From Fox News to Rush: Secrets of the right’s lie machine

Conservative media plays by its rules, and bends truth to back whatever argument they’ve decided to make that day

Topics: Books, Media Criticism, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Editor's Picks, ,

From Fox News to Rush: Secrets of the right's lie machineSean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh (Credit: AP/Dr. Scott M. Lieberman/Reuters/Chris Keane/Micah Walter)

One key factor that has altered campaign coverage comes from the corporate right in the form of “conservative” media. If there has been a vacuum created by the downsizing of newsrooms, conservative media have filled it with an insistent partisanship unseen in commercial news media for nearly a century. The conservative media program has been a cornerstone of the Dollarocracy’s — the big money and corporate media election complex — political program since at least Lewis Powell’s 1971 memo. Initially, the work was largely about criticizing the news media for being unfair to conservative Republicans and having a liberal Democratic bias. Although the actual research to support these claims was, to be generous, thin—one major book edited by Brent Bozell actually claimed corporations such as General Electric were “liberal” companies with an interest in anti-business journalism because they had made small donations to groups like the NAACP and the Audubon Society—the point was not to win academic arguments. The point of bashing the “liberal media,” as Republican National Committee chairman Rich Bond conceded in 1992, was to “work the refs” like a basketball coach does so that “maybe the ref will cut you a little slack” on the next play.

The ultimate aim of Dollarocracy was, as James Brian McPherson put it, “to destroy the professionalism that has defined journalism since the mid-twentieth century.” The core problem was that professional journalism, to the extent it allowed editors and reporters some autonomy from the political and commercial values of owners, opened space for the legitimate presentation of news and perspectives beyond the range preferred by conservatives. That professional journalism basically conveyed the debates and consensus of official sources and remained steadfastly within the ideological range of the leadership of the two main political parties—it never was sympathetic to the political left—was of no concern. It still gave coverage to policy positions on issues such as unions, public education, civil rights, progressive taxation, social security, and the environment that were thoroughly mainstream but anathema to the right. Key to moving the political center of gravity to the right was getting the news media on the train, and that meant getting them to have a worldview more decidedly sympathetic to the needs of society’s owners. Newt Gingrich was blunt when he told media owners in 1995 that they needed to crack the whip on their newsrooms and have the news support the corporation’s politics. “Get your children to behave,” he demanded in a private meeting with media CEOs.



In the late 1980s, conservatives moved from criticism to participation with the aggressive creation of right-wing partisan media. The first decisive move came with AM talk radio. The elimination of the Fairness Doctrine (which required that a broadcaster provide two sides to controversial political issues) and the relaxation of ownership rules such that a handful of companies established vast empires opened the door to a tidal wave of hard-core right-wing talk-show hosts. By the first decade of the century, the 257 talk stations owned by the five largest companies were airing over 2,500 hours of political talk weekly and well over 90 percent was decidedly right wing.

This isn’t your grandfather’s conservatism either. Although some conservative hosts, such as Michael Medved, can be quite thoughtful, just as conservative writers such as William Kristol will sometimes acknowledge when the movement has gone off the rails, the realists are in the minority. For a huge portion of contemporary conservative media, the broadcast begins and ends with the fear card, and it is often played in extraordinarily incendiary ways. Sure, some of the radio ranting comes from lightweights who are only trying to fill the three hours on the all-talk affiliate in St. Louis or Minneapolis. But the most effective purveyors of the venom are gifted and charismatic figures, such as Glenn Beck and Michael Levin, whose fire-and-brimstone moralizing is matched only by their willingness to bend the truth to support whatever argument they’ve decided to make that day. Across large swatches of America, and most rural areas where little journalism remains, right-wing talk radio is arguably the leading source of political information.

