When I first watched Fox News in the late 1990’s my reaction can probably best be described as a tempered sense of horror. As a former reporter, editor, and journalism student I found it hard to believe that anyone could take such a shoddy caricature of journalism seriously. The embarrassingly lowbrow lack of quality among its “reporters” and “anchors,” the fact that virtually none of them (aside from, at that time, Brit Hume) had any prior serious journalistic credentials or experience, seemed so obvious– and the blatant right-wing bias in the garbage that they spewed so divorced from reality– that I recall feeling almost a sense of comfort in my confidence that while this parody of an actual news channel might provide some entertainment value to a certain, limited type of audience, it could never be viewed by Americans overall as a legitimate, reliable source of information.
I should have paid more attention to the “horror” aspect of my initial reaction. Because as it turned out, a horror is actually what Fox News has become in our lifetime, a horror which, along with “talk radio,” has done more extensive and lasting damage to the fabric of this country than any Islamic terrorist (to borrow a tired cliche right out of the Fox News playbook) could ever wish for in his wildest dreams.
Wikipedia pretty much nails it:
Fox News has been described as practicing biased reporting in favor of the Republican Party, the George W. Bush and Donald Trump administrations and conservative causes while slandering the Democratic Party and spreading harmful propaganda intended to negatively affect its members’ electoral performances. Critics have cited the channel as detrimental to the integrity of news overall. Fox News employees have said that news reporting operates independently of its opinion and commentary programming, and have denied bias in news reporting, while former employees have said that Fox ordered them to “slant the news in favor of conservatives.”
In hindsight, I gave far too much credit to what I naively viewed as a reasonably enlightened American population. I know now that vast swaths of this country are woefully, willfully and obstinately ignorant, ignorant to the point of threatening violence if only to defend their racial and sexual biases and prejudices, and those are the very people that Fox News targets like a venomous, insatiable predator.
But from the start Fox News was aided by an even more insidious aspect. Because the Fox brand was already associated with decidedly non-doctrinaire, mass-marketed professional sports and entertainment, it was easy for people to assume that its presentation of “news” was a legitimate and natural development—that it was simply an extension of corporate competition extended to the news industry, albeit one with a slightly rightward tilt. This, more than anything, is why it came to be accepted by millions and became the juggernaut it is today.
However much its origins were rooted in raw, unchecked capitalism, the monster created by Fox News now literally threatens the outright destruction of the American Republic. Millions of Americans have allowed themselves to be comfortably sucked into the vortex of what is essentially a propaganda and contrived outrage and blame generator on a scale unprecedented in its reach and effects. The symbiosis between Fox News and the Republican Party has been documented ad nauseum. It simply achieved its apotheosis in the administration of Donald Trump who is widely acknowledged to rely exclusively on Fox News propaganda in making policy decisions and staff appointments that impact the lives of millions of Americans. Worse, we have a huge cross-section of the American public willing to support those decisions, solely because they are validated and legitimized by Fox News.
The fact that this propaganda outlet was foisted on us by a right-wing foreign-born billionaire (one “naturalized” as an American citizen) named Rupert Murdoch has long since faded from the national conversation even as our national policies and the actions of those who implement them are now dictated almost exclusively by his “agenda.” When Donald Trump speaks of immigrants as a foreign menace it is without the slightest sense of irony that the real menace to America is one beamed into our homes by an Australian media mogul who decided decades ago to devote his accumulation of money and power towards refashioning our country to serve his own ends. As Eric Alterman, writing for The Nation, puts it:
From day one, billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch and communications savant and sexual terrorist Roger Ailes created Fox News as a political mechanism through which they could control the Republican Party and shift the debate in favor of their regressive agenda. Republican candidates were routinely given contracts and free airtime to spout lies about immigrants, climate change, tax cuts, and so much else, and Fox’s hosts rarely pushed back. Sometimes the network’s anchors lied outright, but most often they left the fabulism and incendiary hate speech to their contributors.
There have been many devastating testimonials published here and elsewhere that detail the ruinous impact that a constant diet of Fox News has had on the minds and attitudes of our parents, friends and loved ones. How once compassionate, thoughtful people in our lives have succumbed to the corrosive, divisive poison poured incessantly into their brains by highly-paid, morally vacant provocateurs like Sean Hannity, Lou Dobbs, Tucker Carlson, and Jeanine Pirro and supposedly “serious” commentators such as Neil Cavuto, Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade, all of the Fox News circus performers who essentially appeared out of nowhere with no established journalistic capacity but were somehow, suddenly being taken very seriously by millions in this country– as if they’d always been around, as if their opinions had always mattered. Jen Senko, Jodie Evans and Matthew Modine even produced a full, feature-length film titled The Brainwashing of My Dad that chronicles the deterioration of Senko’s father into an angry, one-dimensional shell of himself, parroting Fox News talking points.
