledge and approval of its management, lied to millions of Americans. The question before the Commission is not whether FOX had a right to lie, rather it is about the consequences of those lies and the impact on FOX’s qualifications to remain an FCC licensee.

If a blogger or independent Internet source lies, the First Amendment protects them. The government has no legal recourse. But government has the right–and, I would insist, the duty–to ensure that those competing for use of one of the limited public airwaves adhere to certain standards as a condition of the award.

The Dominion lawsuit proved (as if we had any doubt) that Fox  lies to the American public with the full knowledge and approval of its management.

As Kuttner correctly notes, the question isn’t whether FOX had a right to lie. But I disagree with his assertion that the issue is the negative consequences of those lies. The issue I see  is the right of a corporation to use public airwaves to deliver deliberate disinformation in blatant violation of its license with the FCC.

Fox demonstrably violated numerous terms of that license, just as Trump knowingly violated numerous laws. If neither suffers the consequences that less powerful miscreants would suffer, that result would undermine the most basic tenet of the rule of law: that no one is above the law.

As the saying goes, every journey begins with a single step. Opposition to Fox’s Philadelphia renewal represents a welcome first step toward dismantling the Right’s megaphone. Bravo to the opposition!


Capitalism And The News

I wonder whether it will matter.

“It” of course, refers to the revelations that Fox “News” knowingly and intentionally lied to its audience, in order to keep the sheep from abandoning Fox for outlets willing to feed them their desired conspiracy theories.

The Dominion lawsuit has done America a huge service. Lawyers for the company have amassed an absolutely astounding amount of evidence supporting Dominion’s allegations of willful prevarication by a company pretending to be engaged in journalism. I titled this post “Capitalism and the News” because Rupert Murdoch admitted that the decision to promote what everyone at Fox knew to be a Big Lie wasn’t  prompted by “red or blue. It was about the green.”

Fox was protecting its bottom line. If facts threatened that bottom line, then facts had to go. (Cozying up to the Trumps was part of that effort: Murdoch also admitted giving Jared Kushner access to Biden campaign ads before they aired.)

Sane folks have long known that Fox was a propaganda arm of the GOP,  not a legitimate news organization, and real journalists and pundits have pounced on the evidence.. One of the more thoughtful responses came from David French. 

To understand the Fox News phenomenon, one has to understand the place it occupies in Red America. It’s no mere source of news. It’s the place where Red America goes to feel seen and heard. If there’s an important good news story in Red America, the first call is to Fox. If conservative Christians face a threat to their civil liberties, the first call is to Fox. If you’re a conservative celebrity and you need to sell a book, the first call is to Fox.

And Fox takes those calls. In the time before Donald Trump, I spent my share of moments in Fox green rooms and pitching stories to Fox producers. I knew they were more interested in stories about, say, religious liberty than most mainstream media outlets were. I knew they loved human-interest stories about virtuous veterans and cops. Sometimes this was good — we need more coverage of religion in America, for example — but over time Fox morphed into something well beyond a news network.

As French noted, the Fox propaganda-as-business model has made it immensely popular on the Right, where it commands significant loyalty.

But that kind of loyalty is built around a social compact, the profound and powerful sense in Red America that Fox is for us. It’s our megaphone to the culture. Yet when Fox created this compact, it placed the audience in charge of its content…

As the Trump years wore on, the prime-time messaging became more blatant. Supporting Trump became a marker not just of patriotism but also of courage. And what of conservatives, like me, who opposed Trump? We were “cowards” or “grifters” who sold our souls for 30 pieces of silver and airtime on MSNBC.

Our disagreement was cast as an act of outright betrayal. People like me had allegedly turned our backs on our own community. We had failed in our obligation to be their voice…

In the emails and texts highlighted in the Dominion filing, you see Fox News figures, including Sean Hannity and Suzanne Scott and Lachlan Murdoch, referring to the need to “respect” the audience. To be clear, by “respect” they didn’t mean “tell the truth” — an act of genuine respect. Instead they meant “represent.”

That sort of “representation,” of course, is not journalism. (Although French doesn’t use the term, the word “prostitution” comes to mind…)

French says that Fox embodies the “possibly apocryphal remark of the French revolutionary Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin: ‘There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.'”

