05/10/2012 02:02 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2012

McCarthyism Survives: Fox News Carries the Torch

Joe McCarthy lives. Those of us "of a certain age" but still too young to have witnessed Communist purges now have the pleasure of reliving those exciting times that we had earlier missed by only a few years. We are witnessing a resurgence of the Red Scare with a new face but an eerie parallel to the witch hunts of the early 1950s. Instead of Communism and Fascism, our great nation is now threatened with a "radical socialist agenda" imposed on a vulnerable population by a Marxist foreign-born Muslim president who follows a violent Christian cleric.

McCarthyism is not precisely defined, but is commonly understood to mean evidence-free accusations of treason or insufficient patriotism, supported by character assassination through innuendo, outright falsehood or demagoguery. While having origins dating back to the first Red Scare in 1917 the classic period bearing McCarthy's name lasted about from 1950 to 1954. We should have learned from this dark half-decade in our history, but every day Fox stubbornly proves we have not. Wild claims, oddball conspiracy theories, hateful rhetoric, racism cloaked in thinly veiled code, and pure fabrication are daily fare on Fox. If the truth is inconvenient, Fox simply manufactures a new reality: faith-based reporting in which facts are optional. Let's look at this new face of McCarthyism, which blossomed forth during the Bush years and simply exploded like an inflationary universe after the Big Bang with the election of Obama.

A number of websites are devoted to tracking the outright lies and more insidious half-truths broadcast daily by Fox News; and of course Fox's tenuous relationship with reality is routinely mocked by Jon Stewart and SNL. But a few egregious cases are still worthy of scrutiny -- as compelling parallels to the havoc caused by Joe McCarthy's assault on truth under the guise of patriotism.

Fox repeatedly cries that Obama has raised or will raise taxes. This is the fiscal equivalent of the Red Scare; create hysteria about a fabricated threat. This claim is central to the Fox myth that Obama is a socialist bent on redistributing wealth. But the claim is blatantly false. The opposite is true: Obama cut taxes on 94.3 percent of working families. He cut Americans' income taxes by $116 billion. Those are facts, easily verified. The Wall Street Journal acknowledges the numbers but objects to the claim that these are "tax cuts" because some come in the form of tax credits. The WSJ has a valid technical point but not a politically important one. If prior to the tax cut or credit I paid $1,000 in taxes and after I paid $900, it matters little to me, or most people, if the $100 savings is in the form of a lower tax rate or a credit on taxes I would have otherwise paid. My bottom line is that I paid $100 less than before. The WSJ calls that "sleight of hand." Most call it a tax cut. (An aside: Republicans want to kill this tax cut; that is a tax hike. That is the exact argument made in their support of continuing Bush's tax cuts, which nearly bankrupted the country; any repeal is the same as raising taxes. Republicans want to raise taxes on 95 percent of Americans).

Yet in spite of these tax cuts only 12 percent of Americans know that Obama cut their taxes. Worse, 24 percent of those surveyed believed their taxes had gone up. Remember, they went down by $116 billion. Fox has managed to not only obscure the truth, but actually invert it. This is the impact of the Big Lie; repeat something enough and it becomes truth, no matter how ridiculous or removed from fact. Fox has altered the political landscape by creating a daily assault of fabricated stories. McCarthy fabricated the threat of Communism by exaggerating its true reach; but there were of course Communists, even if small in number and influence. Fox takes the process one step further by creating a threat from whole cloth, then doubles down on their deceit by converting an actual good into something undesirable. Fox is now what McCarthy would have been if he had access to the Internet and 24-hour cable TV.

