One October evening, in the midst of the 2013 government shutdown, I watched Bill O’Reilly work himself into something of a state. He sat at his desk, his hands palms upward, fingers slightly curved, as if cupping something in them. “I want Hagel.” he said, staring into the camera. “I want Hagel. I want him.” A casual observer might interpret this moment as O’Reilly expressing his fierce but tender desire for Chuck Hagel, the Secretary of Defense. More experienced O’Reilly viewers, however, will recognize it as a signal that the unfortunate Hagel had plummeted downward in O’Reilly’s estimation from pinhead to evildoer. (There are only three kinds of people in Bill O’Reilly’s world: good hardworking Americans, pinheads—people who are not actually malevolent but who are too stupid to understand the way the world really works—and evildoers.)
I know these things about O’Reilly because, for the entire month of October, I watched Fox News for approximately three hours every day, while at the same time strictly abstaining from any other sources of information about current events. The reason I engaged in this self-induced Fox News torture was that it had become clear that the right-wing media in general, and Fox News in particular, were constructing an alternate reality than the one I live in. Fox is, of course, a great driver of public opinion.
On this occasion, in which the government shutdown had resulted in death benefits not being paid to the families of soldiers killed in action, the problem was so egregious to O'Reilly that it could not possibly result from pinheadedness. No, instead there must have been heinous forces at work, and one of the devil’s minions was Chuck Hagel.
Bill O’Reilly, it should be noted, is a man whose mind is entirely undarkened by doubt. I have seen him refuse even to consider the arguments of a Notre Dame theology professor who took exception to his interpretation of the life and message of Jesus. When Juan Williams told him that Jonathan Gruber from MIT had calculated that 80 percent of American citizens would find their health insurance unchanged under Obamacare, O’Reilly responded, “I don’t believe that for a second…That’s what some pinhead says. That’s not a fact.”
Doubt, as well as its cousins ambiguity, complexity, subtlety and nuance, are simply not welcome on O’Reilly’s show. Voltaire said, “To be uncertain is to be uncomfortable, but to be certain is to be ridiculous.” Bill O’Reilly, I imagine, would think that Voltaire was a pinhead.
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A 2007 study found that in the 2000 presidential election, “Republicans gained 0.4 to 0.7 percentage points in the towns that broadcast Fox News.” The study’s estimates “imply that Fox News convinced 3 to 28 percent of its viewers to vote Republican, depending on the audience measure.” In addition to being influential, I also learned that Fox News is an extremely poor source of information about current events.
But its influence seems to far exceed the ability to sway a few votes one way or another. Fox and its friends seem to have become so influential and all-encompassing that it is actually creating an entirely separate version of reality in the minds of its most loyal viewers, one that with increasing frequency doesn’t match reality.
Perhaps the most startling pieces of evidence of this came Nov. 6, 2012, the evening of the presidential election. At about 11:25 Eastern Standard Time, Fox called Ohio, and therefore the election at large, for Barack Obama. Remarkably, Karl Rove, Bush campaign adviser and Fox News contributor, stated that Fox’s decision was premature and that it was irresponsible for the network to have made it. For over 30 minutes he continued to argue this point with news anchors Brett Baier and Megyn Kelly along with Fox's own statisticians. The Fox News establishment, though it selects and covers stories with an eye toward advancing a right-wing agenda, is generally forced to recognize some indisputable facts, like vote counts. Rove, on the other hand, who provides political commentary, which makes up over two-thirds of their content, felt no such restriction. Finally, after one last arithmetic salvo from him attempting to demonstrate that the outcome was still in doubt, the exasperated Kelly said, “Is this just math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better?”
After my initial amusement at this episode, I began to find the whole thing alarming. Karl Rove is, by all accounts, a smart man. How could he and so many of his colleagues on the right have been so thoroughly, so publicly, so humiliatingly wrong? The theory I eventually arrived at was that the right-wing infosphere had become so large and self-referential that people like Rove were seduced by its alternate view of reality. What then, I wondered, would happen to someone like me, someone who has abandoned the Democratic Party because it is not progressive enough, who thinks that Barack Obama is, politically, very similar to Richard Nixon but without the personality disorders, someone who is literally a card-carrying member of the ACLU—in short, a member of the evil cabal that Fox News guests routinely rail against?
Thus, on Oct. 1, 2013, I sat down on my couch and, armed with nothing but a remote, vowed to consume three hours of Fox News programming a day for an entire month, while strictly abstaining from any other sources of information about current events. I couldn’t sample all of Fox’s wares, of course, but after looking at its lineup, I chose three shows to concentrate on—"Fox & Friends," because it seemed like it might be representative of the network’s populist, aw-shucks conservatism; Shep Smith’s News Hour, because Smith has a reputation as being the straightest shooter of the Fox anchors; and, of course, the network’s browbeater-in-chief, Bill O’Reilly.
