Tag Archives: Fox News

The Fox Effect

There’s clearly a lot that could be said about former President Trump’s lunch with one full-fledged Neo-Nazi and and one wanna-be Nazi, and most of it has been said or written. I won’t add my two cents to the reactions, except to say that I agree with the two most common ones: Trump’s anti-Semitism is disgusting but hardly a surprise to anyone who follows the news even superficially; and the most telling element of this whole sordid story was the lack of pushback–or even comment–from most Republicans.

Far and away the best comment I’ve come across, and the impetus for this post, was an observation by the Daily Show’s Trevor Noah.

Everyone agrees that Nick Fuentes should not be having dinner with former president Donald Trump. He’s much better suited to be a host on Fox News.

The Daily Show followed up with an absolutely devastating “mash up” of speeches by Nick Fuentes, the Neo-Nazi, and various Fox News personalities, including  its most reliable and prominent bigot, Tucker Carlson. You really need to click through and watch it, and then consider the effect of Fox’s poison on its (largely elderly) audience.

There is a reason President Biden has identified Fox as one of the most destructive forces in the world, and Rupert Murdock as the most dangerous man in America. 

As the linked report shows, four elements make Fox News a” uniquely damaging part of the American news landscape: its strength on the political right, the demonstrated way in which it shapes its viewers’ beliefs, its grip on Republican power and the views of its leadership.”

A national poll conducted by he Washington Post and the University of Maryland looked at where people with varying political ideologies get their news about politics and government. Researchers found that  Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents consulted a reasonably wide variety of essentially mainstream sources. At least three out of ten of that group identified CNN, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, NPR, the Times, and/or The Post as  their main sources of news.

Among most Republicans, though, only two sources were identified: local television and Fox News.

Cable-news viewership skews toward demographics that are more Republican in the first place, and CNN and MSNBC are fighting for a similar base of viewers — viewers who also partake of news from other outlets. Fox News’s strength with 43 percent of the country (the percentage that is Republican or Republican-leaning independent, according to Gallup) gives it a distinct advantage in ratings.

Most Americans don’t care about ratings, of course. So it’s important to put this in a more useful context: Fox News has a larger audience than its competitors — an audience that is largely politically homogeneous. And new research reinforces that this homogeneity is not solely a function of Republicans choosing Fox News but of the network filtering what it shows its viewers.

In other words, Fox chooses what it presents as “news”–and what it omits.

Another recent study paid  a group of regular Fox viewers to watch CNN, then compared  how those viewers understood news events with how a control group of Fox News viewers understood them. The study found “large effects on attitudes and policy preferences about COVID-19” and in “evaluations of Donald Trump and Republican candidates and elected officials.”

Participants in the experiment even grew to recognize the way in which Fox News presents reality: “group participants became more likely to agree that if Donald Trump made a mistake, Fox News would not cover it — i.e., that Fox News engages in partisan coverage filtering.”

Researchers also found that much of what Fox News did show was exaggerated or untrue.

There is a growing body of research confirming that Fox is a propaganda outlet serving the GOP, and not a real news organization–a conclusion brilliantly supported in the Daily Show mash-up.

To belabor the point: where people get their news matters–which explains the considerable concern  generated by Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter. In pursuit of his profound misunderstanding of the First Amendment’s Free Speech clause,  Musk has opened the Twitter floodgates–the frequency of racist tweets and hate speech has grown significantly. 

Twitter has thus joined Fox in normalizing bigotry and incivility. Those of us who were already worried that Twitter was shortening attention spans and increasing Americans’ tendency to substitute bumper-sticker memes for thoughtful debate, now see the platform exacerbating racial and religious divisions and reinforcing pernicious stereotypes. 

The social media admonition not to feed the trolls seems appropriate here. In a very real sense, both Fox News and Twitter are America’s trolls. Somehow, we need to figure out how to keep people from feeding them.

Given the undeniable lure of confirmation bias, it won’t be easy.

 

 

What Can We Do About Fox?

I subscribe to a newsletter from Tom Nichols, a non-crazy conservative who writes for the Atlantic, among other outlets. Nichols recently addressed a problem that pretty much everyone who isn’t crazy recognizes: Fox “News.”

Nichols taught at the Naval War College for 25 years; he worked closely with many American military officers, and he has become increasingly worried about the danger of extremism in the ranks–a situation made worse, in his view, by the fact that Fox is the “default channel in so many military installations.

The overlap between Fox and even more-extreme outlets such as Newsmax and One America News Network, a slew of right-wing internet sites, and talk radio is part of a closed information ecosystem that affects the military no less than it does American society at large. Many years ago, I defended the emergence of Fox as an antidote to the politically homogeneous center-left tilt of the established American media. (Please spare me too much caviling here about media bias back in the Good Old Days; it was less of a menace than conservatives depicted it, but more of a reality than liberals were sometimes willing to admit.)

