The harm that Trump has done to this country – dividing it against itself, undermining trust in the legitimacy of our democratic norms and institutions, threatening the peaceful transfer of power, promoting outrageous and destructive lies that have misled 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 reckon with the disastrous reality that a major news network has effectively abandoned the news, abandoned any semblance of objectively reporting what in fact has occurred, abandoned any fidelity to facts upon which all reasonable people can agree, we will not pull ourselves away from the existential precipice where we now find ourselves.
Tom Nichols, contributing writer to The Atlantic, observed that the January 6 hearings “are crucial and every American should be watching them,” but added that “the alternate reality that about forty percent of us live in will never be breached by actual facts.” Fox News, more than any other media organization, bears responsibility for this dismal state of affairs.
By continuing to defend Trump and his followers, downplaying, or simply ignoring the events of January 6 and what led up to it, Fox News is pressing our Republic ever closer to self-dissolution and authoritarianism. This is not simply about Republicans versus Democrats; it is about what kind of regime we are going to live under: whether we will forfeit the rule of law and sink into the quagmire of neo-fascism and right-wing extremism, where propaganda has supplanted evidence-based analysis; or whether we will condemn political violence, demagoguery and the cult of personality, and insist that our public officials uphold their oaths of office and abide by our democratic norms, the rulings 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 crazy people” and “no more stolen election talk” – and in a January 10 text message to former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, Hannity wrote that “[Trump] can’t mention the election again. Ever. I did not have a good call with him today. And worse, I’m not sure what is left to do or say…” Yet Hannity could still dismiss the Select Committee investigating the January 6 attack as engaging in “the dullest, the most boring… Democratic fund-raiser.”
The moral harm that Fox News is inflicting on America goes in fact beyond January 6, and even beyond Trump: The Fox News primetime lineup – which includes Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham – is serving to unburden the American public of conscience, concern for the welfare of the less fortunate, and commitment to something higher and worthier than party loyalty. “What if we just cut off 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 the president a platform, 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 its member’s behavior according to a pattern…” and directly influence the public’s beliefs, attitudes, and judgments. These techniques include “the selective rendering of facts; deliberate use of falsehoods; spreading of rumors; descriptions of groups and individuals through stereotyping and innuendo; the invocation of prejudice, fear, and hatred within the populace; and the incessant repetition of emotionally laden cultural myths and divisive slogans.”
We may also add the use of loaded terms, watchwords, dog whistles, and appeals to nationalism. A team at MIT, analyzing propaganda techniques in the news, underscores the use of logical fallacies – such as strawmen (the misrepresentation of the other’s position), red herrings (the provision of irrelevancies), false dichotomies (offering two alternatives as the only possibilities), and whataboutism (a diversionary tactic to avoid directly addressing an issue).
Whataboutism is worth considering more closely because it is becoming ubiquitous among Republicans – perhaps this is not surprising given that it is certainly Trump’s “favorite dodge.” It 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 states the obvious fact that “Putin is a killer,” and who can forget Trump’s response: “There are a lot of killers. You got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?” That is classic whataboutism. And it is also of course all over Fox News’ most popular line-up.
For example, when Biden denounced the insurrection 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? How about the Immigration Act of 1965?” Carlson is referring to the Hart-Celler Act which brought an end to the national origins quota system and effectively banned racial discrimination from immigration policy: so, by his inane logic, a legitimate anti-racist law constitutes a greater affront to democracy than the attempt to overthrow a free and fair election.
Fortunately, we are beginning to see some of the network carriers awaken to the damage that these right-wing propaganda machines are causing to our culture, beliefs, and political discourse. The three right-wing media organizations noted above are discovering that there may indeed be a steep price for systematically spreading misinformation and bald-faced propaganda: they have all been hit with billion-dollar lawsuits by Dominion Voting Machines, which accuses them of “spreading conspiracy theories that it rigged the presidential election against Donald Trump and skewed results in favor of now-President Joe Biden,” according to Newsweek.
In another blow to these masters of spreading fake news, Verizon will stop carrying One America News on its Fios television service beginning Saturday. This so-called news outlet has been spreading the most outlandish lies about the legitimacy of the 2020 elections. Verizon’s decision to drop OAN was preceded by AT&T’s earlier decision in April to ditch OAN. The decisions of the two carriers will undoubtedly inflict massive financial losses to the network, which is overdue given the unspeakable harm they have inflicted on our country.
What Verizon and AT&T have done is admirable. Now it is time for them and many other carriers such as Comcast, Spectrum, and DirecTV to consider dropping the biggest culprit of all—the fake and manipulative media outlet Fox News. This would send a clear message to all right-wing news outlets that they will no longer be the carrier of fake news and poisonous propaganda that polarize the public, instill hatred and distrust, and promote conspiracy theories, all in the name of free speech, regardless of the horrific harm they inflict on our democracy.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a retired professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He taught courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies for over 20 years.