The undisputed heavyweight champion was and is Rush Limbaugh, who emerged as a national radio force by 1990 and who by 1993 was already recognized by the bible of modern conservatism, William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review magazine, as an unmatched political power in Republican circles; the Review dubbed him the “Leader of the Opposition.” Limbaugh and his cohorts have the power to make or break Republican politicians, and all who wish successful national careers have to pray at his far-right altar or suffer the consequences. As Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Joseph Cappella put it, in many respects Limbaugh came to play the role party leaders had played in earlier times.

In the late 1990s, Rupert Murdoch launched the Fox News cable channel, and because television is such a ubiquitous and powerful medium, that put right-wing news media in the center of the mainstream. Michael Wolff characterized Fox News as “the ultimate Murdoch product,” because it brought tabloid journalism to American television. What has been missed in the analysis of Fox News is the business model of tabloid journalism: dispense with actual reporting, which costs a lot of money to do well, and replace it with far less expensive pontificating that will attract audiences. For a tabloid news channel, that means the value added is a colorful partisan take on the news; otherwise the channel has no reason to attract viewers. Former CNN head Rick Kaplan told the story of how he was confronted by Time Warner executives in 1999 or 2000 who were dissatisfied with CNN’s profits despite what had been record revenues and a solid return. “But Fox News made just as much profit,” Kaplan was informed, “and did so with just half the revenues of CNN, because it does not carry so many reporters on its staff.” The message to Kaplan was clear: close bureaus and fire reporters, lots of them. In short, Fox News is the logical business product for an era where corporations deem journalism an unprofitable undertaking.

Fox News and the conservative media sector (including the conservative blogosphere) provide a “self-protective enclave” for conservatives to cocoon themselves. Research demonstrates that the more a person consumes conservative media, the more likely she is to dismiss any news or arguments that contradict the conservative position as liberal propaganda and lies. Tom Frank argued that the point of conservative media is to facilitate a “deliberate cognitive withdrawal from the shared world” by their adherents. Conservative media also, to a remarkable extent, stay on message, and the message is largely that of the Republican Party; these media, at least Fox News and Limbaugh, seem to march in lockstep with the same talking points, the same issues, and even the same terminology deployed across the board. They apply the core principles of advertising and propaganda.

Although Fox News and today’s conservative media might look at first glance like descendants of the partisan media of the nineteenth century, there are crucial differences. The old partisan media were far smaller in scale, and they operated in very competitive markets where it was not difficult for newcomers to effectively enter the field, hence giving readers/voters/citizens considerable leverage and a greater diversity of views. A partisan newspaper had difficulty avoiding periodic serious engagement with contrary policy positions in its pages if it wished to remain credible. Chains and corporate empires did not exist. In partisan systems, everyone is partisan and behavior is thus understood.

Moreover, nineteenth-century newspapers, while often aligned with parties, tended also to be ideologically driven, which meant that they frequently fought inside parties and in the broader political landscape for a set of ideals. In the twenty-first century, ideals are invariably sacrificed by corporate right-wing media outlets that are, first and foremost, profit machines owned by some of the largest multinational conglomerates on the planet. They make their profits by selling advertising to other large corporations. They have considerable monopoly power and receive valuable licenses and privileges from the government, which they are adamant to protect. They are at the pinnacle of the corporate establishment as much as the political establishment.

The single most important difference, however, is the shell-game premise of the entire conservative media shtick: that the mainstream news media have a distinct liberal bias that is deeply hostile to the right and big business and therefore that conservatives are simply offering either straight unbiased news by contrast or, more to the point, are justifiably bending the stick in the conservative direction to balance the liberal propaganda. In the current system, mainstream journalism works formally to not favor either major party and to prove at every turn its lack of bias toward either party. Reporters have to answer for such a bias if it is exposed. Conservative media do not have to play by those rules. The irony, of course, is that Fox News insists that it is “Fair and Balanced” and that “We Report, You Decide,” so it assumes the mantle and prerogatives of professional journalism while going about its partisan business.

