Unbalanced: How Right-Wing Media Destroys Democracy

“So this is how liberty dies... with thunderous applause.”
08/18/2016 09:36 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2016
Rush Limbaugh during Rush Limbaugh at San Jose Civic Auditorium - February 8, 2005 at San Jose Civic Auditorium in San Jose,
John Medina via Getty Images
Rush Limbaugh during Rush Limbaugh at San Jose Civic Auditorium - February 8, 2005 at San Jose Civic Auditorium in San Jose, California, United States.

“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” -A.J. Liebling

Last night I watched the documentary The Brainwashing of My Dad, about a family man’s rightwing radicalization. The filmmaker traces her father’s descent from a free-loving personality to an angry, embittered devotee of conservative media out of touch with reality.

The film paints a clear picture of just how damaging the ubiquity and ferocity of conservative doctrine can be.

It poisons the public in ways they aren’t aware of, and I’ve seen this evolution firsthand. Growing up in Louisiana, a state with conservative values tempered by the creative culture – and good humor – of New Orleans, I have lived in California now for over a decade.

When I return home and catch up with friends from around the state, I repeatedly hear the same erroneous talking points promoted by Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, even by those who don’t watch the news or listen to talk radio.

When exactly did freedom of information come to mean dissemination of disinformation?

Regardless of the age or generation, the statements are always the same – grossly inaccurate but repeatedly told with such vigor their veracity goes unquestioned, especially when it reinforces negative racial stereotypes.

The tragedy is no longer that these educated individuals are unable to differentiate between fact and myth, or that they are misinformed on so many basic domestic issues.

Rather, it’s the fact that it’s become perfectly normal – legal even – for a private entity to distort, manipulate, mislead, and flat out lie under the auspices of so-called “fair and balanced” “news.”

The tragedy is that our leaders, keenly aware of the deception and how it sows division amongst the people, allow the outrage industry to craft such hate speech in the first place. It undermines our democracy, compromises our moral integrity, and threatens our future stability. It encourages anti-intellectualism, discrimination, and fear mongering simply because it’s good business.

This is little more than mass indoctrination, a term referring to the teaching of a specific policy or position at the exclusivity of others. It is no secret this is how Fox News was conceived, but since it’s not covered on Fox News, most people are unaware.

Former Republican hit man David Brock confesses in The Republican Noise Machine that he once:

...forwarded the rightwing agenda, not as an open political operative or advocate, but under the guise of journalism and punditry fueled by huge sums of money from rightwing billionaires, foundations and self-interested corporations.

It is also no secret why Roger Ailes was hired to spearhead this venture:

Ailes entered politics working for Richard Nixon, showing the campaign how to present paid political events so that they would appear to be news, in order to manipulate public opinion... At Fox, Ailes has ushered in the era of post-truth politics. The facts no longer matter; only what is politically expedient, sensationalistic, and designed to confirm the preexisting opinions of a large audience.

Ailes was never hired because he was a newsman, he was recruited solely based on his Republican affiliation in order for a rightwing news agency to promote their conservative, pro-business agenda, unrepresented by actual journalism, explains Ian Haney Lopez in Dog Whistle Politics.

Thus: Fox News doesn’t hire journalists. They want proselytizers.

Proselytizers disseminate the Kool-Aid in order to convert, and they use outright deception to do so.

“Saying something you know to be untrue, or have no basis for believing is true, is not journalism,“ explains David Brock in The Fox Effect. “It is propaganda.”

In other words, lies used to manipulate. Brock wrote:

More problematic, once these lies take hold, no amount of fact checking by Media Matters or websites such as Politifact or FactCheck.Org will ever convince the segment of the population that is predisposed to believe them ... Fox…claims to be a fair and balanced news network while brazenly broadcasting demonstrable lies and distortions, always with a conservative spin. It is critical that the media, Democrats, opinion makers of all stripes, and the public at large understand what Fox News is. Too many reporters and commentators have continued to treat Fox as a news organization. By doing so, they enable the network to conduct a political campaign under the guise of a media outlet, influencing the outcome of legislative debates and elections. It is all the more important to keep an eye on Fox because the rhetoric the network wields as a political weapon is filled with violent imagery and demonization. This is never a good practice, particularly at a time of economic instability when social unrest and passions are high.