But things change: Fox is no longer an additional source of news and opinion. It is, instead, a steady stream of conspiracy theories and rage-bait, especially in prime time.

As Nichols explains, there is a significant and important difference between different views held by people who have reached opposing conclusions about various issues and people whose opinions aren’t derived from anything that might remotely be considered evidence or fact.

I am increasingly concerned, however, that what comes from Fox and similar outlets these days is not a “view” so much as an attack on reality itself. As Russian dissident Garry Kasparov has noted, modern propaganda isn’t designed “only to misinform or push an agenda”; it is meant to “exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth,” a good description of how Fox and similar outlets now present their programming… …To watch Fox for an extended amount of time is to go on an excursion into an alternate reality of paranoia and fury, to plunge into a hurricane of anger that shapes views by defying logic and evidence.

I agree. So–I repeat the question with which I’ve been approaching most of the issues of our day: what can/should we do?

Nichols’ response echoes generations of First Amendment case law: the answer to bad speech is more and better speech. More openness, not censorship. Nichols insists that the  answer to an authoritarian challenge cannot be more authoritarianism. (He also dismisses the predictable calls to bring back the Fairness Doctrine–calls from people who clearly don’t understand what that doctrine did and didn’t do. The Fairness Doctrine was a  1949 rule, finally discarded in 1987, that applied ONLY to broadcast channels owned by the government. Ownership allowed government to attach conditions to the lease of those airwaves–attempting to apply it to cable or other privately owned means of communication would violate the First Amendment.)

I used to share with students something I called my “refrigerator theory of Free Speech”–like the forgotten leftover in the back of your refrigerator now covered in green fuzz, suppressed ideas will eventually smell the place up. Put those same leftovers in bright sunlight, and their stench is baked out.  The marketplace of ideas can’t function properly unless there’s verbal sunlight, and freedom of speech requires that We the People participate in that marketplace and produce that sunlight–in this case, more and better speech.

As Nichols says,

No matter how much you don’t like it, you cannot ban, censor, or silence Fox. It’s that simple. You can choose not to watch it and encourage others to do likewise—which can have more impact than you might think. Another possibility is for businesses and institutions to choose neutral programming in common areas such as sports or weather, as military exchanges (stores for military personnel) did in 2019.

He is absolutely right–and that’s what’s so incredibly frustrating. Bottom line, rescuing our democracy necessarily depends upon the efforts of millions of reasonable Americans to combat the hatreds, fears and racial grievances that motivate the members of today’s GOP cult and provide the content of its propaganda arms.

Ultimately, America’s survival as a democratic republic will come down to whether good people–including genuine conservatives–outnumber, outvote and occasionally out-yell the White Nationalists, theocrats and other angry, frightened people who are the target audience of outlets like Fox “News.”

There’s no guarantee those good people will prevail…..and that’s what is so terrifying….

 

Perspectives…

During family gatherings, one of my sons often retells the story of a long-ago visit to the Rice Museum in Georgetown, South Carolina, and an accompanying tour guide/docent’s  description of a couple of the displays. (Docent may be an overly grand title; the museum is tiny and its displays are, shall we say, homegrown).Georgetown was the rice capital of the world back in the 1700s, and as we viewed a painting of Black folks working in a rice field, she explained that one of the most egregious injustices of the Civil War was the fact that, when the slaves were freed, plantation owners weren’t compensated for the loss of their property.

In her view, if the government was going to deprive them of the use of their “property,” it had an obligation to reimburse them…

At the time–well over twenty years ago– it was all I could do to keep my son from delivering  some very non-genteel observations about the definition of property. The incident clearly made an impression on him, because every so often he still marvels at the culture that led this otherwise pleasant-seeming woman to view other human beings as the equivalent of cattle and their “appropriation” as tantamount to theft.

I thought about that incident when I read a Talking Points Memo report on a recent Fox “News” segment. Here’s the lede:

Today’s little Fox News gem was a segment on what a huge bummer it is to visit Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello these days, what with all the focus on slavery and what not at what was built as a slave plantation.

A bow-tied, bespectacled guest for the segment was billed hilariously in one chyron as a “recent Monticello visitor.” Turns out there’s a little more to the story.

The bow-tied visitor–one Jeffrey Tucker– complained that even Monticello hadn’t been protected from “this disease of wokeism.” It turned out that Tucker had some history of his own–and that history was illuminating.

One thing about the internet–once something is posted, it is there forever…(I hope that’s true of those deleted Secret Service texts. But I digress.)