Being a partisan player in the world of professional journalism has provided the right with considerable power to set the news agenda. Traditional journalists get their cues about what to cover from official sources and can dismiss some as ludicrous if they fail to meet an evidentiary standard and are opposed by other official sources. Fox and the conservative media, on the other hand, can reduce complex issues to one-word battle cries—“ACORN!” “Solyndra!” “Benghazi!”—which Republican politicians gleefully echo. Then those same politicians and right-wing media “watchdogs” badger traditional media for having a “liberal bias” if they do not cover the stories as well. By the time a hyperpartisan congressman like House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Darrell Issa, a Republican from California, is gaveling hearings into session, the Washington press corps is not about to say, “Hold it! This is ridiculous.” So it is that the nonstories that come to dominate news cycles invariably benefit the right.

But the right is never satisfied. Because they believe they are in an uphill battle with liberal propagandists, conservative media can have an unabashed and breathtaking double standard: they have very different evidentiary standards for stories that support, rather than damage, their politics. If facts prove inconvenient for the preferred narrative, ignore them. Republican officials are treated entirely differently from Democrats, even when the facts of a story are virtually identical. It is this opportunistic and unprincipled nature of conservative “journalism” that draws widespread analysis and consternation from outside the political right and from those remaining thoughtful conservatives willing to brave the wrath of Limbaugh.

Between the cocoon effect and the shameless disregard for consistency and intellectual honesty, it is not surprising that professional surveys tend to find regular viewers of Fox News to be more ignorant about what is actually happening in the world compared to those who watch other networks. In November 2011, Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind Poll examined how New Jerseyans watched television news, and the poll concluded that “some outlets, especially Fox News, lead people to be even less informed than those who say they don’t watch any news at all.” In some surveys, to be accurate, Fox News does not rank at rock bottom in terms of audience knowledge. But on balance, it is the clown dunce of TV news. No other network ever comes close to getting the sort of assessment Fox News received from World Public Opinion, a project managed by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland, in 2010. As one reporter summarized it, PIPA conducted a “survey of American voters that shows that Fox News viewers are significantly more misinformed than consumers of news from other sources. What’s more, the study shows that greater exposure to Fox News increases misinformation. So the more you watch, the less you know. Or to be precise, the more you think you know that is actually false.” As Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson concluded in their study of the Tea Party, “Fox News makes viewers both more conservative and less informed.” What may be most revealing is that there is no evidence that this finding bothers the management of Fox News in the least.

In private moments, conservatives concede they have won the battle to control the news, though to justify their modus operandi, they have to maintain and ceaselessly hype the shtick of being the abused outsiders battling entrenched liberal dominance. The mainstream of journalism has indeed moved to the right, in part because it has followed official sources to the right. Also the corporate news media owners, as Newt Gingrich understood, were certainly open to the idea of more probusiness journalism. The news media have made concerted efforts to appear welcoming to the right, unlike any similar welcome to the left. As Jeff Cohen, who has spent time in all the major cable TV newsrooms, observed, the greatest fear of working journalists is to be accused of being a liberal. “Nearly all of the Clinton scandals,” McPherson noted, “were set in motion by right-wing groups, floated through conservative media organs.” Rick Kaplan acknowledged as much and said he sometimes covered stories at CNN for fear of right-wing attack, not because they were legitimate stories. If professional journalism was resolute in splitting the difference between the two parties, there has been a greater price to pay for antagonizing Republicans in recent years.

The unraveling of media over the past two decades has driven many liberals, not to mention those to their left, to the brink of madness. Many are frustrated that traditional journalism has proven so incapable of resisting the right. With the success of Keith Olbermann’s on-air commentaries condemning the Bush-Cheney administration, MSNBC began to recognize that a lucrative market for low-expense, high-revenue programming was being underserved; it gradually put a few explicitly liberal programs on its schedule, which now includes boundary-breaking shows hosted by Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell, Chris Hayes, and Ed Schultz.

