Tag Archives: Fox News

Communicating?

Communication is hard work in the best of times–and we definitely don’t live in the best of times.

Academics who study communication tend to focus on barriers to understanding like cultural differences and different reactions to “nonverbal” cues and body language. (I await research on how Zoom interactions affect those nonverbal cues…)There’s a whole field of intercultural communication, established back in 1959 by an anthropologist named Edward Hall.

So what–I hear you asking–does any of this abstract scholarly research have to do with the people filling American streets clamoring for justice and change?

A lot, I think. An enormous amount of civic unrest is a result of failure to truly communicate.

A recurring discussion on this blog has focused on the extent to which our inability to understand each other is been rooted in the media environment we currently inhabit. It isn’t simply the propaganda promulgated by talk radio, Fox and Sinclair–it is also the relatively recent, well-meaning but misplaced effort of so-called “Legacy” media to be “balanced,” to be fair, to give even the fringiest points of view a respectful treatment. As a result, even bizarre perspectives have been given a patina of respectability. This emphasis on “balance” plays directly into the narrative of the far Right–and the recent publication of the Tom Cotton op-ed by the New York Times is just one recent example.  Zuckerberg’s cowardly refusal to fact-check Republican lies on FaceBook is another.

Heather Cox Richardson sees signs that such unearned respect may be changing–and that Trump’s sinking poll results are evidence that he and his enablers are losing the benefits of that unduly deferential narrative.

Even more indicative that the national narrative is changing was the announcement yesterday that James Bennet had resigned as the editorial page editor of the New York Times. Bennet ran an op-ed last Wednesday by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton titled (by the Times, not by Cotton) “Send in the Troops.” The inflammatory piece blamed “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa” for an “orgy of violence” during the recent protests and claimed that “outnumbered police officers… bore the brunt of the violence.” Neither of these statements is true, and they clothe a false Republican narrative in what appears to be fact. Cotton’s solution to the protests was to send in the military to restore “law and order,” and he misquoted the Constitution to defend that conclusion.

The kerfuffle over this op-ed seems like it’s more than a normal media skirmish. For more than a century, American media has tried to report facts impartially….

Richardson pegs the start of talk radio to the abandonment of the Fairness Doctrine; it was the beginning of a propaganda barrage with which we are now all too familiar:  white taxpayers under siege by godless women and people of color. Fox News Channel wasn’t far behind. Fox’s greatest success was in equating “fair” with “balanced.”  Other media outlets became defensive; in order to protect themselves against charges that they were biased, they accepted the notion that media must show “both sides.”

Richardson thinks Bennet’s resignation over the Cotton op-ed “marks a shift in the media that has been building for months as newspapers and television chyrons increasingly check political falsehoods in favor of fact-based argument.”

If accurate, that is good news. It would be even better if the Left wasn’t–once again–engaging in communicative suicide.

Richardson is hardly the only commentator expressing frustration over the slogan  “defund the police”–a phrase that suggests abolishing police departments. What is actually intended is perfectly reasonable–  proponents want to shrink police responsibilities and decrease police budgets, investing instead in the community resources that have lost money as police budgets have exploded–but it is hard to imagine a stupider slogan or a more welcome gift to a GOP desperately trying to change the subject from a pandemic and massive protests.

They may not be able to govern, but one thing Republicans are good at is labeling, at carefully choosing terminology likely to resonate with the majority of voters who are not obsessively following political news and able to “deconstruct” political phrasing. Remember the “death tax”? Remember when “undocumented workers” became “illegal aliens,” the “social safety net” became “socialism,” and “national health care” became “socialized medicine”?

I think Richardson is right that the media is–slowly– jettisoning false equivalency for fact-based objectivity. That’s good news for “team blue”–and not an invitation to muddy the waters with yet another unforced communication error.

When you mean “reform policing,” say “reform policing,” or something similar. Don’t hand Trump a weapon with which to confuse and mislead. Communicate!

Making Matters Worse….

If Trump and his sorry band of predators were simply inept–unable to govern (and certainly unable to govern in the public interest)–it would be bad enough, since  incompetence alone is causing hundreds–perhaps thousands– of unnecessary deaths.

But Trump can’t leave bad enough alone. As crowds of seriously stupid people protested “stay at home” orders in several states, he took to Twitter to encourage them–in language that has been interpreted as advocating “overthrowing” the (Democratic) governors of three of those states.

It’s never safe to attribute intent to Donald J. Trump, since most of his attempts at communication are incoherent. Nevertheless, it has been pointed out that encouraging the violent overthrow of the government may be a federal crime. (I’m sure Trump would reiterate his position that the President cannot be investigated for criminal behavior, let alone charged–a position he’s held only since becoming President. It certainly wasn’t his position when Obama–of whom he is clearly insanely jealous–was in office.)