A 20-year-old report by the Southern Poverty Law Center about the Neo-Confederate movement had identified Tucker as a founding member of something called the League of the South–a proudly racist organization. He denied being a founder, but he was listed on the League’s Web page as a “founding member,” and he has written for League publications. Furthermore, several League members have lectured at events held by Tucker’s Ludwig von Mises Institute.

As the story from Talking Points Memo concluded,

Tucker’s star turn on today’s Fox segment came just a few days after he served as a named source for a New York Post story headlined “Monticello is going woke — and trashing Thomas Jefferson’s legacy in the process.”

It’s usually a little more difficult to pinpoint the origins of the newest right wing hobbyhorse. Tucker’s presence makes this one easy.

On the right, “going woke” is a current, favorite slur. (A recent, contending meme floating around defines “woke” individuals as people “who didn’t sleep through science and history classes.”)

We all occupy informational and value bubbles. In my bubble, where conversations tend (mostly but admittedly not always) to be based on credible, verifiable evidence,  a recurring discussion revolves around the question “how can any sane person believe [fill in the blank].

It’s one thing to recognize the political lens through which MSNBC and CNN, among others, view events. It is exceedingly misleading to equate that perspective with the out and proud dishonesty of outlets like Fox and OAN. There is a significant difference between a point of view and the constant dissemination of intentional propaganda carefully crafted for, and aimed at, a constituency desperate to confirm belief in a patently false narrative.

Apparently, it would take something like cult deprogramming to dislodge the profoundly racist paradigms through which far too many Americans continue to view the world. We can only hope that most of the Americans who continue to embrace that worldview are elderly and will eventually die off–leaving Fox and its clones with a significantly smaller audience for their deliberate disinformation.

I’m a member of that older cohort, but I’m convinced it’s past time to turn the levers of government over to a younger generation. If my former students were representative, they were far more inclusive, far less credulous, and far more concerned with the common good than my cranky and curmudgeonly generation.

Omens

Readers of this blog frequently send me articles I am unlikely to have seen; often, those are from their local papers (where such papers still exist). I keep the ones I find interesting in a file, and from time to time, I review them.  Often, the saved articles no longer seem relevant, but sometimes, the opinions expressed and predictions made are even more meaningful than when I first saw them.

That was the case with “Early Warning Signs,” an essay from the Madison, Wisconsin Capital Times. Published in March of 2021, the essay began

You’ve likely grown numb to daily outrages by the Republican Party of Donald Trump. You’ve given up hope that at some magical moment, when some line is crossed, masses of educated, intelligent people who identify as Republicans will gently slap their foreheads and say enough is enough.

Enough of the lies about stolen elections, the denial of facts and the rejection of expertise. Enough with a party that has morphed from being about personal responsibility and limited government to one primarily about grievance.

The author then looked back, to see whether incidents” that seemed innocuous at the time” might actually have been “harbingers of catastrophic dysfunction.” He identified three: the vast number of threats to the life of then-candidate Obama that required Secret Service protection much earlier than had been the case with previous Presidential candidates; John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate; and the rise of  Rush Limbaugh and “hate radio.”

The volume of threats against Obama–then a little-known Senator–was very clearly prompted by the racism and racial grievance that has become far more visible since his Presidency.

Here in 2021, one can see the direct line from there to a party whose white supremacist faction carries Confederate flags, including inside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection. Is it any wonder that after eight years of fury about a Black man being president that those boiling with racial hatred would come to worship a racist like Trump?

The choice of Palin–and especially the GOP base’s response to that choice– was the moment when it “became OK for a politician to just exalt in ignorance.” The author quoted Obama’s recent book:

“What became abundantly clear as soon as Sarah Palin stepped into the spotlight was that on just about every subject relevant to governing the country she had absolutely no idea what the hell she was talking about,” he wrote.

“I noticed from the start that her incoherence didn’t seem to matter to the vast majority of Republicans; in fact, anytime she crumbled under questioning by a journalist, they seemed to view it as proof of a liberal conspiracy.”

Like they did with Ronald Reagan years earlier, Republicans said the self-described “hockey mom” had “good instincts” and would grow into the job, Obama wrote. “It was, of course, a sign of things to come, a larger, darker reality in which partisan affiliation and political expedience would threaten to blot out everything.”

As the essayist noted, it’s a straight line from Palin to Trump and to Marjorie Taylor Greene and her ilk.

With his choice of a third omen, the writer echoed my frequent lament about the sea-change in America’s media environment, a change foreshadowed by  the emergence of Rush Limbaugh. As he noted, Limbaugh  sounded “Trumpian 25 years before Trump became president.”