In a recent podcast, John Stewart made a different comparison: Fox is the “old dope peddler,” and it knows that failure to supply its addicts’ need will cause the loss of its customers.

Conservatives like French have already dissociated themselves from today’s GOP, so the question really is whether any intellectually honest people remain. How will the crazies spin the internal communications and testimonies of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and even Rupert Murdoch, proving beyond a doubt that they all knowingly promoted a lie because they knew their audience wanted that lie–and that failure to provide it would hurt their ratings and bottom line.

As Talking Points Memo put it,

The American descent towards authoritarianism, minority rule, and insurrection doesn’t happen without Fox News. It doesn’t happen only because of Fox News, but it’s been a critical ingredient in the toxic stew of misinformation, grievance, and division.

These stunning revelations ought to spell the end of Fox. But I wouldn’t bet on it. Addicts need their fix, and Fox is a willing supplier….

Truth can be so uncomfortable.


The Way We Are

Persuasion’s Yascha Mounk recently interviewed Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Kleinfeld’s response to a question about interpreting the midterm results, and whether those results showed a rejection of  extremism and election denialism, was–in my opinion–an important summary of just where we Americans find ourselves politically, and although it was rather lengthy, I’m quoting it in its entirety:

The election showed that with a gigantic amount of work on behalf of many, many organizations, you can move a tiny percentage of independent and right-leaning swing voters away from election denialism and real authoritarianism in swing states. That mattered a lot, because it means that the 2024 election will be free and fair. But what it didn’t do was fundamentally shift the dynamics in the Republican Party. While Trump might be losing steam, Trumpism, Christian nationalism, othering people to build your base with wink-and-nod authoritarianism, is still alive and well. We’re seeing DeSantis do it. We’re seeing other front runners do it. We saw candidate intimidation. We still saw election deniers win in deep red states. We have about 16 states now where there’s trifectas—a state in which the governor, the attorney general and both chambers of the legislature (basically all of your major executive roles that would control elections) are all of one party. In about 15, maybe 16 states, those are all Republican and a number of election deniers were elected to those positions. It’s worth remembering that the Jim Crow South was only 11 states, really, in its full form of election suppression against African Americans and poor whites. It doesn’t take the entire United States to have an authoritarian enclave somewhere. The role of the RNC in Arizona was notable. Arizona is really the only place we saw any kind of election violence, with the supervisor of Maricopa County elections going into hiding. An RNC phone call seems to suggest that the Republican National Committee was possibly threatening that the mob would be released if certain things didn’t happen. 

A significant minority of Americans continue to embrace “Trumpism, Christian Nationalism and ‘othering'” and the most obvious question is why?  Those of us who follow politics and policy answer that question with various allocations of racism, anti-intellectualism and (especially) fear of loss–loss of privilege, loss of social dominance.

As Kleinfeld highlighted, attacks on the bases of America’s governing philosophy are being nurtured and encouraged by today’s GOP. 

Devoted Republicans with whom I worked “back in the day”–when the GOP was a very different animal– bemoan the reality that the party that bears that name has no resemblance to the party we once knew. The lack of  two respectable, adult parties in America’s two-party system is more than troubling for a multitude of reasons, many of which I have previously explored, but in a recent column, Jennifer Rubin discussed a  consequence that had not occurred to me: the GOP’s disdain for objective fact attracts voters and candidates who also believe facts to be irrelevant and governance beside the point.

Rubin calls this “politics as performance art,” and references GOP fabulists besides George Santos. She says that Republicans have moved on from the party’s lies about climate change, vaccines and voter fraud — they’re increasingly lying about themselves.

Granted, it would be hard to beat Santos for lying, and no one else (to the best of our knowledge) comes close. But not for lack of trying. Rep. Anna Paulina Luna has claimed to be Jewish– to have been raised as a “Messianic Jew.” (Messianic Jews aren’t Jews, for one thing, and it seems her father was Catholic and her grandfather fought for Nazi Germany.)

She changed her last name from Mayerhofer to Luna, and The Post found no evidence for her claims that her father was incarcerated for long periods. Other claims that she was traumatized by a home invasion in 2010 did not check out, either.

