Tag Archives: Fox News

False Equivalence 101

An article by Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker references a new book on right-wing media, written by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts. The book–to be published next month by Oxford University Press– is titled, “Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics.

It debunks a favorite belief of politicians and journalists. As Toobin writes,

The Washington conventional wisdom presupposes a kind of symmetry between our polarized political parties. Liberals and conservatives, it is said, live in separate bubbles, where they watch different television networks, frequent different Web sites, and absorb different realities. The implication of this view is that both sides resemble each other in their twisted views of reality. Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity, in other words, represent two sides of the same coin.

This view is precisely wrong.

The two sides are not, in fact, equal when it comes to evaluating “news” stories, or even in how they view reality. Liberals want facts; conservatives want their biases reinforced. Liberals embrace journalism; conservatives believe propaganda. In the more measured but still emphatic words of the authors, “the right-wing media ecosystem differs categorically from the rest of the media environment,” and has been much more susceptible to “disinformation, lies and half-truths.”

This assertion sounds as if it is itself the result of propaganda–liberal propaganda, in this case. But as Toobin reports,

“Network Propaganda” is an academic work at the crossroads of law, sociology, and media studies. Benkler is a law professor at Harvard and a co-director of the university’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, where Faris and Roberts both conduct research. The book is not a work of media criticism but, rather, of data analysis—a study of millions of online stories, tweets, and Facebook-sharing data points. The authors’ conclusion is that “something very different was happening in right-wing media than in centrist, center-left and left-wing media.” Accordingly, they wrote the book “to shine a light on the right-wing media ecosystem itself as the primary culprit in sowing confusion and distrust in the broader American ecosystem.”

The book examines the way in which that right-wing “ecosystem” works. Stories frequently begin on conspiracy theory sites like Infowars; if they remained there, most people would either fail to encounter them or see them for what they are. But they “migrate” to outlets like Fox News, that claim to follow principles of objective journalism. The authors note that there simply aren’t significant sites on the left that mirror those on the right by trafficking in “chronic falsity;”  furthermore, the “upstream sources” in the center and on the left do adhere to traditional journalistic standards, so they debunk rather than parrot the stories contrived by those few sites that  crank out leftwing propaganda.

This lack of symmetry is why “Pizzagate”–accusing Hillary Clinton of pedophilia and of molesting children in the basement of a pizza parlor–was widely reported, while unverifiable allegations that Trump had raped a 15-year-old quickly died.

The authors’ telling conclusion, based upon their data analysis, was that Trump’s election wasn’t the result of Russia’s (admitted) interference, nor to Cambridge Analytica’s manipulation of Facebook.

Rather, it was the feedback loop of right-wing quasi-journalism that had the most impact—and that hypothesis has profound implications not only for the study of the recent past but also for predictions about the not-so-distant future.

This analysis confirms the suspicions of several of my colleagues who have “lost” their previously rational parents to Fox News.

The sixty-four thousand dollar question is: in a country committed to freedom of speech and the press, what can we do about it?

The Dreaded ‘Socialism’ Of Denmark

One of the aspects of our (debased) public discourse that absolutely drives me nuts is the misuse of language–words used not to convey meaning, not to communicate, but to demean and dismiss.

For quite a while, “liberal” was the epithet of choice, mostly courtesy of Rush Limbaugh and his clones. These days, mostly thanks to Bernie Sanders, it’s “socialist.” It would be annoying enough if the people who use the term as a sneer actually knew what it meant, but it is abundantly clear that they don’t.

Allow me.

In virtually every modern, democratic country, economies are mixed, meaning that markets supply many, if not most, of the goods and services needed/wanted by the people who live there, while many others are socialized–that is, provided communally through government. Experience has demonstrated that it makes sense to socialize the provision of services like police and fire protection, streets and highways, education and garbage collection, and to meet social needs through programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Some countries socialize larger elements of their economies than we do, but that doesn’t make them communist hellholes. Unless, of course, you are a Fox News”reporter.” 

