We seem to get a damning new piece of corroborating evidence daily in the BriefingGate scandal hanging like a cloud over the White House. Yesterday we learned that the Taliban were paid up to $100,000 by the Russia GRU spy group for each American soldier killed. One of the Russian spies running the operation was forced to flee from Afghanistan and left behind a half-a-million dollars in cash. This is not the kind of granular detail you would expect from a piece of intelligence that was as yet “unsubstantiated,” as the corrupt Trump team would have us believe. In fact, Trump has now taken the position that this entire story is a “hoax” concocted by the media and the mean Democrats to hurt his re-election chances. To Trump, any news that makes him look bad is, by definition, a hoax. We’ll see what Senate Republicans say once the Gang of Eight are briefed today by the CIA and NSA.
Every day also brings news stories, editorials and social media posts about political polarization and our divided populace, asking “how did we get here?” And while “here” is truly surreal and demoralizing, the question’s answer is simple. Our nation is profoundly divided thanks to a three-decade-long project by conservatives in the media to demonize non-conservatives, stoke hatred and grievance, and cash in on fear.
This all started, most prominently, on AM radio. Thirty-plus years ago Rush Limbaugh–and a few others–found they could get a lot of listeners by trash-talking women, minorities and liberals. Their listeners were middle-aged white men often stuck in their cars for hours at a time, including truck drivers, delivery drivers, and blue-collar commuters, as well as retirees and shut-ins. Their pitch grew out of the massive cultural changes that began in the ’60s and took hold in the ’70s. The Fairness Doctrine requiring broadcasters to air “both sides” of any political issue was abolished in 1987, which unleashed shock-jocks like Limbaugh to disparage entire groups of citizens without consequence. The problems of the listeners, according to Limbaugh, were due to women and minorities being given unfair advantages, both in the culture and in the workplace. To use Trump’s constant refrain, “it was so unfair!” Quotas, affirmative action, and hiring preferences were chipping away at white male privilege, and the women’s movement was no longer tolerating male aggression and condescension. Limbaugh’s outrageous and vile scapegoating of women and minorities was accomplished through fear, and after a decade or so, this formula was adapted to television by Roger Ailes at the Fox network. Ailes and Fox toned down the vulgarity but continued to paint a portrait of a scary, decaying America whose descent was due to the barbarism of minorities and the eroding sexual mores of women. Over the years, Fox continued to mine the culture for the next frontier of fearmongering and paranoia-stoking, always using us-versus-them division and flat-out lies to scare or enrage their viewers. Several years ago a study found that Fox “news” viewers knew LESS about the world and current affairs than people who watched NO NEWS at all. In other words, watching Fox made them dumber.
In more recent years, social media amplified the fear and scapegoating, allowing propaganda and misinformation to broadly masquerade as news. That’s why so many people today harbor horrifying delusions about “the dangers of mask wearing during the pandemic” and “the tracking chips that will be in Bill Gates’ Covid vaccine.” It’s taken three decades to grow the right-wing lunatic fringe into 30% of the electorate.
Many conservatives and some disingenuous moderates complain that “both sides” of the political spectrum on television have radicalized and devolved, but that’s simply not true. There is not and never has been a liberal analog to Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity or Michael Savage. Not even close. And the journalists on CNN and MSNBC that conservatives love to attack are profoundly different from the non-journalists at Fox.
Conservatives seem to complain most about Rachel Maddow, so let’s compare her to Sean Hannity. Maddow is an incredibly accomplished scholar, attending Stanford and then attending Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. Hannity is a high-school dropout and house painter who eventually made his way to radio, then to Fox. Maddow is an extremely meticulous journalist who is always careful about what she says and how she says it, making sure her reporting has multiple sources, and when she makes a mistake she owns it and gives a correction or retraction. Hannity gives his opinions, is careless about his words, engages in ad-hominem attacks, and demonizes large groups of people, often by the use of stereotypes. There is simply no comparison. Maddow is a real journalist. Hannity is a dishonest partisan hack. A side-by-side comparison of most of the left versus right anchors reveals the same thing. On the left, mostly journalists. On the right, mostly partisan hacks.
Not to look too far ahead, but assuming we can defeat Trump at the ballot box this November, we will still have to contend with Fox. Trump is but a symptom, while Fox is the disease, and our country will continue to be divided until we find a way to cure the disease. This is our next big battle. The good news is, we know how win. We just have to mobilize and stay focused. Fox is only as powerful as its ad revenue. And until we organize large boycotts or pressure campaigns against Fox, the network will continue to lie and distort and divide for profit.
Recently activists have forced (shamed?) a growing list of large companies to suspend for a month their advertising on Facebook–due to its reluctance to abolish hate speech–and this will have a huge, billion dollar impact on Facebook’s bottom line. Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg told employees this week that the ad boycotts won’t last: “they’ll be back.” But it’s clear Zuck is scared, and it’s also clear that the advertisers ultimately call the shots. The more we push advertisers to demand truth, standards and fairness from all broadcasters and social media platforms, the sooner we’ll curb the lies and distortions that keep a third of our population in a bubble of delusion and propaganda.
Keep resisting Trump and keep working to “vote his ass out of office.”