One of the first things I noticed was how similar all of the on-air personalities were. The men come in a variety of ages and weights, but are almost exclusively white, and almost all seem coated with a film of weary exasperation at the antics of the enemies of our nation. Shep Smith seems to be the exception to this. In contrast, he comes across as refreshingly candid and good-humored, and doesn’t indulge in the sort of winking innuendo that passes for news on much of the rest of the network. Within a few days of the commencement of my Fox project, I developed a fervent, Stockholm syndrome-style crush on Shep Smith. (The women of Fox are attractive, which is not an unusual requirement for female TV personalities, but they are dramatically, disproportionately blond and share a particular ebullience.)
The quintessence of the Fox News style is found on "Fox & Friends." It is the network’s morning show, a competitor to "Good Morning America" and "Today." It features three hosts, Steve Doocy, Elisabeth Hasselbeck and Brian Kilmeade. Doocy seems to be the brains of the three, a blond 50-ish man with a long face who is always ready with a sarcastic smile or an eye roll at the sad state of political affairs. Hasselbeck seems as if she might be too nice for the role in which she is cast. She has only a few go-to facial expressions—compassionate concern (generally reserved for children), an angry moue that comes off more as a petulant pout, and a bright smile that she occasionally tries to repurpose, Doocy-style, into one of outraged disbelief. She can’t quite pull the latter off, however, and the effect is sort of disturbing, resembling a fear/aggression response more than anything else. Kilmead plays the part of the dumb little brother, often starting sentences with, “What I don’t get …” He handles all of the sports stories, and there is something behind his small, close-set eyes that makes me think that he once spent a lot of time pushing the heads of nerdy classmates into toilets.
As the days went by, I began to get comfortable with my cast of characters, and for a while things seemed to be going pretty swimmingly. As a liberal I was skeptical of the Fox version of events, and the news coverage tends to be fairly monochromatic, but I otherwise felt on top of things. Or I did, that is, until Oct. 9.
The government was shut down on Oct. 1, and this monopolized Fox’s coverage, but in a very strange way. Since the shutdown was the result of Republican action, there seemed to be a very strong editorial slant aimed at minimizing the suffering caused by it. On much of the network they referred to the event as the “Senate slimdown,” presumably because everybody thinks a slimdown is a good thing, and if you don’t, well, it’s the Senate’s fault. And the network in general had a variety of experts and think tank denizens paraded across its sets assuring us all that the slimdown was actually beneficial, or at least without any discernible consequences. Except, of course, to the veterans, but that was Obama’s and Hagel’s fault.
I, on the other hand, was not so sure of the salubrious effects of turning the entire federal government off on a whim, and the constant drumbeat of cheery shutdown news began to make me—and I admit this freely—a little bit paranoid. Which brings me back to Oct. 9.
That morning, one of the "Fox & Friends" headlines—quick stories that merit only a few second’s mention—was that “that salmonella outbreak” had become so severe that furloughed CDC workers were being recalled to help deal with it. My eyes widened in surprise. What? A salmonella outbreak? I had been watching Fox News for an average of three hours a day for eight days, and this was the very first I had heard of it. I was even more disturbed by the casual tone of it all, as if they had been discussing it for weeks, and I had just missed it. My first—and perhaps slightly fevered—thought was that the network had soft-pedaled the story because they didn’t want to give the impression that furloughing a bunch of agricultural inspectors might have been a bad idea.
It was at that moment that I realized that Fox was simply not telling me things—things that, arguably, might be good for me to know. Such as, just to pick an example, that eating a certain brand of chicken might cause me illness or death, and that the problem was sufficiently dire that government employees were being recalled to work without pay to deal with it. It was a very disturbing moment, and I immediately began to wonder what other matters Fox had chosen to keep me in the dark about.
Perhaps it’s time to discuss ignorance. One of the interesting things about Fox News, one of the things I hadn’t anticipated upon entering into this venture, was how little actual news the network disseminates. There is a lot of national political coverage, most of this devoted to the damage that Barack Obama and the Democratic Party are inflicting on our country. Beyond that, however, Fox stays true to its Rupert Murdochian tabloid roots. There is plenty of coverage of police chases and freak accidents, but very little else in the way of substantive stories.
Given the statistics about Fox’s conservative influence and the way it misleads its viewers, I think it is fair to classify much of what it does as propaganda. My liberal cynicism seemed to render me immune to that -- their O’Reilly-style hectoring eliciting a few laughs, but doing little to change my worldview. But Fox, as I came to discover, indulges in another form of opinion creation. Let’s call this the propaganda of ignorance. By choosing which stories to cover, and, perhaps more important, which stories to ignore, Fox is able to advance its political agenda in a much more subtle and insidious way.
I think that some of my fascination with the news comes from a basic fearfulness, a neurotic belief that the world is a threatening place, but that if I know enough about what is going on, I will be able to avoid the most horrific of disasters.
But now I was aware of Fox’s role as a purveyor, not only of right-wing information but of right-wing ignorance, and I began to examine my mind for things that I hadn’t gotten any information about in the past month. The most notable items that were missing, I realized, were people from other countries and poverty. Aside from the times when picturesque destruction video was available, there was essentially no coverage of foreign affairs. On the poverty side, programs like food stamps and welfare were generally referred to as handouts, and the only time poor people were mentioned was when they were a source of malfeasance. One prominent "Fox & Friends" story, for example, cited a woman who, because of a computer glitch, managed to buy $700 worth of food on a food stamp debit card with a balance of $.47.