As Paul Krugman responded,

Last weekend, Trish Regan, a Fox Business host, created a bit of an international incident by describing Denmark as an example of the horrors of socialism, right along with Venezuela. Denmark’s finance minister suggested that she visit his country and learn some facts.

Indeed, Regan couldn’t have picked a worse example — or, from the point of view of U.S. progressives, a better one.

Denmark has undeniably made different decisions than we have about the size of government and the proper economic “mix.”

American politics has been dominated by a crusade against big government; Denmark has embraced an expansive government role, with public spending more than half of G.D.P. American politicians fear talk about redistribution of income from the rich to the less well-off; Denmark engages in such redistribution on a scale unimaginable here. American policy has been increasingly hostile to organized labor, and unions have virtually disappeared from the private sector; two-thirds of Danish workers are unionized.

So–how are these soul-less denizens of an all-powerful state surviving?

Danes are more likely to have jobs than Americans, and in many cases they earn substantially more. Overall G.D.P. per capita in Denmark is a bit lower than in America, but that’s basically because the Danes take more vacations. Income inequality is much lower, and life expectancy is higher.

The simple fact is that life is better for most Danes than it is for their U.S. counterparts. There’s a reason Denmark consistently ranks well ahead of America in measures of happiness and life satisfaction.

Denmark’s economy is best described as social-democratic. It’s basically a market economy, but one in which–as Krugman puts it– “the downsides of capitalism are mitigated by government action, including a very strong social safety net.”

Americans, as we know, don’t do nuance. (In the age of Trump, we don’t do much civility, either.) We prefer flinging insults to having discussions, and either/or formulations and bumper-sticker put-downs to thoughtful consideration of calibrated solutions to our problems.

Our choice isn’t between capitalism (which, in the U.S. has devolved into corporatism) and an all-encompassing socialism (as if that were even possible.) In a country populated by rational people, we would examine aspects of our current economy  and consider whether they are working properly, or whether it might be cost-effective to “socialize” them. (That is what the debate about single-payer health insurance is all about.)

Before we can make sound policy decisions, however, we need to employ the English language for its intended purpose: to describe reality and thus serve as the basis for actual communication.

Our Very Own Pravda

Tom Wheeler headed the Federal Communications Commission during the Obama Administration. From all indications, he took his responsibilities seriously; he was a vocal defender of Net Neutrality, for example, unlike his replacement, a former Verison executive whose decisions have been reliable wins for big telecom companies.

So when Wheeler sounds an alarm, that alarm is worth heeding.

Wheeler has indeed sounded an alarm. In a report for The Brookings Institution, he highlights a recent, blatant effort at propaganda from Sinclair Broadcasting (aka the Fox News of “local” television–or, as John Oliver dubbed it, “the most influential media company you never heard of”).

“Many members of the media and opponents of the president have used this issue [separation of children from immigrant families] to make it seem as if those who are tough on immigration are somehow monsters. Let’s be honest: while some of the concern is real, a lot of it is politically driven by liberals in politics and the media.”

The above is the conclusion of a two-minute “must run” that Sinclair Broadcast Group forced its over-100 local television stations to air. Read by Sinclair political director (and former Trump White House advisor) Boris Epshteyn, the attack on the media and those who might disagree with the president is no great surprise.

Wheeler has been following the activities of the agency he headed, and he reports that under Trump,  the Commission has been diligently working to assure that Sinclair is able to expand the reach of its partisan political messaging.

By rewriting the rules governing local broadcasting, the Trump FCC is allowing Sinclair to turn supposedly “local” television operations into a coordinated national platform for the delivery of messages such as the one cited above.

When television was a relatively new communications medium dependent upon use of publicly-owned airwaves, the licenses of locally owned and operated stations were conditioned on undertakings to operate in the public interest, as local outlets for local news and information. In order to protect that localism, the law forbid national media companies from acquiring them.