Some have equated these programs with Fox News in style, imagining MSNBC as just a left-wing variant on Rupert Murdoch’s network, but the comparison fails upon inspection. Although these programs are expressly liberal, they are more independent of the Democratic Party than Fox has been of the Republican—as was amply evident when MSNBC hosts were quick to decry Obama’s weak performance in the first of 2012’s three presidential debates. They also have a commitment to factual accuracy and intellectual consistency that is rare on the right. At the same time, as Olbermann and Cenk Uygur learned as they were shown the door, the corporate management has little sympathy with the politics of these shows if it veers too often outside the mainstream Democratic Party, even when the shows are profitable. There is an implicit pressure to rein in the politics.

Most striking is this: the explicitly liberal programs tend to spend considerable time fact-checking, debunking, and ridiculing the material on Fox and conservative talk radio. Right-wing media seem far less interested in what the liberals are saying. Why should they be? In the overall calculus, they are still calling the shots, and the liberals spend inordinate amounts of their time responding to the right. This call and response is a logical commercial manifestation of the post-journalism moment. Neither Fox News nor MSNBC has its own teams of reporters to send out to break news stories. Slogans like “We Report, You Decide” are rooted in fantasy. Cable channels have program hosts, producers, and guest bookers. They look at what others are reporting, and then they invite people to talk about the politics of the day. At their best, they invite interesting and diverse guests who might even disagree with one another—as happened on Ed Schultz’s MSNBC show during the debate about whether to include a public option in the Affordable Care Act. At their worst, they feature Sean Hannity and Karl Rove abandoning all the touchstones of realism and engaging in extended preelection discussions about how all the polls are wrong and Mitt Romney will win by a landslide.

VOTE THIS WAY

If the rise of conservative media aggressively pushing Dollarocracy policies has strongly shaped political journalism, it has had a similar effect on election coverage. Conservative media are obsessed with elections and with winning power. They aggressively promote Republican candidates, push their issues, and amplify the charges made in TV political ads. They can provide a launching pad for charges against Democrats or progressive organizations and use their influence to demand mainstream coverage. Consider how the group ACORN, which was instrumental in registering poor people to vote, was destroyed in 2009–2010, based on a largely bogus video hatchet job. The stalwarts of conservative media are by their own admission expressly committed to Republican electoral success—as anyone who has heard the whistle of Sean Hannity’s “Stop Obama Express” well understands—by any means necessary.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, Fox News steadfastly refused to address any significant Romney campaign falsehoods that had been exposed in the balance of the media. It routinely announced that the “mainstream” media were “in the bag” for Obama, all the while giving the Romney campaign an enormous advantage on the amount and tenor of coverage. In the final week before the election, Fox News gave coverage of Romney’s campaign speeches eighty-four minutes of airtime, compared to eighteen minutes for Obama. In contrast, the coverage elsewhere was only slightly greater timewise for Obama: forty-nine minutes to forty-two at MSNBC and fifty-three minutes to forty-two at CNN.

Fox News is now a singular force in Republican politics. “The introduction of Fox News into the cable roster has been shown to have coincided with an uptick in voting for Republican presidential candidates,” Skocpol and Williamson noted. “The capacity to shift U.S. voting patterns suggests that Fox News has a very real persuasive power.” Fox News almost singlehandedly made the Tea Party a powerful force in American politics in 2009–2010, as Tom Frank put it, by presenting “the emerging protest campaign as if it was the network’s own reality show.” Skocpol and Williamson’s comprehensive analysis of the media coverage of the Tea Party concluded that Fox News’ “assiduous promotional and informational efforts surely made a big difference.” They argued that “Tea Partiers’ factually inaccurate beliefs about many policy matters are particularly striking given their relatively high levels of education and overall savvy about the political process. It is hard to escape the conclusion that deliberate propagation of falsehoods by Fox and other powerful media outlets is responsible for mis-arming otherwise adept Tea Partiers, feeding them inaccurate facts and falsely hyped fears.”

