There will be many tense and uncomfortable conversations this weekend in America, and throughout the holiday season. Political disagreement may be inevitable at family gatherings, but one factor in America makes it much worse: Fox News.
Since it launched in 1996, Fox News Channel has been one of the most popular cable news networks in the United States. On a given day that approximately 3 million people -- mostly older and almost exclusively white --watch Fox programming. That's more than CNN and MSNBC combined.
These viewers are being fed a steady diet of lies and disinformation in the service of an alternate reality where the facts are rejected in favor of right-wing talking points. Media scholars and other researchers have shown that people who watch Fox News actually know less correct information about current events and other important public matters than people who watch other news networks -- or who do not watch cable news at all.
Fox News also has real political power at the polls: social scientists have concluded that the network helps to mobilize Republican and right-leaning voters.
But Fox News was never about honoring the obligation of the free press to speak truth to power or help the American people make informed decisions about political and social matters. Fox was explicitly designed to parrot the style and narrative of sports talk radio where entertainment and profit-seeking are more important than the truth and the world is divided up between right-wing conservatives (the "good guys" and "the home team") and Democrats, liberals and progressives (the "bad guys" and "the enemy").
In the age of Trump, Fox News has only become more bold and transparent in its partisanship. Although the network initially favored other Republicans in 2016 and was at times openly opposed to Trump, it has become his de facto state-sponsored media, an American Pravda where Trump's war on democracy is cheered on, his leadership is endlessly praised, and white supremacist or eliminationist rhetoric is mainstreamed.
At present, America is highly polarized. We're in the midst of a "cold" civil war that threatens to turn "hot." Fox News is one of the country's primary political arsonists.
Is it possible to free Fox News' viewers and public from its grip? Why are conservatives and so many other Americans enraptured by the network's alternate reality it creates? How are violence and fear-mongering central themes of Fox News? What are some strategies for communicating with relatives, friends and other people -- for example, at holiday gatherings -- who are willingly stuck in the Fox News echo chamber?
In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Jen Senko, the writer, producer and director of the documentary "The Brainwashing of My Dad." This film explores how Senko's father became a Fox News true believer -- and how she got him back. It was originally released in the spring of 2016, as Donald Trump was surging toward the Republican nomination, and is now available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube and other streaming services. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
In your documentary "The Brainwashing of My Dad," you warn about the power of Fox News to create an alternate reality which in turn encourages right-wing violence. How do you feel given all that has happened in America since the rise of Trump?
I feel really frustrated. I’m just an ordinary person. Why was I able to see this, the writing on the wall, and people a lot smarter than me and more able to do something were not able to see what was going on? This problem began at least 20 years ago. I am a little disheartened. We are akin to the proverbial frog in the water. I think some people are finally starting to see and understand the dangerous effects of Fox News. Honestly, I don’t know if it’s too late or not.
There is a man in my neighborhood who drives a pickup truck with Donald Trump stickers all over it and huge flags with Trump's name. Since I'm writing a book about Donald Trump and this political moment I decided I was going to go to this man's house to introduce myself politely and ask if he would be willing to chat. His neighbors were outside. I decided to talk to them first because I don't want to be the black guy who got shot because I knocked on a white man's door. His neighbors were also black. They looked at me and said quietly that he didn't like people like us and it wouldn't be a good idea. How would you have approached this Donald Trump superfan?
I would have been afraid as well. If I were black I would have been even more afraid. There is cause for being afraid because these people are taught year after year that Democrats, black people, anyone who is not a white male, women, feminists -- who they call "FemiNazis" -- are not just people that they disagree with but instead are evil. In addition to Fox News, which they watch like zombies 24/7 whenever they’re home, or Rush Limbaugh on radio, there are also the emails. There’s an avalanche of them. The emails from right-wing websites and groups are even worse than Fox News or right-wing radio.
Why is Fox News so dangerously effective?
Fox News operates through fear. It operates through emotion. I remember when my parents used to listen to Walter Cronkite. When I was little I thought, "What a snooze! Why are people interested in the news? It’s so boring." It wasn’t trying to make any money. It didn’t need to run a profit. It was a half hour in the evening and a half hour at night. It was boring. It strove for objectivity. What happened was Rupert Murdoch gets American citizenship. and hires Roger Ailes to create Fox News. It was a perfect storm. Roger Ailes was a genius at television. He understood it. He was a television producer. Ailes knew what hooks viewers: emotion, simple sentences, repetition, fear, interrupting the guests and using high-impact visuals.
Exactly. There is that ticker at the bottom: Everything, however mundane, is "breaking news" or some type of "alert."
