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!


The Power Of Malevolence

Situations I am powerless to change make me crazy. Like most “control freaks” (my children’s all-too-accurate accusation), I’m okay with life problems that are fixable; tell me the only way to solve X is to climb mountain Y, and I’ll pull on my hiking boots. But the problems that most frequently make their way onto this blog are of a different order.

I think I have a lot of company among the ordinary citizens of this country and world. Unlike the self-styled revolutionaries on the radical Right, who far too often think possession of an AR 15 makes them powerful, we see ourselves as well-meaning individuals with very limited abilities to effect social or political change–as small cogs in the machineries of our respective societies.

Some individuals, however, do exercise disproportionate power–and the ways in which they do so illuminate an important imperative– the need to dismantle global oligarchies. For every “nice” billionaire whose philanthropies the powerless applaud and encourage, a darker mogul is making the world a much worse place.

Rupert Murdock is a prime example. A while back, an essay by Thom Hartmann in Common Dreams enumerated the multiple ways in which Murdock has worked to destroy democracy worldwide. Here’s the lede:

What country in its right mind would allow a foreign entity to come into their country, set up a major propaganda operation, and then use it to so polarize that nation that its very government suffers a violent assault and its democracy finds itself at a crossroads?

Apparently, the United States. And we’re not the first, according to former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Writing for The Sydney Morning Herald (the Australian equivalent of The New York Times) Rudd called Rupert Murdoch and his rightwing news operations “the greatest cancer on the Australian democracy.”

“The uncomfortable truth is,” Rudd wrote, “since the coup of June 2010, Australian politics has become vicious, toxic and unstable. The core question is why?”

Hartmann points out that Murdoch’s empire isn’t really a news organization–that it most resembles and operates as a political party, “acting in pursuit of clearly defined commercial interests, in addition to his far-right ideological world view.”

Brexit–which is currently wreaking economic havoc in the UK–would never have passed without the propaganda promulgated by the newspapers and media owned by Murdock in that country.

In the U.S., Fox News has from its inception been the political echo chamber of the far Right. It’s unlikely that the GOP’s devolution into the Trump party would have occurred without Fox’s deliberate campaigns of misinformation and propaganda.

Murdoch’s positions aren’t at all ambiguous, Rudd noted. They’re simply pro-billionaire/pro-oligarch and thus, by extension, anti-democracy.

“In Australia, as in America,” he wrote, “Murdoch has campaigned for decades in support of tax cuts for the wealthy, killing action on climate change and destroying anything approximating multiculturalism.
“Given Murdoch’s impact on the future of our democracy,” Rudd added, “it’s time to revisit it.”

Hartmann quotes Steve Schmidt, former advisor to George W. Bush and John McCain, and now a “Never Trumper”:

“Rupert Murdoch’s lie machine is directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans, the poisoning of our democracy and the stoking of a cold civil war. There has never been anything like it and it is beyond terrible for the country. Bar none, Rupert Murdoch is the worst and most dangerous immigrant to ever arrive on American soil. There are no words for the awfulness of his cancerous network.”

What Hartmann’s essay does well is illuminate the danger oligarchies pose  to the planet and those of us who live on it. When a few people control the overwhelming majority of wealth and power in a society, it is suicidal to simply hope for their benevolence.

What Hartmann’s essay fails to do is offer a remedy–and that brings me back to my opening admission. What do we do–what can we do– about the cancer of Fox “News” and its clones? Past comments have stressed the importance of education in critical thinking, and that is surely part of the long-term answer.

If we make it to the long term.

We need to cut the oligarchy off at its knees sooner rather than later–and that will require a significant  increase in tax rates for the oligarchs, along with an international effort to eradicate the various tax havens that allow these predators to hide their assets.

That won’t happen in the U.S. until the mindless cult that was once a political party is resoundingly rejected.  At this point, our overriding need is to defeat the GOP monster that Murdock’s excessive power has created and maintained.

All individuals can do is work to get out the vote. It will have to be enough.