Rep. Andrew Ogles is not an economist, despite claiming to be one during his campaign-he has no degree in economics and was never employed as an economist. He also wasn’t a “trained police officer and international sex crimes expert,” as claimed; he was actually a volunteer reserve deputy. (Shades of Hershel Walker…)

It isn’t only in folks running for Congress. Arizona’s Republican attorney general investigated election fraud, then buried the findings when  no evidence emerged. (The documents were just released  by his Democratic successor.)

If it is “harmless exaggeration” to fabricate a life story, and “politics as usual” to insist that your election loss was due to vote fraud, what are assertions that “those people” want to replace White Christians, or that “woke” people are indoctrinating your children?

When such people hold office, how can we hope for governance based upon evidence and reason?


How Propaganda Really Works

I subscribe to a Substack newsletter titled Persuasion. (I assume there’s a URL to link to, but I’m clearly too stupid to figure it out, so you’ll have to trust the accuracy of my quotations). Recently, that newsletter added to my understanding of how contemporary propaganda works.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who hears statements from the cult of Trump and thinks “No rational person would believe that!” or “That doesn’t even make sense!” (And I’m not even referring things like Marjorie Taylor Greene’s evident belief that using solar energy means the. lights go off after sundown….)

How does crazy spread?

The  Persuasion newsletter focused on the Kafka-esq experience of a Republican county recorder named Stephen Richer. After winning that post in what was described as a “razor-thin upset,”  he took charge of counting the vote in Maricopa County, Arizona,  the nation’s fourth-most-populous county—”a swing county in a battleground state, and thus a magnet for the angry eye of MAGA following the 2020 election.”

You can guess what came next. Accusations, challenges, recounts, threats…

In February of this year, multiple checks by county officials and outside auditors had confirmed Joe Biden’s solid win, but MAGA was having none of it. Conspiracy theories swirled around the election. On the evening of February 24, Richer drove to West Phoenix to meet with a grassroots Republican group that had stalwartly supported his candidacy. His staff thought attending might be unwise. “They knew, as I did, that it would be an uncomfortable situation. I would say 90-plus percent of the people who were there were of the mindset that the election was absolutely stolen.” Within the first minute, they were yelling. Chaos ensued as people interrupted, argued, and shouted at Richer. Every half minute or so he had to pause for order. When he left, attendees followed him with cellphone cameras, yelled imprecations, banged on his car. Recall that these people had been, a few months earlier, his supporters.

Given the incoherence and sheer lunacy of the accusations and the continued lack of anything that remotely resembled evidence, you have to wonder why belief in Trump’s “Big Lie” persists.

The proofs he had produced, the explanations he had given, the debunking of the lie—none mattered. It was “one of the most dystopian moments of my life,” an eye-opening demonstration of “the extent to which one can speak untruths without any support, and a sizable percentage of the population will believe it.”

By now, Richer could see he was fighting not just frivolous fabulism but the black-hole gravitational pull of a mass disinformation campaign, a version of the “firehose of falsehood” method perfected by Russian propagandists. Such campaigns spew lies, half-truths, exaggerations, and conspiracy theories through every available channel, heedless of consistency or logic or even plausibility. The goal is as much to disorient and demoralize the target population as to inculcate a specific deception. Amid the onrush of misinformation, victims lose any sense of what to believe and whom to trust. It’s no accident that two-thirds of Republicans believe the election was stolen.

The newsletter pointed to the likely outcome of Richer’s experience, which has been mirrored in numerous other states: what sane Republican (assuming  some remain) will run for a position overseeing elections if doing the job properly will subject them to threats and constant harassment? A quick survey of GOP nominees for these positions provides the answer: very few. Instead, most Republican candidates for electoral supervision positions are “Big Lie” proponents.

Clearly, we should all support Democrats running against these candidates. But we should also ask what would it take to disabuse these cultists of a clearly ridiculous lie.

In a famous 1951 experiment, the psychologist Solomon Asch showed how easily humans can be manipulated by social pressure to conform. If everyone else in the room affirms even the most blatant falsehood, we will very often affirm it ourselves, even denying the clear evidence of our own eyes.

But a variation of the Asch experiment gives hope. If only one other person in the room—a single reality ally—tells the truth, the pressure to conform drops sharply and we become much more willing to buck the lie. That is why authoritarian regimes work so furiously to stifle opposition voices, even seemingly weak ones. It is what the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was getting at when he said, “The simple act of an ordinary brave man is not to participate in lies, not to support false actions! His rule: Let that [lie] come into the world, let it even reign supreme—only not through me.”

