There is a revealing and deeply disturbing article in the current Mother Jones, the venerable investigative magazine that is famous for muckraking. Before you ask, know that MJ is a nonprofit; the rich and powerful don’t influence or scare it. The author, Kevin Drum, decided that it would be interesting to see how much of the blame for societal division and distraction can be placed on the media. The results are a little surprising. He started from the widely-adopted premise—one that I too held—that because of the way social media sort the data and how their algorithms reinforce what they already know our beliefs to be, Facebook and Twitter are the main culprits. Instead, the research led him to the mildly-surprising conclusion that Fox News moves the needle about 3X more than they do.
It turns out that in empirical studies, while social media does move the needle a little bit, it is really the nighttime opinion shows on Fox news that are most to blame for the continuing shower of misinformation. It is interesting to note that while corporate policy at Fox Corp. requires all employees in the building to be vaccinated, the primetime hosts, specifically Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and Sean Hannity, refuse to say, in a bewilderingly cryptic manner, whether they themselves are vaccinated. Admitting to being vaccinated undermines their central theme of 2021, which is the medical establishment cannot be trusted and the vaccines are dangerous.
Mother Jones: “And that famous one-third of Americans who are skeptical of the COVID-19 vaccine…? To an extent that many people still don’t recognize, Fox News is a grinding, daily cesspool of white grievance, mistrust of deep-state government, and a belief that liberals are literally trying to destroy the country out of sheer malice. Facebook and other social media outlets might have made this worse over the past few years—partly by acting as a sort of early warning system for new outrages bubbling up from the grassroots that Fox anchors can draw from—but Fox News remains the wellspring.”
The amplification of Fox News memes on social media makes for a powerful cocktail. Again, Mother Jones: “When it comes to Facebook at least, the company’s algorithms reflect or reward hyper-partisan outrage mostly from one side of the spectrum—a daily tally of Facebook’s top 10 engaged posts is always massively dominated by Fox News hosts and other far-right commentators.”
They do this because they feel they have to. They have indoctrinated an audience and now they can’t afford to disappoint that audience. They are helped in this mission by their artful-dodge that intimates, “We are a straight news organization except for a couple of primetime opinion hosts.” The problem—and the reality—is that to the average viewer, their news desk and opinion desk are indistinguishable.
You may note that newspapers—local and national—go out of their way to explain that there’s an impenetrable wall separating news content from opinion content. No such attempt at defining the news/opinion separation is ever made by Fox News.
“The Fox pipeline is pretty simple. Fox News stokes a constant sense of outrage among its base of viewers, largely by highlighting narratives of white resentment and threats to Christianity,” the article continues. “This in turn forces Republican politicians to follow suit. It’s a positive feedback loop that has no obvious braking system, and it’s already radicalized the conservative base so much that most Republicans literally believe that elections are being stolen and democracy is all but dead if they don’t take extreme action.”
Even though family patriarch Rupert Murdoch, the largest Fox Corp. shareholder, is repeatedly on record dismissing Donald Trump as a horrible individual, the money generated by reporting on him has proven too much to ignore, so they stand with him in his repeatedly disapproved lie that a rigged election cost him a landslide victory.
This of course is no accident. It’s part of the larger plan that delivers about $1 billion annually to Fox Corp’s bottom line. Playing nice with conspiracists and anti-vaxxers has divided the ruling Murdoch family as though they’re starring in the streaming hit, “Succession” (art imitates life: they are). Son James left the company, citing FNC’s irresponsibility. Son Lachlan, ostensibly at the helm, continues to enjoy his father’s grace by placing profit over civic responsibility.
Twelve years of studies consistently show Fox News viewers to be the most misinformed news consumers. Sadly proving that we are such persuadable people that all it takes is nice looking anchors and sharp graphics to convince us that up is down and wrong is right.
Conspiracy theories have always been with us, but they have never received the boost that they get today from an ostensibly straight media platform like Fox News.