Limbaugh introduced a formula for ratings success that many others would ape: giving voice to the cultural grievances of older, uneducated White guys. After the creation of Fox News–which was specifically and very consciously aimed at the anger of that same demographic–it became acceptable to openly express, and defend, ignorance, racism, homophobia and misogyny.

And so here we are.

There may have been other signs, other omens we missed, but it’s hard to argue with the three chosen by this writer. That, of course, leads me to wonder what omens we are currently missing.

The overturning of Roe is clearly one of those–but will it trigger a return of respect for women’s autonomy, or a march toward Gilead?

The revelations of the January 6th Committee could prompt a return to serious, democratic governance–or fail to halt the next coup effort by proponents of the Big Lie.

The astonishing overreach of the Supreme Court’s hobbling of the EPA  (not to mention the ability of all executive branch agencies to issue regulations) could generate  environmental energy–or be a harbinger of planetary doom.

That’s the problem with omens–you can’t tell where they’re pointing until after the fact.

 

If I Were A Rich (Wo)Man

Sometimes I fantasize about what I would do if I was really, really rich–Bezos or Musk or Gates rich, or even Bloomberg rich. I’d concentrate on the single most destructive aspect of America’s current malaise: our information environment.

I’d start by buying Fox News, Sinclair and the other propaganda outfits masquerading as “news.” Then I’d set up a foundation with a single goal: revitalizing local news organizations. Real ones, practicing professional, ethical journalism. Bezos had the right idea when he purchased the Washington Post and gave it serious financial resources, but that is only one newspaper, and it’s national.

It’s also not read by the substantial number of Americans who are insulated from reality.

David French is a conservative–one of the dwindling number of sane ones. He has a newsletter, and in the wake of the first January 6 Committee hearing, he explained why so many Republicans remain impervious to the truth, not only of what happened on January 6th, but utterly unaware of the sordid reality of the Trump Presidency.

French isn’t just a conservative and an Evangelical: he explains that he lives in a deep-Red state, and has friends and multiple family members who are devout Trumpers (a term he doesn’t use), and has engaged in numerous conversations with them.

I don’t know how to link to the newsletter, but here is the gist of his explanation.

Let’s put this all together and apply it to ordinary Republican views of January 6. First, they’re going to know a lot less about the Trump team’s misconduct than you might think. Mention the John Eastman memos that urged Vice President Pence to reject Joe Biden’s electoral-vote majority, and many will shake their heads. Never heard of it.

Bring up Trump’s infamous phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and they’re mystified. They simply don’t know that the president threatened Georgia’s top election official with criminal prosecution and demanded that he “find” the votes necessary to change the outcome of the state’s presidential election.

I could go on and on. They don’t know about Trump’s effort to create a slate of shadow electors. They don’t know anything about Steve Bannon’s “Operation Green Bay Sweep,” the plan he developed with Peter Navarro to leverage the objections of more than 100 GOP members of Congress to delay election certification.

It all comes back to information–or in this case, the lack thereof–and the pervasiveness of Rightwing propaganda. I am convinced that without Fox “News,” the cult that is today’s GOP would shrink considerably. Yes, we’d still have White Christian Supremicists and QAnon crazies and the like, but we’d have far few people living in an alternate reality.

So I’d start by cleaning up the information environment.

As important as it is to do something about the unprecedented levels of disinformation being spewed daily by the propaganda mills, however, citizens also need a context–an accurate context–within which to process facts and evidence. So I would also devote a lot of my imaginary money to the nation’s public school systems, and the development of curricula that would facilitate critical thinking–at least, the ability to recognize what constitutes probative evidence and what doesn’t. (And civics, of course!) I’d use my riches to counter those who are bleeding America’s essential public schools in order to send those resources to private–primarily religious–institutions that largely perpetuate tribalism and ignore civic responsibility.

And finally (remember, in my imagination, I would be very, very rich), I would create entertainments intended to influence the culture and reinforce human virtues–television shows depicting people being appreciated for traits like humility and integrity, comic books for young people showcasing admirable behaviors, music extolling friendship, inclusion and community…

Ah, well. A girl can dream…

There’s a line from Tevya’s song in Fiddler on the Roof  that has always seemed to me to be a big part of our problems.  Tevye sings that, if he was rich, all the men in his village would come to him for advice, and it wouldn’t matter if he answered right or wrong, “because when you’re rich, they think you really know” An embarrassing number of people thought Trump must be smart because he was rich, and simply ignored all the evidence to the contrary. Today’s rich–the one-percenters who are calling the shots these days– include both nice and not-so-nice people. Some are truly talented; others are blowhards and entitled know-nothings.

I wish a couple of the good ones would buy Fox “News.”