The effect of this is interesting. Even in my short time watching Fox I found poverty fading from my mind as a problem. I was surprised one day when, during a discussion of deficit reduction (something that they talk about almost constantly), I found myself nodding in agreement that there was room to cut social programs that had already been radically slashed. Fox couldn’t convince me to care about the issues they are obsessed with (Obama’s treachery and the deficit, mostly), but by simply failing to mention a topic like income inequality, it managed to make me stop caring about the things it would prefer that I ignore.
I have an optimistic view of Americans. I think we are basically a kind and generous people—that if we are confronted with suffering, we are willing to act, even to sacrifice our own interests, in order to alleviate it. Perhaps, I began to think, we are not becoming progressively crueler and more callous, as it sometimes appears. Perhaps we have simply forgotten about the suffering all around us because we haven’t been reminded of it lately.
But even beyond this, the idea that Fox might not be keeping me in the loop on important stories began to seem more and more ominous. In my defense, early October 2013 was a time of significant turmoil in the United States. One of the two major political parties had decided, for reasons that appeared to be unclear even to them, to shut down the federal government. Worse yet, a deadline was fast approaching in which that same political party might decide to cause our country to default on its debts. This had never happened before, so it was not at all clear what the effect of such a thing would be. It was almost certain, however, that it would be very, very bad. In the worst case, one might expect severe social disruptions—runaway inflation, bank failures, even riots.
The idea that the country might be speeding toward this potential disaster, and that my only source of information about what was happening was the spotty and unreliable Fox News, began to prey on my imagination.
After mulling this over for a few days, I decided to broach the subject with my wife. She had been acting as the firewall between me and any news but Fox. She had also, in the past, shown a certain zeal for the enforcement of the arbitrary rules of my previous nonfiction ventures. What if, I began to wonder, she, in concert with Fox, was concealing something really big from me?
“So,” I began tentatively, “we should talk about the sorts of things that would make me stop doing this Fox News story.”
“I don’t know.” My mind was full of shadowy catastrophes that might be, at that very moment, playing themselves out just over the horizon. “You know, big things.” There was a palpable silence. The conversation, I realized, had already gone seriously awry. I thought for a few moments. “Like something that might make us think about hoarding food.”
She was watching me out of the corner of her eye, in the way that one might keep track of a shouting person on the street. “OK,” she finally said. “I’ll let you know when it’s time to start hoarding food.”
On Oct. 17, the shutdown was lifted, and Fox switched coverage to something closer to its normal mode of operation. At this point, I made a second discovery—I began to find Fox News extremely dull. Its one-note coverage of events, its simplistic interpretations of people’s motives, its attraction to the lurid, all began to make the network seem tedious in the extreme. And then there is the outrage.
Fox is a network founded on outrage. There is a constant barrage of stories of righteous people wronged by the forces of evil, usually in the form of government. A cheerleading squad was forced to terminate its fundraising carwash because of water pollution concerns, a school board asked teachers to stop forcing their children to sing overtly Christian carols, there is an increasing level of anti-Christian rhetoric in the military (Fox is also, by the way, a very Christian network)—the list of abuses perpetrated on the hardworking patriots of this country seems never-ending.
I will admit that I too am something of an outrage addict. I find myself drawn to websites and stories that will stoke my ideas that there is a great right-wing cabal out there attempting to destroy the American way of life. In a way, I suppose my beliefs are just a mirror image of those flogged endlessly on Fox.
But in the end, I am not a Fox viewer. To the Fox audience, I fear that I am one of “them” rather than one of “us.” And unable to join them in their self-righteous, unifying anger, Fox News left me behind.
The government, the economy and even the Affordable Care Act survived October 2013, and I lived through a whole month of nothing but Fox. I am discovering lingering effects, however. I find myself much more skeptical of news outlets—all of them. Having seen the way in which Fox, in both obvious and subtle ways, constructs an information framework that supports its political views, I look for similar editorial decisions everywhere, even in information sources I trust. And I am much more careful about my outrage. Yes, the world is full of outrageous things—acts of astonishing dishonesty. But outrage, or, I should say, other people’s outrage is really, really tedious.
Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” and I don’t regret the time I spent among the Foxians. I still believe that what the network does, and the way it does it is deeply damaging to our society—but I think I understand the Fox universe much more clearly. And if, as a result, I wind up being more skeptical of my own certainty and less apt to bore people with my anger, then it was time well spent.
On the final day of my vigil, Fox had one extra surprise for me. As I tuned in to my last episode of "The O’Reilly Factor," I realized that I was going to miss Bill just a little bit. If nothing else, Bill O’Reilly seems to offer a sense of permanence, something dependable and constant in a world of increasingly rapid and often disturbing change. Tomorrow the tides will ebb and flow, the sun will rise, and Bill O’Reilly will be pissed off about something. I settled back on my couch and let it all wash over me. “We are in the twilight zone. America has entered another dimension,” he began, and I gave out a small, satisfied sigh. Take me home, Bill, take me home.