Odd stories like the birther movement only exist because Fox irresponsibly fans the flames, continuing to report on the discredited issue of Obama's citizenship long after that corpse was buried. The birther story is important not because a few nut bags have a conspiracy theory, but because a news channel viewed by millions of people chose to perpetuate a claim they knew and know not to be true. Well after Obama released his birth certificate, Sean Hannity said (on March 23, 2011) of the Obama administration, "why can't they just produce it, and we move on." After they had produced it. In January of this year, Mike Huckabee as a Fox analyst said Romney should only release his tax returns if Obama released his transcripts to "show whether he got loans as a foreign student." Huckabee knows that Obama has provided incontrovertible proof of his Hawaiian birth. That would include a copy of his long-form birth certificate and testimony from Hawaii's Department of Health that the certificate is valid, original and real. There are also birth announcements in local Hawaiian newspapers. Huckabee and Fox nevertheless persist. Like McCarthy, Fox is questioning a politician's legitimacy and patriotism, an accusation against which there is no defense because the charge is bogus, based on a falsehood. Fox makes the outrageous claim there is an invisible pink elephant in the room; then touts proof of its existence because opponents cannot prove it does not exist.

By equating something real (Romney's tax returns) to a discredited myth (Obama is foreign born) Fox implies a false equivalency. Fox is like "Weekend at Bernie's" in which two losers pretend that their murdered employer is still alive: the facts are clear but the lie gets perpetuated before an audience willing to be deceived. Fox has created a mythical Obama like those losers created a live Bernie; the reality has nothing to do with who Obama really is or what he represents. Fox's Obama is just as much fiction as Bernie's animation; they have Romney running against a myth they created because they cannot run against the real thing.

Fox News reported and then repeated on numerous shows that Obama was spending $200,000 million per day on his 10-day trip to Asia in November 2010. (That is close to the daily cost of executing the war in Afghanistan to put the absurd figure in perspective). Glenn Beck reported the $200 million number with great confidence on his show with no reservation and no limit to his outrage, then went on to say in later interviews when challenged that he did not know if it were true, but that gee, it certainly could be. When confronted with the misinformation campaign on Bill Maher's Real Time show, Bill O'Reilly reverted back to the tired claim that there is a difference between hard news, commentators and soft news, implying that the latter two have no obligation to report facts; and have no prohibition on reporting known falsehoods. Nobody on Fox thought to compare the actual cost of the trip to similar trips made by Bush, during which the cost was never raised as an issue. Just as Fox never mentioned the debt or deficit when Bush was president -- but now is fairly obsessed with it. Fox implies Obama is doing something wrong (innuendo) by citing a fabricated figure (lies, falsehoods) with no effort to put in context the actual cost of the trip or what is the typical operational costs of moving any president between two points (demagoguery). This was a non-story based on fiction about an issue that did not exist -- but was used to paint a bad picture of the president. That is the definition of McCarthyism.

I think more insidious, even worse than creating false news to damage the president, is what Fox omits from their "fair and balanced" programming. Here is what I've never heard on Fox News about Obama:

• Cut taxes for 3.5 million small businesses to help pay for employee health care coverage
• Created tax credits for 29 million people to help pay for health insurance
• Obama cut prescription drug costs for Medicare recipients by 50 percent
• Promoted and signed the Children's Health Insurance Reauthorization Act, providing health care to 11 million kids; of those four million were previously uninsured
• Was the force behind the Health Care Reform Bill, which allows children to remain covered by their parents' insurance until the age of 26
• Created more private sector jobs in 2010 than during the entire 8 years under Bush
• Signed the new START treaty with Russia
• Provided travel expenses to families of fallen soldiers to meet the bodies of their loved ones when they arrive at Dover AFB (but Republicans support the troops)

The inverse is true as well; here is what I never heard from Fox News programming while Bush was president:

• Supported torture
• Suspended habeas corpus
• Arrested and held American citizens with no charge and no access to counsel
• Illegal wiretapping and spying on American citizens
• Politicized the Justice Department in a way that would make Nixon shudder
• Fired 9 federal prosecutors who refused to investigate bogus election fraud scams
• Exposed the name of an active CIA agent, a treasonous act
• Crumbled the wall separating church and state
• Created at the time the biggest debts and deficits in our nation's history
• Oversaw a record number of foreclosures and personal bankruptcies
• Praised Kenneth Lay as a business genius as Enron collapsed (remember Enron?)
• Lied about and then incompetently executed two wars
• Sent soldiers to war with inadequate equipment
• Neglected soldiers returning from war, exemplified by the filth of Walter Reed
• Invited attacks on our soldiers with bravado like "bring it on."
• Allowed al Qaeda into Iraq
• Allowed the Taliban to regroup and re-strengthen in Afghanistan
• Failed to capture Osama bin Laden. Remember "Dead or alive?"
• Created a new breeding ground for extremists and terrorists in the Middle East
• Ignored genocide in Darfur
• Create kangaroo courts that make a mockery of justice
• Dismantled the federal government's scientific advisory structure
• Politicized the FDA, using religion to trump epidemiology and hard science
• Stifled biomedical research with a ban on stem cell research
• Failed to respond to Katrina
• Gutted the Endangered Species Act
• Opened national forests to mining, drilling and intense logging
• Reduced air and water pollution standards
• Failed to support renewable energy, extending our dependence of foreign oil
• Tried to classify oral contraception as a form of abortion.
• Narrowed the scope of services that can be provided to poor people under Medicaid's outpatient hospital benefit.
• Changed how the government calculates occupational risks with the goal of downplaying their severity; the rule also hampers the government's ability to regulate toxic substances and hazardous chemicals to which workers are exposed on the job.
• Tried to accelerate oil shale development by weakening environmental standards across more than 2 million acres of public land in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.
• Tried desperately to auction drilling rights for lands contiguous to national parks, allow mining wastes to be dumped into rivers and streams, and exempt factory farms from critical environmental regulations.
• Weakened air pollution standards for mercury and lead, abandoned the Endangered Species Act, and let loose gun-toting weekend warriors in our national forests.

None of those items was ever reported on Fox News. Fox has an obvious strategy of omission, failing to report news damaging to the far right or favorable to the left, and fabricating stories that undermine anything they perceive to be liberal when the truth fails to support the right's agenda. So we live in a new age of McCarthyism, one now better coordinated in the era of modern communications. The Fox hydra has many talking heads but only one brain, which feeds the mouthpieces on every show, with all anchors reading from the same daily script.

On the anniversary of bin Laden's death, Fox was enraged that Obama dare politicize the war on terror, forgetting 8 years of braggadocio and claims that only Bush could keep us safe. Here are the anchors and commentators who used the phrase "spiked the football" in describing Obama's commemoration of the event: Sean Hannity (on Hannity); Rich Johnson (Fox News Radio), Charles Krauthammer (Fox Nation), John McCain (Fox News), Jonah Goldberg (on CNN Piers Morgan Tonight), Michael Mukasey (Hannity), and Ed Gillespie (Fox News, Meet the Press). While not using the exact phrase, George Pataki (Fox News), Greta Van Susteren (On the Record) and Brit Hume (Fox News) also gave the same spiel.

To carry forward the story's momentum the emphasis was shifted to the blatantly false accusation that Obama took all the credit for bin Laden's death and gave no recognition to those most deserving, again with an impressive display of synchronized dancing: Eric Bolling (Fox News), Karl Rove (Fox News), Charles Krauthammer (Fox News), and Kimberly Guilfoyle (Fox News) all robotically spoke the corporate line. What Fox News failed to air was all the footage of Obama in multiple venues heaping praise on the intelligence officers, Navy Seals, and just about everyone else remotely involved in the operation that killed bin Laden. What Fox News failed to air was footage of George Bush taking personal credit for keeping us safe, and George Pataki at the Republican national convention telling America that Bush alone was responsible for keeping al Qaeda at bay. This is the new face of McCarthyism: evidence-free accusations of treason or insufficient patriotism, supported by character assassination through innuendo, outright falsehood or demagoguery.

Fox is tearing apart the fabric of our society with vitriol and venom, lies and half-truths, much like we witnessed in the hunt for subversives in the 1950s. I hope that I live long enough to see Fox's demise just as McCarthy was eventually discredited, ultimately brought down by the terrible weight of a truth different from the fantasy he created.