Tag Archives: Ralph Peters

Constructing Our Own Realities

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.

Fox And Its Friends

Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have reported the acrimonious departure of Fox News commentator and author Ralph Peters from that cable channel. As the Post described the resignation,

Commentator and author Ralph Peters isn’t just closing the door on his career at Fox News Channel. He’s slamming it right off the hinges.

In a blistering goodbye email, Peters, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who commented on military affairs, called Fox “a mere propaganda machine for a destructive and ethically ruinous administration.” He described President Trump as being “terrified” of Russian president Vladi­mir Putin.

Peters accused Fox of assaulting America’s constitutional order, undermining the rule of law, and “fostering corrosive and unjustified paranoia among viewers.”

Peters had been associated with Fox for ten years, and it’s hard not to wonder what took him so long to recognize the cable channel’s business plan, which has always depended upon pandering to the biases of conservative viewers, no matter how much that required doing violence to accurate reporting–but I suppose it’s better late than never.

Although Peters didn’t use the word “treason” in the blistering email he sent to the organization, the implication was hard to ignore.

When prime-time hosts — who have never served our country in any capacity — dismiss facts and empirical reality to launch profoundly dishonest attacks on the FBI, the Justice Department, the courts, the intelligence community (in which I served) and, not least, a model public servant and genuine war hero such as Robert Mueller — all the while scaremongering with lurid warnings of ‘deep-state’ machinations — I cannot be part of the same organization, even at a remove. To me, Fox News is now wittingly harming our system of government for profit.

Previously during his ten-year stint as a Fox commentator,  Peters said that his producers had never given him a script, or instructed him what to say. In the past year, however, as questions  about the possibility of collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia continued to gain salience, Fox refused to let him comment on the topic, despite the fact that he has considerable relevant expertise. (He was a former intelligence officer.)

There has been a good deal of research by political scientists into the operation of “confirmation bias”–a very human trait we all share to some degree. Fox–along with talk radio demagogues and outlets like Breitbart and InfoWars–intentionally feeds conservatives’ desire to see their beliefs confirmed by “news.” (At the other end of the spectrum, “Addicting Info,” “Occupy” and others provide similar grist for liberal true believers, but research suggests that their influence pales in comparison with Fox.)

Here in a nutshell (no pun intended) is the dilemma of a liberal democracy committed to the principle of free speech. The marketplace of ideas must be open to all–ideologues and cranks as well as thoughtful commentators and accurate journalists. That means the consumers in that marketplace must be discriminating, in the best sense of that word. They must be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. And in a country where civic and news literacy are low, consumers are more likely to “buy” substandard or counterfeit  products.

I’m glad Peters finally figured out that Fox cares more about profit than patriotism, more about ratings than reality. Somehow, however, I doubt that his departure will prompt many loyal viewers to change the channel.  Confirmation bias may be more addictive than cocaine.