However, the Trump FCC effectively allows a company to exceed the ownership limit. The agency replaced the rule prohibiting “sidecar agreements,” where a company claims not to own a station’s license despite collecting all the revenue, making all the hiring and programming decisions, and forcing the station to carry “must-run” content. Sinclair lawyers originally conceived these legal fictions to skirt the rules protecting localism, and the FCC rubber-stamped the charade.

While ordinary Americans are responding–haphazardly–to the White House’s daily, highly visible assaults on democratic norms and the rule of law, Trump’s appointees are working behind the scenes to dismantle the rules and regulations that have been put in place to keep plutocrats from raping the rest of us. What gets lost in all the anti-regulatory rhetoric is the fact that we owe clean air and water, safe food, and honest news reporting, among other important things, to good regulations.

Good regulations ensure that “level playing field” we all claim to support. I’ll be first to concede that not all regulations are good, but the answer is not a wholesale dismantling of the rules–if a regulation is outdated, or counterproductive, that particular regulation can be changed. That, of course, takes work–not to mention subject-matter knowledge and a commitment to the common good.

It is impossible to overstate the damage that has been done by propaganda arms like Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting. There are plenty of other propaganda outlets on both the Left and Right, preaching to their respective choirs, but none have the reach and influence of Fox and Sinclair. Sinclair’s propaganda is particularly potent because it is unrecognized– cloaked in the pretense of independence and localism.

When Mike Pence was Governor of Indiana, he made a much-derided attempt to establish an “official” state news bureau. Genuine news sources immediately dubbed it “Pravda on the Prairie.”

Thanks to Sinclair and Trump’s FCC, we now have Pravda for the whole country.


Bread, Circuses and Snake Oil

Abraham Lincoln summed it up pretty well: you can fool some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but not (so he said and so we hope) all of the people all of the time.

From itinerant peddlers selling snake oil to today’s more sophisticated propagandists selling political nostrums, there have always been hucksters preying on our very human yearning for simple solutions for what ails us.

Drink this, and your brain tumor will vanish/your belly fat will disappear. Believe that, and you will no longer feel disoriented/diminished. Vote for him (rarely if ever her) and he’ll make (your preferred version of) America great again.

A recent column in the New York Times put a name to those who pander to that all-too- human yearning: charlatan.

It’s impossible to characterize a historical period before it’s over, but I think one plausible name for our era will be the Age of the Charlatan. Everywhere you turn there seems to be some kind of quack or confidence man catering to an eager audience: Fox News hosts like Sean Hannity have moved from pushing ill-informed opinion to flat-out conspiracy mongering; pickup artists sell “tried and true” methods for isolated young men to seduce women; and sophists pass off stale pedantries as dark and radical thought, selling millions of books in the process. In politics, too, our highest office is occupied by a man who was once aptly called a “carnival barker.”

What makes us so vulnerable to charlatans today? In part it’s the complexity of the modern world and the rate of technological and social change: Quackery provides what Saul Bellow once called a “five-cent synthesis,” boiling down the chaotic tangle of the age into simple nostrums.

The author refers us to a long-forgotten 1937 book titled “Die Macht des Charlatans,” or “The Power of the Charlatan.” It was a history of the quacks who roamed Europe in the Middle Ages and early modern period, written by an Austrian journalist  named De Francesco (but published, for obvious reasons given the date, in Switzerland).

Ms. De Francesco explains that the word “charlatan” comes from the Italian “ciarlatano,” itself probably related to the verb “ciarlare,” which means to babble or to go on incessantly without reflection. The original charlatans would babble on and on to mesmerize their audiences.

Babble without reflection. A perfect phrase to describe the noises that come out of President Trump’s mouth…

Nor was that the only parallel to be drawn. The book described the “often elaborate” shows mounted by Medieval and Renaissance mountebanks, with musicians, clowns and even performing animals. ( Presumably, too early for cat videos..)

Ms. De Francesco observes that this was the beginning of the mass communication techniques perfected by the public relations and advertising industries.