Ever since Kellyanne Conway introduced “alternative facts” into the political lexicon, I’ve been bemused–and concerned–about the numerous Americans who choose to live in alternate realities. And I do think that residing in Cuckoo Land is usually a choice.

Trump’s victory in 2016 was due to a variety of social and political dysfunctions–most obviously, the Electoral College–but also the influence of QAnon. Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals continue to analyze the reasons some people are susceptible to conspiracy theories that strike most of us as bizarre and ridiculous (Jewish space lasers??), but I’ve been focusing on a somewhat different question.

How have modern communication technologies and the Internet fostered the embrace of these “alternate” and often internally-inconsistent world-views?

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times considered that question through the lens of Dominion’s settlement with Fox “News.” The essay noted the voluminous revelations from discovery in the case, and reminded readers that those revelations not only disclosed a great deal about Fox and its relationship with the Republican Party, but also about its relationship with “a political tradition on the right that goes back decades.”

What may not be so obvious following the revelations in the Dominion suit is that many people at Fox are often engaged with a set of deeper forces at play — and these forces most likely helped trigger the case in the first place.

Fox has both promulgated and become subsumed by an alternative political tradition — perhaps most notoriously embodied by the John Birch Society in the 1960s — in which the far right, over decades, has challenged mainstream conservatism on core issues like isolationism, racism, the value of experts and expertise, violent rhetoric and conspiracism.

The Republican Party and the American right’s ability to police extremists was never particularly robust, but whatever guardrails they provided have become diminished through the years. Fox helped break the American right.

As a number of pundits have noted, Fox and its viewers currently have a symbiotic relationship. The views of Fox’s audience are “rooted in the nation’s traditions and culture, and in the far right’s in particular.” What is different today is that those views “have been modernized and mainstreamed by a variety of factors like technology, social media and economic incentives.”

In other words–as a number of observers have noted–Fox no longer controls the beliefs of its audience. The audience controls Fox.

After the 2020 election, fed a diet of lies by Mr. Trump and his lawyers, Fox’s viewers found a community of the like-minded in the notion that liberal enemies had stolen the election and destroyed America. They shared a code that adds fuel to far-right conspiracy theories: The nation’s chief enemies come from within, and the plots are hatched by powerful elites.

This strain of paranoia has deep roots on the American right. It was true of McCarthyism, which blamed State Department traitors for the “loss of China” to Communism. And it resonated with many members of the John Birch Society, a group that flourished in the 1960s, devoted to weeding out Communism from American life. Birchers, too, championed ideas that today’s Fox viewers find persuasive: The plot against America was orchestrated by liberals, State Department types, journalists and other elites out to destroy the country.

Another pattern that surfaced in the Fox revelations: Just as Mr. Carlson, Ms. Ingraham and Sean Hannity dismissed the Big Lie in private while giving airtime to Mr. Trump’s conspiracism in public, some Birchers questioned or played down the conspiracy theories of Robert Welch, a retired candy manufacturer and founder of the group, while remaining true to the Bircher mission and sticking by it.

The essay reminds us that Birchers also attained considerable power in their day, but the transformation of the GOP and the influence of cable  television have empowered the distributors of delusion far beyond that exercised by the Birchers.

A critical difference between the experience of the Birchers and Fox and its audience today is that the Republican Party, at times, was willing and able to push Birchers and their ideas to the margins, where they remained for years. Today, the party seems neither willing nor able to police the extremes: It cannot control a national megaphone for Bircher-esque views and, as important, the way companies like Fox monetize them.

Fox began by selling a product that met a perceived demand–but its survival is now tethered to its viewers’ delusional beliefs. The concluding paragraphs of the opinion piece remind us that when the Birch Society became even more extreme, it fizzled out–but the Birchers didn’t have Fox, Elon Musk’s Twitter, social media and a zillion wack-a-doodle Internet sites– and even apps— to sustain it.

As that saying goes, history doesn’t always repeat: sometimes it just rhymes.