However, as Heather Cox Richardson has written (link unavailable), there is more to it than Trump’s usual obliviousness.

Since the 1980s, the Republican Party has retained power by insisting that its leaders were defending America from dangerous “liberals,” who wanted to redistribute wealth from hardworking, religious, usually white, taxpayers, to “special interests.” In the years since President Ronald Reagan, there has been less and less nuance in that narrative and, by the time of President Barack Obama, no room to compromise. The division of the nation into “us” versus “them” has come to override any attempt at actual problem solving; Republican lawmakers simply address national problems with what their ideological narrative requires: cuts to taxes, regulation, and social welfare programs.

The coronavirus pandemic requires us to unite for our own safety, but members of the Republican Party can only see the world in partisan terms. Boston College political scientist David Hopkins notes that “The contemporary Republican Party has been built to wage ideological and partisan conflict more than to manage the government or solve specific social problems.” Republicans remain so consumed by their war on Democrats and liberals they cannot fathom working together to fight the pandemic.

Richardson sees Trump’s tweets in the context of that GOP narrative–and notes that it is a narrative constantly and wholeheartedly advanced by Fox News. As she points out, the relatively small protest against Governor Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan was not some eruption of grass-roots sentiment; it was organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition and the DeVos family, and the reason anyone even heard about it was because right-wing media–especially Fox– hyped it.

FNC personality Jeanine Pirro said of the Michigan protesters: “God bless them, it’s going to happen all over the country.” FNC personality Laura Ingraham tweeted a video of it, saying: “Time to get your freedom back.” FNC personality Tucker Carlson interviewed a representative of the MCC on his show; the person got another interview on “Fox & Friends” the next day. Indeed, Trump’s “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” tweet came just after a program on the Fox News Channel ran a story on protests at the Minnesota governor’s office by a group called “Liberate Minnesota.”

The goal of this enterprise is to keep Republicans in office in 2020. The latest filing for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) leadership committee shows that four of the top five donors are executives for the Fox News Channel. Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch, Viet Dinh, FNC’s Legal Adviser and Policy Director, and the president of 21st Century Fox all gave $20,600.

Richardson identifies Trump’s “central political problem” as his inability to work with Democrats to implement the measures needed in a time of crisis. I think she’s being kind. I think his “central problem” is a combination of mental illness, narcissism, abysmal ignorance and stupidity. (Ignorance and stupidity are not the same thing; ignorance is an absence of information and can be remedied–stupid can’t be fixed.)

Be that as it may, however, the “central political problem” America faces is an administration composed of people with whom our mentally-ill and entirely self-regarding President feels comfortable. Its an assemblage that is both thoroughly corrupt and totally unfamiliar with the proper purposes and operations of government–  and it’s supported by a base in thrall to a “state media” that puts Pravda to shame.

We know Trump and his administration are stealing us blind; what is worse, between their daily rollbacks of environmental protections and their monumental incompetence in crisis management, they are literally killing us.

 

Speaking Of Faux News…

Quartz recently published an in-depth description of a widespread scam that focused on the elderly–actually, on a very specific subset of elderly Americans.

The scam itself consisted of selling precious metals–especially coins–to people worried about impending government actions that would devalue their assets or even confiscate their savings. Obviously, the scam required an ability to find people sufficiently suspicious and fearful of government to harbor these fears.

A former salesperson for one of the companies implicated in the scams told Quartz that the ideal targets were people who believed the dollar could collapse tomorrow, people who had a deep-seated distrust of government, the elite, Wall Street, and the entire system.

How does a scammer locate people likely to be sufficiently gullible?

Facebook provided the means to show scare-mongering ads, like one that blared “Is Your Retirement Protected from the Deep State?” exclusively to those people. This ad, which ran in March 2019, contained a “sign up” form that included a link to Metals.com’s privacy policy.

Just like a diaper company can pick from Facebook’s targeting options to show its ads to parents, whoever purchased Metals.com’s ads could choose very specific groups of people.

Quartz found a large network of Facebook ads with various connections to Metals.com. According to the “Why am I seeing this” information given to people who saw the ads, those ads were designed to reach people over 59 years old whom Facebook had classified, based on their tracked web browsing history, as “very conservative” or “interested in” Fox News personality Sean Hannity or other conservative media figures….

When a Facebook user clicked on certain Metals.com-affiliated ads, many of which didn’t mention Metals.com, like one ad from “Fox News Insider Reports,” they would be taken to a website with a URL such as FoxInsiders.com.co. The web page urged them to “Call NOW” while a countdown timer created a false sense of urgency, over a line that read “Offer Only Valid For Next 15 Minutes.”

Fox has disclaimed any relationship to the companies involved, and is reportedly assessing its legal options.