Crucially, the charlatan provides palliatives for a confused public. These nostrums can be either literal pills or phony ideas, for as Ms. De Francesco notes, “a quack is a quack — whether he sells opinions or elixirs.” Frequently they sell both. See for example Alex Jones, one of the most popular charlatans of the present age. He peddles bizarre conspiracy theories, including that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax, but also his own line of snake oil in the form of dubious dietary supplements.

Bottom line: when reality bites, entertainment that distracts you, easily grasped “explanations” for your predicament– and especially some “other” to blame for your problems– will ease your discomfort. In Roman times, it was bread and circuses. 

Today it’s Fox News….

Another Perspective On How We Got Here

Yesterday, I noted the ubiquity of efforts to understand what happened to the Republican Party. Equally predictable are the efforts to understand how America could have elected Donald Trump–how a man so manifestly unfit for the Presidency (or really, life in polite company) could have garnered millions of votes. True, he lost the popular vote, but that doesn’t negate the fact that millions of people actually cast ballots for him–and that even in the face of the damage being caused by his impetuousness and ignorance,  many of them continue to support him.

Amanda Marcotte, who writes for Salon, is out with a book that attempts to answer that question. Her conclusions in Troll Nation won’t surprise anyone who reads this blog with any regularity, but her approach is worth considering, as Andrew O’Hehir’s review makes clear.

“Troll Nation” is not about the election of Donald Trump. Amanda and I have certain areas of cheerfully-expressed political disagreement, but I think we share the view that Trump was the culmination of a long process, or is the most visible symptom of a widespread infection. Amanda’s analysis is, as always, calm, sharp-witted and clearly focused on available evidence. American conservatives, she says, used to make rational arguments and used to present a positive social vision. Did those arguments make sense, in the end? Did that “Morning in America” vision of the Reagan years conceal a vibrant undercurrent of bigotry?

The answers to those questions — “no” and “yes,” respectively — led us to the current situation, when conservative politics has become almost entirely negative….Most Republicans gleefully embrace incoherent or self-destructive policies designed to punish or horrify people they dislike, whether that means feminists, immigrants, black people, campus “snowflakes,” members of the “liberal elite” or (above all) Hillary Clinton. I am not the world’s biggest fan of Hillary Clinton, as Amanda knows! But what the hell she ever did to all those people to make them despise her so much is entirely unclear..

As O’Hehir notes, the self-proclaimed conservatives of the GOP have morphed from the “supercilious, upper-crust conservatism “of William F. Buckley Jr., whom he accurately describes as the dictionary definition of an elitist, to the delusional ignorance of Alex Jones and the small-minded hatred of Charlottesville.

The basic premise of Marcotte’s book is that Trump is not an anomaly. Much as we might like to believe that we are living in a time that is a departure from the trajectory of American history, Marcotte sees Trump as the logical conclusion of an undercurrent in conservatism that’s been going on for decades — attitudes and resentments encouraged by talk radio, Fox News and their imitators that have “reconstructed” American conservatism. Today, rather than political opinions or policy positions, it’s all about hate and bigotry and who doesn’t belong–who isn’t a “real” American.

Plenty has been written about Fox News, talk radio and other media that ranges from spin to propaganda, and the extent to which those outlets are implicated in the twisted worldviews of their audience, but Marcotte shares an important insight that often gets overlooked:

I want to convey in this book, and I hope in this interview, that conservative audiences respond to this kind of media because they want to. I think we underestimate how much people are going to do what they want to do and believe what they want to believe.

Blaming the propagandists and conspiracy theorists lets their audiences off the hook–it assumes a lack of moral agency. The people who parrot “Fox and Friends” choose their news, and they choose not to balance it with other perspectives. For whatever reason–impelled by whatever inadequacies and resentments–they choose to indulge in confirmation bias rather than resisting it.

It’s co-dependency.

Without their willingness to suspend critical thinking–their desperate need to believe in their own racial and/or religious and/or gender superiority, the Rush Limbaughs and Fox News blonds and purveyors of Pizza conspiracies would be out of business.