In Arizona, Stephen Richer was that “ordinary brave man.” We need a lot more Republicans like him, but it doesn’t seem promising…..


How To Suppress The Vote

I recently moderated an online discussion about vote suppression; it followed the showing of “Suppressed and Sabotaged: The Fight to Vote,” a documentary that was eye-opening. It turns out there are lots of ways to suppress votes that most of us don’t think about. The documentary illustrated a number of ways in which vote suppression has become more sophisticated—and less visible—since Reconstruction.

There are two main methods of discouraging the vote. The first is primarily aimed at minorities and poor people, who tend to vote Democratic, and focuses on making it as inconvenient as possible for the targeted people to cast ballots. The second is gerrymandering, which—among other pernicious things—suppresses the votes cast for whichever party is in the minority in a particular district, by convincing people in that party that their votes won’t count, so why bother.

And recently, just in case those methods don’t work, Trump partisans have come up with another tactic, triggered by belief in the “Big Lie.”

The film focused primarily on the first method, just making it more difficult to vote. Some of those tactics included shortening the window for requesting absentee ballots, making it harder to remain on the voter rolls, not sending mail ballots unless people specifically requested them, limiting drop boxes and early voting, closing polling places in minority neighborhoods…and ensuring that the ones that do remain open will have interminable wait times by sending them an insufficient supply of voting machines. (The film showed the enormous disparity in the number of voting machines available at polling places in minority neighborhoods versus white suburban ones.)

There are also a wide number of bureaucratic moves and “inadvertent errors” that can make it more onerous to cast a ballot if you are in a targeted community.

The second method of vote suppression is gerrymandering, which is more destructive of democratic representation than even most of its critics seem to recognize.

Gerrymandering, as you undoubtedly know, is the process of creating as many districts as possible favoring the party that controls the state legislature during redistricting. In some states, that’s the Democrats; in Indiana, it’s Republicans, and they’ve done a very good job of it; Indiana has been identified as one of the five most gerrymandered states. Indiana doesn’t have “one person one vote” because our districts have been drawn so that the rural areas where  most Republican voters live are vastly overrepresented.

As a result, in a depressingly large number of statehouse districts, the incumbent or his chosen successor is unopposed even by a token candidate. If you don’t have a candidate to vote for, why go to the polls? Indiana isn’t unique; In 2021, the Cook Report calculated that only one out of twenty Americans lived in a competitive Congressional District.

If all that wasn’t enough, in several states, Republicans pushing the Big Lie have embarked on yet another method of ensuring the victory of their candidates—placing partisans in the offices responsible for counting the votes. The GOP argues that vote fraud is widespread, despite reliable data showing that it is in fact extremely rare– and that the few scattered incidents that do exist don’t change results. (We also know that, despite hysterical accusations, non-citizens aren’t descending on polling places and casting votes for “the other side.”)

The real danger isn’t coming from people casting improper votes. The threat is that the people controlling the voting rolls and counting those votes will be dishonest, which is why a recent report from the Brennan Center is so concerning. This year, races for Secretary of State—the offices charged with administering the vote– are attract­ing far more atten­tion than in recent memory. And in state after state, including Indiana, those campaigns are focusing on elec­tion denial—Trump’s “Big Lie” as a cent­ral issue.

Money is flow­ing into these races at a rate not seen in recent memory–more than two and a half times the amount raised by the analog­ous point in 2018, and more than five times that of 2014. Brennan reports that elec­tion deniers in Arizona, Geor­gia, and Nevada are currently either in the lead or running a close second in fundrais­ing. National groups and donors are spend­ing on these races, includ­ing Donald Trump’s lead­er­ship PAC and others with ties to efforts to chal­lenge the 2020 result. Donors who haven’t previously given to secret­ary of state candid­ates are suddenly making major contri­bu­tions.

All of this activity is inconsistent with the notion that “We the People” elect our representatives. Instead, partisans—who are mostly but not exclusively Republicans these days— decide which people deserve to have their registrations honored and their votes accurately counted.

Something to think about in the run-up to the midterms…..