Luke O’Neil, a Boston-based freelancer and writer at large for such publications as the Boston Globe, Esquire, and Elle, collected over a hundred stories from people who’d lost—in both a real and metaphorical sense—their family members to the divisive, paranoid and racist dogma spewed on Fox News, as well its counterpart Sky channel in Australia and Daily Mail tabloid in the U.K. His method, as he admits in this piece written for New York Magazine, was unscientific: he invited people on Twitter to post their stories, which he then posted on his newsletter. But the reactions and anecdotes he received demonstrated a consistent pattern that seems to afflict thousands, if not millions of Americans addicted to the endless cycle of perpetual white, (mostly) male grievance propagated by an agenda-driven propaganda outlet.
No matter where the stories came from they all featured a few familiar beats: A loved one seemed to have changed over time. Maybe that person was already somewhat conservative to start. Maybe they were apolitical. But at one point or another, they sat down in front of Fox News, found some kind of deep, addictive comfort in the anger and paranoia, and became a different person — someone difficult, if not impossible, to spend time with. The fallout led to failed marriages and estranged parental relationships. For at least one person, it marks the final memory he’ll ever have of his father: “When I found my dad dead in his armchair, fucking Fox News was on the TV,” this reader told me. “It’s likely the last thing he saw. I hate what that channel and conservative talk radio did to my funny, compassionate dad. He spent the last years of his life increasingly angry, bigoted, and paranoid.”
O’Neil chronicles, however inexpertly, what happens as people whom we knew as formerly decent human beings devolve into drooling, hate-filled caricatures of their previous selves.
There was the one reader who wrote of his Puerto Rican uncle becoming a Fox News junkie, and turning on his own people, as he put it, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. “He was literally sitting in the dark and still defending Trump,” he said, which seemed a metaphor almost too on the nose. Hearing stories like that over and over again all weekend wasn’t pretty.
I heard from several people that Fox News was a key factor in a divorce. One reader told me about his father, a one-time Trump skeptic turned believer. “He and my mom separated last November. There were other reasons but one of the big ones was his Fox addiction,” he wrote. “I went down to help him get set up in a new apartment. He cried a lot. We found an apartment and furniture and I got the utilities set up but I did not sign up for cable TV. He did that after I left, before he got a job.”
Another person told me that Rush Limbaugh sent his father on the path to isolation before eventually mainlining Fox News on a regular basis. Eventually, out of the blue, his mother filed for divorce. “He was crushed, couldn’t understand why, and took comfort in drinking while watching his friends on TV. She is happier than I have ever seen her and he is sad and angry living in the basement of a rented house, still watching The Five, Tucker Carlson, Jeanine Pirro, etc.
It is with older Americans, for the most part, that the mind-deadening effects of Fox News are at their most destructive.
Dozens who responded to my piece talked about the sad lonely twilight of their parents’ or grandparents’ lives, having been spurned by, or having disowned much of their families over political disagreements. Older people, recent studies have shown, are much more likely to share misleading information online, but the anecdotes I was hearing seemed to indicate this behavior wasn’t limited to the internet. Young parents wrote that they don’t want to bring their children to visit aging Fox-brainers. “The worst is when my children go to spend time with their grandparents and come home with Fox News talking points coming out of their mouths,” one told me. “I have to decontaminate them every time.”
As O’Neil observes, the genius of Fox News lies not in actually creating race-based resentment but exploiting and amplifying their audience’s sense of fear and discomfort hit to the point that it becomes, for its audience of mostly white, mostly older males, the go-to rationale for every buried grievance, misstep, or disappointment in their lives. It taps into the very human tendency to blame others for our problems rather than forcing the hard and often uncomfortable exercise of looking inward at ourselves. It provides a ready foil for coping with societal changes that are simply too great and too profound for many people to accept or even comprehend.
This is, I think, where the channel’s genius lies. Any salesperson or con artist will tell you that you can’t incept a thought in a mark’s mind out of nowhere. You have to find the hook that’s already there — fear, or desire — and exploit it. When it comes to exacerbating and honing the anxieties of aging Americans you can’t do much better (or worse) than race and immigration.
It is bad enough that we have now have a government that is wholly beholden to the selfish agenda of a ruthless billionaire, and that one of our two major political parties is now wedded to that same agenda by virtue of his propaganda machine. At least we have a robust Democratic party and other, more honest sources of news capable of opposing that. But in the long term, whatever the fate of Fox News, the fact that we may be losing an entire generation of decent human beings who will instead go to their graves in a state of self-delusion, grinning smugly in their knowledge that Fox News had all the answers, even as their families sadly, slowly disengaged and separated themselves in dismay, even as their capacity for critical thinking, understanding, and compassion disappeared under this constant onslaught of ideological lies—that is the real, terrible, human tragedy that can never be cured. One of the respondents whose story is posted on O’Neil’s newsletter tried to convey the magnitude of what is being lost:
I just know that I’m with you. I hate what they’ve done to almost everyone in my family. It’s absolute poison and the only thing I think is worse is that there are people who think that destroying the morals and conscience of multiple generations is worth a few more bucks, because I absolutely refuse to believe that people like Hannity don’t know what they are doing.
I wish I could do something, but who has the time or energy to combat that? And how the hell do you reteach someone to have empathy?
My pastor says “progress is made one funeral at a time” and it’s hard to disagree with him at this point.