In the mid-1990s, as part of the publisher’s effort to promote my first book (“What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU?”), I was booked onto a call-in radio show in South Carolina. Belatedly, I found that the show I was on followed Rush Limbaugh; the calls that came in reflected that audience.
I vividly remember one of those calls. The country had been going through one of those periodic arguments about whether the religion clauses of the First Amendment preclude posting religious texts–specifically, the Christian version of the Ten Commandments– on the walls of public buildings. (It does.)
The caller argued that the Founders would have had no problem with such practices, because “James Madison said we are giving the Bill of Rights to people who live by the Ten Commandments.” This supposed quotation had been circling through rightwing organizations; as I explained to the caller, not only had it been rebutted by Madison scholars, the statement was dramatically inconsistent with everything we know Madison did say. At which point the caller yelled, “Well, I think he said it!” and hung up.
This exchange occurred before the Internet, before Facebook, Twitter and other social media facilitated our ability to fashion our own realities. I recount it because it illustrates how desperately many of us–probably most of us–look for evidence that supports our biases and beliefs.(As the Simon and Garfunkel song says, “man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”)
What brought this exchange to mind was a column in the Washington Post by Ralph Peters, a commentator who has just left Fox News.
As I wrote in an internal Fox memo, leaked and widely disseminated, I declined to renew my contract as Fox News’s strategic analyst because of the network’s propagandizing for the Trump administration. Today’s Fox prime-time lineup preaches paranoia, attacking processes and institutions vital to our republic and challenging the rule of law.
Four decades ago, as a U.S. Army second lieutenant, I took an oath to “support and defend the Constitution.” In moral and ethical terms, that oath never expires. As Fox’s assault on our constitutional order intensified, spearheaded by its after-dinner demagogues, I had no choice but to leave.
Peters, who is very politically conservative, says the network was once an outlet for responsible conservatism (an assertion with which we might take issue), but has become an intellectually-dishonest propaganda source. There is a good deal of evidence that Fox has always been more interested in delivering Republican talking points than in objective reporting; what Peters is reacting to may simply be the outlet’s increasingly blatant partisanship. The age of Trump isn’t noted for subtlety.
Fox bears a considerable amount of the blame for creating an environment in which voters prefer spin and propaganda to objective fact, science and evidence. Its influence is waning now, as television channels and internet offerings proliferate, and as its older audience dies off, but America will be dealing with the damage it has inflicted for many more years.
That said, the basic challenge we face isn’t new. Voters have always “cherry picked” information. Confirmation bias didn’t suddenly appear in response to Fox or Facebook.
Fox’s business plan was explicitly focused upon providing ideologically compatible “news” to an “underserved” Republican audience. (Less-well-known Sinclair Broadcasting is equally dishonest.) My caller, back in the mid-1990s, may have gotten his misinformation from books by “historian” David Barton, who made his money giving fundamentalist Christians a version of history more to their liking. There will always be ethically-challenged entrepreneurs willing to make a buck pandering to our fears and prejudices.
The question is: what can we do about it? How do we counter propaganda effectively, without doing violence to free speech and the First Amendment? The only answer I can come up with is better civic and news literacy education, but that will take time and a commitment to revitalize the public education that Trump and DeVos are trying to dismantle.
It’s a conundrum.