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.


Business? Or Profession?

I suppose it comes down to ethics, and the different ethical concerns applicable to different ways of making one’s living.

If I were to open a shop, my primary focus would be on my bottom line. I would certainly be obliged to operate honestly, and to treat my customers and employees fairly, but the primary focus of  business is making a profit. 

We have the right to expect doctors, lawyers, and other professionals to abide by additional ethical obligations–standards appropriate to the practice of those professions.

Journalism is one such profession–and when major news organizations are owned and managed by entrepreneurs focused solely on the bottom line, citizens are robbed of one of the most important protections of small-d democracy. When a purportedly “fair and balanced” media ignores any obligation to truthfulness in order to make money pandering to the biases of a designated portion of the population, the result is increased polarization leading to civic unrest and even violence.

Which brings me to recent revelations about Fox “News.”

In the weeks after the 2020 election, Fox News faced an existential crisis. The top-rated cable news network had alienated its Donald Trump-loving viewers with an accurate election night prediction for Joe Biden and was facing a terrifying ratings slide, not to mention the ire of a once-loyal president.
Concern came from the very top: “Everything at stake here,” Rupert Murdoch messaged Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott.
The billionaire founder was eager to see the Republican candidate prevail in the coming Senate runoff in Georgia — “helping any way we can,” he wrote. But he also advised Scott to keep an eye on the uptick in ratings for a smaller, more conservative channel whose election skepticism suddenly seemed to be resonating with pro-Trump viewers.
Newly released messages show Fox executives fretting that month over an uncomfortable revelation: that if they told their audience the truth about the election, it could destroy their business model.

It is one thing to protect the Free Speech rights of news outlets and reporters who are simply mistaken, or for commentators to report matters that they believe to be true, even when they aren’t. But Fox folks weren’t mistaken. They knew they were lying. The network abandoned its professional obligations in order to protect its bottom line. It gave its audience the lies that audience wanted desperately to believe.

What Fox’s loyal viewers wanted to watch — and what Fox News was willing to do to keep them — emerged this week as a central question in a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit brought against the network by Dominion Voting Systems.

As it conducted discovery in that lawsuit, Dominion uncovered reams of internal correspondence and other evidence, information that became  public last week via a court filing. The evidence showed Fox executives and on-air stars privately dismissing  the “wild and false claims of a stolen election” that they proceeded to promote on air.

“Sidney Powell is lying,” prime-time star Tucker Carlson wrote to his producer about a Trump lawyer who had appeared on Fox and spewed baseless accusations. “There is NO evidence of fraud,” anchor Bret Baier wrote to one of his bosses.

The linked article quotes from numerous internal communications demonstrating that Fox willingly and knowingly lied in order to protect its “market share.” 

As another article on the disclosures reported, a network executive in charge of prime-time programming warned that Newsmax’s brand of “conspiratorial reporting might be exactly what the disgruntled [Fox News Channel] viewer is looking for.” As a result, he added, Fox should not “ever give viewers a reason to turn us off. Every topic and guest must perform.”

A lawyer who knowingly misrepresented the law in order to keep a paying client would risk being disbarred. A doctor who knowingly misdiagnosed a patient in order to keep the dollars flowing would risk losing his medical license. Although the Society of Professional Journalists has promulgated a Code of Ethics, I am aware of no similar enforcement mechanism.

The  primary ethical obligation of  journalists–as set out in that Code of Ethics–is to: Seek Truth and Report It. That includes fact-checking, not intentionally distorting information, identifying sources, avoiding stereotypes, and supporting the open exchange of opinions. Most non-MAGA Americans already understood that Fox disdains and ignores those ethical obligations, but it is really stunning to read internal communications showing utter contempt for truth or fidelity to fact.

In the absence of a professional body able to impose sanctions for blatant ethical violations, Dominion’s lawsuit has done America a great service. Whether the unarguable evidence will be sufficient to awaken even a small percentage Fox’s devoted MAGA viewers is, of course, a different question.