Fox News Climbed Up by Dragging America Down
Once upon a time, the network at least tried to appear “fair and balanced.” That ship has sailed.
I often dream of taking the DeLorean time machine back to October 7, 1996, the official launch of Fox News over 25 years ago.
Would I have been able to save American democracy, truth, vaccines, and horses in desperate need of ivermectin if I intervened and warned about the destructive effect of the new conservative news channel started by Rupert Murdoch, an Australian immigrant and media tycoon, and Roger Ailes, a right-wing political strategist and cultural warrior? Would family members have been able to save their relatives from being radicalized and weaponized by this right-wing propaganda network cosplaying as a news channel?
Would media and political gatekeepers have then start listening to the people of color, media experts, and scholars who had been continuously warning about normalizing the conservative media ecosystem, whose viewers would eventually renounce a life-saving vaccine, reject legitimate election results, and end up supporting violent insurrectionists who overtook the US Capitol a quarter century later?
Probably not. First, fear and hate sell. Just listen to the Facebook whistleblower’s Senate testimony this week or former CBS President Les Moonves’ admission in 2016 that Trump “may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS.”
It’s apparently really good for AT&T as well, which according to a recent stunning revelation, helped inspire the creation of One America News Network (OAN), Trump’s favorite right-wing channel that continues to promote COVID-19 conspiracies and Trump’s “big lie” about the 2020 election. “They told us they wanted a conservative network,” Robert Herring Sr, OAN founder and chief executive, said during a 2019 deposition. “They only had one, which was Fox News, and they had seven others on the other side. When they said that, I jumped to it and built one.” He built it with funds from AT&T, which also owns CNN, a news channel that has been attacked by Trump supporters, including Cesar Sayoc, whose defense counsel said he was radicalized by Fox News when he sent pipe bombs to Trump’s enemies, including CNN hosts.
But, hey, why let a little ultra-violence, terrorism, and descent into fascism stand in the way of profit and ratings?
The top-rated “news” network has been playing up its silver anniversary, which seems like a fitting one for an operation that’s full of ads for precious metals to go along with the Trump commemorative items and the dubious herbal “remedies” and sometimes the MyPillow guy.
Even progressive Congressman Ro Khanna submitted a 30-second video congratulating Fox News for its 25th anniversary. That’s like thanking the people who have only invited you to their home to ridicule you in front of their sadistic guests, and then ending the dinner by putting a price on your head. It’s no coincidence that as Fox News has thrived over this quarter century, America has suffered.
I’m old enough to remember when Al Franken, who at the time was best known for his Stuart Smalley character on SNL, emerged as a political force due to his best-selling book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, where he scorched Fox News, especially then-star Bill O’Reilly, for their hypocrisy, misinformation, propaganda and harmful impact on America. Jon Stewart did his part with The Daily Show, and even MSNBC finally found its footing as vocal critics of the Bush Administration, with Keith Olbermann breathing fire during his nightly shows.
I was first attacked by Fox News in 2001, when a quote of mine appeared in a column by Michelle Malkin, the right-wing extremist who pals around with white nationalists and wrote a book in defense of internment, that was picked up by Fox News hosts. In response to an inflammatory and racist cartoon that appeared just days after 9/11 in my UC Berkeley newspaper, a bunch of us participated in a protest attempting to have a conversation with the newspaper editors.
I made a speech in which I said, “They have to be held accountable," and for that I was demonized as “hating Americans” and “greedily feasting off the fruits of freedom” and received a deluge of lovely, racist, and Islamophobic emails telling me to “go back” to where my kind came from.
In the 20 years since then, I can’t imagine how many people have come in for even nastier treatment as the network has thrived by sowing hate, division, fear and lies. Fox has evolved into a right-wing cultural and political juggernaut so successful at electing Republicans that there’s even a name for it: “The Fox News Effect.”
With over 200 million viewers on air and through its websites and podcasts, Fox Media doesn’t just reflect the cultural zeitgeist but helps shape and mold it with the subtlety of a hammer. Because our country is paralyzed by a stultifying and deeply troubling “both sides” false equivalence, we keep treating Fox News and its endless stream of manufactured right-wing cultural warriors as good-faith actors who deserve a platform and voice in the interest of “fairness.” Instead, in the past 25 years, it’s worked tirelessly to shift the Overton Window of acceptable talking points — on gender, race, immigration, white supremacy, obstruction of justice, abuse of power, praising of authoritarians — to the right. Just ask President Donald Trump.
