By Ron Lambert.
For the past several decades, the media has been trending decidedly to the political right. Talk radio has been dominated by the right since the 1980’s. Fox has been prominent in right wing cable news since the 1990’s. These media constantly taunted the so-called “main stream media” as being too liberal, cowing the mainstream into moving further to the right. The right wing media was able to brand anything that was not part of their message as liberal (and a BAD thing), thus gaining control over the hearts and minds of millions.
Now, the right wing media has achieved an even higher goal. It seems to be virtually running the country. A March 11 report by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker details the relationship between Fox News and the White House. It is compelling reading. Progressives, centrists, and conservatives are quoted to explain how Fox and Donald Trump have been virtually joined at the hip.
“Fox was begun as a good-faith effort to counter bias, but it’s morphed into something that is not even news,” says The Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, a conservative Never Trumper. “It’s simply a mouthpiece for the President, repeating what the President says, no matter how false or contradictory.” Joe Peyronnin, a professor of journalism at N.Y.U., was an early president of Fox News, in the mid-nineties. “I’ve never seen anything like it before,” he says of Fox. “It’s as if the President had his own press organization. It’s not healthy.”
In July 2017, Fox News Host Sean Hannity reportedly had dinner with Donald Trump for the purpose of discussing political strategy. Over time, that relationship has become a lot closer:
Fox news hosts have been patched into Oval Office meetings, by speakerphone, to offer policy advice. Sean Hannity has told colleagues that he speaks to the President virtually every night, after his show ends, at 10 P.M. According to the Washington Post, White House advisers have taken to calling Hannity the Shadow Chief of Staff. A Republican political expert who has a paid contract with Fox News told me that Hannity has essentially become a “West Wing adviser,” attributing this development, in part, to the “utter breakdown of any normal decision-making in the White House.”
Fox achieved this access through its total loyalty to Trump, loyalty that eclipses truth, compassion or justice. According to Meyer:
Yochai Benkler, a Harvard Law School professor who co-directs the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, says, “Fox’s most important role since the election has been to keep Trump supporters in line.” The network has provided a non-stop counternarrative in which the only collusion is between Hillary Clinton and Russia; Robert Mueller, the special counsel, is perpetrating a “coup” by the “deep state”; Trump and his associates aren’t corrupt, but America’s law-enforcement officials and courts are; illegal immigration isn’t at a fifteen-year low, it’s “an invasion”; and news organizations that offer different perspectives are “enemies of the American people.” “It’s not the right versus the left,” Benkler says. “It’s the right versus the rest.”
But Fox also achieved a strong populist following through loyalty to its core audience:
Most American news outlets try to adhere to facts. When something proves erroneous, they run corrections, or, as Benkler and his co-authors write, “they check each other.” Far-left Web sites post as many bogus stories as far-right ones do, but mainstream and liberal news organizations tend to ignore suspiciously extreme material. Conservative media outlets, however, focus more intently on confirming their audience’s biases, and are much more susceptible to disinformation, propaganda, and outright falsehoods (as judged by neutral fact-checking organizations such as PolitiFact).
This relationship between the media, the White House, and core supporters is like a triangle. This alliance has its own system of checks and balances. They are loyal only to each other.
Fox hosts sometimes reverse their opinions in order to toe the Trump line: Hannity, who in the Obama era called negotiations with North Korea “disturbing,” now calls such efforts a “huge foreign-policy win.” But Matt Gertz (a senior fellow at Media Matters) has come to believe that Fox drives Trump more than Trump drives Fox. During the recent standoff with Congress over funding for a border wall, Fox anchors and guests repeatedly pushed Trump to reject compromises favored by Republicans in Congress and by his own staff, and to pursue instead an extreme path favored by Fox’s core viewers.
Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic veteran of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, told me “it’s as if the on-air talent at Fox now have two masters—the White House and the audience.” In his view, the network has grown so allied with the White House in the demonization of Trump’s critics that “Fox is no longer conservative—it’s anti-democratic.”
Is Fox in any way still a legitimate news source? Are they now a propaganda machine for the White House? Or are they (and their core audience) virtually running the country?
The biggest test yet of Fox’s journalistic standards is the impending showdown over Mueller’s findings. For two years, the network has been priming its viewers to respond with extraordinary anger should the country’s law-enforcement authorities close in on the President. In recent weeks, Hannity has spoken of “a coup,” and a guest on Laura Ingraham’s program, the lawyer Joseph diGenova, declared, “It’s going to be total war. And, as I say to my friends, I do two things—I vote and I buy guns.”
Jerry Taylor, the co-founder of the Niskanen Center, a think tank in Washington for moderates, says, “In a hypothetical world without Fox News, if President Trump were to be hit hard by the Mueller report, it would be the end of him. But, with Fox News covering his back with the Republican base, he has a fighting chance, because he has something no other President in American history has ever had at his disposal—a servile propaganda operation.”
But the situation is even worse than servile propaganda. To Trump, all media he cannot control are the enemy, and should be exterminated. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ daily briefings from the White House have ceased. The State Department recently conducted a briefing (the minutes of which are secret) for faith-based media only. And in an effort to intimidate the entertainment industry, Trump has suggested that Saturday Night Live be investigated for collusion with Russia. We will see how this approach towards the media affects the rest of his presidency.