Members Only | April 2, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
How Fox Warps Political Reality
The Democrats face more than Donald Trump
I’m sure you’ve heard the saying: if a Democratic president had done a fraction of what the current Republican president has done, she’d be impeached by now. Some of that is melodrama. Some of that is pettiness and bad faith. But most of it has the ring of truth for a simple reason: the Democratic Party does not have on its side a gigantic international media apparatus, funded by billionaires and enriching billionaires, that amplifies its goals, attacks the opposition, and otherwise lies shamelessly for it.
There is no symmetry. Sure, liberals love them some Rachel Maddow. Even leftists say Chris Hayes lights up the darkness. They might read The Nation and The New Republic. (They might subscribe to the Editorial Board!) But liberals and Democrats also read the mainstream press, especially the big papers. They watch CNN or the broadcast news. (They check out Fox News and the National Review on occasion.) Liberals, being liberal, seek out competing views, and they trust themselves to judge for themselves.
Right-wing Republicans, being right-wing Republicans, do not seek points of view other than their own. They cannot and do not trust themselves to judge for themselves, because they do have the intellectual and moral security of their beliefs being based on a foundation stronger than or independent of group loyalty and group power.
If the Democrats cannot get the mainstream press fully on their side, they will lose. They might even be punished.
Because right-wing beliefs are categorically amoral, right-wing Republicans need constant maintenance, a daily fluffing, a welcoming place to go when 21st-century modernity challenges their beliefs. Because 21st-century modernity, being so vexingly modern, habitually thwarts authoritarian attempts to project authoritarian power, it always challenges their beliefs. Fox News and the others, therefore, provide comfort, a haven, a safe space. In other words, it’s everything a right-wing Republican needs.
Because right-wing Republicans do not seek points of view other than they own, whatever they happen to focus on at any given moment, for reasons relevant only to the maintenance of their right-wing beliefs, has a huge impact on what the rest of the mainstream press focuses on. In news parlance, this is called “agenda setting”: the criteria by which news organizations decide what to spend their resources paying attention to. If a gigantic international media apparatus is paying attention to, say, Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as US Secretary of State, that tends to be what the rest of the press pays attention to. The result was a minor scandal overshadowing and overwhelming everything about Hillary Clinton.
The reverse is also true.
If a Republican president does anything equal to or worse than what Hillary Clinton did, it will not receive the maximal scrutiny she received, because a gigantic international media apparatus will ignore or rationalize the sins of a GOP president. It will also attack the mainstream press for paying attention at all. Right-wing media therefore bends reality in two ways: once by minimizing the criteria by which the press decides what to focus on (because the right-wing media is paying attention to other things, such as “The Deep State”); and twice by undermining that criteria.
For these reasons, Donald Trump and his family can operate in ways no Democratic president possibly could. They can use public email providers to conduct government business. They can use social media apps to communicate with foreign leaders. The president himself can use an unsecured phone. Trump can order his daughter and son-in-law be given access to state secrets. The president can create ideal conditions for compromise, espionage, blackmail, and foreign influence without fear of consequence, because a gigantic international media apparatus will spend thousands of hours and millions of dollars covering for his incompetence, immorality and corruption.
This isn’t to say the right-wing media universe is all-powerful. It isn’t. It can’t function well when a Republican president disgorges outrage day after day, thus putting Fox News and the others on the defensive and depriving them of a clear target. When they have a clear target is when they are most powerful, and for this reason alone, it’s no wonder really that Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats are slow to impeach Trump.
If they cannot get the mainstream press fully on their side, they will lose. They might even be punished. The only way to get the press on their side is for the press to resist the influence of a gigantic international media apparatus, and the only sure way to do that is for the Democrats to produce evidence so compelling the mainstream press can’t overlook it. Yes, the Republicans would have impeached a Democratic president by now. But give these Democrats a break. There’s more here than meets the eye.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.