The Fox News of the early 21st century wasn’t this bad. It initially cut its teeth on the Clinton impeachment scandal before serving as propagandistic cheerleaders for the Bush Administration’s War on Terror. But that Fox News would be ridiculed by its current viewers as a safe haven for RINOs and pro-immigrantion corporate establishment hacks. The most notorious host wasn’t white supremacy cheerleader Tucker Carlson but Bill O’Reilly, who cut his chops at ABC, CBS, and the tabloid TV show “Inside Edition,” before hosting The O’Reilly Report (later changed to The O’Reilly Factor.) Political correctness was the “cancel culture” of the 20th century, and O’Reilly, an old-school, Irish-Catholic blowhard, promised to cut through the noise and the spin zone. On his first day, he promised: “Few broadcasts take any chances these days and most are very politically correct. Well, we’re going to try to be different—stimulating and a bit daring, but at the same time, responsible and fair.”
Well, that was a lie, but at least then Fox tried to appear “fair and balanced” and give the illusion of being an actual news network, even hiring Brit Hume, who at the time was chief White House correspondent for ABC News. O’Reilly, who would finally be let go in 2017 after revelations of the network paying out millions in hush payments to settle several sexual harassment claims against him, even promised to apologize if the Bush Administration didn’t find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, one of the egregious lies Fox laundered for neo-cons to fuel their War on Terror.
In 2004, O’Reilly did just that, saying, “My analysis was wrong and I’m sorry. I was wrong. I’m not pleased about it at all.” He added, “I am much more skeptical of the Bush administration now than I was at the time."
Can you imagine Tucker, Hannity, or Laura Ingraham apologizing to their viewers in 2021 about the many bold-faced lies the network has spun on vaccines, masks, President Obama being a Muslim, Hillary Clinton, Seth Rich, or anything else? Those were simpler times.
Of course, Fox News has always been a right-wing propaganda outfit; it’s become more extreme and unapologetic about its intentions. In 2007, a report analyzed O’Reilly’s “Talking Points Memo” segment and concluded he used propaganda and portrayed foreigners as threats. In 2021, you don’t need any analysis to decode Carslon talking openly about white people being “replaced” by people of color, parroting a white supremacist talking and conspiracy theory.
Fox News’s reliance on fear-mongering, xenophobia, and lies reflects the DNA of Roger Ailes, the former GOP political strategist who became the channel’s CEO. The network is a “reflection of [Ailes],” said the late Rush Limbaugh, whom Ailes helped thrust into mainstream popularity. The channel still reflects Ailes’ true ambition, which was to counter and disrupt liberal news channels and implement a “plan for putting the GOP on TV News,” which was a plan hatched by the young political strategist in the 1970’s to use television to help promote the Nixon Administration and its right-wing agenda.
“With television you just sit-watch-listen. The thinking is done for you,” Ailes wrote, correctly predicting the rise of TV and the audience’s insatiable appetite for politics and news as sensationalistic entertainment.
“I don’t think Donald Trump would have been elected without Roger,” said Christopher Ruddy, who followed Ailes’ own playbook to launch Newsmax, a hard-right news channel that is even more subservient to Trump, who had an open invite to call Fox and Friends and whine, complain, and bloviate about anything that popped into his narcissistic, vulgarian brain. According to Brian Stelter’s book Hoax, top-rated primetime host Sean Hannity served as an unofficial consigliere to Trump, fielding daily phone calls from the manic and beleaguered President. Trump took Carlson’s advice on Iran and coronavirus over that of his own advisors.
In fact, there was a literal revolving door between Fox news channel and the Trump White House. Bill Shine, who was a producer at Fox, left to become Trump’s White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications. Hope Hicks left the Trump White House for a job at the Fox Corporation as chief communication officer, where she made nearly $2 million in two years. Kayleigh McEnany, who was one of Trump’s many White House press secretaries, is now an on-air contributor at Fox News. Nearly two dozen people found lucrative employment at Fox News and the Trump White House.
The synergy is complete. The incestuous relationships between conservative media and politics and business will surely be replicated the next time a Republican is in the White House. The only thing that might change is that the revolving door will expand to include Fox News copycats, who are even more extreme in their ideological zealotry.
Democracy, and America, will suffer, but at least it’ll make for captivating television and awesome ratings.