In fairness, Fox wasn’t the only bogus imprimatur; other ads purported to be connected to the “US Retirement Bureau” or “Republican House Committee.” All of them, however, claimed rightwing political identities and played on the fears common to elderly conservatives. (One promised to “protect your savings from the coming account freeze.”)

And as the article points out, Facebook approved every one of those ads.

Even after Facebook implemented new political-ad rules that it said would “ensure that you can see who is paying for the ad,” some ads, running under the name of “Retired Republicans,” included a disclaimer saying that they were “Paid for by Webinar Technologies.” That is the name of an anonymously registered Wyoming corporation. Later ads from the “Retired Republicans” page linked to Metals.com’s privacy policy. Other ads said they were paid for by entities such as “Precious Retirement Strategies,” which Quartz was unable to confirm exists.

Facebook accepted at least $3 million, and likely much more, for ads affiliated with Metals.com‚ according to a Quartz analysis of statistics published by Facebook. The social network displayed the ads tens of millions of times over at least 21 months, despite Facebook’s claim of keeping a close eye on its powerful political advertising tools after they were used by Russian operatives in the 2016 election. The ads under the “Webinar Technologies” name were listed as the 18th-largest political advertiser on Facebook a few days after election day in the US in November 2018.

The article is lengthy, and contains a number of stories about the plights of the elderly people who were defrauded. As unfortunate as these examples are, they point to the larger harms being facilitated by social media’s ability to “targetcast.” 

They also confirm the accuracy of unflattering characterizations of the Fox audience–elderly, white, unsophisticated and frightened–and underscore the dangers of living in a bubble.

Any bubble.

 

Chilling Confirmation

It sometimes seems redundant to pick on Fox News. Its function as a propaganda arm of the GOP–as the Tass of the Trump Administration–is widely recognized among Americans who aren’t part of its brainwashed audience.

The problem is, Fox is more than “merely” a partisan propaganda site. Shrugging off its bias as comparable to the liberal perspective of, say, MSNBC ignores its role in normalizing bigotry and white nationalism,  a role that makes it a far more serious and dangerous influence on American life and values than other partisan media.

A recent report in the Guardian highlighted that under-appreciated aspect of the harm done by the network. 

Eboni Williams, who co-hosted the show Fox News Specialists, says Roger Ailes founded network on fear of ‘devaluation of whiteness’

A former Fox Newshost said the network was founded for the sole purpose of “demonizing ‘the other’”.

Eboni Williams tore into her former network in an appearance on Thursday on The Breakfast Club, a nationally syndicated radio show out of New York.

“Fox has a reputation for being bigoted and racist – all for a very good reason,” she said.

Williams said the key to understanding Fox’s approach was to understand its founder, Roger Ailes, who laid out his strategy clearly in his book.

“This man very plainly, in plain sight, says that he is forming a network to speak to one thing and one thing only: the demonizing of the other,” Williams said.

Eboni is an attorney-turned-commenter who is quoted in the article as saying she had taken the job at Fox despite strong disagreement with what she saw as its conservative political agenda, because she believed she would be able to offer the network’s viewers a different perspective.

“I went there because I felt I was going to be a savior of sorts and talk to the people in the middle that still watch that network, because whether we like it or not, Fox is number one for a reason,” she said.

When she criticized Trump’s response to the Neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, however, she got death threats. Clearly, she wasn’t getting through to the network’s audience.

” When I said it plain like I said it on that docket that day about Trump, the audience could no longer hear me. Thus I’m no longer being able to be any kind of effective. Thus it’s time for me to move on.”

Lest we attribute Williams’ reaction to the fact that she is black–someone who might be more “sensitive” to racial attitudes– an even more recent story, this time from the Daily Beast, should disabuse us of that excuse.

A Fox News reporter on Thursday called out two of his colleagues for sounding “like a White Supremacist chat room” when they attempted to defend President Trump’s infamous “both sides” comment about white supremacists in Charlottesville, according to internal emails reviewed by The Daily Beast.

The email discussion was triggered by Joe Biden’s announcement that he was entering the Presidential race; in that announcement, he alluded to Trump’s Charlottesville remarks. A Fox reporter named McKelway responded by sending an email to dozens of the network’s employees, saying he was “fact-checking” Biden, and  claiming that the marchers were simply protesting the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue.

It wasn’t his first attempt at disinformation.

Prior to the 2016 election, McKelway defended the alt-right on Fox News, claiming it was simply “using the same tactics that the left has used for generations now.” He further asserted that the alt-right is “much more than” an anti-Semitic, white-nationalist movement, citing Milo Yiannopoulos for his efforts in combating “the left’s obsession with… safe spaces.”

And a year before that, McKelway compared the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s statehouse to the Soviet practice of airbrushing purged dissidents out of official photographs.

I no longer wonder why certain people choose to get their “news” from Fox.

They are the network’s target audience: people who fear “devaluation of whiteness”– less politely but more accurately identified as racists.

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?