Bigoted conservative news outlets are breaking the virtue of free speech
right the wrong
The harm Trump has done to this country – dividing it against itself, undermining faith in the legitimacy of our democratic norms and institutions, threatening the peaceful transfer of power, promoting outrageous and destructive lies that have deceived tens of millions of Americans and normalized the insertion of violence into politics – all of this and more has been made possible by the relentless right-wing propaganda machine that is Fox News. Until we come to terms with the dire reality that a major news network has effectively abandoned the news, abandoned any semblance of an objective report of what really happened, abandoned all fidelity to the facts on which all people reasonable can agree, we will not move away from the existential precipice where we now find ourselves.
Tom Nichols, contributing writer for The Atlantic, observed that the January 6 hearings “are crucial and every American should watch them”, but added that “the alternate reality that approximately forty percent of us live in will never be shattered by real facts”. Fox News, more than any other media organization, bears responsibility for this dismal situation.
By continuing to defend Trump and his supporters, downplaying or simply ignoring the events of January 6 and what led up to it, Fox News is pushing our Republic ever closer to self-dissolution and authoritarianism. It’s not just about Republicans versus Democrats; it is about what kind of regime we are going to live under: whether we are going to renounce the rule of law and sink into the quagmire of neo-fascism and right-wing extremism, where propaganda has supplanted analysis based on proofs ; or whether we will condemn political violence, grandstanding and the cult of personality, and insist that our public servants keep their oath of office and respect our democratic standards, the decisions of our courts and the results of our elections.
Consider the moral cowardice of Fox News host Sean Hannity, who exchanged text messages with Trump’s press secretary Kayleigh McEnany a day after the riot, where Hannity urged “no more crazies” and ” no more stolen campaign speeches” — and in a January 10 text message to former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, Hannity wrote that “[Trump] can no longer talk about the elections. Already. I didn’t have a good call with him today. And worse, I don’t know what else is left to do or say…” Yet Hannity could still dismiss the select committee investigating the January 6 attack as engaging in “the dullest, dullest…gathering of Democratic funds.
The moral damage Fox News is inflicting on America actually goes beyond Jan. 6, and even beyond Trump: Fox News’ prime-time programming — which includes Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham — serves to to relieve the American public of conscience, concern for the welfare of the less fortunate, and commitment to something higher and more worthy than party loyalty. “What if we just abolished unemployment? Ingraham suggested during an interview last year, “Hunger is a pretty powerful thing.”
Fox News, One America News (OAN), Newsmax and talk radio constitute a right-wing media ecosystem and, as a research team based at Harvard University observed: “These reinforce the message, provide platform to the president and marginalize or attack those Republican leaders or any conservative media personalities who insist that there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud…”
In his now classic study, Propaganda, French philosopher Jacques Ellul identifies the specific methods that modern propagandists use to organize a “mass of individuals…through psychological manipulations…to unify the behavior of its members according to a pattern…” and directly influence beliefs, public attitudes and judgments. These techniques include “selective rendering of facts; deliberate use of lies; spreading rumours; descriptions of groups and individuals through stereotypes and innuendo; the invocation of prejudice, fear and hatred among the population; and the relentless repetition of emotionally charged cultural myths and divisive slogans.
We can also add the use of loaded terms, slogans, dog whistles and calls to nationalism. An MIT team, analyzing propaganda techniques in the news, points to the use of logical fallacies – such as straw men (the misrepresentation of the other’s position), red herrings (the provision of irrelevance), false dichotomies (offering two alternatives as the only possibilities), and whataboutism (a diversionary tactic to avoid addressing a problem directly).
Whataboutism deserves closer scrutiny as it’s becoming ubiquitous among Republicans — perhaps unsurprising given that it’s certainly Trump’s “favorite dodge.” This is one of the fundamental rules by which he operates: when you are criticized, say that someone else is worse. In an interview with Trump, Bill O’Reilly asserts the obvious fact that “Putin is a killer”, and who can forget Trump’s answer: “There are a lot of killers. You have many killers. What, you think our country is so innocent? It’s classic whataboutism. And it’s also of course all over Fox News’ most popular programming.
For example, when Biden denounced the insurgency as “the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War,” Tucker Carlson’s response was “Really? The worst attack on our democracy in 160 years? What about the Immigration Act of 1965? Carlson refers to the Hart-Celler Act which ended the national origin quota system and effectively banished racial discrimination from immigration policy: thus, according to his insane logic, a legitimate anti-racism law is a plus. great affront to democracy than the attempt to overthrow a free and fair election.
Thankfully, we are starting to see some of the network carriers realizing the damage these right-wing propaganda machines are doing to our culture, beliefs, and political discourse. The three right-wing media organizations mentioned above are discovering that there can indeed be a high price for the systematic dissemination of false information and outright propaganda: they have all been hit with billion-dollar lawsuits by Dominion Voting Machines, which accuses them of “disseminating conspiracy theories that he rigged the presidential election against Donald Trump and skewed the results in favor of current President Joe Biden,” according to Newsweek.
In another blow to these masters of spreading fake news, Verizon will stop airing One America News on its Fios TV service starting Saturday. This so-called media outlet has been spreading the wildest lies about the legitimacy of the 2020 election. Verizon’s decision to drop OAN was preceded by AT&T’s earlier decision in April to drop OAN. The decisions of both carriers will undoubtedly inflict massive financial losses on the network, which is overdue considering the untold harm they have inflicted on our country.
What Verizon and AT&T have done is admirable. Now is the time for them and many other operators such as Comcast, Spectrum and DirecTV to consider ditching the biggest culprit of all: fake and manipulative media Fox News. This would send a clear message to all right-wing media who they will no longer carry fake news and poisonous propaganda who polarize the public, instill hatred and mistrust and promote conspiracy theories, all in the name of free speech, no matter what horrendous harm they inflict on our democracy.