This is exciting for older people and it can actually become addictive. Young people are watching Fox News too of course, but it really is targeted at older people. Just think about it. You are an older person, you don’t have that much of a social life and you’re at home. Fox News provides excitement. It provides a purpose. Fox News viewers are on a team. They feel special. There’s like an in-group. Fox News is also like a cult because it’s exclusive and the other side isn’t just wrong, they’re evil. That’s what they have going for them.
If a Fox News viewer or someone else who is entombed in the right-wing echo chamber were to approach you seeking advice -- because they know something is wrong and want to get out so to speak -- how would you help them?
First of all, you can’t immediately just debunk their way of thinking and what they believe in. You have to deactivate their amygdala -- this is the fear center of the brain. Science shows it’s actually larger in the brains of authoritarians and other conservatives than in other people. You have to find some sort of common ground with them. Ask something basic such as “You have kids in school? Oh, I do too. You want the best for them? Yes, so do I. Gee, too bad this news is so divisive." Then pivot to trying to share some new information they may not have been exposed to.
But the most important thing is to focus on deactivating the fear center of the brains of these Fox News viewers and listeners. Find common ground. Once you get them to trust you and you share some actual facts then maybe you can try to get them to think for themselves.
Are they even capable of thinking for themselves? Trump's supporters are in a de facto cult where he is the leader. We also know from psychology that a phenomenon called "information backfire" will also make conservatives and other Fox News types even more resistant to new information and real facts when they are confronted by them.
Unfortunately, for the most part, you are likely correct. It’s almost impossible because they are in a type of right-wing Fox News bubble. In practice it will require a longer deprogramming process, which is what I had to do with my dad. That didn’t happen overnight. It took me about two years. But you may be able to reach one out of 10 Fox News people and those others stuck in the right-wing echo chamber.
After making the documentary you have likely had many people reach out to you. They see their relatives acting like your father.
Every day I gett emails from people who want to help their parents or grandparents and other relatives. It is really heartbreaking. People reach out to me after watching my documentary, because for them it was like watching their own family. Most people are relieved that they’re not alone. They tell me, “Now I understand why they’re so angry.” Now these people who have relatives addicted to Fox News know that they don't have the problem, they are not crazy. It’s like when you’re sick and you have a diagnosis and it makes you feel better. The same applies here.
What is the most memorable example?
An acquaintance told me about how when Obama first got in office she went to her uncle and aunt’s house on Thanksgiving. She thought she could talk about the economy, because obviously Obama had just gotten in and he couldn’t have had anything to do with the state of the economy at that point. Her uncle got so mad. He said, “Don’t you talk about that man in my house. Get out!” She said, “No. I’m not leaving.” He goes upstairs, gets a pistol, comes down, points it at her. She’s scared to death. He lowers the gun and then shoots the floor.
Donald Trump, the Republican Party, the NRA, Fox News and the right-wing media consistently use language designed to encourage violence by their followers. If Donald Trump is removed from office I believe there will be civil unrest in this country. His most die-hard supporters have been primed for violence.
It is very scary. There will be violence. There will be blood.
For outsiders Fox News is absurd. It is bad political theater. How does Fox News actually take control of so many people like your father? It is often the country's most watched "news" station.
First of all, Fox News makes it seem like you’re their friend and you’re special because you tuned into them. You’re now part of their club. "We’re talking to you. We’re here for you. We understand you." Then the main thing is the fake anger. The shows revolve around anger. The themes are repeated. "We know something isn't right. The system is rigged."
Now, for people getting sucked into the Fox News cult alternate reality, the hosts and guests are giving me an explanation for why the system isn’t working. These viewers get sucked in. The hosts and producers and other professionals at Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and other parts of the right-wing media are very good at what they do. They’re very convincing. They are skilled at telling their audience that they will do the thinking for them, boil it down, make it simple. People respond. We’re easily influenced by media. Media is the diet. Media is the spoon.
Fox News viewers skew much older than the general public. There is an epidemic of loneliness in America. Could that be part of the appeal of Fox News? Are these older people getting a type of companionship and family from Fox News?
That’s just one component. My dad was gullible. My mom was not. They were just as intelligent. My mom never went to college. My dad had a master’s degree, but nevertheless he was gullible. He also seemed to respond to anger, whereas my mom didn’t respond to it.
How were you able to extricate your father from the Fox News alternate reality?
With my father, change happened slowly. I don’t think he had a profound moment of sudden realization. But we just noticed him becoming happier. If we could take away all the right-wing media there would still be differences of opinion in America. But it wouldn't be this great divide. The country would not be filled with such a large amount of hate, suspicion and fear that is encouraged by Fox News and the right-wing media.
That is what motivates them in their lives. They get used to the fear and that excitement. Fox News causes a feeling of devious excitement. It is an addiction. We need to give Fox News right-wing addicts something to replace those feelings with.