When exactly did freedom of information come to mean dissemination of disinformation?

When corporate conservatives targeted the Fairness Doctrine, a policy that required media outlets to be accountable and represent all points of view.

The doctrine was problematic because it worked.

You can’t manipulate the masses by showing all viewpoints. Thus, conservatives saw to its abolition, which may prove to be a far greater detriment to a free society than the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act that led to the financial crisis.

Propaganda threatens truth. It halts progress. It corrupts justice.

It’s obvious to quantify the damage of financial deregulation, as we all feel its effects, from our 401Ks, to dwindling wages, to home foreclosures.

The result is tangible.

But the demise of the Fairness Doctrine is visceral – an insidious cancer that has gone undiagnosed for so long it may be incapable of remission.

The indoctrination of an unsuspecting public, who rely on the media to inform, instead has been dangerously incensed.

The rise in abusive rhetoric, social media bullying, aggressive demonstrations, protests that erupt in violence, and presidential candidates calling for acts of uncivil disobedience can all be directly attributed to the incendiary vitriol of two decades of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.

While pursuing my college degrees in a school of Journalism, one founding principle of the press, besides the importance of government accountability, was repeated almost on a daily basis:

“The news should not tell us what to think, but what to think about.”

Now, after a quick Google search, I am dumbfounded to discover the proper quotation can hardly be found in cyberspace.

Indeed, the rightwing media has destroyed both tenets of this code.

There’s not a single talking head on Fox who doesn’t tell you what to think – their opinion reiterated, reinforced and spoken with such outright indignation and authority, the average consumer isn’t aware of the manipulation.

We cannot begin to solve our problems if institutions ensure we don’t have the right conversations.

And consumers are exactly what we’ve become because propaganda is sold - it takes a seller and a buyer. It ignites our emotions; it angers and exploits. And unfortunately, even when it tells us what to think about, it has now fabricated the issues, creating a crisis not unlike a TV writer during sweeps. Remember such contrived issues as Planned Parenthood, Acorn, death panels, and climate denial?

Propaganda threatens truth. It halts progress. It corrupts justice.

We cannot begin to solve our problems if institutions ensure we don’t have the right conversations.

Thus, the decline of truth is a harbinger for the decline of a civilization.

According to Fairleigh Dickinson University’s 2012 PublicMind survey, researchers found that someone who watched only Fox News was less informed on both national and international news than those who watched no news at all. Those who listened to NPR were the most informed.

This is a sign of voter deception, of political pandering, and a lack of respect for education, information, science and the public good.

It’s a disgrace on a global scale, and it reinforces a growing international sentiment left over from the Bush years – that the U.S. has become an idiocracy, a nation of idiots run by idiots.

We should all be worried about a generation growing up who many no longer be able to differentiate fact and fiction – a harbinger indeed of our departure from the global stage.

The last modern-era truth tellers, free of spin, have had to seek refuge on Comedy Central, via The Daily Show and similar vehicles.

Too bad when traveling around the country, the most commonly-found news station on public TV sets is Fox News, be it at the airport, a doctor’s office, or my former journalism building. Even my parents’ own basic cable on the Gulf Coast includes Fox News, but no Comedy Central. So much for fact checking the nightly news while home for the holidays.

If Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite were entering the field of communication today, they’d likely transition to social satirists at HBO – pleading truths no longer deemed profitable for national news.

We should all be worried about a generation growing up who many no longer be able to differentiate fact and fiction – a harbinger indeed of our departure from the global stage. (Just ask Christiane Amanpour.)

Watching how the fake furor of Fox News wreaks havoc on American society, from Tea Party tirades to Obamacare outrage, to the authoritarian rise of Donald Trump, I can’t help but recall a scene from George Lucas’ last Star Wars film, Revenge of the Sith: Natalie Portman watches the Senate deliberately vote against their best interest, misled by their leadership. Coming to terms with the repercussions of such irrationality, she turns to Jimmy Smits and regretfully sighs:

So much for democracy. But at least we’ll be too misinformed to notice.

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