By 2011, observers noted that traditional presidential “retail” campaigning had all but disappeared on the Republican side. “The contenders,” the New York Times observed, “are far more likely to make their visits on television than to ever drop by in person.” “Everything has changed,” Kansas Republican governor Sam Brownback stated. “It’s like a town hall every day on Fox News. You hear people talking back to you what you saw yesterday on Fox. I like Fox, and I’m glad we have an outlet, but it is having a major, major effect on what happens.”

Fox’s first great achievement came in 2000 when it played a foundational role in getting George W. Bush in the White House despite the fact that he lost the vote. At a critical point in the early morning hours of the day after the November 7, 2000, election, Fox analysts—led by a cousin of Bush, John Prescott Ellis (who would later admit to having been in contact with the Bush campaign in the fateful night)—declared that Bush had won Florida. Thinking Fox had simply crunched the numbers more quickly, the other networks quickly followed Fox in making the call and, with it, identifying Bush as the winner of the Electoral College competition that would identify the next president. But Fox had the same numbers that the other networks had, and its analysts could not by any reasonable estimate have found a win for Bush in the available data. The Florida race, as the ensuing weeks of wrangling over recounts would confirm, was too close to call on election night. Indeed, there is an argument to be made that it was still too close to call when, thirty-six days later, a U.S. Supreme Court majority, made up of justices appointed by administrations in which Bush’s father had served, called the contest for the Republican nominee. To our view, there is a better argument to be made that Democrat Al Gore had a more credible claim to victory. That Gore was never able to effectively stake that claim, that he was in fact portrayed throughout the recount fight as a sore loser, was a media construct. By making a seemingly impossible election night call for Bush, Fox positioned the Republican as the inevitable winner.

Twelve years later, the mastermind of Bush’s campaign, Karl Rove, melted down on Fox’s election night broadcast, openly arguing with the network after it called the key swing state of Ohio for Obama. In 2012, however, it wasn’t too close to call. A grudging Rove had to accept the will of the people, a circumstance with which he did not seem to be entirely familiar. But only the most naïve commentators presumed that Rove’s embarrassment was anything but transitory. The next day, he was on a conference call, explaining how he was recalculating for the next election. And Fox was featuring him once more, as if nothing had happened. For conservatives, Fox means never having to say you’re sorry—even when you are massively, publicly wrong.

That’s because, like most of the right-wing echo chamber, Fox is not journalism. It’s what fills the void when journalism disappears.

The political right is perfectly comfortable with the false construct of a “news” network that has, in the words of Eric Boehlert, “altered the game by unchaining itself from the moral groundings of U.S. journalism.” For partisans who do not want to be held to account, the conservative media landscape of the twenty-first century looks like a future in which they could reside quite comfortably. A world with little journalism, where the affairs of the wealthy and corporations receive little scrutiny, especially their dalliances with politicians, and where the political news agenda is dominated by their partisan news media and pundits, is jim-dandy. The conservative media can continue their migration and colonization of the news so that they are indeed the mainstream. It is a world where their ability to win elections is greatly enhanced, even when they are pushing policies opposed by the majority of the population. Even if they lose an election, as happened with the 2012 presidential race, conservative media are there the next day to tell conservatives that they need not accept the will of the people. “Conservatism did not lose last night,” shouted Rush Limbaugh on November 7, 2012. Actually, it had lost. Rather badly.

But if there is a basic premise that unites Limbaugh, the folks on Fox, and the vast infrastructure of regional right-wing talkers, it is this: conservatives should never bend to the demands of the voters; voters should be made to bend to the demands of conservatives. To that end, conservative media actively campaign against any proposal that might renew actual journalism. The conservative media and dollarcrats oppose all policy measures to address the journalism crisis, from increasing postal subsidies, enhancing public media, or breaking up monopoly media firms to create more competition. To the conservatives and to Dollarocracy, the status quo is just fine, thank you.

Excerpted with permission from “Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America” by John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney. Available from Nation Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.

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